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God’s power for God’s purpose: Making room for the Gentiles

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 11

Jacob Walker was a lighthouse keeper on Robbin’s Reef, off the rocky shore of New England. After years of faithfully minding the light, he became ill and died. His wife buried his body on the mainland, in view of the lighthouse.

Later Mrs. Walker received appointment as the keeper of their lighthouse. For 20 years she carried on alone, and then a New York reporter went out to get her story. She told him, “Every evening I stand in the door of the lighthouse and look across the water to the hillside where my husband’s body is buried. I always seem to hear his voice saying, ‘Mind the light! Mind the light!'”

This weekend, Christians the world over will celebrate Palm Sunday, that marvelous and miraculous day which began the holiest week in human history. This was the day with the Light of the world came to bring that light to the darkest place in the world—the cross of humanity’s sin. He came to be rejected by his Father, that we might be accepted by him. He came to be made sin for us, that we might be made righteous. He came to die, that we might live.

Now we are called to “mind the light.” We are keepers of the light he brought, warning spiritual ships away from the rocky shores of sin and hell. We are to be as faithful to this task as was our Lord. Someone needs your light this week. Who comes to mind?

Defend the grace of God (vs. 1-18)

An insightful artist painted his subject, “A Dying Church,” in an unusual way. He pictured a beautiful sanctuary, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows, pews filled with worshipers, the pastor behind the pulpit and the choir in the loft. All looked healthy, even vibrant. But in the corner of the painting, on a table in the vestibule outside the sanctuary, he pictured a box with the sign, “Offerings for Missions.” There was a cobweb over the box. A dying church, indeed.

Not everyone agrees with the Great Commission. The church in America spends less than 1% to reach the unreached peoples of the world. It is true that the lighthouse which shines farthest, shines brightest at home. But it is also true that it must shine into the darkness to be a lighthouse at all.

After Peter’s remarkable experience with Cornelius, it is no surprise that the enemy would attack yet again. Remember that he prefers to strike at the point of unity, creating the greatest chaos for the least effort. The Gentile mission threatens his hold over the entire pagan world. We should not expect him to yield easily.

Peter had just returned to Jerusalem when “the circumcised believers” accused him of going into an “uncircumcised” home for a meal (v. 3). Note that these Jewish Christians made no mention of Cornelius’s conversion or baptism. Their first concern appears to be Peter’s apparent breach of legalistic etiquette.

The threat to Peter’s integrity and mission was very real. Paul would later recount to the Galatians the time in Antioch when Peter and even Barnabas withdrew from Gentile hospitality under threat of rejection from Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-13). Clearly “Simon” (sand) was still part of “Peter” (rock). As it is in us all.

But this time, “Peter” won out. He recounted specifically and clearly exactly his experience with the Spirit (vs. 5-17). He told the story just as it happened, leaving his critics to deal with the Lord. He made clear that it was not about him, stepping out of the conflict. With this result: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (v. 18).

This would not be the last time the Jerusalem church would wrestle with Gentile conversion (cf. Acts 15:1-35). Paul would later speak of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10); some scholars believe he was referring to the Judaizers, a group of Jewish Christians who followed him wherever he went and told his Gentile converts that they must become Jews to be Christians. But while the battle did not end with Peter’s testimony, the victory began. In time, the Church universal would adopt his position that God intends all to come to faith in his Son (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

Now God calls you and me to defend and extend his grace to those who stand outside his love. We may believe that he intends all to come to Christ. But unless we tell them, the practical consequence is that the Judaizers win. The decision is ours.

Move to Antioch (vs. 19-21)

The Church is moving today from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, and from the First World to the Third. The number of conversions in Communist China and sub-Saharan Africa are astounding, in the tens of thousands a day. More than a third (some say more than half) of South Korea is evangelical Christian. Many missiologists say that the center of the Christian movement has already shifted from America to Africa. The Fifth Great Awakening is occurring in countries all over the world.

This is not the first time the Church has shifted its missions headquarters. In the verses before us, the Christian movement will make a dramatic change from Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria. From the Holy City to one of the most pagan. From the capital of the Jewish world to one of the capitals of the Gentile. Such a significant city and movement is worth a moment of exploration.

At one time, at least five cities in Syria were named “Antioch,” before the city we are touring today was established. Nicanor I, the first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, built the city around 500 B.C., naming it for his father Antiochus. Today it is the city of Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey. In Luke’s day, its population numbered more than half a million.

Located at the mouth of the Orontes river, 15 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, the city hade an abundant water supply and beautiful locale. It soon became known as the Oriental Rome and the Gate of the East. It quickly became the capital of the Seleucid monarchy, and thus a city of great political importance. In 64 B.C., Rome made Antioch her seat of administration in the province of Syria. It was enlarged and adorned by Augustus and Tiberius; Herod the Great later provided colonnades on either side of its main street and paved the street itself with polished stone. Because of the trade which flowed through its portal, it soon became a commercial center as well as a political capital city.

Antioch of Syria would eventually become the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Jews were numerous there (note that Acts 6:5 names Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch, as one of the Seven). The art and literature of the city were praised by Cicero, while the vice and luxury of the people were infamous as well. Antioch was especially known for the cult of Artemis and Apollo at Daphne, a town five miles away. There ritual prostitution was widely popular, so that the “morals of Daphne” stood for loose living everywhere.

Josephus called it the third city of the empire, next to Rome and Alexandria. As a result of the events detailed in this week’s study, Antioch became the “mother city” of Gentile Christianity. Paul made the city his headquarters for his three missionary journeys in Asia Minor and Greece (Acts 13:1; 15:40; 18:23). Led by Lucian of Antioch, in the early fourth century, Antioch became an important center for biblical studies. A cup found in or near the city around 1910, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is the celebrated Chalice of Antioch; some think it is the “holy grail,” though most date it to the fourth century.

It is possible, if not likely, that Luke the physician was a native of Antioch. Eusebius, the first church historian, states that it is so, as does Jerome. He may have been one of the converts of the ministry we will study this week; his association with Paul may have begun at this time.

If you were to cross Las Vegas with Sodom and Gomorroh, you would be in Antioch. William Barclay inspires us: “It seems incredible but nonetheless it is true that it was in a city like this that Christianity took the great stride forward to becoming the religion of the world. We need only think that to be reminded that no situation is hopeless.”

It is no coincidence that God moved his headquarters to the city where his followers would manifest most fully his heart for the world. He will bless our church to the degree that we will bless the world with his love. He will bless your class, your teaching ministry, and your service to the degree that you love the world as he does.

Are you living in Antioch today?

Be a “Christian” (vs. 22-30)

A “Christian” is literally “one who belongs to Christ” or a “Christ imitator,” a little-Christ. We who follow Jesus were first called by this name at Antioch (v. 26). Here’s how we can live up to it in Dallas.

Verse 19 tells us that the persecution which began with Stephen’s martyrdom scattered Christians out from Jerusalem as far Phoenicia along the western coast of Syria, the Mediterranean island of Cyrus, and Antioch to the north. However, these first missionaries preached only to fellow Jews.

But then some courageous Christians from Cyprus and the north African town of Cyrene came to Antioch to evangelize the Gentiles as well. Most Jewish Christians simply did not believe that Gentiles could become Christians. But this unnamed group of missionaries believed we could. And we will forever—literally—be grateful.

And God gave them immediate success, in four ways.

First, against all odds, “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (v. 21), among them Luke, the physician and author of Luke and Acts. When you follow Jesus in missions and evangelism, you never know the ultimate result.

Second, the mother church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to investigate this phenomenon; he “saw the evidence of the grace of God” (v. 23) and encouraged the people, and again “a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (v. 24). When God is honored, his church must expand. Our church must expand. We cannot help it. All healthy things grow.

Third, Barnabas went to Tarsus, 100 miles to the north, to recruit Saul for this ministry. Saul (Paul to us) had not been mentioned by the Book of Acts for nine years; but somehow Barnabas knows that God wants Saul for this ministry. And so Paul the Apostle reenters the stage of global missions. God’s plan for Antioch was far larger than Antioch. His plan for Dallas is far larger than Dallas.

Fourth, as a direct result of the teaching Barnabas and Saul provided for these new Gentile believers, “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (v. 26). These Gentile converts so took on the character, the priorities, the morals, the personality of Jesus that even the skeptical pagans around them saw Jesus in them. How we want this to be true for us!

Now watch their Antiochian success become global significance. Some prophets from Jerusalem warned this vibrant, exploding church that bad times are ahead: “a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world” (v. 28). This happened during the reign of Claudius, around A.D. 45.

These Gentile believers in Antioch have enormous resources, given the economic prosperity of their city. This famine will likely not affect them greatly. They don’t need to care. The Antioch Christians had enough resources not to worry much about the coming hard times.

But the Jerusalem Christians are in for disaster. Jews in their culture have ostracized them for their faith; they have lost their jobs, many have lost their homes. A famine will mean starvation for them. So the Gentile believers in Antioch, previously ignored by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, immediately decide to help. They take an offering and send it to the Jerusalem church by Barnabas and Saul. They become compassionate about needs beyond themselves. They gain a passion for a larger world.

And this larger world would beckon them again and again.

One day as they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, “The Holy Spirit, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'” (Acts 13:2). These are their founding pastors, two of their five ministerial leaders. They could have refused. They could have kept their leaders and spiritual mentors for themselves.

But again they saw a larger world: “after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3). And they would continue this sacrificial support. Each of Paul’s three missionary journeys began with Antioch. Continually he received financial, material, and spiritual sustenance and support from this, his home church.

And God made a group of Gentile believers in the most immoral city in their part of the world to be a church of global significance. Their ministry touched the ancient world as they prayed, gave, and went for Jesus. Their ministry has affected the world for twenty centuries since. You and I are Gentile Christians today, in large part because of the Antioch believers. They stepped from temporal success to global and eternal significance.

So can we. What are the steps?

Believe that your life must change the world. Get a passion for the world. Believe Jesus when he said you were the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). Believe him when he said that you would “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and be his witness “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). You have not obeyed these commands unless and until your life has changed the world. Believe that you can, and you must.

Next, define the needs which surround you. Just as God used the prophet Agabus to tell the Antiochian Christians about the needs of their world, so he will show us the needs he intends us to meet. Ask him to make you sensitive to the people around you and their problems. Like the Antioch Christians, he has given you the resources you need to meet them. Decide that you will do all you can do to help. You can give food, time, energy, and abilities to help hurting people in your community and around the world.

And last, support those who will do what you cannot. God did not call everyone from Antioch to go to the larger world, but he called some. The others prayed for them, gave money to help them, held the ropes as they went out. We give money to support missionaries who go where we cannot. And through them, we touch the world.

Conclusion

Church history is littered with missed opportunities to imitate the church at Antioch. Among them:

Leon Trotsky was one of the foremost leaders of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Two years earlier he attended Sunday school in Chicago with a friend, but the teacher didn’t show up. Trotsky never went back.

Joseph Stalin, the force behind millions of deaths, was sent to study for the priesthood in the Russian Church, but the church had become so worldly and corrupt that he rebelled and turned to communism.

Mahatma Gandhi, leader of millions of Hindus in India, studied Christianity in England but rejected it because Christians didn’t live up to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Lee Harvey Oswald attended a Baptist Sunday school as a child in Dallas, but the teacher told him not to come back until he was better dressed. He never did.

But we have success stories to tell as well, times when believers followed the example set by our Antiochian ancestors:

A Sunday school teacher named Ezra Kimball led one of his young students, Dwight L. Moody, to faith in Christ, and Moody lifted two continents to Christ.

Some concerned ladies invited George H. Lorimer to church; he was saved and later became pastor of the famous Tremont Temple in Boston. A young lawyer named Russell H. Conwell heard Lorimer preach and was saved. He later built Temple Baptist Church into one of the largest congregations in America.

A lay preacher spoke one snowy Sunday morning in Colchester, England, at the Primitive Methodist Church. A 15-year-old boy, driven in by the snow, was sitting under the balcony. He heard the sermon and was saved, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the greatest of all Baptist preachers, led tens of thousands to Christ.

John Warr, a shoe cobbler, worked by the side of another young man and witnessed to him until he was saved. His young friend, William Carey, became the father of the modern missions movement.

What do you believe God could do with you and with our church, if we would “mind the light”? Who will see the light through your witness this week?