We now take a look at the amazing expansion of the church, as she grows in leaps and bounds, now even beyond the borders of Judea and Samaria, and now literally to the uttermost parts of the earth! Truly speaking, the church of God is unstoppable.
What is true of Exodus 1:12 is true of the church: But the more they were oppressed, [i.e the Israelites by the Egyptians] the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.“
Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD), so called because he was killed for his faith, wrote concerning the spread of the Christian faith, shortly after the apostolic fathers had all died: “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
"I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it", said our Lord Jesus to Peter [Matt 16:18]. If you are a Christian, and a member of God's church, you are part of a body which carries the endorsement of God Almighty. Whatever He brings to life shall stand, for He governs the universe for His own glory and the good of his church, the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son. The church is the apple of God’s eye. She is precious in God's eyes, and He loves her so much, that He has redeemed her members, each one personally by the blood of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. And all this reminds us of Genesis 3:15 - the redemptive outflow of the promise made in the Garden of Eden, that the seed of the woman will crush Satan’s head. The purposes of God in bringing a people for His own possession into existence will prevail. The gospel of Jesus will triumph.
At face value, nothing much may be happening here in Namibia, a nation that has been privileged to have received the gospel 200 years ago, and our nation presently shows so much spiritual hardness. But, be assured that the Spirit of God is constantly at work in the world. And He is working in the most impossible paces and situations on earth. This makes the gospel the most powerful declaration ever given to mankind! After Pentecost (Acts 2), this message of the gospel spread like wildfire - first in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria - and now unto the uttermost parts of the earth. The church is healthy and thriving in the midst of severe challenges.
In our passage we find a model of a healthy church. It grew despite persecution and perhaps because of persecution; it grew in numbers; it grew in reputation; it grew in knowledge and sound doctrine; it grew in love and care.
The underlying theological truth is that "the hand of the Lord was with them." Nothing is impossible with God , and nothing is possible without God. I take this fact for granted as we observe the marks of a healthy growing church in the case of the church at Antioch.
As we take a look at this expansion of the church, noting the example of the development of the church in Antioch in particular, we note that :
1. The church expands despite of persecution and because of persecution: In Acts 8 we noted how the opponents of the gospel vented their anger against the followers of Christ, particularly after Stephen, in Chapter 7 spoke very boldly concerning the true work of God in the life and history of Israel, severely rebuking the religious authorities of his day , who promptly began to stone him to death. In Chapter 8 and in 11:19 we note the extent of the scattering that took place. The early Christians were basically forced out of their Jerusalem and out of their country.
This still happens today. The Middle east is once again being systematically purged of Christians. The church of the last days (i.e. between Christ's ascension and His second coming - the last 2000 years and what is left before Jesus’ return) will grow in the midst of tribulation and suffering. Jesus said so! [John 15:18-27; 16:33]. My friend Henry Jooste, a SIM missionary, currently in Europe working with Refugees, wrote on Facebook on the 10th of March:
“One of the most amazing things we have seen, is the positive impact Churches have made in this crisis. How they have stepped up and got involved. God has been glorified as many asylum seekers, immigrants, migrants, refugees have through the love shown, the care taken, involvement in their lives, they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ alone. Many have been baptised, become members of churches and got involved in sharing their new found love with others. Lost souls saved. They say, it makes it all worthwhile. To God be all the glory."
The amazing truth is that the church been growing in this world despite persecution. It is true, that it seemed at times that her light had all but gone out ( e.g. in the Middle Ages - dark ages), but it is also true that she has not been overcome by the enemy, because her Lord rules and reigns. Her Lord is her Saviour, and the great Shepherd of the sheep will surely bring all His chosen people home. The church will exist even in tribulation, because He is her Keeper.
It is not by human logic that we can understand the fact that the church can grow because of persecution. It is greatly comforting to know, that although Satan hates the church, and though he seeks to destroy the church, God is able to reverse his evil intentions, and turn them around for His own glory. The church can grow in the soil of trials and afflictions. This is even true in the experience of individuals. Many people, even though they would never wish for trials, are able to testify, that their times of trial have been personal times of growth and expansion.
2. The church grew numerically and influentially: A great number of people believed and turned (epistrepho) to the Lord [v.21]. The people that were scattered by the persecution, proclaimed the gospel now not only to Jews, but to gentiles also. This point is deliberately made in vv. 19,20. The reason given was “ that the hand of the Lord was with them“ [v.21]. “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” [v.24]. This great revival was clearly owned of the Lord, and it happened in the worst of political times and under religious persecution! Whilst numbers are not everything, there can be nothing more encouraging than seeing the gospel taking its effects in the lives of so many people. We must never get cynical about numbers. At the same time we must always remember that a crowd is not an achievement, but an opportunity!
3. It grew in reputation: Antioch was a wealthy and magnificent city, and was described as one of the "eyes" of Asia. It was the third greatest city of the Roman empire at that time (after Rome & Alexandria).She was located in Syria. She had a large Jewish colony, but was dominated by Greek culture. The church at Antioch became a church that people talked about in Christian circles. News reached the church in Jerusalem [v.22]. It was a church with a positive testimony, provided here by Barnabas: “He saw the grace of God and he was glad.” [v.23]. And, very significantly , this church was the first one with which the name of the Lord Jesus Christ became identified. It was hear that the disciples were first called Christians [v.26]. The church is Christ's body and the body of a man goes by the same name as the head. The church's reputation was of such a nature that the people that surrounded them, clearly saw them, and gave them the nickname "Christians". That was their reputation. Can people see that we are Christians by the way in which we behave?
4. It grew in knowledge and depth of doctrine. It was a church under the influence of good teaching and sound doctrine. Here was a church that was willing and hungry to be taught. It caught the attentive eyes and ears of Barnabas, whose name translates as “son of encouragement”. He saw the need for further teaching. Immediately he set out to correct this situation, and went to find Paul in Tarsus. Barnabas, by all accounts was a gracious and a humble man, and he knew that Paul possessed something which he did not. Paul had a powerful, logical and able mind. He had been taught by Gamaliel, a biblical scholar and teacher of reputation. But more than that, Paul received a profound understanding of Christ, whose servant he became and whom he proclaimed everywhere. Wherever Paul went, he preached Jesus, and so he did to the to the people of Antioch: Jesus in His divine nature ; Jesus in His human nature; Jesus in His various offices as prophet, priest and king; Jesus Christ as the only hope for mankind! Something very important happened here as a result of the doctrinal teaching . The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile had come down , and a new category of person emerged : Christians! They are those who belong to the household of Christ. They are followers of Jesus Christ.
We are told, that together they taught great numbers of these people (vv.25 - 26) Their teaching about Christ clearly took hold of the lives to whom they preached Christ! An expanding church cannot simply expand in numbers. It must also grow in depth of the knowledge and understanding of Christ, and what He expects of us. We must not be simply content to bear the Name of Christ. The beauty of his Name must be seen in us! [1 Jn. 2:6 – Whoever says that he is in Christ must walk the same way as Jesus did]. Discipleship must follow conversion! And the fruit of a true conversion must show itself in Christlike behaviour.
5. It grew in love and care. vv.27 – 30. In response to a prophecy, that there was going to be a severe famine in the entire Roman world, which would have included Judea, the church decided to help their brothers living in Judea, who were apparently struggling. So, this church at Antioch practically cared by sending their gift with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Good works are the overflow of a converted heart, and so it was in the case of the church at Antioch
The church did not only grow in spiritually challenging times; it did not only grow numerically and intellectually and spiritually, but it also grew in good works of love and kindness and care and consideration of others in the midst of a great famine all over the world. In the worst of times, these Christians were not hoarding . They were giving!
Are you encouraged? We are living in spiritually challenging times. And we are living in times of drought and economic depression. And the temptation is to draw the conclusion that the church can never flourish in this kind of society, as it would under more ideal circumstances. But nothing could be further from the truth, because it's in this pagan society that the Christian church in Antioch flourished, so much so that the pagan's of Antioch saw them as a distinct people: These were Christians. These were true followers of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters lift up your heads. In such challenging times the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes more relevant, not less relevant. Be encouraged what God will and can do to a church so committed to Jesus , as was the church at Antioch. Amen