Establishing the Church
Summary: The church expands on the heels of a crisis displaying four essential elements: worship, relationship, discipleship, and stewardship, the very same things we need today.
These are unusual times. That is not hyperbole, it’s not being overly-dramatic, it’s not being sensational. You can honestly make the claim that this moment is unprecedented at least in the past century since the Spanish Flu.
And yet, the amazing thing is: there’s no new supplement being issued for your Bible. There’s no new chapter to add, not even a few extra verses to tack on as an addendum or update. God has already given us everything we need to navigate this moment.
The most important things about who we are as a church and who we are as believers in Jesus Christ are the things we share with all true churches and all true Christians throughout history, things unchanged by timelines and headlines.
Our political leaders and governments keep making new statements. They change their recommendations and regulations, and even reverse course; our scientists and academics argue about their models and predictions, our media outlets and social media feeds keep twisting and turning it all to reflect their specific angle, but God stays on message with the same old message:
- Love Me and love others. Even in this.
- Walk by faith and not fear. Even in this.
- Pray. Read Scripture. Look for ways to serve. Even in this.
- Get back to the basics and stay there. Breathe, Christian, breathe.
Our circumstances change, but God does not, and neither do the core aspects of our faith.
Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
This morning we continue our study of the history of the early church and notice what unfolded in the aftermath of a major crisis they faced. In the process we’ll see how much what they did back then has in common with what we should still be doing today.
It’s a good reminder to us that the Church, and the people who make up the Church, have endured countless disruptions: uprisings, famines, plagues, wars, you name it, but the call and the message of the gospel have always the same, because God is the same – yesterday, today, and forever and He’s here in the middle of our trials.
We start by doubling back a bit to pick up the plotline.
Acts 11:19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.
We saw this persecution back in chapter seven and the first part of chapter eight, it’s what led to the conversion of the Samaritans and the Ethiopian government official. And then we found Saul’s radical conversion in chapter 9 and the salvation of Cornelius in chapter 10.
Now we’re doubling back and picking up on how the crisis of persecution impacted another group of people. If you look at a map you see that after this wave of persecution the gospel went south to Africa with the Ethiopian, East to Damascus in Syria with Saul, and now we’re learning about those who took it North to the island of Cyprus, the region of Phoenicia, or modern Lebanon, and the city of Antioch in modern Turkey.
20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
Remember, the Hellenists are ethnic Jews who identify with Greek culture and language more than their native Hebrew – and this is exactly what you would expect to find outside of Israel: people holding onto their historic faith, but adapting somewhat to local culture.
But also remember the Hellenistic Jews were the source of the persecution that drove these new Christians out of Jerusalem. And yet, when these persecuted believers show up in a new location, looking to settle down, they actually share the gospel, again, with Hellenistic Jews!
That’s remarkable. If you have been with us through our whole study of the book of Acts you’ve seen how patient God was with the high priests and others in Jerusalem. How many times was the gospel presented to them? How many miracles did they see? They kept rejecting what God was doing, but He kept telling and showing them again and again.
Well, now we’re seeing the same thing with the Hellenists. God is reaching out to them over and over – demonstrating love and patience. You need to know that this is the same God that is calling out to you. Maybe you’ve heard this before, maybe you think you know what Jesus is all about, but you went and blew it again. You messed up. Or you didn’t want to hear it last time. But here you hearing it again. Why? Because God loves you. He is patient. He keeps calling, keeps nudging, keeps sending people and opportunities your way to tell you.
At times it seems like He cares more about people who are not Christians than people who are because He sends Christians, sometimes at great personal risk, to tell non-Christians of His love. Think back on the arrests and trials of Peter. Think back on the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ. And now, God is taking Christians who were driven out of Jerusalem in response to persecution from Hellenist Jews and He’s sending them to share the gospel with Hellenist Jews. It reminds you of the example of Jesus who laid down His own life to bring us the gospel in the first place. Nailed to the cross, actively dying, He prays, Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.
Friends, make sure you have the right picture of God. Make sure you understand His patience and kindness. Make sure you understand that He really is calling people to Himself. And that’s He’s calling them back again and again. Even if they mess up. Even if they reject Him the first time, and the time after that. God is patient, and He is calling people to respond.
And this time, they do. These Hellenists receive the gospel. In fact, verse 21 tells us a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the most important things we believe and do as a church and as Christians today are the things we have in common with all true churches and all true Christians throughout history. Those things break down into four elements: Worship, Relationship, Discipleship, and Stewardship. You’ve heard of the army of the Lord, well, this is like the Navy of the Lord – four important ships: Worship, Relationship, Discipleship, and Stewardship. We’ll talk about each of them this morning.
The first is worship, and we often take that to mean the way we gather on Sundays for worship. And that is good, and that is true. Christians have always placed a high priority on gathering for worship. That is part of what makes our current crisis difficult; we’re not able to gather. But, we praise God for the common grace of technology that makes this substitute possible – it’s like church on crutches, it helps us get around, but we look forward to the day when we can run again. And it will come.
Worship is more than just the Sunday gathering though; it’s also the orientation of the Christian life. We gather to worship corporately because we already worship individually. We prioritize God over all other things in life. He is the organizing principle that everything else is ordered by. And that’s what we see with these people. They fled Jerusalem because they clung so tightly to what they believed about God. They didn’t have to, they could have let that go.
They could have downplayed their beliefs or denied following Jesus and stayed in Jerusalem. But they didn’t. They were willing to go anywhere as long as He was with them. And then, when they arrived in a new town, they couldn’t help but share. They worshipped God in the crisis even though, in their case, it was their worship that provoked the crisis.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is where I want to go back a question we considered a few weeks ago: is there any life in your life? Is there anything more than Instagram and Amazon and Netflix and work or school, and email? Is there anything you’re willing to suffer for? Is there anything you’re willing to sacrifice for and struggle through?
These men and women suffered for their faith in Christ, they relocated because of their faith in Christ, and they were ordinary people, not super-Christians.
We’re told the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. These people were likely construction workers and shepherds and farmers and lower lever political bureaucrats and government contractors. They were moms and dads, singles, and youth. They were average people, whose lives were disrupted because they believed Jesus.
And yet, they had a rugged, durable faith. It was thick. Too many people have a thin faith, a thin spiritual experience. It’s not worth much to them and it wouldn’t withstand much in a time of crisis. It won’t support much weight, won’t survive many blows. But here you see people whose life is different – worship remains a priority even when they have to relocate because of it.
So, where are you on that scale? Is your faith, is your worship, thick or thin? Will it bear the weight of difficulties in life? Is it able to sustain you now? History shows us countless examples of Christians enduring seasons of difficulty and not merely surviving, but thriving in the challenge. How is that working out for you?
Are you experiencing God in this challenge? Or, are you running to other things?
You see, this whole stay-at-home thing is going to expose people’s coping mechanisms. It’s going to expose what you turn to for help in life, and what you do when you’re bored and you don’t want to think about other things – when you need a psychological pacifier to suck on to keep you from screaming.
And as it drags on, it will expose how empty and thin those things are. Because, there is only so much binging you can do on Netflix, only so many times you can text friends about nothing, there’s only so much drinking you can do and only so early you can start each day, there’s only so much scrolling you can do on your phone before you start to feel restless, empty, and thin.
But notice what happened with the people who came to faith in Christ. It says in vs 21 they believed and turned to the Lord. Let’s think about those two things.
First, they believed, there is a cognitive aspect to the Christian faith, there is knowledge that you need to have, there are things you need to believe. But it’s not just a test of what you know. They also turned to the Lord. It’s most described as repentance – you change direction. You were turning to this thing to fill your time and occupy your mind, but now you turn to God. You were heading this way in life, believing and valuing these things, chasing these things, but now you turn to God and head in a different direction.
Let me encourage you, during this time of isolation: turn to God, spend time with Him, in prayer, in the Bible, look for ways to serve others. Let this be a time when you revaluate your life, your priorities, your relationships, in light of your relationship with God – let this be a time to recalibrate and refine your worship.
These early men and women knew what they believed, they were willing to suffer for it, and they believed others needed to know too. They had a thick, durable, sustaining faith. And as they shared it with others, look at verse 21 “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.”
Let me say this clearly: they went through a crisis, but held on to their faith, and God used it to turn a great number of people to the faith.
Church, how does God want to use your actions, your prayers, your words and testimony, to turn people to the Lord in the middle of and after this crisis? You’ll discover the answer as you worship Him – in private prayer and Scripture reading, in small group gatherings online and by tuning in to our corporate service. Make, and keep, worship as a priority, expecting God to work all of this out for His glory and to bring people to faith.
Well, let’s keep going and see the next essential element of the Church: relationship.
22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 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.
The greatest commandment is that you would love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. We receive from God and then reflect to others. The Scriptures speak of individual Christians as members adopted into a family, individual bricks stacked together to create a temple for God, different parts of a physical body with Jesus as the head.
Christianity is meant to thrive in community. We love, serve, and help one another and we are loved, served, and helped by each other.
That’s one of the critical things we see in Acts. It’s something we focused on last week. When Gentiles, that is, people who had no Jewish ancestry were saved and became Christians, they had the same experience of the Holy Spirit as the first Jewish Christians had on Pentecost, and then Peter had them baptized. God was demonstrating, and Peter was affirming, they were all equals, all part of the same thing, the family of God, the Body of Christ.
And now we see something similar with Barnabas coming down from Jerusalem. He’s a recognized leader in the early church and his presence is an endorsement of unity. He’s saying to the new Christians, you’re part of something bigger. This isn’t a local event. You’re part of something much larger and, you’re not in this alone. Relationship has always been God’s plan.
But consider this: the most extreme tool used by our criminal justice system is what? The death penalty. But what’s the next step below that? Solitary confinement. Isolation. That’s the second most powerful tool of punishment in our criminal justice system. And right now we’re all under stay-at-home orders.
Relationship is essential, but we’re told not to gather. What can we do? Well, it’s already happening. We’re using technology to make worship possible by broadcasting this service. The youth group, young adults, and several home groups are using Zoom and other platforms to stay connected. And people are checking in on people.
Two weeks ago the elders, their wives, and the staff began working through our membership list in an effort to stay connected with people and be aware of their needs. That’s one of the great benefits of a having a semi-formal relationship in terms of church membership – we had an immediate list of names to work with. And then, over time, people came to mind who are not members and we began adding them to the list and asking each other, who’s heard from so-and-so? How are things going? Do they have any needs?
But the great thing was, as we intentionally reached out to people we discovered how many people had already been in touch with someone else from the church. Not necessarily a pastor or ministry leader, but just another member, because people have relationship and they’re checking in with each other.
Ministry is happening sideways and not just top down or bottom up. That is excellent! It’s a sign of health in our church, and we encourage it. And, we want you to know: if you reach out to others and you come across something that you can’t handle, or you need some backup, please reach out to the staff and elders. We’re doing our best to stay aware of needs – as well as offers to help – and to match those two wherever possible.
It doesn’t matter if you call yourself an extrovert or an introvert, a home-body, or hermit, we are meant and made to have relationship, to be connected. And we need to fight to find ways to maintain those connections, because you’re not supposed to be everything all by yourself you need other people in your life.
Barnabas knew that. When he saw the situation in Antioch, and saw what God was doing, bringing all these new people to faith in Christ, he knew they would need the third essential element of the faith: Discipleship, and he knew someone who would be perfect to help, so he took off to find him.
Acts 11:25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church [do you see the relationship here, driven by worship?] and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
As we said earlier, the Christian faith involves both knowing and doing. There are things we need to know and then ways we should live as a result, so we need teaching and then we need mentoring, guidance and encouragement as we put it all into practice.
Notice the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. A disciple is a learner, a student. And then, as they put what they learned in practice in their life, it looked an awful lot like Jesus, and so, other people referred to them as Christians. People who lived like Christ.
We all need to be discipled in the faith. That might happen through your parents and church if you are born into a Christian family. Hopefully your mom and dad are teaching you things, exposing you to things and bringing you to church where you learn even more. They’re teaching you the basics, but then, as you grow, and life changes, you need more discipleship. You need people to help you work out the things you believe in light of the new circumstances you face.
So, you need discipleship in high school and in college, as a single Christian, as a new professional. You need discipleship as you date and marry, and as you parent and face professional challenges. We need discipleship all throughout life, and it comes through relationship. Ideally, we learn from and with others and then we teach, share, and encourage others ourselves with the things we’ve picked up and experienced through the years.
The Christian faith involves applying the same foundational truths to everchanging circumstances. They may change because your life changes, because your location changes, or because circumstances change, but the Bible never changes – we apply the same truths, even in this. So, we need to learn, and re-learn, and be reminded of what has been true all along, and then we need help thinking through how we apply what has always been true to this new thing in our lives.
Another upside to this season of isolation is that it’s a great opportunity for you to grow in your learning. Go back and listen to some of our older sermons from other books of the Bible, check out the new podcast the ladies are doing, and keep your eye out for some trusted resources we’ll be recommending soon. But don’t be afraid to ask for specific recommendations based on your needs and interests too. Use your time well.
Come out of this season stronger in the faith than ever before, ready and able to help disciple others, which leads us to our final essential element of the church: Stewardship – how will you use the limited time, talents, and treasures that God allocated to you for His glory and the good of others? Read with me:
27 And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar.
History tells us grain prices rose tremendously in the mid-forties and by AD 51 Emperor Claudius was actually mobbed in the streets of Rome by angry protests over grain prices due to the famine.
29 Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
So, look at how so much of what we have talked about this morning suddenly comes together. You have this group of people who have become Christians, they worship God, and they’re learning how to live out their faith – they’re called disciples. And now they determine to use some of what they have (stewardship) to help other Christians – people they’re in distant-relationship with through the faith, and to send it through Barnabas and Saul who they have close-relationship with. All four ‘ships’ in the navy of God are sailing here.
We all have gifts we have been given by God, things that we can use for the sake of others, some of us have lots of them, some of us have little, but we all have something. So, how will we use them? The mark of a mature Christian is someone who produces as much or more than they consume, who gives as much or more than they take. You give of your time, your talent, your treasures, you see needs and you meet them, you’re generous, helpful, and open-handed.
But note, you can’t meet needs unless they exist – and that means some people are going to have what other people need. Both of them may love and serve God, but one experiences plenty, or at least has enough, while the other experiences need and perhaps pain. But, because there is relationship, because we see there is some connection between us, there is a desire to reach out.
When this season of isolation is over I want to encourage you to go through our stewardship program. Become intentional about what your life is about, where your time, talents, and treasure are going, and then work to budget them appropriately so that you have something to give – often when we say we don’t have anything to give it’s because we haven’t saved, we’re spending too much, or we’re spending on the wrong things.
Good stewardship naturally occurs in the lives of those who worship God, are in relationship with others, and receive discipleship. They all sail together, for the glory of God and the good of others.
Let me end by reminding you that the Lord is at work in all of this. When the newcomers shared their faith in Antioch, verse 21 tells us, “the hand of the Lord was with them”. And when the people of Antioch received the gospel, they were brought into relationship with each other, but they were also “[turning] to the Lord.” Word got out, and Barnabas showed up and saw “the grace of God” (vs 23) and was encouraged. Barnabas himself was “full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” And Agabus showed “by the Spirit” that a famine was coming.
Here’s the point I want to leave you with: God was at work in the aftermath of a crisis, weaving new plotlines, writing new scripts, and He is at work in our lives today.
We face a different kind of crisis, and our circumstances look different, but God does not change. He is present, and He is at work in our lives personally and in our congregation. We are going to get through this as we worship, dig into our relationships, take time for discipleship, and offer up our time, talents and treasures in stewardship. That’s the way it’s always happened, and that’s the way it will always be.