Keys to Being a Church with Gospel Depth (Acts 11:19-30)
We have started a new series called “Pulled In, Pushed Out.” When you become a Christian, God pulls you in with His perfecting love and you see that though you are more sinful than you can believe, but you are loved more than you ever imagined. But that pulling in to the heart of God is so that we would be pushed out to help pull others into that heart. We are not called be reservoirs, but channels. We are blessed to be a blessing. That is the purpose of our existence!
Before He ascended, Jesus pulled all the disciples in and said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” but He also pushed them out and said, “Now go and make disciples in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Notice the greater circles of uncomfortability: From people like you in Jerusalem and Judea to people kind of like you in Samaria (half-Jews) to people totally not like you. We are in for the rest of the book about how God pulls us in to reach people totally not like us.
But this ministry was not just about going out and reaching people, but there was also a lot of depth and groundwork. We can go out and start doing ministry everywhere, but what kind of ministry should we be about? What should we focus on? We don’t want to be miles long and one inch deep. We want breadth, but we also need depth. John Macarthur says, “Ambition sort of pushes you in the direction of what can I do the biggest and the fastest, not what can I do the smallest and the slowest.” And I really believe, as the old slogan goes, if we take care of the depth, God will take care of the breadth. I want to look at some keys to be a church with gospel depth.
- I. The hand of God working through selfless servants (vv.19-21)
Luke takes us back to the time Stephen was martyred in Acts 7, causing believers to be scattered (I like this image as it reminds me that we are like seed blown by the wind of the Spirit) everywhere. So far we thought they went to Judea and Samaria, but some went even more north to modern-day Lebanon or Phoenicia, Cyprus, which is 60 miles off the coast, Cyrene, which is North Africa, and also 300 miles north of Jerusalem to Antioch, modern-day Turkey. The primary language of these areas was Greek, as it was for Antioch (modern Antakya), the largest city of the area and capital of the Roman province of Syria, with a population of a half million or more. Antioch was a major junction for roads coming from every direction.  It was the melting pot for many cultures. The Jews made up one-seventh of the city’s population…Antioch was famous for its chariot racing and for its deliberate pursuit of pleasure—[it was a modern day] Las Vegas. And it was here, if you noticed, that believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).
I’ve been reading Narnia these days, so this is like Aslan is on the move, taking over and breathing life into all the cold places the Witch has turned into winter. These Jews now believers of Christ, go and share the Good News with other Jews in v.19. This suggests that perhaps this happened before the events of Acts 10-11 and the “official” opening of the church and her mission to Gentiles or maybe their missionary tactics to go toward the Jews first. But remember there were lots of Greek-speaking Jews visiting from other places in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2), including Cyrene. They get kicked out of Jerusalem and now go back near their hometown and begin preaching the Gospel to Jews and now Gentiles. The ESV says Hellenists, who are Greek-speaking Jews, but most scholars agree that the word is better translated to the Greeks, Greek-speaking non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles.
Until now, the Gospel has penetrated and reached people who were completely Jewish, to people who were half-Jewish (Samaritans) and God-fearing Gentiles (Cornelius). All of these people had some understanding of a holy God and followed pretty much of the same Scriptures (they were churched we would say), but now the Gospel is being preached to pagans and polytheists.
Who does God use? Nameless believers! If I saw Luke was writing this and I was one of these men from Cyprus or Cyrene, I would have made sure my name was included there. I would have reposted that link, tagged my self and retweeted it every week so people know. We find in Acts 13 that Paul is sent on his missionary journeys from this church in Antioch that is planted through these guys. People who want to be celebrities do that. We need less celebrities and more servants. Servants are people who willingly give up their rights. Selfless servants give up their rights to get noticed. They had no direction, no model to follow, but a burning love for Jesus Christ. Ray Ortlund, pastor out in Tennessee says was looking at his dad’s “I am not impressed by young pastors who seem too eager to publish books and speak at big events and get noticed. They are doing the work of the Lord, and that’s good. But what impresses me is…daily slogging, year after year, in the power of the Spirit, with no big-deal-ness as the payoff. This is the pastoral ministry that brings Jesus into the world today.” I commit that to you all as well. Selfless servants slog.
As one pastor said, “Much of my learning to follow Jesus is unlearning to follow myself.” We are following ourselves when we are constantly comparing our spiritual gifts with others, ending often with envy and jealousy. We are following ourselves when we harbor bitterness and unforgiveness toward one another. We are following ourselves when we tie our idea of success in life and ministry with our self-worth. When your ministry here at LH or your career is not flourishing in more visible ways, you may become excessively discouraged. Why? Because your pride evaluates your self-worth on the progress of your ministry rather than on your identity in Christ. So being both excessively inflated or overly deflated by visible success is caused largely by pride and a lack of orientation to the gospel.
Secondly, selfless servants give up their rights to be comfortable. The more I study Acts, the more I feel like the Spirit had to specifically help and almost force these disciples to move from ministering to people “kind of like us” to the people totally not like us. Remember Phillip a middle class Jewish man who had to be very specifically told to minister to a sexually altered black African? And Peter, a Jewish fisherman needed to be told three times to go and minister to Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman Centurion? It seems like God had to literally drag them to do this because it was not natural. It was something the Spirit of God was doing. The natural gravity or movement of our heart is to stay with people who are like us but the Spirit is always moving the other way.
It encourages me because it validates that this kind of gospel movement is difficult. It tells me it is natural for my heart to gravitate towards those who I’m comfortable with, but it rebukes me at the same time because unless I am consciously and deliberately allowing the Gospel to move me outside where I’m comfortable, I am resisting the Spirit’s moving. This is the difference between missional and tribal. Tribal communities stick within their comfort zones and run away from people who are different than them. They run way from their enemies. Misisonal communities run toward people who are different because they are motivated for something bigger than being comfortable. God is a missional God. He not only runs towards His enemies, He even dies for them!
Look at what happens to this church. The leaders of this Gentile church in Antioch in Acts 13:1:
- Barnabas: From Cyprus, so a bicultural Jew.
- Simeon called Niger: most likely this was a black African.
- Lucius of Cyrene: North African, Arabic
- Manaen a member of Herod’s court: wealthy upper class
- Saul: Jewish Pharisee/academic
We have the first multi-cultural, multi-cultural, multi-class church. Every nationality had their own religion. So if you are from Rome, you had the Roman religion and Greece, the Greek religion. But this was a religion not based on race. What a powerful demonstration of the gospel!
This reminded me of how the Lord brought me to Living Hope. There was a 2nd generation Taiwanese guy named Mike whose dad used to pastor the T M here. Mike knew a fellow second generation Taiwanese guy named Steve. I met him at Moody. Mike married a Korean named Esther. Mike and I had a mutual friend at Moody named Blessed, a Nigerian student who married a Caucasian named Tracey. Mike hooked up Blessed an opportunity to speak at Living Hope. Blessed asked a second-generation Indian guy named Robin to tag along and for some weird reason, he agreed. So a Taiwanese guy asked a Nigerian to speak at a Taiwanese church. The Nigerian (this sounds like a joke) asked the Indian guy to come with him and now we have Living Hope! How do you explain that besides God ‘s Spirit still moving to break through man-made barriers to show the power of the Gospel!
But notice in the end it is not our clever strategy or our ability to be selfless, but being a glove in the hand of God (Acts 11:21). “The Hand of the Lord” meant in the OT of God’s power expressed in judgment (cf. Ex. 9:33; Deut. 2:15; Josh. 4:24; 1 Sam. 5:6; 7:13). It also referred to God’s power expressed in blessing (Ezra 7:9; 8:18; Neh. 2:8, 18). In this case it was related to God’s blessing.
God’s hand is always moving, but He is looking for working gloves. Just like gloves, our usefulness has nothing to do with our outward appearance. A mitten is still a mitten and a surgical glove is still a surgical glove, regardless of its color. Its utility depends on how closely it conforms to the hand inside it, not what’s visible from the outside. Secondly,
- II. The Spirit of God moving through a ministry of truth and love (vv.22-26).
If I was writing this, the next key for a church to have gospel depth, I would not have this point. But the Word of God continues to amaze me. Barnabas (whose name means son of comfort or son of consolation) shows up in Antioch, encourages people and it seems to supercharge everything else. People get saved, built up and sent out from his ministry. What did Barnabas do that made such amazing ministry take place?
It’s not something he did. It’s something he was. Notice all the mentions of his character and very little on his competence. He was competent in “exhorting.” Why send Barnabas there anyway? Well, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem felt they were responsible for the movement of the church in other areas. So they sent Peter and John to investigate Philip’s ministry in Samaria and they send Barnabas partly because this was near his area of birth. He would not be perceived as an outsider but as one of them. But more than that, Barnabas had this ministry of encouragement.
The word “exhorted” or “encouraged” is the Greek word “parakaleo.” This is a rich word. “Kaleo” is to call people toward a goal or truth; to call out. “Para” means to come alongside. It reminds you of paralegal or a paramedic. The idea is to come alongside to sympathize with you; to identify with you and hold your hand. There is tension in the word. On the one hand, it is a strong word—calling out of truth, but on the other hand, it is a tender word of love. It is a sympathetic but loving insistence of the truth. There is an intensity of love and truth. You need both. If you just have truth and no love it is brutality and love without truth is hypocrisy. You need both!
Look at Heb. 3:12-13. How does the author of Hebrews find answer from us falling away with an evil, unbelieving heart? He says, “Parakaleo” one another! It’s not something for church leaders alone, but for everyone to be doing! Let me suggest to us today that we cannot grow to the people into the people we were designed to be except in this soil. We are all insecure. As the great theologian Shrek said, “I am an onion and an onion has layers.” We have layers and layers of self-justification and we rationalize our sin. The things that are hurting us the most are the things we are completely blind to. It is only in the context of community that we can change with truth and grace. And we usually gravitate toward one or the other.
Some of us, especially if you grew up with Asian parents who were truth tellers, most likely. Do your duty. Shut up and don’t make me look bad. Pick the right person to marry, get the right career and do the right things. Do it. But here in the West, it’s do what you feel like. Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’till you find your dream. I believe I can fly and touch the sky, blah blah blah. On the one hand, we have truth tellers who are good at lecturing you and giving truth too quickly that we dismiss or ignore them. They seem impatient and unloving. On the other hand, we have people who are too cowardly that they just affirm us. This is why this ministry is hard. How do we become not so cowardly that we just affirm all the time and not so impatient and unloving that we just spew out truth.
Notice that in the text. It was an exhortation both to perseverance and to whole-heartedness. Keep going, don’t give up (grace), but do it with all your heart. Some lessons here from Barnabas for us to grow in this ministry:
a) He came
There is value to face-to-face contact. Sending an email, or a text with a smiley face is not enough. The Internet is a friend of information, but an enemy of community and real reflection. And you can get deluded into thinking that because you have so many friends on social media and you chat with people that you are ok. You have to prioritize fellowship with real people. I know some of you have families and I understand that and we are working towards revamping our small group structure to accommodate families, especially moms. But you still have to prioritize fellowship. Stay and have a meal after church. Find time to get to know people here. Initiate. Come and see!
b) He celebrated
What did he see? The grace of God. The grace of God may be invisible, but its effects are readily seen. It would have been easy for him to show up and get immediately jealous or critical or cynical. Ajith Fernando says, “Some people see a new work and immediately compare it with their own work. This makes them feel threatened about their status, so they look at the shortcomings in the new work—and there will always be shortcomings. Focusing on those things, they end up criticizing the work. Such criticism may be valid, but it is ill-timed and done in the wrong spirit.” He could have wanted to fix them right away and make sure every single doctrinal point is clearly defined and just focus on all that needed to be corrected.
They do teach later and the teaching ministry is important, but he also saw the grace of God. He saw that God was working in their midst and he celebrated. I remember complaining to my friend Mitch and how critical and angry my heart was and he goes, “Isn’t God gracious to show you that about your heart?” Never forgot that. God is doing a million things in our lives and in people’s lives that we cannot see. Ask God to give you redemptive lenses, i.e. to be able to see a person as God sees them and to celebrate something He’s doing in them. Always celebrate faithfulness. Jenny and I try to practice that in marriage. “Thank you for washing the dishes honey!” Aren’t you supposed to wash the dishes since you were home day Robin? Why do you need to be thanked for something you were supposed to do? You sound like my parents, but faithfulness is very valuable to the Lord.
c) He knew his limits
When God started moving through his ministry, Barnabas did not be become a self-focused messiah trying to take everything on his shoulders. He went and found Paul to help. Sometimes when God brings people into our lives, we think it is up to us alone to help them. We take them on as “our projects” and be weirdly possessive of them. Sometimes creating the soil of truth and love in someone’s heart means you get someone else to water what you have planted. God uses different people for different seasons.
He knew he cannot help anyone grow, but simply bathe them in this ministry where the Lord plants roots and bears fruit in their lives.
- III. The people of God giving through partnership in mission (vv.27-30)
When our hearts are full with the gospel, our hands and wallets always open. What I love about these verses is that the financial needs are from the mother church, but the daughter church is the one who is helping. Agabus prophecy did come true historically, by the way. It is usually the other way around. Not only that, you have a predominately Gentile church blessing a Jewish church. Recently Steve shared with me that our own denomination, which originally started to reach Taiwanese immigrants, recently planted an all-Hispanic church in Southern California. I love that.
We want to be kingdom seekers and not simply empire builders. We need to continue to grow in this area, but I am thankful we have missions Sunday here and we can partner with ministries in a variety of way to help campus ministry, overseas missions, refugee women and victims of injustice and sex trafficking. Notice everyone is giving out of their resources here. It is hard to be stingy followers of a generous Savior!
I want to close here by asking, “What was it about Barnabas that made him the way he was?” Some of the translations miss Acts 11:24 and the small word, “for.” The reason why Barnabas was this way was because “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Interesting description!
In John 14, Jesus says, I’m going away. Thomas says, “Tell me where you’re going. We can’t go with you if we don’t know where you’re going.” Then Jesus says, “When you see me, you see the Father,” Phillip then says, “Show us the Father.” This is dumb and dumber (of course we say this knowing the full Bible—we would have been dumbest). Jesus says, “Have I been with you so long that you don’t know me?” How will Jesus encourage them? He doesn’t just tell them, “Do your duty!” or even just affirm them, “Climb every mountain, etc.”
A little later Jesus says, “You know what. I’m going to send you another Helper.” The word for “helper,” here “Paracletos.” The noun form of the same word we have been looking at Here it could be translated helper or even advocate. What’s an advocate? It’s a defense attorney. What does a defense attorney do? A defense attorney doesn’t just stand beside you and hold your hand, but speaks for you, stands in your place on your behalf.
But Jesus says, another advocate. Wait, who is the first Advocate? 1 John 2:1 says, “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Jesus is not just standing with us, but standing in our place speaking to the Father—Father, my people have sinned. Your law says wages of sin is death. But I have paid it. It would be unjust for you to charge for the same crime twice. Then when the Father sees us, we are a beauty not condemned, but accepted. We see that we are very sinful (truth), but we are very loved (grace).
The Holy Spirit is second advocate. Just as the first advocate speaks for you, the Spirit of God, the second advocate, speaks to you for you. The second advocate is appealing to you about the first advocate.
He says, “Look at what Jesus has done for you. Look at how he loves you. Look at what it cost him. Why are you upset? Worried at people’s criticism? Someone as all-powerful as God loves you like this? And He delights in you, going to infinite depths and lengths to save you at infinite costs to Himself? He says He will never let you go and nothing on earth or Heaven or time and eternity will ever make Him lose you? He will hold on to you, transform you and one day will make everything sad come untrue? Then why are you worried about money? Why am I fearful? Lift up your hearts. Ground your identity in Jesus Christ and you will be able to face anything.”
The enemy will always make you look at yourself. The Spirit is a road sign to Jesus. Which exit will you take? Without the Spirit, we will be a lover without truth or truther without love. Get the Holy Spirit encouraging g you to the place where you find your joy and self-doubts fall away. Then You encourage with the encouragement you’ve gotten.
Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2105). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Volume 2: John, Acts. (316). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hughes, R. K. (1996). Acts: The Church Afire. Preaching the Word (158). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Schnabel, Eckhard J. (2012). Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (520). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Ortlund, R. “Daily Slogging in the Power of the Spirit,” http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/rayortlund/2013/05/16/daily-slogging-in-the-power-of-the-spirit/ accessed 21 June 2013.
Parsons, Burk (BurkParsons). “Much of my learning to follow Jesus Christ is unlearning to unfollow myself.” 24 Jun 2011, 4:05 pm. Tweet.
Keller, T. Adapted from “Ministry and Character,” http://timothykeller.com/images/uploads/pdf/Ministry_and_Character.pdf accessed 20 June 2013.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (312). Chicago: Moody Press.
From the blog post, http://images2d.blogspot.com/2004/09/gloves-on-hand-of-god.html accessed 20 June 2013.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (313).
Stott, J. R. W. (1994). The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the church & the world. The Bible Speaks Today (204). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (313). Chicago: Moody Press.
Fernando, A. (1998). Acts. The NIV Application Commentary (354). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.