The Church Sanctioned by Jerusalem: Part 1 of 2

by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)

May 18, 2014

Acts of the Apostles


Scripture (Acts 11:22-24; KJV)

22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.
23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.
24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.


Introduction

Several years, perhaps as many as ten years after the gospel was first preached in Antioch, men from Cyprus and Cyrene came preaching the gospel to Jews and Gentiles. Antioch’s Gentile mission came to the attention of the Jerusalem church, which sent Barnabas to check it out. Barnabas quickly determined its authenticity, and joined in the outreach himself.


Commentary

22 Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.

Jerusalem was the “mother church” for all Christians in those days. It was the church of the apostles and the link to Jesus. It was only natural for the church to show an interest in missionary efforts wherever they were being carried out. This concern had already expressed itself in their sending Peter and John to Philip’s mission in Samaria (8:14-17{11]), and their enquiring of Peter about his witness to Cornelius (11:1-18). It would also appear when Paul and Barnabas reported to Jerusalem on their successful Gentile mission (15:1-35). Although this could be seen as a sort of “supervision” by Jerusalem, in each case the Christians of Jerusalem enthusiastically endorsed the new work and gave it their stamp of approval. We learned in the previous lesson that in Antioch “. . . a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord” (11:21). Gentiles were being saved in large numbers and joining the church, because men of Cyprus and Cyrene began to preach the gospel to Greeks. These were simple men, unnamed pioneers, who when traveling, found themselves in magnificent, voluptuous, and sinful Antioch; and they determined, without consultation with anyone, to preach the gospel not merely to the Jew, but to the Greek also. The movement began in earnest in Antioch, and such an important movement on the part of the church could not escape the attention of the mother church in Jerusalem. In this instance when Jerusalem heard of the Gentile mission in Antioch, the church did not send apostles, as it did when Philip preached to Samaritans. Instead, they sent a non-apostolic delegate but a wise choice indeed—Barnabas, “the son of encouragement” (4:36{1]). Barnabas was a wise choice for several reasons. First, he, like some of these Christian ambassadors, was from Cypress (4:36{1]; 11:20{12]). Second, he was a generous man (4:37{2]) and therefore thoughtful of others. Third, he was a gracious gentleman as attested by his nickname (4:36{1]) and Luke’s testimony about him (11:24{13]).

The use of the verb “sent” may indicate that he had an impromptu commission as an apostle. If this was so, he could not act independently of the authority of the Jerusalem church. It is quite possible that Barnabas came with a commission to bring the Antioch Christians back in line with the church’s accepted procedures, if necessary.


23 Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.
24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.

Barnabas had a natural relationship with the Hellenists. As a native of Cyprus, he was most likely fluent in Greek. As a Cypriot Jew (4:36{1]) he may have been a close friend to the teachers in Antioch. On the other hand, he did not seem to have originally belonged to their group but rather to have had ties from the beginning with the non-Hellenist church in Jerusalem and particularly with the apostles. He participated in exemplary fashion in the church’s practice of sharing (4:36{1, 2]). He introduced Paul into the circle of apostles (9:27{3]). He was chosen as their delegate to Antioch. Was he chosen because there were no apostles in Jerusalem at the time, or was it because he was a man who could be trusted by the Christians in Jerusalem and in Antioch? Barnabas was a “bridge-builder,” one who was able to see the positive aspects on both sides of an issue and to mediate between perspectives. That was the sort of person now needed to investigate the new mission of the more adventurous Hellenists of Antioch and allay the concerns of the more conservative “circumcision” group in Jerusalem (11:2{4]). Luke emphasized these positive qualities in Barnabas. “He was a good man” (v. 24), a phrase Luke used elsewhere only when describing Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:505). He was “full of the Holy Spirit and faith,” just like Stephen (6:5{6]). He appears to be more liberal in his views than the typical Jewish Christian, cautious in his denunciation of others, and quick to recognize the ability of people and to comprehend the meaning of God’s activity in history. When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, far from criticizing the new undertaking, he was able to see the grace of God at work in all the Gentile conversions, and He rejoiced (11:23{7, 8]). More than that, he encouraged them in the ministry, thus living up to his nickname of being the “son of encouragement” (4:36{1]). The quality of encouragement, of looking for the best in others, would reappear when Barnabas interceded on Mark’s behalf (15:36-40{9]). Luke wrote these things about Barnabas after this confrontation between Paul and Barnabas. Since Luke was Paul’s traveling companion, this testimonial about Barnabas must be Paul’s assessment as well. The more we learn about this fine Christian man, the more evident it becomes that he was the right man for the job, just the kind of a man who could take hold of a small, unstructured and perhaps leaderless group of people and weld it into a strong Christian body.

It is worth noting that “the grace of God” was clearly evident in the Antioch church. While the word “grace” appears 51 times in the New Testament in writings other than those of Paul, it is predominantly a Pauline word. “Grace” occurs 101 times in Paul’s writings. For the apostle, the word meant the active and effective demonstration of God’s love and mercy for all people. Man did not merit this mercy, but God chose to favor man with merciful and compassionate love and to bring him into a right relationship with Himself.

In some places in Acts, grace carries with it a Pauline meaning of salvation by the merciful act of God in Jesus Christ. In verse 23 we have a good example of this. The missionary success of the church in Antioch was a clear indication to Barnabas that God’s mercy and loving-kindness observed no boundary lines. God was acting through the church to show that the Gentiles were included without having to become Jews and observe the Jewish customs and obey the Law.

Barnabas was highly pleased with what was being done. Instead of insisting that the Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Law, he “exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” Fully convinced that nothing was improper about the acceptance of the Gentiles, Barnabas accepted the policy of the other evangelists in Antioch, and participated wholeheartedly in the movement.

Barnabas was certainly a much more important figure in the early church than we are apt to realize, and was the leader in the movement which virtually resulted in the transference of the headquarters of the church from Jerusalem to Antioch. When he linked up with Paul, the latter occupied for a time a quite subordinate position; and indeed Paul’s whole future work may have owed more than is commonly acknowledged to the encouragement of Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.” Barnabas became the pastor of the Antioch church, and as the church grew it became evident that an assistant pastor was needed, and Barnabas knew a man that was right for the job—his friend Paul. It is interesting that one who is a Levite (4:36{1]), and presumably closely associated with the national cult, could detach himself so far from his Jewish connections as to identify himself so closely with the Hellenistic movement, even though later, on one famous occasion, his early prejudices reasserted themselves (Gal. 3:13{17]).

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