After Peter settles the issue of Gentile inclusion with his Jewish detractors, Luke’s narrative picks up where it left off in 8:4. Between 8:5 and 11:19 is essentially a large parenthesis, detailing aspects of how the gospel was applicable and welcoming to Samaritans, Africans, and Roman soldiers and their families—all of them Gentiles or at least half-Jews—as well as the conversion and commissioning of Christianity’s greatest human enemy, the Apostle Paul. This is not merely good history; it is a literary device used to set up what will follow in the rest of the book of Acts. Having given the historical and theological context for the rest of the book, Luke resumes his discussion of the ministries of those scattered due to Stephen’s persecution—this time, with the great persecutor having become an irreplaceable ally.
A. The Scattered Sowers (vv. 19-21)
The Greek word behind “scattered” in verse 19 is a compound one. One of the words used to create it means “to sow seed.” This is an interesting play on words on Luke’s part, for those men and women who have been scattered are themselves sowing the seed of the gospel. God has scattered His sowers that they might more effectively sow His seed. He cast some of these people to Antioch, located in Syria on the Orontes River. Antioch was founded by and named after Antiochus IV, a profoundly wicked pagan who mercilessly persecuted the Jewish people. When he outlawed Jewish religion and practices and dedicated the Jerusalem Temple’s altar to Zeus in 167 BC, many Jews fled Jerusalem for other nations. Some of them ended up in Antioch—the very city founded by and named after their persecutor.
The Jewish community there in the time of Acts, then, is likely descended from these Jewish refugees. They found themselves in an ancient and decadent metropolis, rivaling Corinth as the most depraved and carnal city in the Empire. Filled with temples, bathhouses, and prostitutes, the city’s prominence and wealth afforded the kind of ungodliness only these with money and access to the known world (via the numerous trade routes that came through) can discover. Yet God chose to have the first Gentile church be in this city—and not only that but be a major missionary force to the rest of the Gentile world, through being the home base for all of Paul’s missionary journeys.
The scattered believers initially just witnessed to the Jews there (v. 19). This would have been easy and understandable, as all of the believers scattered due to Stephen’s persecution would have been Jews. But, believers from Cyprus (the third-largest island in the Mediterranean and Barnabas’s home) and Cyrene (a large city in North Africa) also came to Antioch and began preaching the gospel to the Gentiles who lived there (v. 20). These Jews would have been Hellenistic—they would have spoken and understood Greek, known Gentile culture, and lived in predominately Gentile lands. Of note is the word for “speaking,” describing how these people evangelized the Antiochan Gentiles. It is a word that means to carry on a conversation. It isn’t preaching a sermon with points and a text and cross-references, but simply talking with people, asking and answering questions, and having normal give-and-take. Nameless, ordinary believers, who are not elders nor Apostles, are sharing Christ with perfect strangers—and the Lord is blessing! Many are turning to the Lord Jesus. Why? Luke writes, “The hand of the Lord was with them” (v. 21). This is an OT euphemism for God’s power expressed and active, whether in judgment (Ex. 9:33; Deut. 2:15) or blessing (Ezra 7:9; Neh. 2:8, 18). Through the proclamation of the message about Him, the risen Lord Jesus is acting powerfully and turning many unbelievers into His surrendered followers.
B. Encouragement and Nourishment (vv. 22-26)
The news about the Gentiles coming to Christ reached the ears of the Jerusalem church, which promptly dispatched Barnabas as its representative to examine this new work. Was it of God? Was there genuine conversion? Of note is their sending Barnabas, the encourager (cf. 4:36). This demonstrates, I think, the sensitivity of the Jerusalem elders. They wanted to examine the fruit, yes. But they did not want to break any reeds nor crush a smoldering wick, and so they send a man whose spiritual gift was encouragement. These new Gentile believers were just discovering they were God’s people and belonged fully to Him after decades of entrenchment in ungodliness and pagan blindness and ignorance. They did not have the advantages Old Testament Jews did, what with their temple and Scriptures and sacrifices. The important thing was to reassure them about whose they were and what that meant for their lives as believers, not try to straighten out every possible thing they were doing wrong in their ignorance and immaturity. A man known for being filled with the Spirit, Barnabas could both discern and encourage.
He does come to them, and the first thing Luke says is he “witnessed the grace of God, and rejoiced” (v.23). How do you see a doctrine? You see it in the lives of people whose affections, goals, values, thinking, and desires have been revolutionized by it. My pastor in college was an immensely gifted exegete, and in a sermon on discipleship from Luke 14, he said, “Jesus is looking for people whose loves, will, and possessions are all His.” So it is here. These people have been so completely (even if initially) changed by their encounter with God’s grace that Barnabas knows they have encountered it. He sees grace in the changed lives they display. For these are the kinds of changes only grace can bring—only grace is powerful enough to do it.
Having witnessed, he exhorts: he “encourage[d] them all with purpose of heart to remain true to the Lord” (v. 24). “Remain” (“true” is only implied in the Greek text) should be more literally rendered “continue with,” “hold fast to” or “cleave to.” It can mean simply “remain” in some contexts (Matt. 15:32; Mk. 8:2; Acts 18:18), but in a highly theological context it carries a stronger meaning of intentional clinging or devotion. “Resolute” may describe Barnabas’s heart in exhorting them, the kind of heart he is exhorting them to have in their continuing with Christ, or both. In any event, the Greek term speaks of a purposefulness or intentionality. Interestingly, it is often translated (interpretively and periphrastically, not literally) as “consecrated” in the gospels when used to refer to the bread on the altar in the temple (“consecrated bread” is lit. “showbread”; the Gr. means to put in view or make visible); the bread was set apart for a special purpose. This word is also used to describe “the eternal purpose” of God (Eph. 3:11), being “called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28), “God’s purpose according to His choice” (Rom. 9:11), and the like. This determinative, intentional, wise purpose fits well with either Barnabas’s or the new believers’ hearts, and is instructive for us.
What is the result of Barnabas’s ministry? More people are saved (v. 24b). Indeed, so many are coming to Christ that Barnabas halts his ministry there, and goes to find Saul (who is still in Tarsus after his friends helped him escape there in chapter 9). Finding him, they return to Antioch together and for an entire year they met with the growing assembly and taught them the things of God. Two final notes round out this section. First, it is likely Paul’s stay in Antioch was longer than a year. Galatians says that after Paul’s conversion, initial ministry, “seminary training” in Arabia (covering about three years) he made an initial visit to the Jerusalem leadership, which lasted about two weeks (1:17-18). Fourteen years pass between this point and his next (major, not necessarily next ever) visit to Jerusalem, which was likely for the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1-10). Of note is verse 11, which discusses Peter and Paul’s meeting in…Antioch. Given that Paul made Antioch his home base for his ministry among the Gentiles, it is likely he lived there for a significant portion of the year and ministered as an elder weekly at the Antiochene church. His stay in Antioch, begun in chapter 11, likely covered most of those fourteen years.
Second, after the transformative ministry of God’s grace through Barnabas and Paul, the disciples are referred to as “Christians” for the first time (v. 24). By whom? Not by themselves, but by the unsaved people around them! These believers were so consumed with the Lord Jesus, so righteously obsessed with Him, so devoted to His ways—and so like Him—that the only fitting label them was “Christ-ians.” Little Christs, or “of the party of Christ.” It was a derogatory term, spoken out of derision for what the Christians believed, what they stood for, and how they acted. But, it is noteworthy that even the unsaved people could see these people were so driven by and for Jesus Christ that it made sense to call them by His name.
Such is the inherent power of the grace of God.
C. The Fruit of Giving (vv. 27-30)
During this time, a group of prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem (whether they come because they are sent by the leadership or of their own leading by God is not stated). Led by Agabus, they reveal that an intense famine is about to fall upon the region (which it did, around AD 47). Learning this, the disciples take up a collection and send it to Jerusalem for the relief of the believers in Judea (the money was likely to purchase food and other supplies ahead of time). What is important here is that the disciples had no proof a famine would occur other than the direct revelation the prophets gave—it hadn’t happened yet. But, they still chose to sacrifice their financial means to use them for the blessing and support of Christians they’d never met. Second, these are largely Gentile believers giving money to largely Jewish believers. Obviously, the racial and theological tensions between Jews and Gentiles needs no explanation. Indeed, Gentiles were likely the brunt of a lot of the bigotry. And yet they willingly, joyfully, obediently gave their own earned money to people they would have formally made a sport of hating.
The final stage of Acts 1:8 is completed. The gospel has penetrated the nations and it will only spread from here. God is raising sinners from the dead and turning them into holy, surrendered, obedience, sacrificially loving representatives of Him and His ways. And because of the Antiochene church, the gospel spread to the rest of the world and ultimately to us. Praise God for the power of His grace which effectually and powerfully transforms sinners into sons!