Sermon for Sunday Evening, January 8th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 11:19-30 ESV] 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, every one 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.
My seminary course on preaching (one of them) emphasized that we are to find the central message of a text and preach on that. And I generally agree with that approach, though there are often many secondary messages within a text as well.
Our text this evening is rather full of secondary messages.
But, we should look also for a central message.
My ESV titles the section “The Church in Antioch.” That is a descriptive title, but doesn’t specify a central message.
The central message, I believe, is found verse 21. And it is said almost in passing. “AND THE HAND OF THE LORD WAS WITH THEM.”
From this central idea, all of the secondary ideas fit.
There are four of these that we’ll be looking at this evening.
I. The hand of the Lord was with them — Growth in Persecution
II. The hand of the Lord was with them — Added to the Lord
III. The hand of the Lord was with them — First Called Christians
IV. The hand of the Lord was with them — Agabus and the famine.
Each of these four things are blessings from the Lord, where His hand was with His people.
I. Growth in Persecution
First, we have “Growth in Persecution.”
There is a historical tendency for the church of Jesus Christ to GROW in difficult times, and to fall apart in easy times. When nations and people are rich they forget about the Lord. But when the church is persecuted and difficult times are upon men, they seek the Lord.
Do you see that difficult times are then a blessing, not only to the church but to individuals? To you.
In our text there is “persecution that arose over Stephen.” That is, Stephen the Martyr. He was outspoken for the Lord and was killed. And those who opposed him are now going after other Christians.
But in the Lord’s plan, this spread the Gospel! Many believers from Jerusalem are fleeing the persecution and therefore bringing the Gospel to other lands. To Phoenicia (that is modern day Lebanon), to Cyprus, and to Antioch (in modern day Syria).
II. Added to the Lord
And this interplay we spoke of last week – between Jewish and Gentile salvation — continues in our text this evening. Those who have fled persecution first speak the word to the Jews. And it doesn’t say, but probably some of the Jews came to faith and others did not.
But then, “some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene (in Africa), in coming to Antioch speak to the Hellenists.” This is another term for Greeks.
And remarkably, “the hand of the Lord was with them (the Greeks), and A GREAT NUMBER who believed turned to the Lord.”
Like last week, we find Barnabas “Happy for others.” Word of these people coming to faith reaches him in Jerusalem and “he was glad.”
And then Luke, our author, tells us “And a great many people were added to the Lord.”
Now, of course, God is omniscient and knows how many are His. But this idea that people “WERE ADDED” is important to consider when we look at the structure of the church in the New Testament.
Among other places, this indicates to us that there was some sort of accounting of members. People were added to the Lord. Their names might not have been written down on scrolls, which were expensive, but the church knew who was among them and who was not.
Simply, there were no half-way Christians in the New Testament. They were either added (and counted) as believers, or they were not.
The admonition is that you should seek to be counted as a believer. You believe, therefore BE COUNTED as among the Christians. Do so by your actions. Bear fruit in accord with the Spirit. And, simply, become a member of a church. Be counted among the brethren.
III. First Called Christians
As we continue to look here at how “The hand of the Lord was with them” we come to Antioch, where Barnabas has taken Saul/Paul with him. And, with the Lord’s hand, they “taught a great many people.”
And, in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
There are many descriptive titles for us used through the years and in the Scriptures.
We are believers, disciples, saints, servants of the Lord, followers of the way, etc. etc.
But the most regular term is this one: Christian.
We believe in Christ, the messiah.
And therefore we believe in God’s plan of salvation having come true! We say, Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And we say “He is Risen.” He is risen indeed.
Thus the term “Christian” should be embraced by us and kept as a remember of the Lord. We are of Christ. We are His. We are Christians. And the hand of the Lord is with us.
IV. Agabus and the fame.
Now, there is one more way in which the hand of the Lord was with them.
That is, God spoke to a prophet named Agabus with the warning that there would be a great famine over all the world.
And then there is this interested note in the text: “this took place in the days of Claudius.”
This is how the years were recorded in those days, by the reign of the various Roman emperors. And emperor Tiberius CLAUDIUS Caesar Augustus Germanicus reigned from AD 41 to 54. This tells us that the famine occurred sometime in those years. And this is also gives us a “terminus post quem” – the earliest possible date, for the Book of Acts. Claudius no more. So the book was written sometime after 54 AD. There is not disputing that. But it helps us to put the book in historical context and timeframe.
Now, while the text says this famine was “over all the world,” the context seems to imply that it was less extensive than a universal famine. It might be “over all the Jewish world” or something like this. The reason I say this is that some people (the disciples in Antioch) had food or money to give. Had the famine been universal they wouldn’t have anything to give. The famine was presumably worse in Judea where the relief was sent.
Here the hand of the Lord was with them because the relief did just that – it relieved the Christians of Judea from famine.
I think it would be too strong of a conclusion to take this text and require any particular church structure or way of giving aid. This was a one-time occurrence where “the disciples DETERMINED, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers in Judea.” And it was brought by Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
We don’t necessarily have to operate in the same way, but we should take heed of importance of such “relief” in general. Such is a good thing.
And you might not know this, our small denomination (the Bible Presbyterian Church) consisting of about 30 churches teams up with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (of about 300 congregations) aid in disaster relief. And there was not long ago such a need when a flood seriously damaged an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Neon, Kentucky.
Usually, our diaconate, our deacon’s fund is for help with people in the local church, but those money’s or other money’s in certain circumstance could perhaps in theory be used to help other Christians.
V. The Hand of the Lord
Let us conclude though with understanding that the Hand of the Lord is with us as well. He is with all Christians.
Jesus says in John 10:28 – “My sheep know my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Let us find comfort in the protective hand of the Lord.
Let us pray.