We Rejoice Seeing God's Grace
January 12, 1997
日本キリスト教団 大阪のぞみ教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Osaka Nozomoi Church, Japan Church Christ
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA, Translated November 18, 2008
1. Today we read the narrative having to do with the establishment and the growth of the church at Antioch. This church became the base for the later Gentile mission, and beginning from here the gospel would come to be spread across the Mediterranean region. Well now, how in the world did this wonderful event ever happen?
Even The Worst Events
2. Today's passage of scripture begins with the statement of "Those scattered due to the persecution that occurred upon the impetus of the incident regarding Stephen ..." (verse nineteen). As it is recorded in chapter seven of the Book of Acts, "the incident regarding Stephen" is the events by which as the first martyr Stephen was stoned to death. He was not killed because he had performed some evil deed. He was killed because he had obeyed God and had spoken the word of God. What's more, the incident with Stephen did not end with just one sorrowful thing that happened. A great persecution started after that. Many Jewish Christians were scattered [all over the region]. This persecution must have been a grand assault against the church just right after it was born. It was a persecution that took off because of "the incident with Stephen," the kind where you couldn't help but ask, "Why did this ever even come up!"
3. At the time Luke began to write about the Antiochean church, he first backtracks to the incident with Stephen and then begins to write from there. For, the church at Antioch would not have existed without that incident. For, even though, for some time after, it had looked so illogical and it was such a sorrowful event, unless that incident had taken place, there would not have been the later Church of Antioch and the history of the Gentile mission that would subsequently take off afterwards.
4. God is graciously able to use even the worst of events. Even events that a person cannot understand at the time can be used for His own divine purposes. And he sovereignly sets things up ahead of time. What we are experiencing is not usually the conclusion to the matter. It is no more than a single part of the process. There is more ahead. There is always more ahead.
5. Of course, the fact is those who were scattered did not know what the Lord was about to do. However, the scripture says, the scattered "went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch." They did not pass the time groaning over their reality, which looked as though they were being tossed up and down on the waves of fate. They moved forward trusting in God, that he was also in control of this stormy reality of theirs in which they could not see one inch ahead of them. They advanced believing they were in the hands of God. And the truth be told, this storm was in the hands of God. God had graciously guided them.
The Event That Comes From God's Grace Alone
6. And some of them made their way to Antioch. Antioch is the capital city of Syria. It was the third largest city coming after Rome and Alexandria. It was a melting pot of various cultures and religions, and still at the same time, just like Corinth and elsewhere, it was a place with a bad reputation as an immoral and decadent municipality. It was kind of dead center in a world of sin, like it had swallowed up everything into a swamp hole. But, the wonderful works of God started from that worst of places so filled to the brim with sin. The worst of places, as seen from a human perspective, are not necessarily the worst as seen from the eyes of God.
7. There then, persons originally from the island of Cyprus and Cyrene began to address "the Greek speaking people as well" and informed them of the gospel regarding the Lord Jesus. The phrase translated as "the Greek speaking people" appears in chapter six in the sense of Jews who speak Greek, but it is obviously not Jews who are being spoken about here in this text. They are Gentiles. To speak even further on this, they are not the persons, like Cornelius who appears in chapter ten, known as "the God fearers," who participated in Sabbath worship and who knew the scriptures very well. The ones being addressed here are Gentiles who have been living in a world foreign to scriptures. The gospel was brought to these people. This is amazing.
8. When we look at verse nineteen, the text says so far to that point that, "They have not declared the word [of God] to anyone except the Jews." First, it is because there was a deep seated prejudice against the Gentiles. We have already seen how difficult it was for Peter and the other apostles to cross over this wall. Salvation was stubbornly considered totally to be for the Jews. But, that's not the only reason. To begin with, there is the problem of how one can even communicate the messiah to persons without any Old Testament background. For Jews, [they had] long cherished messianic hopes and the one and only one God; for Gentiles, [they had] many different ideas totally unrelated [to Jewish ones].
9. Yet somehow or other, they "informed them of the gospel regarding the Lord Jesus." This probably means, in short, that they communicated to them that "Jesus is Lord." In a world where many gods were worshipped and celebrated, they simply communicated to them that this is the very one who should be worshipped by you. And amazingly, the text says that "The number of persons who had turned to the Lord was great." Why is that? Was it because their way of communicating was so relevant? Was it because they were so superior? Was it because they brought it to them in such a skillful way that it fit in with [their] Greek thinking? No, it wasn't. Luke did not record it that way. What is written [then]? "As the Lord assisted them, they believed and the number of persons who had turned to the Lord was great," (verse twenty-one). He enabled them, in the final analysis, just to communicate. They pointed them to the Lord Jesus Christ and that's it. Whereupon, the Lord himself assisted them. The Lord personally had turned the people.
10. So, who in the world are these folks whom the Lord had used this way? Who in the world are these folks who were involved in the establishment of the Antiochean Church and had marked the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles? To tell the truth, their names are not found in the text. They are nameless. It was about forty years after this event when The Acts of the Apostles was written, but [the fact that they are anonymous] suggests that these people had already been forgotten by that time. They were only remembered to the extent that [we] "remember they were originally from the island of Cyprus, however ..." The Lord used these people. He used these very average, anonymous folks for his glory.
11. Thus, in the final analysis, Luke communicates this event as an event that comes from the grace of God and nothing but [the grace of God]. It is not something that has come from humans. It is an act that has come from the grace of God alone. God used the worst event, selected the worst place, used anonymous persons, and under conditions considered to be humanly impossible, he established the Antiochean Church as a divine work and he caused the initiation of the Gentile evangelistic mission.
We Rejoice Seeing God's Grace
12. Well, a report of this was brought to the church that was in Jerusalem. At that then, the church sent Barnabbas out to Antioch. What did he see there? He had seen the figure of Gentiles with Jews praising and worshipping God together. He had seen the way they were together, forming a church together. I think perhaps that the figure of this church that was there was completely different from the church in Jerusalem. If the customs were different and it was a church that had a lot of Gentiles, then its ways of thinking were also different with respect to Jewish traditions. However, the following is written in the scriptures.
13. "When Barnabbas arrived there he rejoiced seeing the circumstances in which the grace of God was given, and he exhorted everyone with firm resolve, not to separate from the Lord," (verse twenty-three).
14. He rejoiced. Why is that? It is because he had seen the grace of God there. It is because he was a man who could see the grace of God. Barnabbas was the one who was able to find "the grace of God" in a group that looked totally different in nature from the Jerusalem Church, and it was Barnabbas who was able to rejoice in that. In fact, as we have seen earlier, what was happening in Antioch was the pure unilateral work of God's grace. It [shows] that Barnabbas had appropriately detected this truth. The Bible gives an appraisal of these persons as "For, they were fine characters, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith," (verse twenty-four).
15. We don't know the circumstances of why Barnabbas was the one sent from Jerusalem or why it wasn't some other disciple. If viewed from a human perspective, we might just chalk it up to blind chance. But, when seen from its results, at the time of the situation, there wasn't any more suitable character than Barnabbas, which is indicative that such an one had been prepared by God.
16. And there was another person whom God had prepared. It was Saul (Paul). He was in Tarsus at this point in time. "Barnabbas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and after he found him, he brought him to Antioch," (verses twenty-five and twenty-six), says the scripture. Why was Saul in Tarsus? Please recall the situation. The circumstances of when he was halted by Christ while he was on his way to Damascus are recorded in Acts chapter nine. Afterwards he would begin to relate in Damascus, that "This man is the very son of God." And after that he would go to Jerusalem; which he did because he had a desire to tell of Christ to his Jewish country men and women at any cost. However, in Jerusalem it got to the point where they made an attempt on his life. His former associates were now seeking after his life. So, it became time for him to have to leave Jerusalem. It was surely a great disappointment for him.
17. In the end, he flees. And he flees to Tarsus, his birthplace, and there he spends several years. The Bible never says what Saul was doing in Tarsus. One would think, knowing how he was, that he never stopped preaching there either. However, the text has it that Barnabbas "found [him]," and so he was not found at the front stage as one might have expected. It was a hidden work. In a certain sense, you could say he stayed undercover for several years.
18. But, it wasn't over for him. God had not forgotten him. God had been preparing Saul for later on. He had prepared him for the time when the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles would begin in full scale in Antioch. Saul showed up in Antioch with Barnabbas. And for about one year they taught many persons in the church there. That work of Paul was necessary on all counts to the Antiochean Church that had just been born, in which the Gentiles were the majority. You could say it was truly the strange providence of God.
19. And when we get to verse twenty-seven, it is written in the text about this matter of "some prophets" having come down from Jerusalem at around that time. "One of the men from among them named Agabus stood and foretold through the 'Spirit' that a great famine would occur through out the world, and sure enough, it did occur in the time of the emperor Claudius. Whereupon, in proportion to various strengths, the disciples decided to send aid to the disciples dwelling in Judea. They put their plan into effect and entrusting [the aid] to Barnabbas and Saul it reached the elders," (verses twenty-seven through thirty).
20. The character named Agabus had foretold the famine. And it came to pass just as he had said. This famine must have caused a severe crisis even in the church at Jerusalem because [scholars] think that beginning with the apostles at Jerusalem many of the leading persons did not have any economical foundation there from the start. The church was poor right from the beginning. Worse still, they were going through persecution. Jewish society condemned interactions with Christians as a crime. Over time then, it is believed that it had caused more and more severe economical hardships upon the church in Jerusalem. Then it says a famine had fallen at around that time. The situation was truly serious. But, on account of this famine a movement in Antioch had emerged. It was the movement of a love that said, "Let's send aid to our brothers [and sisters] living in Judea!"
21. Beginning with the Jerusalem church, the churches of the Jews had experienced a time of great suffering. Yet, as a result, the great famine had wonderfully led to deepening the ties between the young church at Antioch and the church at Jerusalem. The suffering did not merely finish itself off as suffering. We can see the truth that the invisible hands of God were leading the church even here.
22. We have thus seen how the church at Antioch was born, how its foundations were built, and how it had been affiliated with the Jewish church in Jerusalem. Being different from the narrative in chapter ten, no speech to anyone based on a divine vision is found in this text. Neither do angels appear on the scene. Instead, it is nothing more than human activity being described in a very ordinary way. Yet, as we've already seen, even in this setting, it is the grace of God that is absolutely running through it underneath it [all], and it is absolutely the activity of the grace of God that is producing the history of the church and the world. In addition, through this narrative, we too are being taught how we should look at the church, the world in which we live, and our very own lives. We ought to look at it [all] as a history from God which is under divine rule and where God is acting upon it with [his] grace, and we ought to live trusting in that very same God.