Paul and the Revival at Antioch: After Paul spent ten years in Tarsus, God was doing a new thing in the big city of Antioch — Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) were becoming Christians. Barnabas was sent to investigate and brought in Paul to help lead this new, unexpected outpouring of grace. Have you ever wanted to see a spiritual revival? This message is for you. Recorded on May 14, 2023, on Acts 11:19-30 by Pastor David Parks.
The Life of Paul is a new sermon series (mostly) from the book of Acts in the Bible. The Apostle Paul has a fantastic story. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians. But then he met Jesus, which changed everything. Eventually, Paul would become not only the preeminent Apostle to the Roman world but one of the most influential people who ever lived. Paul’s story offers a great case study of what it looks like to learn the way of Jesus.
Since last July, we’ve been focusing on Learning the way of Jesus. We’ve had sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistles of the NT, and the Ten Commandments, all focusing on the unique way of Jesus. And we’ve seen that this way isn’t simply a list of things to know/believe but a way of life to learn and follow that impacts and transforms everything. Today, we’re continuing our final series under this theme on the life of the Apostle Paul. Now, Paul’s story is fascinating, but it also serves as a great case study for learning the way of Jesus. Born Saul of Tarsus, Paul was a brilliant young man who was a violent persecutor of Christians at the very start of the Christian movement. But then, Paul met Jesus, which changed everything. So, Paul the persecutor became Paul the persecuted for his bold preaching about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. He was initially met with fear and skepticism by the other Christians because of his past. But he had several faithful brothers who were willing to vouch for him, including Ananias and Barnabas. Three years after becoming a Christian, he had people who tried to kill him in Damascus, so he went back to Jerusalem. It wasn’t long before he had people trying to kill him there, too. So the believers put him on a boat and shipped him back home to Tarsus in Cilicia (modern Turkey). Paul disappeared from the Biblical narrative for about ten years as he lived and worked in Tarsus. But then, in Acts 11, he comes back into the story because of Barnabas, of course. A revival or spiritual awakening was happening in the city of Antioch, and no one was better suited to help than Paul. But in this chapter of his life, we learn some key principles about spiritual revival/awakening, or what I’ll call the unexpected outpouring of grace. If you’ve ever longed for revival, if you’ve ever mourned the brokenness/darkness of the world, or if you’ve ever wondered what it would look like for God to do a miraculous work, then this message is for you. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open it to Acts 11:19. We’ll put the Scripture up on the screens for you as well. But today, we’ll read through this whole passage on Paul and the revival at Antioch and then go back and unpack it together.
Acts 11:19–30 (NIV), “19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some 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. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and 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. 27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One 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.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.”
So just a reminder, the book of Acts was written by Luke, the physician, as the result of a careful investigation into the life and ministry of Jesus. Luke interviewed eyewitnesses and was present for at least some of the events of the Book of Acts. The book of Luke in the bible is all about Jesus, and the book of Acts is about what happened after his resurrection from the dead. Let’s start back at v. 19 to make sure we understand what this text means before we try and apply it to our lives today.
Acts 11:19–21 (NIV), “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some 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. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Let’s pause here. Three weeks ago, we considered the story of the death of Stephen and the persecution of the church led by none other than Saul of Tarsus. Saul was going from house to house, seeking to destroy the church. This resulted in almost everyone (except the Apostles) being scattered out from Jerusalem in Judea to Samaria and beyond. We saw back in Acts 8 that the believers preached the word wherever they went. Now, there are a lot of places mentioned in this passage. So let’s look at a map and see if we can get a little better picture of where these places are. The persecution started in Jerusalem, and the believers scattered as far as Phoenicia, north along the Mediterranean coast, to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean, and to Antioch, perhaps the third largest city in the Roman Empire at the time and located in modern Turkey. Luke writes that some men from Cyprus and Cyrene, a Greek City in northern Africa (modern Libya), came to Antioch and started sharing the gospel with people who spoke Greek and were culturally Greek. Initially, the Jewish disciples of Jesus spread the word among other Jews. For hundreds of years, because of the destruction of Israel under the Assyrian/Babylonian/Persian/Roman Empires, the Jewish people were already dispersed in many places beyond Judea. By the first century AD, there were pockets of Jewish people in every major city around the Roman Empire. So when the Jewish believers were scattered from Jerusalem, there were many Jewish communities, perhaps with friends or family members, to run to. And wherever they landed, they started telling people about Jesus. But v. 20 marks a major turning point (I would say) in the history of the world. The gospel of Jesus started to be shared not just with Jews but also with Gentiles or non-Jewish people groups. And maybe most surprisingly, Luke says that, “A great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Now, the reason this was such a shock was because, for centuries, the Jewish people had a number of beliefs/practices that set them apart from other people groups. They weren’t to marry each other, and they didn’t worship together or even eat together. It’s hard for us to really understand this today, but back then, there was a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. So the fact that Greek people were coming to faith in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and that apparently the Lord’s hand was with Gentiles, too, was a radical change to how many Jewish people saw the world at the time. Now, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. God had promised that his Messiah would be a light to the Gentiles. But as is often the case, accepting outsiders is not easy. So what would people say? How would the Apostles respond? What impact would this have on the church?
Acts 11:22–26 (NIV), “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and 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.” Ok! Let’s pause here. So God is up to something new. When the news that Gentiles were responding to the gospel in Antioch, the Apostles sent someone to investigate what in the world was happening there. And who better than a brother like Barnabas? As we saw last week, Barnabas’ real name was Joseph, who was a man from the island of Cyprus. And he earned the nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement,” because of his character. He was an encouraging guy. Here, Luke says he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. May that be said of us, too. But with a reputation like that, he was trusted to discern what was going on and what needed to be done in Antioch. But when Barnabas saw what the Lord was doing there, when he saw the unexpected grace of God among the Jews and the Gentiles, when he saw this spiritual revival/awakening, he was glad. He celebrated what God was doing; he wasn’t suspicious or critical of it. He wasn’t afraid of Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. If this new thing was what God was doing, and it clearly was, then praise God! As Paul would write later in Romans 11, the Gentiles were like wild olive branches being grafted by the Holy Spirit into the tree of God’s people. And so the son of encouragement’s natural response was to encourage all the people, Jew and Gentile, to remain true, to remain faithful to the Lord with all their hearts. But with so many people coming to faith in Jesus, there was a ton of work that needed to be done in helping all those people grow in their faith in Jesus, in learning the way of Jesus. Some of you who’ve become Christians more recently or who have been going through a time of spiritual growth know how much work you’ve been through. As I said last week, you can come to faith in an instant, but to grow in your faith, to grow in your maturity and sanctification, is a process that takes the whole rest of your life. Barnabas knew he needed help. He knew that he needed someone to help teach/lead/counsel/equip these new believers. And he knew that, ideally, he needed someone who understood both Jewish culture and Greek culture. There was one man he knew like this. Barnabas knew he needed to go find his fiery friend, Saul. So he went to Tarsus and found him and brought him back to Antioch. And, Luke writes, for a whole year, Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. Some historians think Antioch is where Luke was from and worked as a doctor. We don’t know for sure, but as a Gentile himself from somewhere in this region, Luke would’ve deeply understood the social/cultural dynamic of life and ministry in a big city like Antioch. And what an exciting time/place to do ministry! Antioch was the first place where people were called Christians, which means “Christ people” or “Messiah people.” Before this, the Jewish disciples of Jesus were known as the Way because they followed the way of Jesus. But here, with the inclusion of Jew and Gentile peoples in the work that God was doing through the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, we see what would become the pattern of the Christian movement for the next two thousand years, which would utterly change the course of human history. Nothing would be the same after Antioch. God was calling all people, Jew and Gentile, to believe in Jesus as Lord and receive him as the Savior of their lives and to learn his way with his people by the power of his Spirit until his return. Barnabas saw it and was glad. Paul was brought in to help and was; I’m sure, glad as well. It’s an incredible honor to have a front-row seat to watch what God is doing in someone’s life. Let’s finish this passage.
Acts 11:27–30 (NIV), “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One 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.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” So here, we find a number of interesting things. First, the believers (now called Christians) in Antioch saw themselves as united to a universal Church that transcended not just ethnic barriers but time and space as well. They saw the Christians in Judea as their own brothers and sisters in Christ who needed their help in a time of famine. This unity was what Jesus prayed for on the night before his crucifixion. And this unity is what we have today, being united by faith with other Christians all over the world. Sometimes, sadly, there is a spirit of competition or even of disdain for Christians from another church or another place, but this is not how it should be. Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, all are one in Christ. Second, we see that this spiritual revival/awakening resulted in radical generosity to the needs of the poor and those in need. And we’ll come back to this point, but for now, just notice that faith in Jesus resulted in generosity and good works. As a result, the Christians in Antioch entrusted their financial gifts to Barnabas and Saul to bring to the elders or leaders in the church in Jerusalem.
For the remainder of our time today, I’d like to close by briefly observing three principles of spiritual revival/awakening that we see in this passage that I believe is still true for us today. Do you want to see a revival in your lifetime? Do you mourn for the brokenness/darkness of the world? Do you long for God to do a miraculous work in our day?
Regular believers shared the gospel, and people responded in faith according to God’s grace. Remember that when the believers were scattered back in Acts 8, Luke says that everyone scattered except the Apostles. So it wasn’t the preaching or planning of the apostles that led directly to what God was doing in Antioch. This unexpected outpouring of God’s grace was happening because regular Christians were sharing good news with other regular people in their regular lives. No doubt, this included friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. Regular believers shared the gospel, and people responded in faith according to God’s grace. As Paul would later say, he planted God’s word, and Apollos watered, but it was God who brought the growth. We can plant seeds of God’s word. We can share the story of what God is doing in our life. We can help point people to what is true. We can bring people to church. We can pray for people. But the results are completely up to God. Sometimes the fruit seems to be few and far between. Other times, according to God’s wisdom and timing, he pours out an unexpected amount of grace, and many people respond within a short period of time. The results aren’t up to us, but we must be faithful in sharing the gospel and trust the Lord to do his saving work in his timing.
Leaders taught and led the church, giving Spirit-led order and direction to the movement. The bulk of the ministry of the church is done by the people of the church. This was true in Antioch, and it’s true for us today. But leadership is needed for any organization to flourish for the long run, even a supernatural movement of the Spirit. As people were coming to faith, they needed to grow in their knowledge of the truth, which required Biblical teaching. They needed structure and organization, which required someone to make decisions and offer wisdom. They needed counseling and someone to model what mature faith looked like, which required men and women to lovingly lead. Christ is the head of the church, but he provides leaders for his church to equip the saints/people for the works of ministry. In this way, speaking the truth in love, the whole body is built up in unity, love, and maturity.
Vibrant, growing faith resulted in good works, particularly for those in need. Immediately after Luke describes this unexpected outpouring of grace, we have an example of radical generosity.