Today: [Acts 11:] A Tale of Two Cities: In Acts 11 we are introduced to the community of believers in the city of Antioch. Up to now, Jerusalem dominates the Acts narrative. Now we will see how Antioch figures prominently in Christian history. The apostle Paul began his ministry there. They were first called Christians there. Antioch was where the first concentration of prophets developed that launch Paul into the ministry God called him to. Without Antioch and the events that happened there, Christianity as we know it would be very, very different.
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[Act 11:1-18 KJV] 1 And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, 3 Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them. 4 But Peter rehearsed [the matter] from the beginning, and expounded [it] by order unto them, saying, 5 I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came even to me: 6 Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered, and saw fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat. 8 But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth. 9 But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, [that] call not thou common. 10 And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11 And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me. 12 And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house: 13 And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; 14 Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. 16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. 17 Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as [he did] unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? 18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.
Ahead of Peter’s return to Jerusalem the Jewish believers in Judea get word that the Gentiles had received the word of God. When Peter arrives, he is confronted for consorting with non-Jewish people and even going so far as to eat with them. Remember now that these were believers in Jesus who had received the gospel and participated in the early church community located in the city of Jerusalem. For all their rejoicing for all the signs, miracles and wonders and their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, they still held deeply entrenched prejudices against the non-Jewish world. Does discrimination still exist in the church today? It has been observed that Christian culture is one of the most segregated people groups still on the earth today. Is there anything that can be done about this? When you go into a community that is 80 percent non-white, and the majority of churches are anglo dominated, is that a problem? Years ago Fred Price, a prominent black pastor in the Word of Faith movement became incensed when one of the top leaders in Oklahoma condemned the proposed interracial marriage of his son to another well-known leader’s daughter. Price took it upon himself for over two years to preach against the racism in his movement. After this campaign against entrenched bigotry, there was little if any change in the movement’s posture toward its unspoken policies of segregation. Eventually, Price simply stopped preaching on this subject because there was no point in addressing it in a movement that certainly had a sympathetic understanding regarding the problem but no political will to initiate systemic change. In our culture we speak of the black church, the Asian church, the Korean church, etc., but what if in these same communities we talked about the white church out on the highway? That would be a scandal to be sure, primarily because it is entirely accurate.
Is there such a thing as white culture? Is it impolite to talk about it? What about white privilege? I know many pastor friends who bristle at such terms with the objection that they did not consider themselves racist in any way and do their best to treat everyone equal. As a pastor in my early years I served in communities that were 70 percent or more African, and while I was not raised with racist viewpoints, I did have to come to grips with the undeniable disparity between the realities of growing up white and growing up in a minority ethnic group in my country. Whether I liked it or not I was a recipient of white privilege, and while I see no reason to feel guilty about something I was borning into, I do feel responsible for keeping myself aware in the eyes of God concerning this matter.
What many do not realize and what the Jewish community in Jerusalem realize is that Jesus said the gospel was good news to the nations, and that word in Greek is “ethnos.” Ethnos is where we get our word ethnicity. There is an intrinsic ethnic theme to the gospel that is undeniable. The apostle Paul made the following statement in his letter to the Corinthians:
[Col 3:10-12 KJV] 10 And [you] have put on the new [man], which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: 11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all. 12 Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
For Paul to make this egalitarian statement in the ancient world is nothing less than miraculous. Racism and gender bias was universal in ancient times. Slavery abounded. Women were little more than chattel or personal property. The gospel repudiates this and as done so for 2000 years, yet equality in race and gender still prevails. Many of the most enlightened churches of our day still reject women in leadership and still refuse to do anything to redress racial disparity in their ranks.
How does Peter deal with this among his brethren in Jerusalem? He merely responds with a recounting of the vision and visitation of God that occurred in Joppa whereby he was commanded to look upon all men as equal recipients of the gospel. There was no convention of elders convened to do a feasibility study on how to address the disparities of race in the early church. There was no theological debate. There was simply the apostle Peter declaring on the authority of a dream and a vision that the old way of thinking had to be changed. What was the response? Verse 18 says that those who had virulently rebuked Peter in the first place suddenly have a radical change of thinking because they accepted the authority of a subjective spiritual experience such as a dream, vision or visitation and now are rejoicing that God had granted to the Gentiles the repentance of life. What about today? It is going to take men and woman not with a political ax to grind but a vision, a dream, a visitation from heaven that will finally assault and bring down the walls of disparity and racism in Christian culture.
[Acts 11:19-30 KJV]
19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. 20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. 22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. 25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. 27 And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: 30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
In verse 19 we see the emergence of the city of Antioch as the second major population center to develop into a significant influence in the spread of the gospel. The city of Antioch in fact in some ways overshadows the city of Jerusalem regarding historical impact in the development of Christianity as we know it because the ministry of the apostle Paul launched there.
Antioch was the city where the gospel of Matthew was very strongly believed to be written. Antioch was also the provincial capital of the Roman empire in the area. When the gospel first came to Antioch, it was not by any of the well known apostolic leaders. Verse 19 tells us when persecution came to Jerusalem unknown and unnamed believers from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the gospel there and many believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. When word came to Jerusalem of the move of God in the city of Antioch the apostles sent Barnabas to strengthen the work. Barnabas’ reputation preceded him to the city, and the people were very much rejoicing to receive him and hear his words. When did Barnabas become an apostle? The word apostle means “sent one.” When the apostles sent Barnabas, they established his apostleship, and for the rest of his life, he continued in that sending. If an apostle cannot recount the time and place of his sending, then he or she cannot call themselves a New Testament apostle because apostles must be sent.
After greeting the brethren in Antioch, Barnabas turns southward to Damascus to seek out Saul of Tarsus. Damascus lay midway between Jerusalem in the south and Antioch in the north. When the disciples and apostles traveled northward from Jerusalem, it seems they bypassed Damascus possibly for the very reason that Saul of Tarsus was known to have been there for over ten years in isolation. What was going on? God was preparing Saul for what came next. Just as Barnabas was instrumental in Saul’s life at the time of his conversion now, he fetches Saul from Damascus to begin the inexorable unfolding of the events that led to the launching of his ministry from the city of Antioch.
In verse 26 we see that it was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians, which means “little Christs.” Again the primacy of the city of Antioch in Christian history is in evidence. They weren’t called Christians in Jerusalem or any other ancient city. This community of believers was very robust and unique among all the city churches of ancient times. In verse 27 we see that a group of prophets is led by God to move from Jerusalem to Antioch. This is interesting because today it is taught that it is wrong for a prophet to prophesy a geographical move. If these prophets had not heard from God, then they would have never moved to Antioch, and the church that launched Paul’s ministry would have never done so because these prophets were the prophets that were instrumental in identifying Paul as an apostle. What if God told you to move to another city? Would you do it? What if he spoke through a prophet or more than one prophet that you should separate yourself from your lifelong home and go to another city? What if that is what is involved in launching the ministry of a modern day, Paul? Would you be willing to do it? This is a fundamental question.
After this group of prophets arrives in Antioch one of their number by the name of Agabus prompting prophecies to the Antioch church that they need to make a significant financial sacrifice and send the money back to the Jerusalem church and the apostles. Now, who does Agabus think that he is? He is new in town, and he believes he has the authority to co-opt the entire vision and work of the Antioch church for financial gain? Today such a prophesy would never be accepted. At the time of this writing, there is a massive wildfire burning around Redding, California. What if before this fire came up a prophet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania spoke up insisting that the churches in the city should make a massive financial commitment to the churches in Redding because a wildfire was coming and they would need the money. Can you see your church getting on board with this? The Antioch church shows its sterling character by hearing the word of the Lord and gathering the money.
Interestingly enough once the money is gathered, they send it to Jerusalem by none other than Barnabas and Saul. Can you imagine it? Saul, whose reputation is no less scandalous than that of a first century Osama Bin Laden is entrusted with tremendous financial wealth to take to another city! This shows us the spiritual qualities of the Antioch church and indicates to us the tremendous wisdom of God in choosing Antioch from whence to launch the most influential ministry in Christian history other than Jesus Himself.
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