Wednesday 17 July 2013

Christians (Acts 11:19-30)

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 11:26

One of the earliest images of Jesus is an inscription found on a wall in Rome, etched some 1700 years ago. It is known as the “Alexamenos graffito”, or the Alex Graffiti. The image depicts Jesus as a human figure hung on a cross but having the head of a donkey. Next to him is Alex, a man worshipping the crucified Jesus, with these words written below, “Alex worships his God.” The image is meant to insult Jesus, of course, hence the donkey’s head. But it was probably meant to insult Alex who believed in Jesus; to make fun of this Christian who worships a God who got hung on a cross.

In today’s passage we meet the very first Christians. That is, this is the first time in the bible that they are called Christians. It wasn’t a name they chose for themselves. Most likely, it was a name given to them as an insult because they believed in Jesus Christ.

Someone I know was recently very angry with God. She started cursing God and cursing Christianity and then cursing the church. Pretty soon she began cursing Christians. “Damn those people who call themselves Christians!”

The bible tells us that “Christian” is an appropriate name for a follower of Jesus which is why it stuck ever since. From Acts 11, we see three reasons why this label of “Christian” was given to the first-century believers in Antioch; three reasons why we should be ashamed to be called Christians today.

1. They were the real thing

The first reason is: These believers were the real thing. When we look at the story of how they first became Christians, there was no mistake that only God could have done this.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, man from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.
Acts 11:19-20

Imagine you wanted to buy Char Siu Pao. What would you do? You could go to Charlie Chan. You could get the frozen packs from Cho Mei and microwave them as a tasty snack  in the comfort of your home.

Now imagine you grew up in a part of the country with no Char Siu Pao’s. Not a single Chinese restaurant in town. No Chinese people living in your village. And one day, you see a few Chinese tourists walking down the high street eating some strange white fluffy bun and you smell the delicious roasted pork filling in the bun: You have just seen your first Char Siu Pao! It is love at first sight! So you approach these tourists and ask them, “Could I have some?” only to have them say to you, “Lei Chee Sin, Ge?” (“You’re crazy!”)

Antioch was a city far away from Jerusalem. No one there had ever heard about Jesus before. Then something unexpected happened! The church in Jerusalem was attacked and all the Christian believers were forced to leave the city. Verse 19 tells us they were “scattered”. Meaning, one day they were all in one place but the next, they were all over the place - scattered all across the country - “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch”, that is, many even left the country because of the persecution and threat to their lives.

Even so, once they reached their destinations, verse 19 tells us they told the message “only to Jews”. It’s like the Chinese people sharing their Char Siu Pao’s only with their Chinese friends. No way were they going to give the secret recipe to Gweilos! Thankfully, not everyone thought that way, because in verse 20, some of them “went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also” - non-Jews - “telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”

The reason why I say that only God could have done this is because of verse 21.

The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Acts 11:21

In order for these non-Jews to hear the gospel, God caused a persecution in Jerusalem. God’s hand was with these Christians who decided to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends. And God caused their friends to believe in Jesus when they heard the gospel.

God overcame prejudices. God overcame cultural barriers. And God granted repentance and faith to the new believers in Antioch.

This was a big deal. The church back in Jerusalem did not expect something like this to happen, which is why the moment they heard the news in Antioch, they sent one of their leaders named Barnabas to check things out. As we shall see, Barnabas was the right man for the job because in verse 23 it says:

When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Acts 11:23-24

Barnabas, or Barney as I call him, is known as the “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). He is the kind of guy you want as your basketball team coach. He sees the best in people and brings the best out of people. When he arrived in Antioch, he saw evidence of the grace of God. “Only God could have done this,” was Barnabas’ official verdict of the situation in Antioch. “You guys are the real thing,” he said to the Christians there, “and all I have to say to you guys is: Keep on trusting in Jesus!”

No criticisms. Barnabas looked at the church in Antioch and just went, “Thank God. Hallelujah!” And as a result, verse 24 tells us, even more people became Christians! The church in Antioch continued to grow even further!

Now I want you to get how amazing this reaction is. Barnabas was a representative from Jerusalem and was, himself, a Jew. Acts Chapter 4 tells us he was a “Levite from Cyprus,” meaning that on the one hand, Barnabas descended from Old Testament priests who served at the temple. He was a Levite. On the other, it also says that he grew up overseas, “in Cyprus,” (And you might notice that some of the people who started evangelising in Antioch were from Cyprus - verse 20. This might be one of the reasons the apostle sent Barnabas to investigate the situation.)

The safe thing that Barnabas could have done was to said, “Slow things down.” Barnabas as a leader from Jerusalem could have said, “You guys need to get permission from the apostles back in Jerusalem. I’m not saying you did a bad thing, but maybe it would be wise not to offend anyone back home. Who knows whether these outsiders are real Christians?”

Barnabas did none of that. Why? Because Barnabas looked at what was happening in Antioch and saw the grace of God. “God did this, not because someone had a brilliant idea about evangelising the Gentiles, not because someone messed up and planted a church without permission. No, God did this out of his mercy and grace. Only God can give forgiveness. Only God can cause non-believing Gentiles to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and rescue from judgement.”

2. They lived distinctive lives

The second thing that we see about these Christians is their distinctiveness. Or, if you like, their unique identity as people who live for Jesus alone.

Barnabas looked at the Christians in Antioch and he saw the real thing. But he didn’t leave them as they were. Barnabas saw potential in this church and what he wanted to do next was to strengthen the church in Antioch. To do this, he needed help. So, in verse 25:

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 11:25-26

I think there is something tremendously humbling about Barnabas. You see, when we hear a name like “Son of Encouragement,” we tend to think of someone who is young; of someone who is optimistic and sees the silver lining in every situation.

But actually, there is no reason to think of Barnabas as a young guy. If anything he might be a pretty senior member of the Jerusalem church, which explains why he has quite a bit of property to give away in Acts 4, having built it up over the years. Also, in Acts 14, Barnabas is mistaken for the Greek God Zeus. I think that says something significant about his personality. Barnabas had a huge presence - he was mistaken for a Greek God!

More likely, Barnabas was a senior, respected older man who was experienced and wise as a church leader. And I think it says a lot of about Barnabas then to recognise the need to seek out a young guy like Saul to help him lead the church at Antioch. Don’t get me wrong; Saul was a brilliant guy - a scholar and a gifted preacher. But Saul had made big mistakes in his life, not least in causing the persecution that happened in Jerusalem in the first place. But Barnabas looked at Saul and saw the same thing he saw in Antioch: he saw the grace of God. And maybe he knew what Jesus had said back in Acts Chapter 9, that Saul would be his instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). At each and every point of this story, Barnabas was humble enough to lower himself in order to lift others up. Isn’t that amazing? In fact, isn’t that truly encouraging? Those of us who want to learn from Barnabas: It’s not about personality. It is humility that is the key to being a “son of encouragement.”

For a whole year, Barnabas and Saul stayed in Antioch and they taught “the church and great numbers of people” the bible. It was at this point that verse 26 tells us, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Why is that?

There are two parts to that answer. The first thing to notice is that they are Antioch. Remember that these are mainly non-Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, which was a strange thing. They weren’t converting to Judaism. They didn’t start going to temple. They didn’t start learning Hebrew and following food laws and Sabbath laws. You see, that’s the amazing thing. The world looked at these believers and went, “I don’t get them! They’re not Jews. But they are no longer Gentiles either! What are they?”

That is, the world looked at this gathering of believers - this church - and saw that they were so oddly different in the way they lived their lives, they were so distinctive from everyone else - that they had to come up with a new name. They called them Christians. Why? Because the only clear distinctive about them was Christ. They seemed to the outside world like little “Christs”. Or perhaps it was because they kept talking non-stop about Jesus Christ.

It is worth asking ourselves here in the Chinese Church: Is that the way our friends see us? Is it clear from the way we live our lives; from the things that we talk about and live for - that it is all for Jesus?

The second part of the answer lies in the fact that they are called “disciples” in verse 26 and this connects back to the teaching that Saul and Barnabas did in the church. “Disciple” means student. “Disciple” means someone who learns. And what it is saying is: the way you grow as a Christian is by growing in the knowledge of God’s word. The way you grow as a Christian is by growing in obedience to God’s word.

Do you see why Barnabas was so keen to build up the church by teaching them the bible. Why he thought it was so important to get a the best teacher - Saul - to come to this church? It wasn’t so that he could start a bible college. It was so that these young Christians would build their lives on Jesus by spending time in his word. The bible is God’s means of transforming his people to be more and more like Jesus. As they grew in discipleship, in obedience, in knowledge and love of the bible, the church grew in Christ-likeness.

If you want to live a life that is truly significant; if you want to know what God’s plan is for your life and be able to keep in step with that plan - you need to spend time studying his word. Barnabas and Saul did that with the new young believers in Antioch for a year. The result was a community so noticeable, so significant, so distinctive for Jesus - that their friends looked at them and went, “That guy is just like his Christ. That girl is just like her Christ.” They called them Christians. Whether it was a compliment or even if it was an insult, it was name that marked them out not by their culture or race or love for movies or food but by the God whom they worshipped.

3. The loved one another

Finally, what we see of these new Christians is is their love. In a very practical and generous way, this church was marked by their love for one another.

During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 11:27-30

I was on the train last week and got to talking to elderly gentleman sitting next to me. He wasn’t a Christian - in his own word, he wasn’t “religious” - but he told me that he’d once heard Billy Graham preach. At the end of Billy’s sermon, he was challenged to go forward to put his trust in Jesus, but he resisted, he said, because he was worried that he would then be asked to give his money away.

It’s a tricky thing talking about money, isn’t it? And to read in this passage how the church in Antioch gave money to the church in Jerusalem; that’s embarrassing. “There! Don’t you see? The church wants your money after all!”

Notice, that the disciples decided to give of their own free will. This wasn’t an offering at the temple: There was no temple. No, this was a generous response to the prophecy of Agabus the prophet that there was going to be a famine throughout the entire Roman world. Agabus stood up at their Sunday meeting and said, “God is calling us to be prepared for a time of difficulty.” If he had said that in our church, what would be our instinctive reaction? I might be tempted to say, “I’d better save up then for my own needs.” God says, “Tough times are coming,” and I naturally start to think of my own needs first.

Not these Christians. They said, “OK, we’re going to need to help the churches which are worse off than us.” Each according to his ability - there was no coercion - gave generously from what they had.

That’s love. It’s not flowers with chocolates wrapped in a shiny bow with a card that says, “Dear Jerusalem, Thinking of you. Yours truly, Antioch.” Love is not infatuation. Love according to the bible means putting another’s needs before your own. When husbands love their wives by putting their needs first, sacrificing their own. When Christ loved the church by dying on the cross. These brand-new Christians understood that loving their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem meant looking out for them practically, generously and financially at the expense of their own comfort.

I think the church in Jerusalem was surprised. In a good way, I mean. Often times, we are surprised by another person’s selfishness and sinfulness. We shouldn’t be. The bible tells us that we struggle with a sinful nature; that this is a world broken by sin. What we should be surprised by is grace.

I was at New Word Alive recently at a seminar about loving the church. We were talking in small groups about what that meant - to love the church. It was very tempting to gripe: “Oh, loving the church is hard, isn’t it?” In my small group, I said, “I look forward to being surprised by acts of love in the church. I mean, I look forward to it. But I say to God, ‘Please surprise me! Please show me how you can display your grace even through your people!.’” And God does. I talked about a stranger emailing me with a distressing need which I forwarded to a brother I know and trust well. By the end of the day, he had his wife and two other sisters visiting her and her family and he was on the phone arranging regular follow-up over the coming weeks. I wrote back to this brother: “I am proud to call you my brother in Christ.”

Now this doesn’t happen every day but what it is isn’t random. It is a response borne out of care and concern for one another in the family of God. Brothers look out for one another. Sisters talk to one another. Fathers provide for their children. Of course, it involves financial help at times but if you think that’s the main thing, my friend, you have a warped sense about what it means to be in a family. God’s family reflects God’s love which is other-person-centred. Which is gracious, not expecting payment. Which is generous to the point of being sacrificial.

Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) That was the church in Antioch. I dare say, that is the church today.

Conclusion: Belonging to Christ

Three reasons why the believers were called Christians: (1) They were the real thing, (2) They lived distinctive lives and (3) They loved one another.

But I’d like to end by adding a fourth. They belonged to Christ.

The early Christians weren’t called Jesuits. “Jesus” or “Joshua” was not the name they were most closely associated with. No, the fact that they were called “Christians” means they were being identified with who Jesus was as the King. As the Christ. It meant that Jesus was their King. It meant that Jesus was Lord.

The name “Christian” means “belonging to Christ”. So the next time you tell someone, “I’m a Christian,” what you are saying is not, “I go to church,” or, “I believe in God,” or even, “I believe in Jesus” - as true as all these statements are. No, what you are saying is, “Jesus paid for me with his blood on the cross. I am not my own. I belong to him. The life I live now I live by faith in the Son of God who loved and gave himself for me.” What you are saying is, “I belong to Christ,” and that is a thought that is both marvellous as it is true.

For I am his and he is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

(“In Christ Alone”, Stuart Townend & Keith Getty)

No comments: