Happy When Looking At God's Blessings & Grace
First Released In Japanese January 12, 1997. This is the only English translation on this site.
1. What we read today is the story related to the development and growth of the church at Antioch. This church later became the base for Gentile missions and beginning from here the gospel was widely spread into the Mediterranean areas. So now, how did these wonderful happenings come to be?
Even The Worst Of Happenings
2. Today's passage of scripture begins with the words "Those who were scattered because of the persecutions that took place starting off with Stephen's incident," verse nineteen. "Stephen's incident," as recorded in Acts chapter seven, is the event where Stephen as the first martyr was stoned to death. He was not murdered because he committed some evil act. He was murdered for following God and giving out God's word. Furthermore, the incident concerning Stephen did not end with just one sorrowful occurrence. A great persecution arose from it. Many Jewish Christians were dispersed. This persecution must have been a great attack rising up against the church all of a sudden. It was a persecution that took place triggered by [Stephen's martyrdom], things were happening where one couldn't help but ask "Why are things getting like this!," though it just started as "an incident with Stephen."
3. In beginning to write on the church at Antioch, Luke first goes back over the incident with Stephen and then starts from there; because without this incident, the church at Antioch would not have existed. However irrational it seemed at the time and no matter how sad it was, unless it had happened, there would not have been at the Antiochian church later the history of Gentile missions to begin out of it all.
4. God even uses the worst of happenings. Even things that happen which no one understands at the time are used in His plans. He uses such things to bring on the future. Whatever we experience is never final. It is nothing more than a part of a process. There is more to it. There is always more to it.
5. Of course, the diaspora* have not always known what the Lord has been up to. But, the text says, the scattered "went up to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch." They did not pass their time bemoaning over what happened, their being tossed about by the waves of fate. They moved on depending on God, the one who rules over what happens, even in winds where not one inch before you is visible. They moved on believing that they were in God's hands. And it really was so that the winds were in God's hands. God had led them.
Things Happen According To Just God's Grace
6. Some of them finally arrived in Antioch after a real struggle. Antioch was the provincial city of Syria. It was the third largest capitol city after Rome and Alexandria. It was a melting pot of various cultures and religions, and at the same time, just as Corinth, it was a place infamous as an immoral and degenerate city. It was kind of like being smack dab in the midst of a world of sin that sucks everything down like a swamp. However, the wonderful works of God started from the most vile of places overladen with sin. The worst of places as seen from human eyes is not necessarily locked as the worst as seen from God's eyes.
7. After that, the men from Cyprus and Cyrene also began to speak to "those who spoke Greek," and told them of the gospel concerning the Lord Jesus. The phrase translated "those who spoke Greek" appeared in the text in chapter six with the meaning of a Jew who spoke Greek, but here the text clearly is not referring to Jews. It means Gentiles. If more be said, it was not those called "the God fearers," like Cornelius from chapter ten, who took part in the Sabbath worship and was familiar with the scriptures. The text is talking here about those Gentiles who had lived in a world totally without ties to scripture. The gospel was communicated to these peoples. This is astonishing.
8. When we look at verse nineteen, the text shows that up to now they "had not given the word of God to anyone but Jews." For one, that was because there had been a deep seated prejudice against the Gentiles. We have already seen how difficult it was for Peter and the other apostles to surmount this wall. It used to be believed in a very strong way that salvation was for the Jews. But, that's not the only reason. It's plumb just a problem trying to figure out how to get out the message of the messiah to anyone without an Old Testament background. Messianic expectations and a monotheistic God were well known concepts for a Jew, but for a Gentile they were totally unknown ideas.
9. But, somehow they "made the gospel concerning the Lord Jesus known." I'd say this meant that they proclaimed that "Jesus is Lord." In a world where many gods were worshipped and celebrated, they simply proclaimed Him as the one and only one worthy to be worshipped. And amazingly, the Bible says, "Many in number was there who had turned to the Lord." Why was that? Was it because the way they preached was so good? Was it because they were so superior? Was it because they preached so hard devising their messages according to Grecian thought? I don't think so. That's not how Luke described it. What do we have written in the Bible? "As the Lord helped them, they believed and many in number was there who had turned to the Lord," (verse twenty-one). Ultimately all they did was preach. They faithfully pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Lord himself helped them. The Lord was the one who made the people come to him.
10. So now, who were these people whom the Lord had so used? Who were these people that had to do with the founding of the Antioch church and opened the way to Gentile missions? To be honest, their names are not even given. They are nameless. The time span we have written in The Book Of Acts goes from this event to forty years later, but in that time we have these men who are already forgotten. The degree to which they are remembered is only that we "know for sure that they were from Cyprus." The Lord used men like them. He used quite ordinary, nameless persons for His glory.
11. When all is said and done, Luke thus communicates to us of this event, the event that came straight from the grace of God. It didn't come from humans. It only came from God alone. God uses the worst of happenings, chooses the worst of places, uses nameless persons, and within conditions deemed humanly impossible to do, he establishes the Antioch church as His work and has the Gentile mission inaugurated.
Happy When Looking At God's Blessings
12. Well, this report was told to the church in Jerusalem. Then the church sent Barnabas to Antioch. What did he see there? He saw Gentiles with Jews praising and worshipping God together. He saw [these two groups] building up the church together. Perhaps what he saw there was totally different from the church in Jerusalem. Since it was a church that had many Gentiles, their customs were different just as was their way of thinking about Jewish traditions also different. But, this is what the Bible says next about it.
"When Barnabas arrived there, he rejoiced when he saw how the blessings of God were given and he urged them all with firm resolve not to separate from the Lord," (verse twenty-three).
14. He rejoiced. And why? Because he had seen the blessings of God there. Because he was a man who could see the blessings of God. While in a group that seemed totally different from the church at Jerusalem a man was able to find "the blessings of God," a man was able to rejoice over them, and that man was Barnabas. As we saw before, what was happening at Antioch was due to the work of God's blessings and from none but him. Barnabas saw perfectly through this fact. The Bible evaluates this man as a "fine character, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith," (verse twenty-four).
15. We don't know why the one who was sent from Jerusalem was Barnabas and not some other apostle. When seen from a human perspective, we may say it was by mere chance. But, if we see effectively to the end, in this situation there was no one more suitable than Barnabas. This was the particular man whom God had prepared.
16. And there was another man whom God had prepared. It was Saul (Paul). At this point in time he was in Tarsus. The text says, "Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Paul and in finding him he brought him back to Antioch," (verses twenty-five through twenty-six). Please recall the circumstances as to why Saul was in Tarsus. The circumstances of how he was prepared by Christ while going to Damascus is detailed in Acts chapter nine. Afterwards he begins to preach in Damascus that "This One is the son of God indeed." And after that he headed for Jerusalem because he wanted so much to tell his fellow Jews of Christ. However it was not to be, he was at risk for his life in Jerusalem. His former peers turned into men after his life. So, he had no other recourse but to leave Jerusalem. I'm sure this must have been frustrating for him.
17. In the final analysis, he fled. He fled to Tarsus, his native home town and there he spent a number of years. The Bible does not say what Paul did in Tarsus during those years. Because of the way he was, some think he probably did not stop preaching while there. Since the Bible says that Barnabas "found him," we would think this might indicate that he wasn't at the front stage of things after all. He was doing hidden work. In a certain sense he was hidden away for a number of years.
18. But, that wasn't the end. God hadn't forgotten him. God had prepared Saul for something later. He prepared him for the time when Gentile missions would really begin down in Antioch. Saul and Barnabas both appeared in Antioch. And for about a year they taught many people while at this church. This work of Paul was so much needed in the newly born Antioch church which was mainly Gentile. I'd say this was truly the mysterious providence of God.
19. When we come up to verse twenty-seven, it says that soon "men who prophesied" came down from Jerusalem. One of the men among them named Agabus stood up and prophesied in the Spirit that a great famine would take place through out the world and its fulfillment would take place at the time of the emperor Claudius. Then the disciples, in response to their various abilities, decided to send materials of assistance to the disciples living in Judah. Then in carrying this out, they entrusted Barnabas and Saul with the task and sent them to the elders," (verses twenty-seven through thirty).
20. The character named Agabus predicted a famine. It then came to pass just as he so said. This famine must have brought on a serious crisis upon the church at Jerusalem; for, it is believed that many of the men, beginning with the apostles at Jerusalem, were not masters with property, but had no economic foundation to their names. The church was poor from the start. And added to that, they were going through persecution. Jewish society condemned any association with Christians as sin and a crime. This might quite naturally have caused increasingly more and more severe economic hardships upon the Jerusalem church. And it says the famine took place just recently. Conditions were truly grave. But, during the famine a movement emerged in Antioch. It was an action of love, a sending of materials of assistance to the brothers living in Judah.
21. Beginning with the Jerusalem church, the Jewish churches experienced a time of great suffering. But, though a great famine yet it led in the end to the deep mutual connection between the church of Jerusalem and the young church of Antioch. Their suffering did not end as just suffering. We can see in this passage the truth that God's invisible hand guides the church.
22. We have come to see thus how the church at Antioch was born, what kind of foundation was built, and how it was related to the Jewish church in Jerusalem. It is different from the story in chapter ten and here we have no address to anyone in a mysterious vision, no angels appear on the scene. Instead, it is nothing more than quite normal human activity being depicted here. But, as we've already seen, even in this type of setting what is ultimately flowing through the bottom of it all over and over is God's blessing, and what he is building up in the church and the world's history is ultimately the acts of God's grace. Through this story God is showing us how we should see our lives, the church and this current world that we too are living in. We should see things as under God's control, as God's history wherein he does acts of blessing and grace. We should live depending upon a God like Him.
*Diaspora: the Jews scattered through out the world as a result of persecutions. In an extended sense, the true believers in Christ who are scattered abroad.