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"God's Assault on Antioch!"


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          This week, we return to our study in the New Testament book of Acts as we continue in chapter 11.  Luke here records the aftermath of God’s initial penetration into the Gentile world with the gospel.  If you were here last time, you will recall that when Cornelius and a few other Gentiles were converted to Christ, not all the Jews were happy about it.  They were initially opposed to this new thing God was doing.  As it turns out, this handful of Gentile converts were only the first fruits of a much, much larger harvest to come.  This morning’s text relates the first time the gospel is specifically targeted at a Gentile-dominated city and the results are astounding.  God does a magnificent work in the city of Antioch. 

As Luke told us in chapter eight, so in chapter 11 he repeats the fact that God used the scattering that came from the persecution after Stephen’s death to spread the gospel.  As we have seen, except in the case of Cornelius and his friends, the vast majority of those evangelized soon after the persecution--were Jews.  Here in chapter 11, Luke records the gospel explosion among the Gentiles in Antioch.  As with the Jews, there was an instant and massive response to the gospel among the Gentiles.  Antioch was the perfect place to begin this widespread evangelization of the Gentiles and from this point forward, this city in many ways becomes the most important city in Acts. 

Antioch was located about 300 miles due north of Jerusalem and although it wasn’t located directly on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it was only a few miles off the coast in a section of Syria that is today in Turkey.  Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria with about 500,000 people, of which perhaps 50,000 were Grecian Jews.  Because it functioned as a seaport, it was a very cosmopolitan place and people from all over the Ancient Near East gathered there.  Like the city of Corinth, it was a moral and spiritual cesspool.  It was a port city and seaports are seldom paragons of virtue.  There were also very prominent, pagan religious cults located near the city that incorporated prostitution into their pagan rituals.  The pagans who went to the temple of Artemis or Apollo might very well have done so to visit the shrine prostitutes.  The large population, the sin-soaked nature of the city and the easy access to Antioch via the Mediterranean made it a perfect place for God to launch his first major thrust into the Gentile world.

          Up to this point in the book of Acts, the sermons that are preached to the Jews often include the claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but that wouldn’t impact the Gentiles because they weren’t looking for the Messiah. What was it about the gospel that so powerfully appealed to the Gentiles?  Although Jesus as Messiah had no meaning for them, the notion of both “Savior” and “Lord” very much spoke to them.  God had been preparing the Gentile population for decades for the gospel because “many [Gentiles] were trying to find in [the] various mystery cults a divine lord who could guarantee salvation and immortality to his followers.”[1]  The truth of Jesus as Savior and Lord very much met a need of these Gentiles.  Many Gentiles at this time understood the spiritual bankruptcy of the pagan cults.  In the wise Providence of God, Jesus Christ as One who, through his atoning death saves people from their sins, give them eternal life and comes as King to rule their lives as a loving Lord, spoke to the deep hunger God had placed in many of the Gentiles in Antioch and throughout the Gentile world.

          Now, let’s read Luke’s account of the first major push of the gospel into the Gentile world.  Beginning with verse 19 he writes, “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. 27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 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). 29 So the disciples determined, everyone 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.

          There are many lenses through which to look at this account, but I want to approach it in a way that, though it may not seem obvious, is actually very much consistent with Scripture.  That is—I want us to use Luke’s account here to direct us as we peer into the unseen spiritual world that lies behind the events in Antioch Luke describes.  From that vantage point, we see an all-out, militant assault by God against the forces of darkness in and around Antioch that had held its people in a death grip for centuries.  We have permission to understand this text on this level on the basis of several truths in Scripture.  First, from Ephesians 6:12, “12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

          Paul is saying that the ultimate battle for our sanctification and for souls is not found in the outward circumstances and details of the story.  The real battle—where the real work is done is in the spiritual realm.  After God has met the enemy in the spiritual realm as he, in his sovereign will, applies Christ’s victory over Satan at the cross in a given area, the events and circumstances that Luke records in the natural realm follow as a consequence.  This is one reason why prayer is so important because prayer reaches into that unseen realm and moves God’s hand so that the Word of God has maximum impact.  On the natural level, Luke here in chapter 11 describes a spiritual revival in Antioch that was seen in the powerful response to the gospel by a great number of Gentiles.   From the point of view in the spiritual realm behind those events, this story is the outward manifestation of a powerful spiritual assault by God against the evil forces that had ruled Antioch and its Gentile population for so long.  Another place we find permission to understand this text in this way is what God tells us about himself in the Old Testament.  In Exodus 15:3 God reveals himself to be a Warrior. 

3 The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.”  In many places in the Old Testament the God of Israel is referred to as “The LORD of hosts.”  One Old Testament theologian says this about that title: “The title serves as recognition that God is the Commander and chief not only of Israel’s army but also of the pagan armies that march against Israel.[2] 

          God is over both Israel and her enemies, determining the outcome, not ultimately by the flesh and blood struggle on earth, as his saints partner with him and struggle against the dark spiritual powers.  As God partners with Israel to provide the spiritual power necessary to defeat the Canaanites, he says through Moses in Deuteronomy chapter seven, “…the LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. 21 You shall not be in dread of them, for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. 22 The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little… This truth that God is a Warrior who defeats the enemies of his people as they trust in him is why God punishes King David for taking a census of his army.  God punished him for numbering his troops because victory never depended on the size of the army because as God had told David when he faced Goliath—“the battle is the Lord’s.” [1 Sam 17:47]

          God hasn’t changed in the New Testament as Jesus, the Warrior King won the decisive victory over Satan at Calvary.  Now, as God’s people believe that truth of the gospel and, led by the Spirit, wrestle against the spiritual enemies of God, he continues to fight for them.  That is what happened in Antioch.  Through his people, in Antioch God put on display Christ’s victory at Calvary as he used them to push back the defeated spiritual forces that once held the people of Antioch in bondage.  In light of the spiritual battle that we have already described as God’s people face persecution by the enemy and triumph over them through faith in Christ, this seems like an apt way to look at this text.

          I see four major waves of God’s spiritual assault in Luke’s account.  The first wave of God’s invasion of Antioch is pictured in verse 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.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”  This is a devastating assault on the enemy and the victory comes about in the familiar way in the Bible—through normal, non-descript believers who are simply living by faith and following the Spirit.  These men from Cyprus and Cyrene, for reasons we are not told, decide to do something, perhaps on the spur of the moment, that had never been done before.  That is—preach the good news to a city filled with Gentiles and target the Gentiles with the gospel.  This is unprecedented and Luke never even gives us the names of these men.  That’s only consistent with what we have said before--their names aren’t important because it doesn’t matter who they are—this was God’s war and they were simply submitting to his marching orders.

          What spiritual “armaments” did God use in this assault on Antioch?  It says in verse 20 that “they were preaching the Lord Jesus.”  They were using the sword of the Spirit, the word of God about the Lord Jesus and God used that word in mighty ways.  Notice that they preached Jesus as Lord because the Gentiles were looking for a loving Lord who would direct their lives.  We are reminded in verse 21 that God supplies the spiritual firepower in support of his Word when Luke says, “And the hand of the Lord was with them…”  God was in their midst—putting his hand on them to push back the darkness.  The results of this first wave were impressive as Luke tells us in verse 21, “…a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  These Gentiles turned from their lives of pagan debauchery and idolatry to the Lord Jesus—a stunning defeat for the forces of darkness.

          Luke describes the outward events that manifest the second, unseen spiritual onslaught in verse 22.  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.”   To put this in military terms, God uses the believers in Jerusalem to call in reinforcements to press their advantage and drive back the forces of darkness still further.  Barnabas was an effective warrior because as it says in verse 24, “…he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  That is—he had character and maturity that would keep him from spiritual pride in the middle of this great victory and God had filled him with his Spirit.  That means, among other things, his battlefield radio was tuned to God’s frequency and was therefore able to hear and follow God’s leading in how and when to engage the enemy.  He also was a man of faith.  That means that by God’s grace, he possessed the main conduit through which God fights through us—faith in Christ and the saving power of the gospel.  Barnabas was also a good tactical choice for this mission because he was from the island Cyprus, 75 miles off the coast of Antioch, so he knew the spiritual terrain very well.  Verse 23 continues, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad…”  In militant terms, when Barnabas came onto the scene and surveyed the situation, he was glad because he knew he was in the middle of a spiritual massacre of the enemy because God was in the midst of his people pushing back the forces of darkness. 

          Notice in verse 23, the weaponry God employs—“he [Barnabas] exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose…  Again, God fires truth at the enemy in the form of encouragement from the Barnabas, the “son of encouragement” so as to keep God’s new recruits from growing weary in the fight.  The outcome of this second wave of God’s assault is reported in verse 24 where Luke tells us, “…And a great many people were added to the Lord.  Again, many Gentile prisoners of the evil one are liberated through the power of the gospel.  The third wave of God’s assault on Antioch is described in verse 25.  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.”  Again, in the face of such a powerful display of God’s might, a seasoned warrior armed with humility like Barnabas knows that in order to prosecute this battle to the full extent and inflict maximum damage, another contingent was needed.  He knew that Saul—who by this time had been preaching to Gentiles for several years in Tarsus, was just the tool God could use to push the enemy back still further.  So, Barnabas travels about 100 miles to Tarsus to enlist Saul in God’s campaign at Antioch.

          Again, notice the spiritual firepower the Lord utilizes here in verse 25, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.  For a year, they lived among these Gentiles.  They daily incarnated the gospel through their godly lives and they taught them the gospel and its implications.  This was like putting this new band of Gentile believers into basic training and the results of this strategy are in verse 26, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”  This was NOT a self-designation for the church—the verb is passive “they were called.” This was the name the unbelievers in Antioch gave to this group of believers. This is not simply an interesting bit of Bible trivia.  In the context, it is Luke’s way of saying that by God’s grace, the efforts of Saul and Barnabas established a church that was so Christ-obsessed, so filled with people who so manifestly loved, talked about, witnessed to others about, prayed to Christ—people who had overwhelmingly placed Christ first in their lives--that people referred to them by the name of Christ--the One who was clearly the most dominant force in their individual and corporate life.  These people were all about Christ, so what else could you call them except “Christian?”

          Today, calling yourself a “Christian” in many circles is just a way to designate that you aren’t a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist.  For the most part, the term “Christian” has tragically been reduced to a sociological classification and doesn’t communicate what it once did.  For the sake of clarity—terms like “believer” or “follower of Christ” are perhaps more helpful today, but in Antioch “Christian” was a glorious designation that communicated that this was a radically Christ-centered church.  That tells us that Satan had not only been forced into retreat as it relates to the number of souls that had been liberated, he had also been soundly thrashed in the individual lives of these new believers—their hearts and affections, which, at one time he had ruthlessly controlled, were now directed to Christ and his kingdom.

          There is one more spiritual wave on God’s spiritual assault on Antioch, but it was waged on another and different front.  The church at this point is very vibrant and healthy, but this mass infusion of Gentiles into the church at Antioch exposed an area that was vulnerable to attack by the enemy.  The church was now, and would be even more so, made up of two very different cultures and peoples.  The Gentiles, who come from Greek paganism--and the Jews, the children of Abraham had been taught for generations to hate the Gentiles and all their pagan practices.  They were uncircumcised dogs who were so defiled, they ate pig flesh.  We must understand that this multi-cultural dynamic, though clearly prophesied in Scripture and absolutely necessary for God to be glorified among his New Covenant people, carried with it a significant risk of division on a human level.  This created a point of vulnerability for the young church.  There now existed a potential fault-line underneath the surface that if exploited, could easily be vulnerable to division—and division was a well established tactic of the Adversary.

          To prevent that from happening—on the heels of this great victory in Antioch, where God had sent Satan running back into the shadows, the Warrior King pivots to this second front of the battle and engineers a pre-emptive strike against the enemy to strengthen the bond between these two cultures within the church.   In verses 27-30, Luke shows us God’s brilliant maneuver that completely outflanks the enemy, “27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 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). 29 So the disciples determined, everyone 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. God has prophets within the church and one of the functions of these prophets is, through the Spirit of God, to predict certain events in the future.  Agabus was one of God’s prophets who in this case predicts a large scale famine that Luke tells us occurred during the reign of Claudius who we know reigned from AD 41-54.

          Jewish historians tell us that Judea experienced a severe famine somewhere between the years of AD 45-48.[3]  So God, who is sovereign over all things, superintends a famine.  Famines are not good things—they are very bad things and claim the lives of millions of people each year.  However, in this case, God uses this very bad thing for good, just as he eventually redeems all bad things.  He uses it to bring together the Jews and Gentiles who now comprise Christ’s church.  The Gentiles—even before the famine begins, begin collecting relief money for their Jewish brothers in Judea.  God surely does this in part to thwart any potential division the enemy may have been planning.  He sends a prophet--the ultimate source of military to give his “intell” to the Gentiles with the result that a powerful bond of unity is established early on in this potentially divided church.  For the Jewish believers in Palestine, It would have been hard to think of someone as a “dog” who through his sacrificial generosity is keeping you alive.  So, God used this famine as a powerful pre-emptive strike on the enemy.

          There are so many points of potential application but let me briefly give two questions as we close.  First, Christ’s church is an army—have you joined in the fight?    Paul writes in Second Timothy 2:3-4, “3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”  Paul uses the same word for suffering six verses later to describe his life.  He preached the gospel “ 9 for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!”  When Paul calls Timothy to share in suffering as a good soldier, he is talking about—a willingness to be bound—a willingness to endure hardship for Christ.  Are you willing to suffer for Christ as you take up arms in his greatest cause?  How many people in the last year have you stepped out of your comfort zone to talk to about Jesus?  How many times have you labored so intensely in the gospel, that you became discouraged.  Those are probably good barometers of your willingness to suffer as a soldier.  Second, Paul says that a soldier doesn’t get “entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.  The thrust is having a wholehearted devotion to the Commander and Chief.  He is calling us to be so free of worldly impediments that we will be willing to do whatever God asks, whenever he asks. If you find yourself saying, “I’m just too busy to be in a small group—have a regular quiet time—pray more than a few minutes a day, get to know your lost neighbor,--I’m just too busy to do the ministry God has gifted me for,”  Paul would say you’re not “busy”—you’re entangled/trapped in civilian affairs. What if the Warrior King were to call you to deploy in another area of the world?  Would you be willing to go?  Or, have you accumulated so much stuff here; your heart is so bound to this place and these people that you are permanently anchored here.  Or, even if you wanted to go, would it take a year for you liquidate all your assets in order to be mobilized?  If those things hit home for you, Paul would say the reason is because you aren’t as concerned about pleasing Christ who enlisted you as you are about living for this dark, fallen world. 
            The way to repent of this sin is found in the gospel.  The way to love Jesus more is through the gospel.  Ask God to reveal to you what he has done for you in the cross and how much he loves you and be willing to spend a lot of time as he educates you through the Word.  As you more and more believe and internalize those truths, suffering as a soldier will more and more seem like a privilege and not a crushing burden because you are doing it for the One who has done everything for you.  A second question is:  What is the predominant way in which unbelievers identify you?  The believers at Antioch were so Christ-obsessed that they were known by the world as “Christians.”  How do the lost people who know you identify you?   Is it, “He’s the guy who loves cars—or loves to hunt—or the guy who works such long hours at such and such a place” or,  His kid is that great athlete or musician” or whatever your child’s talent may be.  Maybe its, “She’s the lady who runs that business down the street,” or “the lady who volunteers at the hospital” or, “the gal who jogs down my street every morning” or, “the lady who grows those beautiful roses every year.”  None of those identities are necessarily wrong, but if we are faithful to Jesus and someone gets to know us at all well, in most cases the first way they should identify us is—“Oh, that’s the guy whose always talking about Jesus” or, “that’s the lady who keeps asking me how she can pray for me” or, “that’s the fella who keeps witnessing to me” or “that’s the terminal cancer patient who isn’t afraid to die because of his faith in God. Think about how you are identified by those who know you reasonably well. Is that identity at all tied to Christ?  If that’s not the case for us in most cases, something is wrong and we have clearly shown these people by our actions that Jesus is not the center of our lives.
          May God give us the grace through the gospel so that we will be militant in our faith and obsessed with Christ for his glory and our joy.  

[1] Bruce, NICNT “The Book of Acts,”  pg. 225.

[2] Waltke, Bruce.  An Old Testament Theology,”  Zondervan, 2007. Pg. 398.

[3] Bruce, NICNT, The Book of Acts, p. 230.


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