This passage shows how the mostly Jewish Jerusalem-based community of Jesus became a multi-ethnic movement, and how the good news went as far as Antioch: a big trade city in the North and the largest Cosmopolitan city in that part of the Roman empire. As many turned to the Lord, Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to help lead this church community. And Barnabas, so amazed by what he saw, travelled to Tarsus to bring Saul to Antioch. Barnabas and Saul then led and taught the church in Antioch for a whole year. And so, the Church in Antioch became the first large multi-ethnic church in history, a ‘headquarters’ for international mission, and, most importantly, a place where the disciples were first called “Christ-ones” or Christians.
There are three interesting points about this passage which I found helpful to reflect on.
First, it was how and to whom the followers spread the gospel. They first started to travel and spread the good word, as verse 19 says, because of persecution. So, they didn’t actually have a choice to not go – to an extent, they were refugees. And by travelling, they reached out and talked to people. This is amazing as, I think, if I had been persecuted, I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind to share the Gospel. But they were persistent in and faithful to their mission: although persecution was difficult, the disciples did not let that get in the way of their evangelism. It’s also interesting to note who they’ve reached out to. Although some spoke only to Jews, others spoke to the Hellenists or, in other words, those who were uncircumcised and were non-Jews. These were people who, at that time, would normally be quickly ruled out as ‘receivers of the good news. Instead, these non-Jews became believers and turned to the Lord.
Secondly, the disciples didn’t spread the gospel and bring people to the Lord through their own powers. Verse 21 says ‘the hand of the Lord’ was with the disciples when they evangelised, and verse 23 says that Barnabas saw the ‘grace of God’ in the Gentile Converts when he arrived in Antioch. Barnabas saw that they were Spirit-filled followers of Jesus in a Spirit-driven church, and this was so powerful that he got Saul from Tarsus to come to Antioch too. This is a theme that we’ve consistently seen in the book of Acts: God and the Holy Spirit were there with the disciples, every step of the way, as they preached the good news. And that their success in spreading the Gospel was through the risen, ascended and glorified Lord pouring out His Spirit on them and the church.
Thirdly, this passage reminds us that, as Christians, we are part of a multi-ethnic and multicultural community who build each other up. Just as Barnabas went to Antioch from Jerusalem, and just as Saul was called to Antioch from Tarsus… We, too, are called to play our part in creating that community. Just as Barnabas, whose name literally means ‘son of encouragement’, encouraged the church to ‘remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion’, so should we encourage one another of faithfulness and devotion. This can be through supporting each other with Scripture, words and prayer, but also by calling out any injustices and wrongs that we might see. We are also encouraged to look to Barnabas who was so beautifully described in verse 24 as ‘a good man, full of Holy Spirit and of faith’. But what does this mean for us? As Christians, we are each on our own journeys of discipleship – to be someone full of the Spirit and faith. But we are also reminded that we are on this journey together as a community and as a family.
This passage has really encouraged reflection. When have we let ease, convenience, and comfort trump mission and evangelism? How often do I tell those who are ‘unlike me’ about the gospel? Is my evangelism and my life truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led? Or how often have I said, ‘Lord, fill me with Your Spirit, but only in my little comfort zone’? Do I encourage and build others up? Am I, like Barnabas, full of Holy Spirit and of faith?
As we pray and reflect, let’s think of who we can reach out and tell the Gospel to, and who, in our church communities, we can encourage today.
Father God, thank you for reminding us that we are part of a multi-ethnic community of Your followers. Help us play our part in creating, strengthening and building that community, Lord. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and with faith, and help us to remain faithful to You with steadfast devotion. Lord, please show us how you want to use us, show us who you want us to reach out and tell the Gospel to, and show us who we can encourage in our church communities,