Acts 11:19-30; Acts 13:1-12
Rev. Erik Veerman
The Church: Faithful in Steadfast Purpose
One of my college math professors was an expert in fractals. Fractals are these geometric patterns that are really amazing. If you do an internet image search on fractals, you will see several examples - some look like snowflakes, some like paisley patters, others like the stars in the galaxy – each intermixing patterns in a magnificent array of colors.
The beauty of fractals is in their simplicity – You take a simple formula and keep re-applying the results to the same simple formula. When you do that over and over and over again, you are creating a fractal – an exquisite, almost mesmerizing pattern.
Fractals came to mind as I was studying this passage.
The beauty here is the pattern that God is developing – a pattern for the church. And it’s a pattern, that has been applied over and over and over. Not just in the book of Acts, but throughout the centuries as Jesus has furthered his church.
And the simple formula here in these verse… when they’ve been worked out in the church, through out the ages… has created an amazing fractal-like design to behold. And we don’t even know the half of it! Actually, we don’t even know a fraction of a percent, but what we do see is breathtaking! God’s glory, worked out in his church with his priorities… over and over and over. Perhaps in eternity, God will show us just how magnificent his work has been through his church.
And this pattern for the church – this simple formula… it began here in these verses we read. Up to this point, God has been laying the foundations for the church:
• Many many people had come to faith in Christ and these believers in Christ were scattered – Luke, the author, reminds us of that in verse 19 of chapter 11
• Furthermore, God has established several leaders in the church – and through them, He’s clarified what the Gospel is – the good news of salvation in Christ alone, and who it’s for - everyone
And now, God is beginning to develop roots for his church in Christ – he’s showing us the broader categories upon which to focus. As we move on in Acts, we’ll see more details worked out.
To give a little background, It’s been about 10-12 years now since Jesus ascension. The Holy Spirit has been at work all over the eastern Mediterranean region… Jerusalem was initially the center hub, but as the Gospel went out, that would shift to the city of Antioch. If you can picture in your mind the southern coast of modern-day Turkey… just south of Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea is the island of Cyprus. And from Cyprus if you travel northeast on the sea, you would run in to Syria. Well, Antioch is a few miles inland in Syria. It’s about 300 miles north from Joppa and Cesarea.
And Antioch was very influential. It was the third largest city in the Roman empire and on the trade route between Asia and Egypt. They called Antioch “the queen of the east” Her population at the time is estimated in the hundreds of thousands… and Antioch was very diverse… with large populations of Jews, and Greeks and Romans and Persians and northern Africans.
And do you know what was happening in Antioch? God was at work! We read that the scattered church was preaching Christ to the Jews first, and then the Hellenists – which were the Greeks. The hand of the Lord was with them and they were growing.
Well, word came back to the church in Jerusalem – and given the prominence of Antioch, they wanted to check things out. Verse 21. So they sent Barnabas. We met Barnabas back in chapters 4 and 9 – He was a faithful Godly man, full of joy and encouragement.
And when Barnabas arrived at Antioch, he was greatly encouraged! In verse 23, he exhorted them – which means he encouraged them in Christ “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.” Those words are at the end of 23. And they really encapsulates our Scripture text this morning. Barnabas was affirming their faithfulness in what they were believing and doing! And so he tells them to remain faithful to Christ in this steadfast purpose. In other words, keep doing what you are doing, and believing what you are believing, don’t waver, for this is the purpose to which you are called.
And that’s our focus this morning. Considering their faithfulness because it’s an example and pattern for the church. It’s the same faithfulness and purpose to which we are called.
If you look on the back of your bulletin at the top, you’ll read the summary sentence… the pattern… and where each statement comes from in the text.
Here it is:
A church faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose and a Christ-centered identity (Acts 11:23,26) teaches and preaches Christ and His Word (Acts 11:20,26,27; 13:1,5,7,10,12); dedicates itself to worship and prayer (Acts 11:24; Acts 13:2); supports the ‘ends of the earth’ ministry of Christ (Acts 11:29-30; Acts 13:2,4); sends out committed witnesses for Christ (Acts 11:20,22,25,26;Acts 13:3,4); defends true faith in Christ (Acts 13:6-11); and experiences the grace of God (Acts 11:21-22) through the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:24; 13:2,4,9) and growth in Him (Acts 11:21,24; 13:12).
That last part highlights the blessing in Christ that we receive when we are being a faithful church.
And so, let’s walk through this… and as we do, let’s ask the question – are we individually and corporately being faithful to God’s call?
A church faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose and a Christ-centered identity (Acts 11:23,26)
And let me note, besides verse 23 about their faithfulness to the Lord … They also had a clear identity in Christ. Jump down to verse 26 and look at the very last sentence. “In Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians.” We use that word, Christian, all the time today, but in the new Testament, there are only 3 places where the word Christian is used. This is the first.
Christians had been called “believers,” “disciples,” “brothers,” “saints,” and “those according to the way.” But now they’ve been given this new label. It’s most likely, in fast, the word “Christian” was given them by outsiders in a derogatory way. “Who are those people?” “Oh, they’re Jesus freaks, you know, Christ followers – Christians.” Well, that’s exactly who they were. At the very core of their identity was their faith in Christ.
That’s what we need to have. The word Christian today is so watered down. It doesn’t mean a faithful obedience, a hoping in Christ alone for Salvation, no, if you believe in God, that will do. Or if you are in the Middle East and you’re not Muslim, you’re identified as a Christian. So being labelled a Christian today doesn’t mean you believe in Jesus as your savior.
But the true meaning of being a Christian and what it showed here, is fully embracing Christ. The believers in Antioch were all about Jesus. He was their Savior. Their identity was in Christ - his forgiveness, salvation in him, his Word, his mission. And for us, the center of our identity as individuals and a church needs to be in Christ alone.
That’s who they were – faithful and steadfast believers in Christ – and they are a model for us.
(1) teaches and preaches Christ and His Word (Acts 11:20,26,27; 13:1,5,7,10,12);
Ok, let’s now get to the things that they were faithful in…. First they taught and preached Christ and his Word. You can see the various verses referenced. All throughout this text Christ and the Gospel is being taught and preached. When the believers first arrived in Antioch and when other Christians came, it says in verse 21, they preached the Lord Jesus Christ. Barnabas witnessed that. And after seeing what was happening, he went to Tarsus to find the apostle Paul – Saul, as he was known. And they both came back to Antioch – and for a whole year, verse 25, they “taught a great many people.”
And the fruit of their teaching ministry was evident. If you jump ahead to chapter 13 verse 1 – you’ll see a list of prophets and teachers. Besides Saul and Barnabas there’s Simeon - many believe that Simeon was from north Africa who likely had dark skin. Then Lucious of Cyrene – he was from Syria. And then Manaen – likely a Roman – he held high status in the Roman system…. having been close friends with Herod. They were all teaching or prophesying. Prophesying could mean God giving them specifics words or visions for the church, or it could mean here more of what we would call preaching today. Either way, the church in Antioch had a strong foundation of preaching and teaching.
Now, it’s easy for a church to over-emphasize any one of these areas. In our circles – we tend to overemphasize teaching. What I mean is this - we are limited as individuals and as a specific church. And if we dedicate all our time to teaching and studying, then we can miss the other areas of focus. It can turn into a legalism – or a religion without a heart devotion to Christ and mission for the lost. Those things should all be connected.
(2) dedicates itself to worship and prayer (Acts 11:24; Acts 13:2);
Which brings us to the next area of faithfulness. A dedication to worship and prayer. Notice that in the church in Antioch, they weren’t just teaching. No, they had a deep sense of dedication to Christ. First of all, Barnabas modelled a life of faith. It says, “he was full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”
Have you every met a Barnabas? When you’re in that person’s presence, you can sense the depth of their devotion to God in Christ… their prayer and piety. And when they speak, there’s this humble faith that is infectious. They don’t just know the Word, they live the Word – they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
And besides Barnabas, in chapter 13 verse 2 – we’re given insight into the devotional life of the church in Antioch. It says, “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting” It’s like this little parenthetical comment, but it speaks volumes to the depth of faith. It doesn’t say “One time they fasted” rather “they were worshipping and fasting” They were worshipping – of course - praising the Lord. Exalting His name, together. And they were fasting. Fasting means you take a pre-determined break from meals – and instead of eating, you pray. This was part of their identity. Verse 3 repeats their dedication to prayer and fasting. Part of what Barnabas was encouraging them in… was to remain faithful in their worship and prayer.
We worship and we pray – both are areas that we can and should grow in. But one area that is weak or non-existent in our lives and church is fasting. Would you consider taking 1 day between now and Easter to fast? Commit… that from the time you wake up until sundown, just drink water. Dedicate the times when you would usually eat to prayer. When you feel the hunger pains, don’t get hangry – you know hungry and therefore angry, instead, pray. Do that by yourself, or if you’re part of a family, maybe fast together.
(3) supports the ‘ends of the earth’ ministry of Christ (Acts 11:29-30; Acts 13:2,4); (4) sends out committed witnesses for Christ (Acts 11:20,22,25,26;Acts 13:3,4);
Ok, let’s take these next two together because they are related. A faithful church supports the ‘ends of the earth’ ministry of Christ… and sends out committed witnesses for Christ. We’re talking outward ministry and mission - Supporting the broader ministry of the church and sending workers into the harvest.
This sending and supporting is the greatest emphasis in this text. It’s all over the place.
In chapter 11, it’s the Christians from Jerusalem who came to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch. Then even within those areas, believers were sent back and forth, preaching the Lord Jesus. Barnabas was sent to Antioch. He found and brought Paul.
So, it starts out and Antioch is at first the receiver of the sending and supporting by believers from Jerusalem and surrounding areas.
But then, the church in Antioch begins to itself send and support. First, Agabus, the prophet, came from Jerusalem to Antioch. He told of a great famine that would arise. And so what did the church in Antioch do? They sent relief to the believers in Judea.
And next we get to the beginning of chapter 13… The Holy Spirit was at work in Antioch! He led them to send off Paul and Barnabas to the mission of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth. By the way, this is the beginning of Paul’s first missionary journey – and it’s the church in Antioch that commissioned Paul and Barnabas.
It’s easy for an individual church to act as islands unto itself. But this is not God’s will for His church – rather, His call is for his church to be working together with other churches, caring for their needs as God has enabled, bearing one another’s burdens, and sending out – to either support the work of Christ or to plant new churches in Christ.
Earlier this week I was reading Jim Boice’s commentary on Acts. Boice was the pastor of Tenth Pres in Philadelphia for many years. He put it this way and I think it’s helpful:
“A church that is floundering is inadequate even for it’s own needs, and it certainly is not alert to the needs of others. A church that does not know where it is coming from, why it is here, or where it is going is not likely to be of use in the missionary enterprise. [Antioch] was a church that in a very short time had become very sound indeed.” And the Lord used that soundness
You see, the church in Antioch had a clear steadfast purpose… they had a heart for Christ, which was displayed in their worship and devotion… and they had a passion to teach and preach the Word of God - clearly proclaiming the Gospel. And out of that heart for God and mind for truth, God gave them the vision and ability to send and support the work of Christ outside of their city.
I know we’re only a few months into our ministry here in Tucker, but I have been praying that we would be like the church Antioch – supporting the work of Christ here in Tucker… and sending our own out for the work of Christ to the ends of the earth.
(5) defends true faith in Christ (Acts 13:6-11);
Before we jump to the blessings that a faithful church receives, there’s one final characteristic. A faithful church defends true faith in Christ.
In chapter 13 starting in verse 4, Paul and Barnabas had just been sent out by Antioch, in the power of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t get far before they were confronted by a false prophet.
This man, Elymas, was vehemently opposed the Gospel. His own influence and power was on the line. He had the ear of the proconsul of the region – the proconsul was a governor of sorts. And when Barnabas and Paul arrived, their very presence threatened Elymas. Elymas did whatever he could to dissuade the proconsul – but Paul and Barnabas would have none of it.
And look how Paul responded. Verse 10: “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” Elymas was also known by the name bar-Jesus – or son of Jesus – but he was not follower of Christ. No, Paul called him son of the devil! He called him out for his deceit. And Paul, through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit – blinded the man. And this testimony… this display of the work of God led the proconsul to believe.
There are so many false truths… and false Gospels… and false prophecy out there. And our call – the call of the church is to stand firm – to defend true faith in Christ. It’s tempting to not want to offend anyone… or to try to be so relevant that we lose the clarity of the Gospel. Friends, the Gospel itself is offensive. 1 Corinthians 1:23 – “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”
May we stand firm as Paul and Barnabas did in the face of opposition… defending true faith in Christ.
and experiences the grace of God (Acts 11:21-22) through the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:24; 13:2,4,9) and growth in Him (Acts 11:21,24; 13:12).
Ok, here’s where we are: A church faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose and a Christ-centered identity (1) teaches and preaches Christ and His Word; (2) dedicates itself to worship and prayer; (3) supports the ‘ends of the earth’ ministry of Christ; (4) sends out committed witnesses for Christ; and (5) defends true faith in Christ…
And what did their faithful steadfastness in Christ lead to? Well, God’s grace abounded in them – his sustaining grace. Going back to chapter 11 verses 21-22. There it says, “the hand of the Lord was with them” and then Barnabas witnessed “the grace of God.” And all throughout, it’s the Holy Spirit that has been working in them and through them. So part of the grace of God is the Holy Spirit at work. He draws people closer to Jesus. He calls people to faith, and he gives confidence and help to teach and preach the Word.
In Antioch, they were growing
• verse 21, again – a great number turned to the Lord.
• Verse 24 – a great many people were added to the Lord.
• And in chapter 13 – the proconsul himself came to faith in Christ.
Let me say it this way – growth is something we should expect – Gospel growth. It’s not always necessarily numbers – some contexts and situations are harder than others. But we should be striving for Gospel conversion growth – testifying to and being witnesses for Christ. When that’s not happening, we need to be evaluating our faithfulness to God’s call… but trusting in the Holy Spirit to be working in His timing, not ours.
However, one thing we can certainly expect is growth in righteousness and grace and wisdom. When we are faithful as a church in all of these areas – he will bless us in maturity and deeper faith and obedience to His Word.
One of the most remarkable things about fractals is that their beauty comes out of their details. Fractals are not formed from the top-down. No, rather, their very elegant patterns are formed one point at a time – from the bottom up. Each point building on the one before – and working together to form the wonder of each design.
In the same way, starting with the church in Jerusalem and Antioch – God has been forming an amazing array and network of his church and his people throughout the world. And God’s design continues that with you, with me, with all the believers in Christ throughout history. What God has been doing through His Holy Spirit is first applying His salvation in each of our lives. Applying the work of Christ on the cross and the hope of the resurrection to each of us. And he’s using each believer to build his church – using the gifts He’s given us. And each step of the way is like a beautiful fractal coming together as his church is formed through us… each one of us contributing to the overall display of splendor and wonder.
And when we as individuals and a church seek to be faithful, embracing our identity in Christ, it’s then that we will begin to see and realize the amazing work that God is accomplishing to the ends of the earth.
May we at Tucker Pres be a church faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose and a Christ-centered identity that teaches and preaches Christ and His Word; that dedicates ourselves to worship and prayer; that supports the ‘ends of the earth’ ministry of Christ; that sends out committed witnesses for Christ; and that defends true faith in Christ… so that we may experience the grace of God through His Spirit and grow in Him