The In-Between Years - Part 56

Series: The In-Between Years

November 28, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 56

Last week we looked at the church in Antioch, a growing, thriving community of believers planted by Christians scattered because of the persecution of Stephen. Antioch was one of the biggest and most important cities in the Roman Empire. Some Bible scholars think Dr. Luke was a citizen of Antioch himself.

Let’s back up and look at last week’s text to get this week’s in context…

19 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. 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. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 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, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 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.  Acts 11:19–26 (ESV)

We focused on a seemingly insignificant detail Luke included in the last part of verse 26…

26 … And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.  Acts 11:26c (ESV)

Of course, there is no such thing as insignificant detail in Luke’s writings. He mentions it for a reason. You see, those first believers didn’t call themselves that, it was a nickname given to them by the non-believing citizens of Antioch. It meant of the party of Christ (the Messiah), and it wasn’t a compliment. They poked fun at how the disciples were yes-men for a man named Jesus believed to be the Jewish Messiah who died on a Roman cross.

I didn’t know until preparing for these messages that the name of our sister denomination has its roots in a derisive nickname: the Methodists. Early on they were made fun of for their methodical ways of doing Bible study and such. Like those first believers in Antioch they decided to take on that name and wear it like badge. To this day the Methodists are called Methodists and Christians are called Christians.

Now let’s finish out chapter 11 this morning…

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. Acts 11:27

These days: when the hand of the Lord was with the disciples in Antioch and many turned to God, when Barnabas and Saul guided and taught the believers there. In the middle of this prophets came down from church headquarters in Jerusalem. This is the first mention of Christian prophets in the NT. They were disciples who had been given one of a number of special gifts by the Spirit. Paul mentions some of them in…

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  Ephesians 4:11–13 (ESV)

Now we know for sure the gifts of evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given in the church today, but some think the gifts of apostle and prophet are no longer given. Some think they still are. Few agree on how they work if they are around these days. Regardless, their purpose is clear — to equip the saints for the work of ministry and build up of the body Christ, bringing unity among believers.

Speaking of the prophet gift being given today, a lot of folks think they are modern prophets in the church, but often they are really just rude, mean people who hide behind that gift. If it is still given today, those who have it will encourage the church and bring unity, not division and a tearing down. Not long after I came here seven years ago, a fellow showed up out of nowhere who thought he was a kind of prophet sent to fix things. All he did was cause problems.

Let’s look at how one of those prophet’s prophecies ignites within the church at Antioch a desire to minister and foster unity…

28 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). Acts 11:28

A famine was coming that would affect the world, and by world he means the Roman world, which at that time was quite a lot of real estate on the earth.

This was serious business because many people in the Empire lived on the edge of subsistence worrying everyday about how they’d cloth and feed themselves. This is what Jesus’ talked about in Matthew 6…

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Matthew 6:25 (ESV)

If that was the norm, imagine how devastating a famine would be? 

Luke tells us when this famine happened. In the days of Claudius. He means during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius. One scholar writes…

Several [ancient] sources… mention this famine. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus records that Rome suffered a shortage of grain during the reign of Claudius (ad 41–54); at one point there was enough food in the city to last no more than fifteen days. The crowds turned against the emperor and mobbed him in the Forum; he escaped only by the intervention of troops. Much of Rome’s grain supply came from Egypt; Tacitus bemoaned the fact that “the life of the Roman nation has been staked upon cargo-boats and accidents” (Annales 13.43)… Josephus [an ancient Jewish historian] added that the famine … was severe enough to cause hyperinflation (Ant. 3.320–21; 20.101).[1]

The worse the famine, the uglier things got as people resorted to unthinkable acts to survive. Some help came from the government and the wealthy, but it was never enough and too sporadic to truly alleviate the needs. BTW, the Emperors’ famously providing bread to the masses had nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with preventing uprisings (they kept the people content with bread and circuses). In Roman culture you looked out for number one. Charity was not really a virtue.

So, like I said, Agabus’ prophecy was serious business. I tried to think about what I would do if I knew a famine was coming. The closest I’ve come to that was the toilet paper scare at the beginning of the pandemic. What did I do? I hoarded it, terrified we might run out (I even locked cases of toilet paper in there shed). In my defense, I live with four women and a baby girl. Most of us, if we were honest, would probably think of ourselves if we knew major hardship was coming.

How did the growing church at Antioch respond? Did they lean towards their upbringing, their culture and look out for more for themselves? 

29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.  Acts 11:29–30 (ESV) 

On an occasion when you’d expect everyone to act greedy (and we surely wouldn’t blame them), the Christians at Antioch displayed uncommon generosity. They knew the believers in Jerusalem were particularly vulnerable to a famine, more so than them for a number of reasons,  so they took up an offering and sent it off with Barnabas and Saul.

This really makes me wonder how a people whose culture was oriented towards narcissism in the face of a life-threatening famine went against their very DNA and put others before themselves. Ah, but I know what’s going on here because I’ve seen it before.

This is just another example of how the gospel changes you.

We’ve already seen this with Peter — as well as other Jewish Christians — who went against his upbringing, his DNA, to welcome in a people he’d been taught to hold prejudice against his whole life, the Gentiles.

The Antioch believers were uncommonly selfless and generous because they were… CHRISTIANS, of the party of Christ, the Messiah, who is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve already seen this in the first believers in Jerusalem… 

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Acts 2:44–45 (ESV)

And then again…

32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.  Acts 4:32 (ESV)

And we will see it throughout the early church’s history. Randy Alcorn writes..

The Roman emperor Julian had an interesting complaint about early Christians: “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” The theologian Tertullian said, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.”

Aristides, an unbeliever, was sent by Emperor Hadrian to spy out those people called “Christians.” His words to the emperor have reverberated through the centuries: “Behold! How they love one another.”

Helping the needy has always set Christians apart, showing the world that we operate on a radically different value system. What religions besides Christianity have established hospitals, or networks of famine relief and development to help starving people, victims of disasters, and refugees?[2]

Why is generosity the seemingly natural trait of Christians? In other words, why is it where there are Christians there is generosity?

The gospel, the good news that Jesus came and lived the the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, is itself a message, a movement born of cosmic, infinite generosity. 

That’s the heart of the most famous Bible verse of all…

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16 (ESV)

God’s infinite, loving, grace towards us was gloriously demonstrated with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul writes about this to Pastor Titus…

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.  Titus 2:11–14 (ESV)

The grace of God leads to salvation for those who believe, and that leads to godly living and good works in the lives of believers. Good works there implies generosity. In fact, almost always good works mentioned in the NT as it relates to Christian living has to do with giving to the needy and helping the oppressed (not evangelism and verse memorization).

Paul makes this grace and giving connection in his second letter to the church at Corinth. They had started taking up a collection to help the needy but didn’t follow through, so he reminds them of the generosity of the Macedonian churches... 

1 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.  2 Corinthians 8:1–5 (ESV)

Did you get that? They begged to be part of a relief fund for the needy saints. Now skip down to verse 9 for that grace and giving connection. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of the grace shown by Jesus…

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV)

I love what Alcorn says about this: “As thunder follows lightning, giving follows grace. When the lightning of God’s grace strikes us, the joyful giving of our time, talents, and treasures should follow.”[3] I also really like how one theologian put it, “Giving is the overflow of joy in God that gladly and lovingly meets the need of another person.”[4] Here’s what I say, “Those of the party of Christ are given over to giving generously.”

Conclusion: Our text today demonstrates clearly that the key and highly visible trait of the early church, those followers of Jesus first called Christians at Antioch, was generosity, especially when it was aimed at their brothers and sisters in Christ. It had no agenda or ulterior motive other than love.

This truly, truly convicts me. I find myself living often more like a Roman than a Christian, especially when it comes to generosity. I gravitate towards looking out for myself and my own more than others.

How could those early Christians and believers throughout history be so generous? They knew that the one of whom they were a party of was coming back to set up a kingdom where the streets are paved with gold. They lived with a view towards the coming new heaven and earth where there is no need or lack, where there is no poverty or oppression. If that’s your future and all the good works you do here store up treasures for you there, how could you not be generous? Look at this verse once more…

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV)

Rich there meaning the wealth of having Christ and the hope of riches stored up and waiting in the new heaven and earth!

As we close let’s remember the infinite grace and generosity of God shown in his gospel, the good news that Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death should have died, a gospel expressed most simply in the promise of God found in Romans 10:13… 

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

Christians, are we living out the the thunder that follows the lightning of God’s grace?

[1] Wright, P. (2019). Famines in the Land (Acts 11:27–30). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (pp. 285–286). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kimble, J. (2018). Giving in the Life of the Church. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Content Copyright Belongs to Pleasant View First Baptist Church