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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand


 


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


That mission, which the risen Jesus gave to his followers, in Acts 1:8, to witness to him ‘to the ends of the earth’, seemed to have stalled. In the first 9 chapters of Acts, almost all those who had heard the good news message about Jesus’ power to rescue people from their own shortcomings and failure, came from one people group – those who could trace their descent from a man called Israel, whose life is recorded in the Old Testament. They considered themselves to be the Children of Israel, people of Jewish heritage.


In Acts 10, last time, we travelled with one of the early church leaders called Peter, from Joppa to Caesarea. This is a journey of just over 30 miles. We still hadn’t moved far. Now, in Acts 11, we suddenly arrive in Antioch, close to 250 miles further north, way outside of Israel’s border, and way further than we have moved in those first 10 chapters. It’s as if some barrier has been removed! That is exactly what has happened. It wasn’t a physical barrier, like we might see at the borders between neighbouring countries. No, this barrier was a mental barrier. It was as though the early church leaders were psychologically imprisoned within Israel. They didn’t understand what Jesus had meant when he said, ‘to the ends of the earth’. They were entrenched in a viewpoint due to their history and tradition. In a way, this was understandable. Throughout the largest part of the Old Testament record, God had an exclusive relationship with one people group – the Children of Israel. In those scriptures, he had promised them, over and over again, that he was sending them a Messiah – a person that would rescue them. They thought that he was coming to ‘rescue Israel’ exclusively (see Luke 24 :21 NLT).


But Acts 10 describes a moment of utter revelation. Peter is given a vision, then led and spoken to by God’s Spirit, and forced into a meeting with a God seeker, who wasn’t a Jew – a Roman Centurion named Cornelius – and through that experience is understanding is completely changed. He now realises that he had completely misunderstood what those Old Testament prophets were saying. Previously, he thought that every Jew who believed in Jesus would be saved. Now, it isn’t every Jew, but ‘everyone’. Anyone – ‘everyone’. In Acts 10:43, Peter exclaimed, ‘All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’


Following this, Cornelius and his non Jewish friends and family, are filled with ‘the Holy Spirit’. Though they are Gentiles, they evidently meet with God’s approval, through their faith. Peter acknowledges (Acts 10:47) that what had just happened is exactly the same thing as had happened to all those Jews who had believed on that great day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2. Therefore the same thing must take place for them as had taken place for previous Jewish believers. They must be baptised. They must be considered believers. These outsiders are now in – in the church of Jesus Christ the Lord.


So, all is sorted – except it isn’t. Peter had a really privileged experience. The Lord has been so good to that man. Now, he needs Peter to be good to others. The other church leaders in Jerusalem get to hear about Peter baptising these Gentiles. They are horrified! That is how Acts 11 starts – with Peter is ‘being ratioed’.


‘What is that?’ you may ask. Well apparently it’s a relatively new term. It relates to ‘Twitter’, the social media site. Apparently, if you post a ‘tweet’ and the number of comments you receive is more than double your combined ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’, then you are ‘being ratioed’. With that kind of ratio, it is almost certain that the majority of those comments will be negative. People don’t like what you have said. People don’t like what you have done. So it was with Peter! In Acts 11:2, we don’t read that some of the Jewish, ‘circumcised believers criticised him’ – It just says ‘the’. It’s like it was all of them. Everyone against Peter – that’s an appalling ratio!


I think there is a lesson here for us. We can be like this with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can observe their actions, or inactions, and jump to conclusions. We may think, ‘they did this, and the only reason they would have done that is…’ - because we think we know. The church in Jerusalem would have been so much more gracious, and so much wiser, if they had just said, ‘Peter, we have heard that you have done this. We don’t understand your reasoning. Can you please explain?’ They could have. They should have. Sometimes we could & should.


Peter patiently explains. He tells them about the events surrounding that Cornelius incident and then gives them his rational conclusion, in verse 17 – Despite history and tradition, ‘who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way’.


I think that what he was saying was a bit like this. Let’s say that I joined the army. I come from Sussex. Let’s assume that there is a Sussex Regiment. Let’s also assume that they have a noble history and tradition. Rule number one: you must be Sussex born – otherwise, clear off - you aren’t joining us! I join up. I proudly take along my birth certificate showing my birthplace in Eastbourne - I’m in. Several years later there is a new time of war. We need many more recruits. My Commanding Officer calls me in. He has a large group of people with him. He is giving them uniforms and weapons just like I had originally been given. But, I can tell by the way they look, and the way they speak, that they aren’t like me. In fact, I have a strong suspicion that these people come from a terrible place – a moral backwater, known as ‘Yorkshire’!


My CO says to me, I want these men and women to take the fight to the wider world. I want you to give them their induction straight away. What would be my correct response? Would I say, ‘OK you lot – let’s see your birth certificates’. That would be ridiculous. Yes, this may be a huge break from tradition, but my CO has the authority to do that. In fact, he’s been putting out bulletins for ages, saying that he was going to do it, but I’ve been too busy fishing to read them properly. Now, he has clearly told me what to do. I have no choice. I cannot stand in his way.


That is Peter’s argument in those verses of Acts 11. Who was he to stand in the way of the clear command of his Commanding Officer, the Lord God Almighty? It all makes sense to his audience and, thankfully, his ratio is reversed! Verse 18 says, ‘When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’


It’s a lesson for us. If our holding fast to God’s word prevents people from liking us, or having anything to do with us, then so be it. But, if it’s only our holding on to man-made traditions, and holding on to misunderstandings about God’s revelation, that is the barrier to others, then let’s be prepared to do what happened here in Acts 10 and 11. Let’s pray that he will open our understanding to know the difference between tradition and truth.


Now Acts takes us on a journey of real kingdom expansion. From verse 19 onwards we go to Antioch. We are reminded of Stephen’s martyrdom and the great scattering of the believers which followed, recorded in Acts 8:1. There we were told about the scattered who went scattering – they took that precious seed, of witness to Jesus, and distributed it on new ground. Judea and Samaria are mentioned there, but here we are told that there had been an onward march of these ‘Christian Soldiers’, carrying the banner of God’s love in Christ further forwards. It appears that this has been going on in the background even before the transforming of the mindset of Peter and the Jerusalem crew. Perhaps, the Lord’s intervening in Joppa and Caesarea was not so much to get the gospel message where he wanted it – in the hearing and in the hearts of all people – that may have already have started. Perhaps it was to avoid an early church split. Perhaps those leaders in Jerusalem weren’t leading – they were playing catch up!


Is there another lesson for us here? Do we expect those in positions of leadership in our churches to always be in front on everything? Do those who are church leaders feel that they have to portray themselves as supermen? Yes, we should expect leaders to lead. But, we are all equally human, and all will show their lack from time to time.


What we do know for certain about this church plant in Antioch is that it wasn’t formed by apostolic authority. It was ordinary believers that did it! Verse 20 says, ‘men from Cyprus and Cyrene’. These were Jews who had been born outside of Israel. Again, like we considered before with Saul/Paul, we see God shaping their pre-conversion lives to make them useful for his new purpose. They had been brought up in Israelite families, but surrounded by Greek culture. They had everyday contact with non-Jews – it was just normal practice. Their minds were just that little bit more open and they found it more natural to converse with those who weren’t absolutely like them. They had a new topic of conversation now. They had been saved from the consequence of sin by belief in Jesus. This is what they talked about when opportunity arose. There were people who heard this, from outside the Jewish community, and they too believed. We are told that there was ‘a great number’ who ‘believed and turned to the Lord’ in verse 21. A ‘great’ harvest followed the sowing of God’s seed. But verse 21 tells us something else. It is the reason for their success. It is vital that we don’t read over this because it is the only reason that we will also be truly successful –‘the Lord’s hand was with them’.


As a church, without the Lord’s hand we may be able to get people here for our special events. We may be able to develop contacts, and nurture friendships. We may get bums on seats. But our God isn’t interested in backsides. He is interested in insides – hearts turned to him. If the Lord’s hand was not with us we could not do this. But if it is then we can and we will.


Verse 22 has the news of this reaching the ‘twitter feed’ of the Jerusalem church. They make a very wise choice of who to send to this new, diverse church in Antioch. We have met Barnabas before. Acts 4:36 told us that he was actually called ‘Joseph’, but he was given the nickname of ‘Barnabas’. It means, more or less, ‘Mr Encouragement’. It also tells us that he was also from Cyprus, like some of those in Antioch. That may have been useful in terms of making contact. But more useful to the Lord was this wonderful aspect of his character. He had already sold some of his assets in order to give a better life to those in the church without his advantage. And he seems to have encouraged believers always.


In Acts 9:26-28, when the former violent hater of believers, called Saul/Paul, was converted to Christ he eventually headed to Jerusalem. The church must have welcomed him with open arms – except they didn’t! What if this was just a cunning ploy to entrap them? They were scared of his past. But God wasn’t, and neither was Mr Encouragement. He said, in effect, ‘I don’t care where this man has come from. Come on guys – he has professed faith in Jesus. All you can do is entertain doubts. Professed faith is all God needs. It’s all I need. Bring him in’. Without Barnabas, the church would not have had the apostle Paul. So much of our possession of the riches of God’s truth is down to Barnabas, who opened the church door and let someone, with a past, past.


It would have been so easy for someone to have arrived in Antioch, from Jerusalem, and quickly felt uncomfortable about the difference in order and practice at this new church – and there would have been differences. We considered before that Peter was the right man to have the Cornelius experience. But when we consider Paul’s words about Peter’s behaviour (he is Cephas) in Galatians 2:11-21, we should quickly realise that he wasn’t the right man for this new task. Barnabas was, though. What was his focus when he arrived? Not on what he thought was wrong but on what he knew was right – (v.23) ‘when he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’. He knew that there was a difficult battle ahead – such is the life of believers. What we don’t need are more discouragements. Praise the Lord for people like Barnabas. Verse 24 tells us that ‘he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord’.


Paul in the conclusion of his letter to the church at Philippi says this – ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ We usually apply this to thoughts and ideas. But what if we applied it to our brothers and sisters in Christ? It is so easy to see their faults. ‘But’, we say, ‘they have so many’. Of course they do. They are ‘as human as we are’. And none of us are lacking in that regard. What we are lacking, so often, is focus on the good. Barnabas seems to have read Philippians 4 before his believing friend even wrote it, and he applied it to people. And look where it got him!


But Barnabas recognised that there was a great need in this new church. He couldn’t deal with it on his own. We may have heard of the expression, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. It certainly is if you share it with the right people. And Barnabas goes on a hunt for Saul/Paul in verse 25. Probably when he found him his first words were, ‘You know what, mate, I’ve got some stuff for you to stick into Philippians 4 when you get round to writing it’. But Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t actually record that for us. Verse 26 tells us that a joyous year was spent in Antioch by those two men. They spent their time teaching ‘great numbers of people’.


And we are told that ‘the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch’. It’s a word for believers, which is hardly a Bible word. Only three times do we find this word ‘christianos’ in the original Greek New Testament. But it is first found here, in Acts 11, in the city of Antioch. It is a joining of two things. The Greek word ‘Christ’, which we already know is the same as the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’, and the Roman, or Latin, suffix of ‘ian’. It means ‘belonging to’, or ‘from’ or ‘of the party of’. This new church at Antioch was an amalgamation of people groups. How fitting that they get a new name which is the joining of two languages – it’s no coincidence - it is quite awesome!


Why where the believers at Phillippi called ‘Phillip’ ‘ians’? Because they were from there. They were Phillipi people. Why were believers now given this new nickname of ‘Christ’ ‘ians’? Because they had a new origin- a new birth - new roots in Christ. They were Christ People.


It is relatively easy for the words, ‘I’m a Christian’ to pass from our lips. What about when we consider the attitudes and language and actions of our lives from one day to the next? How easy is it to then say, ‘I’m a Christ Person’?


But the church at Antioch show the way forward in these closing verses (27-30). They receive this disastrous predication of upcoming tragedy and the Christians respond. Their response isn’t to their own need but to the need of others. They send Barnabas and Saul off with money to help the believers in Judea. Three things are necessary. ‘As each one was able’ – no more, no less. They ‘decided’ - we must do that. And then, ‘this they did’. They decided to do, as they were able, and they did it. Why? Because they were Christ People, I guess.


When Paul got round to writing Philippians, he wrote this in chapter 2:5-8 – ‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!


Christ did this, not to serve his own needs but to serve the desperate need of others. Are we Christ People?

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