by Roger McCay
27 October 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 11:19-30
Link to Audio Version
In a conversation last Sunday concerning a question as to why so few people come to Sunday School, the words of a sage friend came to mind.
In Iraq, I was friends with our Battalion Maintenance Tech, Chief Alexander. We’d sit, drink coffee, and talk about motorcycles and other various things, but what has stuck with me over the years was the insight of his practical wisdom. He once said,
“Lots of people say they want to do something, but find every reason in the world not to do it. Like quitting smoking – They say they are quitting smoking, but something stressful happens, like mortars landing, or they get yelled at, and that gives them a reason to take up smoking again. Or like working out – People say they want to get in the gym and get fit, but end up finding every reason in the world not to get in there (working late; it’s too early; I’m tired; too busy), but really it’s just being lazy.”
And then chief said:
“It’s just a matter of deciding once and for all to do a certain thing, or live a certain way and doing it without letting any excuse get in the way.”
I think this has great application in living the Christian life, don’t you?
Disciples of Christ, “Christians,” are by definition followers of Christ Jesus. He is our first and foremost love in life and lead in all things. Yet, there are so many Christians, maybe even disciples, that don’t really engage, don’t really commit to a lifelong journey of being discipled (much less getting to the point of discipling others or expressing their discipleship in extraordinary loving self-sacrifice). Hence, the Fallen Condition Focus for today—disciples without discipleship.
This is a real problem. It reminds me of the warning of the Lord to the church in Rev. 3:15-17, “You are neither cold nor hot.” Disciples disciple. We receive discipling; we disciple others; we tangibly express our discipleship in the world by deeds of love. There is no in-between on this. The Christian life is a forward moving thing. It is not a static place of “I’ve arrived,” “This is far enough,” or “I’m in a comfortable place and don’t want to mess that up.”
As many of you know, we here at MPC have embraced that concept, as defined in our vision and mission statement.
Vision Statement: “Disciples of Christ glorifying God in word and deed.”
Mission Statement: “Make and equip disciples unified in the service, love, joy, and peace of God.”
All the church leadership came up with these statements together, so we are on the same page here. Yet it is easy to get comfortable. Easy to rest on our laurels. We must resist that that temptation.
In our passage today, the message of Acts is moved along, as part of the transition from a strictly Jewish Christianity to a Christianity of both Jews and Gentiles. We also are moving from a focus on Peter to a focus on Paul. Barnabas, interestingly, is one of the main constants as we transition from one phase to another. Acts 11:19 begins the account telling us about some important events that occurred around and are tied into the Cornelius and Peter event, which we looked at last week.
After Stephen’s murder and open persecution of the church in Jerusalem, the diaspora of the disciples of Christ spread from there, and kept on spreading. Some even made their way all the way all the way up to Antioch, which was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and about 30 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Antioch was, at the time, the third largest city in the world, behind Rome and Alexandria, with an estimated 500,000 people. There, at least five cultures came together—Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arab, and Persian. The Jewish population was also quite large, making up one-seventh of the city’s population. The city was known for chariot racing and the pursuit of pleasure. There was a plurality of religions, yet the worship of Daphne was its most famous (they had a temple there), whose priestesses were ritual prostitutes. It was a city of sensuality and immorality, and it was there that a small band of Christians arrived, having fled from persecution in Jerusalem.
20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
While others were still operating according to a mindset of partiality against Gentiles, the men of Cyprus and Cyrene (Hellenist Jewish Christians), naturally associated with their fellow Greek speakers with whom they shared cultural commonalities—“the Hellenists.” These men were on fire for the gospel, totally in love with Jesus, and they couldn’t help but tell folks about him.
This was an expression of their discipleship—being a light to the world—proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wonderfully, the hand of the Lord was with them. By his power, many, “a great number,” came to believe the gospel, and themselves become followers of Christ.
This was so extraordinary that word somehow made its way back to Jerusalem as to what was happening. So, like the Jerusalem church sent Peter and John to Samaria to check out the Samaritans coming to the Lord, they once again sent out a delegate, this time Barnabas (who is called an apostle in Acts 14). Barnabas, you remember him—Son of Encouragement. One of the most respected men in the church, who brought Saul before the church in Jerusalem and vouched for him a few chapters back.
Well, Barnabas made the 300-mile journey, arrived, and diligently checked out what was going on. He was overjoyed with what he saw, and jumped right in, serving the Lord faithfully with his brothers in Christ evangelizing and discipling a great many people, who were added to the Lord.
The sum of his message was, “remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (v. 23). What a wonderful summary of discipleship. It is another way to say “rise, go, and do,” which is another way of saying, “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” “Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.” This is a deliberate forward movement, with a purpose in mind, a goal—obedience to Christ.
As the Lord worked in Antioch through his people, the church exploded with growth. It eventually got to the point that Barnabas realized he was going to need help. Hmmm… whom could he call? Saul, of course! Who better? About 8 years had gone by since Saul was last mentioned in Acts, having been sent back home to Tarsus to avoid getting killed. Barnabas, clearly led by the Spirit, realized it was time to get Saul back on the larger scene. So, he travelled the 86 miles to Tarsus and looked around until he found Saul. Upon their arrival back at Antioch, they got to work discipling the eager church.
With Barnabas and Saul leading the instruction of the church, these new Christians must have been very vocal about the Lord, talking about what they had learned and living lives that were lives of open worship of Him. Their language must have been salted with references to the Lord: Christ this, Christ that, Praise Christ! And, their deeds must have reflected the love of Christ. Everyone around them saw that there was something new and different about these disciples of Christ.
And so, the people of Antioch called them Christians. Notice the disciples didn’t name themselves. It was the people of Antioch that first called us Christians. One man I studied on this issue commented,
“If a spiritual dynamic operated among us causing people to reach for a new word to describe us, what would the word be? What words do they use now? When God’s people live for Christ in such depth and power that those around them have to strive for a new term to describe what they see—that is awesome!”
What we see in action in this passage is steadfast discipleship: from the believers who first went to Antioch and proclaimed the gospel; to Barnabas and Saul; and to the testimony of the people of Antioch themselves, as to the faithfulness of the believers, by calling them after the name of their King.
That’s what happens when we are steadfast in our discipleship, my friends. We shine before the world, and the world has to define what they see. The name “Christian” has lost its potency over the centuries. Sad, but true. It’s been watered down to a general cultural identity rather than the identity of true believers in Jesus. This is one of the reasons why my preferred designation of Christians is “disciples of Christ,” which you may have picked up on after a few years of my preaching. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the name “Christian” actually got the potency back that it had in Antioch? It would, if, rather than it being just a simple label of people groups, it became a description of true believers because we “remained faithful to the Lord with a steadfast purpose.”
I think, if we live like we are called to live as disciples, and those who are not willing to live as such were simply honest and admitted they are not actually disciples, but just hanger-oners, then we might get back to that point. The Lord could make that happen. No doubt. Certainly, when he returns the wheat and chaff will be separated. My hope is, however, that because of the work of the Lord in the lives of faithfully steadfast disciples, these hanger-oners might actually jump in the pool instead of simply putting their toe in the water. I fear for those people who just get their toes wet and then claim they went swimming. Self-delusion gets you nowhere.
Well, we next see how true disciples manifest their faithfulness in unity and love in vv. 27-30. A prophecy, that was deemed a true prophecy by Barnabas and Saul, told of the coming of a great famine all over the world. Notice that the church in Antioch did not say, “Thanks Agabus,” and began prepping only themselves to weather the storm in a self-centered way. Rather, someone asked the question, “How will this affect the church in Jerusalem?” Clearly, they held the church there with the apostles in high esteem, as the gospel came to them from there. They saw them as “brothers” (v. 2)—a remarkable statement, seeing they were a mixed lot of Jewish and Gentile Christians. So, they decided to send aid via Saul and Barnabas.
Selfless steadfast love in unity. What an expression of the gospel, in the actions of the church! Wonderful!
Now, you may know that the PCA has a disaster response agency. It is under Mission to North America (MNA). I’ve often had folks from here ask me, in the midst of a disaster somewhere in the country, as to how they could send aid. How they could help. It delights my soul when people ask me that. It reminds me of the church in Antioch. Here is their purpose statement:
MNA Disaster Response provides support to PCA churches in disaster affected communities through a network of staff and volunteer damage assessment teams, first response teams, site managers, and key leaders. MNA recruits and mobilizes volunteers, receives and distributes supplies and equipment, brings awareness of specific needs, channels recovery funds, focuses prayer and provides spiritual encouragement to our PCA family and their communities.
If you go on their website, there are opportunities to be one of those volunteers, and to support them financially, as they prepare and act in the Lord’s name to assist those in need. So, there is a real opportunity for you. Check it out. Just Google MNA Disaster Response.
My friends, my hope and prayer for all of you is that you would be more than just a sit on the diving board with your toes in the water kind of Christian. My hope and prayer is that you would jump off that board and make a big cannonball splash. And, so many of you do! I’ve been splashed over and over by some of you folks. But, there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. It’s all or nothing. Your actions are the tell, as to whether you are truly remaining faithful to the Lord with a steadfast purpose. Don’t think you are fooling anyone, much less the Lord.
Brothers and Sisters, remember the words of Barnabas: “remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.” With so many temptations to pull us off track, this is hard at times. But rejoice! You are not on your on in this. Look around you. We’ve all got your back. You are not an island. We are in this together. And in the power of the Spirit of God, we can do this together, unified in love.
So, let us be steadfast in our discipleship and our unity and love. And maybe the name “Christian,” will regain its potency for Christ in the world once again. Since the Lord uses discipleship as a means towards Christian maturity, we should seek out opportunities for discipleship with a steadfast purpose.
 R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), 159.