Great Numbers Believe

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I often hear some Christians say – it’s not about numbers. And yes Jesus says “where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Mt 18:20). But the Bible also makes it clear that God is concerned about numbers – indeed as in Acts 11:21 - about great numbers of people such as the Greek Gentiles at Antioch in Syria coming to believe and trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, through the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Spirit. The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. And that first church of many Gentiles and some Jews at Antioch was to become a base from which great numbers of Gentiles would be evangelised and converted. It was the springboard for ultimately the conversion of Europe and the West and so in one sense of many of us.

I guess if I’d asked you before this sermon which was the key city in the development of Christianity, especially to the Gentiles, some of you would’ve said Jerusalem, or if it was December, perhaps Bethlehem, and some of you might even have said Constantinople or Rome, but precious few would’ve said Antioch. However it was Antioch that became the launch pad for the amazing growth of the church in the 1st century, so much so that it's where we were first called 'Christians' - actually a somewhat derogatory term at first used by opponents and a term only used three times in the New Testament.

V19 of Acts 11 says that there were also Jews at Antioch who had been converted to Christianity. Earlier in Acts Luke tells us that the church in Jerusalem grew by God’s grace to be many thousands in size, possibly as many as 100,000 strong. God wants his church to grow. The first mega churches were not in America but in Jerusalem and Antioch. And we believe God has given us a vision for JPC growing to 5000 over the next generation and initially we’re praying for 2000 to be here for our 150th Anniversary Services on 16th January 2011. This will not be easy – sure it’s God who gives the growth and we are to trust and believe him – but it will involve prayer, hard work and no doubt opposition. But often God uses opposition to achieve his purposes as we’re reminded in v19 and which brings us to my first heading:

1. Believers Were Persecuted But They Evangelised

19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Back in Acts 7 Stephen had delivered a powerful message to the Sanhedrin, to back up the fact that the risen Christ had now replaced the temple as the mediation of God’s saving presence among his people. It cost Stephen his life. Saul, later to become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, approved Stephen being put to death and took leadership of the explosive persecution that followed. Acts 8:1-4:

1And Saul was there, giving approval to Stephen’s death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

I’ll always remember the Bishop of Jos in Nigeria, Ben Kwashi, say well here in Jos you get persecuted simply for being a Christian so you might as well get persecuted for evangelising too! There’s a lesson there for us here in the UK as we face increasing marginalisation. Back in Acts 4:18-20 we read:

18Then they [the Jewish religious leaders] called them [Peter and John] in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19But (they) replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. 20For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."

We are to obey God not men when there’s conflict between the two, which means that, as with Peter & John, we’re not to stop speaking about what we know to be true – that salvation is to be found only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). And let’s not forget those brothers and sisters in Christ who face horrendous persecution and yet remain faithful in bearing witness to Christ. Ben Kwashi recently sent this report from Jos regarding Muslim violence.

People were in deep sleep and woken up at 3am to meet with death. Men, women, children and pregnancies were all littered on the road as they were killed as they fled. This is a premeditated killing in the worst way. Please continue in prayers for us. The cost of being a Christian is rising by the day.

Believers will be persecuted in various ways and to various degrees but we’re not to stop evangelising. Yes we’re to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves but we’re not to stop, just as Paul didn’t even when he was in jail. God will go before us and use it to spread the gospel and grow his church. It’s the history of the start of modern day missions. But what else do we learn from the growth of the church in Antioch? Well much from these verses under my next three headings: a growing church, a taught church, and a giving church.

2. A Growing Church

Look again at v19-21.

19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Now the book of Acts is the account of the earliest growth of the church. It tells how the gospel, which is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, spread from Jerusalem to Rome, and from the Jewish community to the Gentile community. At the same time it also tells how the gospel was freed from those aspects of Jewish culture that hindered its spread. We often fail to realise the significance of this jump over the Jewish/Gentile barrier. It was a middle wall of partition. It was like the division between South African whites and South African blacks or between the modern Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. So how did God enable his church to cross such a barrier? And what can we learn about crossing other, similar, barriers today? Barriers such as can still exist between the more and less affluent parts of this city or even between Geordies and Maccams! Because the gospel of Jesus has the power to break down and through such barriers.

Well from v19 we see that those Jewish Christians who had been scattered
travelled telling the gospel only to Jews. But what happened then? Well Greek speaking Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene (v20) then went to Antioch and began to evangelise – preaching the Lord Jesus – not just among Jews but also among Gentiles. The miracle of Cornelius’ conversion in Acts 10 had demonstrated that “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). The principle had been established and was now being worked out at Antioch. So here at Antioch was a cross-cultural mission. But we must note that these weren’t Palestinian and so Hebrew speaking Jews that were evangelising the Greek Gentiles. These were Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene and therefore Greek speaking. So they would have been in tune culturally with the Greek speaking Gentiles of Antioch. Do you see – those involved in this evangelism were those who had some cultural connection with those they were trying to convert.

Now notice the place where this was happening. These Greek speaking Jewish Christians were evangelising Greek speaking Gentiles in Antioch – not in Cyprus or Cyrene. Why?

Well Antioch seems to have been fertile soil for the gospel. It was receptive. It was a seaport and trading centre, the third largest city of the Roman Empire. The population was mixed. Culturally it was a melting pot and so people would have been more rootless. So it would have been easier to change from one religion to another. It was a place ripe for the gospel. Just as universities can be today for similar reasons; as they contain so many uprooted people from many different cultures. Yet are we, whether as students or as a church, making the most of the opportunities the universities provide for the gospel in this city? Will we be like those men from Cyprus and Cyrene? Students reaching students, students with a particular first language reaching others with the same language etc.

You see at Antioch the right people were being used in the right place at the right time. People who could relate to those they were evangelising were being used in the fertile soil. No doubt it was daunting for them but the Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. Jesus promises to be with us too. Do we believe that? Do we want to see great numbers believe and turn to the Lord? Now this great number of new believers needed encouragement and assurance. So what did the church at Jerusalem do? Did they dither? Were they cynical about these great numbers of Gentile converts? Look at v22-24:

22News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Yes Barnabas was sent by the church at Jerusalem to check out what was going on. You see this was new – great numbers of Gentile becoming Christians. But they sent someone not just to fact find but also to encourage and help the new believers make the most of the opportunity. He did and another great number were brought to the Lord (v24). Barnabas means ‘Son of Encouragement’ and it was his gift. He was also full of the Holy Spirit and faith. How we need encouragement today and to be around people like Barnabas who can encourage to grow and be confident in Christ. And Barnabas was glad at what he found – what was happening was genuine and he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. Just because there are great numbers involved and they’re not like us doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.

3. A Taught Church

25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Barnabas had already spent time encouraging the new believers and had seen another great number of people brought to the Lord. But from v25&26 we see that Barnabas realised that these new disciples needed sound teaching – a kind of Discipleship Explored and much more. Jesus had commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:18-19). He commands us to do the same today. So we’re not just to make converts but disciples – those who are trusting in and following Jesus Christ as Lord. Those who are learning from and obeying Jesus. Those who are willing to deny themselves daily, take up their cross and follow Christ. Barnabas knew this. He also realised that he couldn’t do it on his own. So he brought Saul or Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, to Antioch and together they taught great numbers of people for a whole year. Ironically the person who’d been partly responsible for the persecution that led to Jews and then Gentiles being converted in Antioch was now involved in teaching some of these new believers in Antioch! Yes God was and is working his purpose out.

Today there is a great need here and overseas for more evangelists and Bible teachers. One missionary said recently, “There are about 4 million full time Christian workers in the Christian 'west', and indeed some 300,000 missionaries from other lands working amongst us. At the same time there are only 30,000 workers for the whole of the unevangelised world, whilst something like 1.6 billion people have little or no opportunity of ever hearing the gospel for themselves and being taught the faith, largely because we put less than 1% of our personnel with unreached peoples.” Perhaps God is calling some of you with language skills and some of you who are internationals to go and reach and teach others who speak your first or second language. But the church at Antioch wasn’t just a Bible teaching church it was also a Bible living church as we see from verses 27-30. They put what they’d been taught into practice, which brings me to my final heading

4. A Giving Church

27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

The church at Antioch was a giving church. The disciples there heard the need through Agabus and responded – each according to his ability. They decided to provide help for the brothers in Judea and acted on their decision. They put their money where their mouth was. There was no dithering and no seeming reluctance. V30 – “This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” This was real evidence that the gospel had broken down barriers between Gentile and Jewish believers. Here was a largely Gentile church giving willingly to needy Jewish Christians in Judea. This love for other believers across a human cultural divide would have been a powerful witness to Christ. It appears that this was typical of the church at Antioch.

Now I thank God for the generous giving that goes on at JPC – both to God’s work here and overseas - the privilege we have of sharing with the Christians of Mburi in rural Kenya and of seeing that new Christian primary school up and running. But is it typical of each one of us? Do we each give according to our ability as we’re told they did at Antioch? Do we decide what we’re going to give and then act on it or do we put it off and so miss out on being blessed and on being a blessing to others? Have some of us still to complete our giving review form from January and adjust our giving accordingly to the work here and to world mission? I know some of us have lost jobs during the recession but others of us have not. Some of us have not much income at all, others of us have more. Notice again that in the church at Antioch each gave according to their ability to give – it was a giving, loving and caring church. They were concerned for those outside their church too and across national and cultural divides. How true is that of us, of each one of us, of you and me?

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