Last week as we looked at the previous chapter, we studied the way in which God brought the gospel to the Gentiles. If you will remember, Peter had a vision in which he saw a great sheet lowered down out of heaven with all kinds of animals and creatures in it, which contained animals considered both clean and unclean. And I will not take the time this morning to review the details of that story. Peter himself reviews it once again in this chapter as we have just read.
But I would ask you to consider the importance of such an event in light of the fact that the Holy Spirit inspires Luke to recount the details of this event three times. There were surely many other things that happened in the church that were noteworthy in the 10 years or so between the day of Pentecost and the church starting in Antioch. But God chooses to review this one event in detail, occupying almost 2 chapters out of 28 altogether in the book of Acts. In fact, in these chapters, we find that this story is recounted three times. Now it is significant when God mentions something once. That should be enough. After all, it is written down, so that we might read it as often as we like. But to have it written down three times shows the great emphasis that God makes of this event.
So the question for us then as we look at this is why? Why does God make such a great deal out of the conversion of the Gentiles? And the answer is that it is significant because it was a major step in the progression of the gospel, when the church is opened up from being strictly a Jewish religion to encompass the entire world.
When God originally gave Abraham the promise of a seed, God said in Gen. 26:4, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” The first part of that promise to Abraham had been fulfilled through God’s covenant by Abraham’s seed producing the nation of Israel, through whom was promised the Messiah. But now the second part of that promise was being fulfilled in all the nations of the earth becoming blessed through the gospel of the Messiah. The Gentiles were now being included in the church. And this is a major thing in the history of the gospel, but it does not come about without causing serious consternation among the believing Jews. It’s going to change their whole way of thinking. It’s going to affect their inherent prejudices against the Gentiles. That is why when Peter comes back to Jerusalem, he finds that word of the salvation of the Gentiles has beaten him back there and the believing Jews in the church at Jerusalem are ready to take him to task for it.
So Peter patiently reviews for them the whole situation, everything that happened just as God brought it to pass. He culminates his argument by saying in vs.17 “Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
Then notice their response in vs.18, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” Now that phrase is really the starting point of my message today that I would like to develop this morning. “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance unto life,” is how the KJV reads.
I want to show you how the new born Gentile church in Antioch responded to the gospel. I want to show from this chapter the characteristics of Gentile church. And I believe that we will see in this account many similarities between what happened on the day of Pentecost when the church in Jerusalem was born, and what happens in Antioch as the Gentile church is born. Because it is the same church. As Paul would declare later in Eph. 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
This is why this passage is so significant. And this is why the Holy Spirit confirms it three times. Because there is not a Jewish faith and a Gentile faith. There is not a church in Jerusalem and a church in Antioch. But there is one church, one body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism by which all are baptized into one body. There is no more Jew or Greek, no more Israelite or Gentile, but one man in Christ. And from that foundation, the local church in Antioch will grow and be a part of the body of Christ. And in a moment we will look at some characteristics of this church that are evidence of being in the body. But first I want to camp out on the aspect of being born into the body. And that is highlighted by the phrase, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance which leads to life.
If you have been in attendance over the last few weeks, then you might have taken notice of several of my attempts to clarify the way you are made a part of the church of God. Before we can be part of the church, there must first be a supernatural conversion by which sinful men and women are born into the family of God. If the church is, as the Bible states the body of Christ, living temples of His Spirit, a holy priesthood, then there must be a supernatural means by which unholy, sinful men are transformed into sons of God and indwelt by the Spirit of God to do the works of God. That is the distinctive of the church.
The church is not an institution, it is not an establishment, it is not a 501-3C organization, it is not a building. But the church is the body of Christ wherein He dwells in His people. You cannot enter this spiritual body by birth, or by nationality, or by certain rights of government. Membership in Christ’s church is conferred by God, through Christ, for God’s purposes. It is entirely possible to be a Catholic, or Methodist, or Baptist, or any other denomination, and yet not be part of the church of God. It’s possible to belong to a denomination and not be in the body of Christ. In fact, no one can be a part of the church, unless they are born again by the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God residing in you, makes you a part of His body.
I believe that all the problems besetting the church today find their roots in this principle. Churches are trying in all sorts of ways today to attract the world into the church. The problem is that the church is not made up of unsaved people, but of born again people.
The problem is that unsaved people are described in the Bible as being dead. You can have a body but be dead, to not have life. And that is the natural state of all men. Eph. 2:1 “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” It goes on to say that all men are dead in their sins. But in vs. 4 he adds, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
Now that is wonderful news, but how is it accomplished? How does this transformation from being dead to being made alive happen? You see, there is a serious problem today in the church, because there are many that have a form of religion, they claim to believe the tenets of the gospel, they tacitly believe in God and that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and yet they are unsaved. They have not been born again. And that is obvious by the lack of fruit in their lives. It is obvious that they do not have the life of Christ living in them. That is the mark of being the body of Christ, is it not? That the Spirit of Christ lives in your body? Is that not what it means to be made a part of His body, the church? As 1Cor. 6:19 makes clear; “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” That is the acid test of being born again. That is the test of whether or not you are in the body or not in the body, in the church or not in the church. I don’t care if you have a paper signed by someone or not. I don’t care if you have been baptized or not. If you do not have the evidence of the Spirit of God living in you and through you so that you are not your own anymore, but you are bought with a price and therefore you glorify God in your body, then you obviously are not in the body of Christ at all. If that is the case in your life then I hope to God that you have your eyes opened to see that.
So how does one become born again into the body of Christ? It starts with Acts 11:18, God granting the repentance unto life. To receive that life of God in your dead body, you must repent. What does it mean to repent? I will start by saying what repentance is not. Repentance is not just feeling sorry about the predicament or crisis you may find yourself in and wanting to get out of it. That is not repentance. Repentance is not just crying a few tears because you got emotional when you considered some experience of your past. The Bible says that Judas went out sorrowful, and later tried to return the money which he had received from selling out Jesus, weeping bitterly over what he had done and yet he was not saved because he had rejected Jesus as His Savior. It’s possible to feel remorse, to cry bitterly, to want to undo certain elements of your past and yet not be saved.
True repentance is coming to a point of hating your sin, mourning over your sinful condition, seeking to be cleansed of it, changed from it, delivered from it. True repentance, according to the Psalmist David, is a broken and contrite heart. It is coming to understand how much of an affront your sin is to God, that it has caused there to be eternal separation from God and deserves the wrath of God. That is the precondition of the heart that leads to repentance. It is hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God and being willing to forsake and leave all that is sinful and offensive to God.
I’m sure that there are some here that are hearing this who say, “Does repentance really have to be so drastic? Aren’t you being a bit overly dramatic?” And the answer is yes, we do need to be so radical when describing repentance, because there is a tendency to think that we are not so bad, and by adding a little bit of religion to my life, I will be just fine. But that is the devil’s lie and believe me, he has caught a lot of people up in it. No a little bit of religion is a dangerous thing. Because unless you come to the end of yourself, unless you realize that you are dead, that you are in your sins and need supernatural deliverance, a completely new life as a gift from God, then there is no salvation. Because true repentance is being willing to surrender all that you are, to die to yourself, for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of your life. And that is the repentance that leads to life.
So that is how the Gentiles in Antioch were saved. That was how the Jews in Jerusalem were saved. That is how all men are saved. And as such, they are then born again, given new life in the Spirit, which is life in Christ’s body. They are born into the church. The church starts by conversion, salvation. And now there are just a few things I want to point out briefly in regards to the distinctives of the new born Christian church of the Gentiles. What things are emblematic of the believer AFTER you become a Christian. After you are born into the church. The following is the evidence that you have new life and are part of the body of Christ, that Christ now lives through your body.
One quick note before that though that I should point out about this church’s location. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. And we all know how corrupt the Roman Empire was don’t we? Especially Rome was a terribly hedonistic, depraved place. A place where every sort of abomination was openly practiced. But I bet you don’t know this; Antioch was considered the river that corrupted Rome. In other words, Antioch was much worse than Rome. For one, prostitution of every kind, of the vilest sort was practiced there openly in the worship of the goddess Daphne. So I find it ironic that God picks the vilest culture in the known world to start the first Christian church of the Gentiles. Now I say that in light of the recent proceedings in the Supreme Court here in America. Christians are bemoaning the state of the Union. And what has become of America. But God has placed the church to be the light in the darkness. And the darker the night, the brighter the candle seems to be. So I would say to you, don’t despair that the wicked are wicked. But rather I encourage you to strengthen and encourage one another as we are the church of God, and Jesus promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This is not the first time in the history of the church that governments have aligned themselves in opposition to the church. But I can tell you this; The Roman Empire has been long gone from the scene, but the church of God stands firm. The Bible was written thousands of years before the Constitution of the United States, and it will still stand thousands of years after the United States is long gone. The word of the Lord endures forever. Matt. 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
So let’s look now at the distinctives of the first Christian Gentile church. The first sign or evidence that it was the living church of Jesus Christ in Antioch was that it was characterized by preaching the Lord Jesus. Vs. 20, “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” Folks, in God’s church, preaching is not on the back burner, but it is the means of God declaring His gospel and His will to His people. The church at Jerusalem was founded on the Apostles doctrine. Peter and the Apostles were preaching the gospel and the multitudes were convicted and called upon the Lord to save them. The same thing happens here. They are preaching the Lord Jesus, and the hand of the Lord, the power of the Lord was with them and many turned to the Lord. The Christian church is a preaching church. The distinctive of the church is not what kind of music you play, or the programs you have, but whether or not you preach Jesus. 1Cor. 1:21 says, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
Second, there was the testimony of their salvation. Vs. 22, “The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.” When these new believers were saved in Antioch word soon spread 300 miles back to Jerusalem that there was a new church growing in Antioch. So the elders of the church of Jerusalem, the Apostles, sent one of their choice men to go there and determine what was going on. Let me tell you something, when you are genuinely saved, people are going to hear about it. You will not need to be told by a preacher that you need to be telling people about your salvation. It is a natural outcome of being saved. You want people to know about your salvation because something fantastic has happened in your life and you want to share it with others. That is a natural thing when you’re born again.
Not only did their testimony reach Jerusalem, it also reverberated among the unsaved people of Antioch. Vs. 26 says that they were first called Christians in Antioch. You know, when the people of Antioch called them Christian they weren’t being complimentary, it was meant to be derogatory. It would be quite some time before Christians embraced that title for themselves. But the interesting point is that their lifestyle was different enough that the world had to coin a phrase to describe them. And the word the world chose indicated that they were considered to be like Christ. That’s not a bad thing to be characterized by the world as, is it? To be said about you that you are like Christ. What a testimony that is.
Thirdly, there is the witness of the grace of God in their life. Vs. 23, “Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord.” What did Barnabas see there in Antioch which made him rejoice? The evidence of the grace of God. You know, it’s one thing to claim the grace of God, but it’s another thing to exhibit the grace of God, isn’t it? A lot of people today want to claim the grace of God but continue right on living the same way they always lived.
Listen to how Jude describes those people who claim grace but live lives that are unchanged. Jude, vs. 4 “For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” What he is saying is they claim the grace of God but use it as a covering for continuing in sin, denying their Master who is supposed to be living through them.
But the Christians in Antioch aren’t guilty of that. What Barnabas sees when he arrives there is the witness of their lives that the grace of God has changed them. What transpired spiritually is being lived out physically. The grace which they received is evidenced by an overflowing of grace, being spilled out into the church around them. Grace means gift. As they received God’s gift, they gave in like manner to others. They served one another, as they served the church, through their gifts.
Fourthly, the church was taught the word of God. Barnabas goes and gets Saul to help him teach this church and they teach them for a year. I’m going to read in between the lines there a little and suggest that encompasses a bit more than meeting for an hour once a week. I’m going to suggest that it followed the pattern of the church in Jerusalem which we were told met daily in Solomon’s portico and were taught by the Apostles. Act 2:42 “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And you want to know how I can confidently say that was happening at Antioch? Because Barnabas had been trained in the church at Jerusalem. He was the one in chapter 4:36 who sold a piece of land and brought the money and laid it at the Apostles feet. So I am sure that he replicated that same style of church there in Antioch. That would have been the reason that the Apostles sent him to replicate in Antioch the same pattern that he had learned in Jerusalem. And so to help him do that, he brings in Saul, who will later become Paul. And there we see another important principle of church, there is discipling. A true disciple makes disciples. Taking someone under your wing and teaching them and encouraging them to become more effective witnesses for Christ. That’s what the name Barnabas means, by the way, Son of Encouragement.
Then lastly, a distinctive of this church was that they were a giving church. This falls in line with the grace of God that Barnabas witnessed when he first came. Because they received grace, they wanted to be gracious, to give, to help others and help the church. In vs. 27, we read that some prophets came down from Jerusalem, and by the Spirit of God disclosed to them that there was going to be a severe famine, which would hit Jerusalem and all Judea really hard. God disclosed that to the church at Antioch so that they could help those who had helped them. That is the Biblical principle found in Rom 15:26-27 where some years later Paul writes, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things.”
The principle was and is that those who share spiritual things are to be shared with in return by your physical things. That giving is not supposed to be under compulsion, but as a result of the grace that was given to you. If you received the gift of grace, then is it not reasonable that you return gifts graciously? Paul would say in 1Cor. 9:11 “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?”
The church of Antioch willingly, gladly gave to the elders in the church at Jerusalem. Acts 11:29 “And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea.” According to the proportion of their means. Luke isn’t talking about tithing here. Tithing is an Old Testament law, but it has an even older precedent. Abraham gave tithes to Melchisadek long before the law was written. While it is not a law for New Testament believers, it continues to be a principle, and it is evidence of a new life in Christ. Now that you are saved, you should realize that God has given you gifts not just to help yourself, but to help others. And your first responsibility is to the church and to those who teach you the gospel.
I find it extremely uncomfortable to talk about giving to the church. So many preachers have abused this principle that I feel it has a detrimental boomerang affect. Consequently we go out of our way to not pass an offering plate or try to get people to pledge money or anything like that. I would rather suffer financially than cause the church of Christ to suffer. But my reticence does not eliminate the principle that the Bible clearly teaches, and furthermore to omit teaching that principle deprives you of the benefit of giving. There is a blessing that comes from God from giving with a cheerful heart. The Lord loves a cheerful giver. There is a blessing that God gives to those who honor Him with the first fruits of their income. And furthermore, it is evidence of a new life in Christ. Christ was anything but selfish. He gave His very life for us, that we might have life in Him. So if Christ is living in us, through us, then that will become evident by our generosity towards His body.
So just to recap quickly, there cannot be a true church without people who are truly saved. Salvation begins by repentance which leads to new life. Life in the church is evidenced by certain distinctives, which are characterized by preaching the Lord Jesus first and foremost, secondly a vibrant testimony of your salvation, thirdly the witness of the grace of God in your life, fourthly regularly being taught the word of God in a Bible teaching church resulting in making disciples, and fifthly, being gracious, willing to give generously and liberally to supply the needs of the church, so that the gospel goes out to the world unhindered.
I hope that in the closing minutes of this service today, you will examine your life in light of this testimony of this early church and see if there are areas in which you have fallen short. Maybe you have fallen out of regular fellowship and need to get back into a Bible teaching church where you can be discipled and begin to make disciples. Or maybe you recognize that you have never truly repented. There is not any evidence of Christ living in you because you have never been born again by the Spirit of God. I’m here to tell you today the good news, that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Don’t leave this place today without calling on the name of the Lord in faith and repentance so that you might be born again. I would be happy to talk to anyone that wants to know more how they can be saved directly following the service today.