I have read of a British nobleman who remarked to his acquaintances that he made it his practice to travel to Athens at least every three years in order to see the magnificent Parthenon. They wanted to know why he would go to the trouble of making a trip like that so regularly, and his answer was, "It keeps your standards high." His point was that every one of us needs some things in our lives that help us lift our eyes up and to look at things that make us better, things higher than the trivial and sometimes foolish or even vulgar that so often occupy our attention. One of our purposes in remembering the Lord and in opening his word together is that very thing. We need things that cause us to see what we are capable of and what the Lord wants for us in our lives - something to aim higher for.
One opportunity to let that happen for us is found here in Acts 11. In this passage we are about to read, the background is that believers in the Lord have been scattered from Jerusalem by the persecution that arose at the time of the stoning of Stephen. And more immediately, those people as they have been scattered have gone wherever they went preaching the word and proclaiming the good news of Christ. And then in the immediate background of this passage is the episode at Caesarea. The Lord sent Peter to the household of Cornelius, and when he told the news of Jesus to Cornelius' household and when God showed his approval, Cornelius had been baptized into Christ. And when those of a Jewish background questioned Peter over this, he explained what had happened to them. They glorified God in verse 18 of Acts 11 saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." That opened a door, and we are about to read of how many people were blessed by that open door of the gospel.
Notice the scripture with me. "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists(that is, in this case, to those of a Greek background) also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul."
And now skip down to the time when they returned to Antioch, chapter 13, verses 1-3. Luke continues, "Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off." Now there are some things in this passage that give to us that something to keep our standards high, and talk to us about the church that we want to be.
Notice first in this passage that there is mention of a city, the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was a great city, a very important city of the time. It was the third greatest city of the Roman Empire, and it came only after Rome itself and Alexandria in order of importance. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and by its size and location, it was the gateway to the eastern part of the whole empire. This city of Antioch was one which lay at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, about 15 miles inland on the Orontes River. It had been built with a palace for the governor of that area on an island in the middle of that river. And then the city occupied the land on both sides of that river, at the slope of an important mountain nearby. It was a city of about 500,000 people at the time, which means that it was great not only in location but also in size.
The important thing for our study in this situation here is that it was not only a great city, but it was a city of an important kind of influence. This was a city which was not only renowned for its power but also developed a notorious reputation for its wickedness. It was a very materialistic and prosperous place. Because of Roman investment and because of trade, the luxurious living took over in that area. It had two great boulevards that intersected each other at the middle of the city, and one of them, which was almost five miles long, was especially important. A few years before what we are reading now, the wicked King Herod the Great, the one who had slain the children at Bethlehem, in order to ingratiate himself to the emperors, had donated enough squares of beautiful white marble to pave about a two and one-half mile section of it. A magnificent gate at the beginning of that street that stretched out to a width of about 90 feet, and all along there were impressive colonnades and statues that said to everybody, "This is as good as it gets. When you come into the city of Antioch, this is as wealthy as it gets." It was the center of pleasure. Sports was important there. It took over the minds of the people. There were chariot races and all the kinds of amenities that made people who were wealthy and could afford it be able to come there to satisfy all of their desires. And it was the center of paganism and of sexual immorality. About five miles to the south of the center of the city, there lay what was known as the temple of Daphne. Daphne was supposed to have been such a beautiful woman that even the gods pursued her to commit immorality with her. She finally became a goddess herself. Because of the pursuit of the gods, she is supposed to have become a laurel bush in order to escape their advances. The temple that lay off there near the city of Antioch contained the pagan worship to that so-called goddess. It involved the temple having priestesses with whom men would come to worship Daphne by engaging in immorality with those priestesses. At certain times of the year when there were festivals, those priestesses, historians say, would march down that great boulevard in Antioch in the nude in honor of Daphne. The moral corruption of this city was so great that when finally the morals of Rome herself completely crumbled, one of the writers in Rome (which sat on the Tiber River) said "the sewage of the Orontes (in other words, of Antioch) has now flowed into the Tiber."
You and I wouldn't have chosen this to be the place where the door of the gospel burst open to the Gentile world. We wouldn't have chosen this place to be the origin for the three great missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. And yet, in the providence of God, that is exactly what happened. These people must have been so tired of the darkness of paganism and of the corruption of the world at Antioch that there hearts were open when the gospel became accessible to them. So there is a city.
And then in this passage, there is a church. The text tells us that some of these people who had been scattered from Jerusalem had been speaking the word of the Lord all along, but to no one except to Jews. Now, perhaps because they have heard of what has happened with Peter at the household of Cornelius, they come to Antioch, and they on purpose began seeking out Gentiles also, and they began preaching the Lord Jesus to them. Now it is interesting, if you think about this, what is being said. They dwell on, not the fact that Jesus is the Christ as it would have been done to Jewish audiences, but the fact that Jesus is Lord. He is the Master and the Owner and the Ruler of all things. The lordship of Jesus is emphasized about five times just in the reading that we have done this morning.
And the Bible says that as they proclaimed the word of the Lord to these who were Greek speaking people also, the hand of the Lord was with them. The Lord showed that it was his will that they were doing. He endorsed what they were doing.
And the Bible says that a great number who believed turned to the Lord. Isn't that interesting? Believing and turning to the Lord are two different things. A great number who believed turned to the Lord, but not everybody who believed. In John 12 there were many of the priests who apparently, according to that passage, came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they didn't confess it because they were afraid they would be put out of the synagogue. The household of Cornelius (who had heard of Jesus and believed in him), was commanded to be baptized into Christ (Acts 10:48). A little later in Acts 18, verse 8, at Corinth, the scripture tells us of the Corinthians believing and turning to the Lord. It says in that verse that "many of the Corinthians hearing, believed and were baptized." I can only conclude in my mind this is what our passage is talking about, too.
And then observe that those who did believe and turn to the Lord, became the church in Antioch. Notice in verse 24 that it said at the end of the verse that many people were added to the Lord. When someone believed and turned to the Lord, he was added to the Lord. And then notice in verse 26 that Paul and Barnabas met with those people for a whole year. What are they called? They are the church. That is what the church is.
Everett Ferguson, author and professor for many years, has written a statement about this that I think is helpful. He said, "Properly understood, 'to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.'One is not 'in Christ' because of being 'in the church,' but one is 'in the church' because of being 'in Christ.' Membership in the church is not a matter of separate choice by the one joined to Christ (as if one could belong to Christ and not belong to his people). To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church. God by the same action that saves places the person in the redeemed community." That is an important point.
There is a city in Antioch. There is in Antioch a church - the church of the Lord. And in these people, there is a calling for all of us. I will have to do it quickly this morning, but I want to ask you to observe with me some of the qualities here in these people that reflect the church that we want to be. First, we want to be the church where people from any race or any social class or of any background can come together and be one because Jesus is Lord. These people come from a Jewish background and a Gentile background, and they believe together and they worship together and they eat together and they work together. If you read the names of the prophets and teachers who are there in chapter 13, it is an amazing thing. One grew up in the royal courts as Herod's foster brother. Another has a name attached to him that suggest that he was black. Another was from Cyrene. Barnabas was from Cyprus. Another, Saul, was a man from a Pharisees background at Tarsus. And yet, they are one in the Lord.
Our little children in the yellow room have a way of saying this. I may have to get Jonathan and Elizabeth and Aiden to help me do this. It says, "Here is the church building, here's the steeple, open the door and here's the church all the people." I read a story of a little class of children who had learned to say that little illustration. One day there was a little boy who came into their class who only had one hand. As the teacher was teaching the class, she asked the children to get their hands out - here's the church building, here's the steeple, etc. Just as she got started, she noticed the little boy with one hand. She thought, "Oh no. What will I do? I have embarrassed him." One of the little girls in the class reached over and put her hand in his and said to him, "Let's make the church together." Folks, that is what we are supposed to be doing. That is what they did at Antioch. That is the church we want to be.
Secondly, we want to be the church where the grace of God can be seen - where it is not merely discussed and debated as if it were a doctrine, but where it is a fact of life and where it shows in the attitudes of people and in what we say to each other and in how we treat each other. When Jerusalem heard what was going on at Antioch, they sent Barnabas, the son of encouragement, up there to express their love and support for those new brothers and sisters in Christ. Barnabas, when he came there, in verse 23 saw the grace of God. He saw it. He could see the evidence of it. Instead of resenting having people from a Gentile background who were accepting and endorsing the gospel of Christ, instead of being defensive, instead of worrying what was going to happen, he was glad. He rejoiced over the grace of God.
Third, we want to be a people where people are encouraged to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. Barnabas exhorted them. It is the obligation of people who have confessed Christ and have begun that journey to be faithful and to be true all the way along. When we don't, we show that we have looked back, and we are not fit for the kingdom. (Luke 9:62). Peter said in II Peter 2, verse 20, that we can come to the place where we are worse than we were to start with if we turn our backs on the Lord. But our being faithful requires encouragement, exhortation. One of the reasons we are together as members of a family is to encourage each other. Barnabas did that for these people. William Barclay wrote, "One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement .. it is easy to laugh at men's ideas; it is easy to put cold water on their enthusiasm; it is easy to discourage others. The world is full of discouragers. We have a Christian duty to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a man or woman on their feet. Blessed is the one who speaks such a word." That is so true.
We want to be a church, according to this passage, where there is a real appetite for the Lord's word and for the teaching of the Lord's word. Barnabas saw what the Gentiles were doing in receiving the gospel, and he thought of Saul, whom the Lord had said a few years earlier would be someone who would carry the Lord's name to the Gentiles. (Acts 9:15). He went about a hundred miles to Tarsus to look him up and brought him back to Antioch. They met together with the church for a whole year and taught much people. They had a year-long gospel meeting! I am embarrassed for us when we have a meeting, and we can't get folks here three days. These people were there for a year. Teaching went on. Christians grew stronger. Many other people also heard and were added to the Lord.
We want to be the church where the name of Christ is honored. These people were called Christians first at Antioch. "Christian" doesn't mean a follower of Christ or a learner. That is what "disciple" meant. "Christian" means "a person who belongs to Christ." Christ owns him. Who called them that? There has been a big debate about this over the years. Some think the people of the community in Antioch called them "Christians." Some of us believe that one of the prophets who were there, according to the instruction of God, called them "Christian." I believe that is more likely (cf. Isa. 62:2). But either way, Peter taught all of us later on to glorify God in this name. (I Peter 4:16). We ought to be so glad and content to do that, for people to know us as belonging to Christ and not somebody else.
And then, we want to be a church which has a mission larger than itself. These people heard that there was going to be a famine in Judea where brothers of a Jewish background were and where people had made it possible for them to hear the gospel, and they determined, each according to his own ability, to put together relief and to send it to Jerusalem, which also they did. Each one according to his own ability involving himself in a task to be a blessing, unselfishly, to somebody else. Comedian Flip Wilson once said when somebody asked him his religion, that he was a "Jehovah's bystander." He said they wanted him to be a witness, but he didn't want to be that involved. Our purpose and our goal is not to be bystanders but to be involved in trying to do the work that Jesus would do if he were here. Not only did they care about physical needs. But in a while the Lord instructed them to send two of their best and most important teachers - their encourager and their teacher - off somewhere else to teach the gospel to someone else. These folks had the kind of heart that lead them to do it. There is something to cause us to keep our standards high.
There is the first great Gentile church, a church which opened the door of the gospel to the rest of the Roman empire. They have qualities that can encourage us.
It begins with our believing and turning to the Lord. It may be this morning that you believe and you are ready to turn to the Lord. If you would do it, we would like to encourage you. It may be that we need to see that Jesus is Lord and draw near to him again. If we can help in some way in doing that, we would love to do so. If you need to, won't you come while we stand and sing together?