The spread of the Gospel in that early history of the Church, and its colossal impact upon a pagan society, was nothing short of stupendous and miraculous. The great extension of the witness started with “the persecution that arose about Stephen" (verse 19. Cf. 8:1) Sometimes God has to ‘stir the nest’ in order to accomplish His purposes! Now, among those who went ‘gossiping the gospel’ were these nameless men from the island of Cyprus, and from Cyrene - a beautiful city in North Africa founded by Greek colonists. Of course, these may well have been converted on the Day of Pentecost (2:9-11).
But here is the wonderful truth, that one of the first things the Gospel does is to demolish all distinctions between believers, welding them together in love, devotion, and a spirit of selfless interest in the spread of God’s saving Word. Observe verses 19-20 - “...and these travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch preaching the Word...preaching the Lord Jesus.” This is what truly UNITES believers - that mutual, glad and humble submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, together with a common passion to proclaim HIM to a lost world around.
Of course, we are told here that some had gone “to none but unto the Jews only” (verse 19), not necessarily implying a prejudice but indicating something of their strategy. After all, the Jews had the Old Testament Scriptures, and knew the prophecies, so it was a great advantage in sharing with them concerning JESUS, as the Messiah, the One who had come in absolute fulfilment of those prophecies. However, those Cypriots and Cyreneans crossed the racial and religious frontiers to confront the Gentiles in Antioch with the claims of Christ. Whether Jew or Gentile, the Gospel is the same: it concerns Christ’s LORDSHIP! And that IS the Gospel, the ONLY Gospel that saves, and the only Gospel that carries with it the endorsement of God Almighty. Verse 21 - “And the hand of the Lord was with them-(meaning, God’s power was manifested in their ministry) and a great number believed and turned the Lord."
News of these marvellous events reached the apostles in Jerusalem, and in order to verify that the evangelisation of the Gentiles had God’s seal of approval upon it, they sent Barnabas to check it out. They could not have sent a better man (verse 24) "for he was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith”. And appropriately, he was a Cypriot Jew who was beloved among the Christians and known as “the son of consolation”.
Thank God, he was not restricted by racial or religious prejudices but (1) acknowledges the grace of God in these new converts, and (2) sets about helping them to become established in Christ. Note verse 23 - look at the first part: “When he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad..." That is, “when he saw the evidence of the grace of God..." It was not just seeing the Church full but it was actually seeing something in the lives of the people who had heard the Gospel, who had come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, whose lives were truly CHANGED! Now, whilst it is not proper to sit in judgment upon other people, wherever there is a profession of salvation, one does expect to see changed lives. Matthew 7:20 - "By their FRUITS shall you know them." Barnabas sees such unmistakable evidence of God’s grace in these people, triumphing in them and transforming them. Well, WHAT are the evidences of God’s grace in the lives of those profess to be truly Christian believers?
Whatever had been their former way of life , and however crude and corrupt, and notwithstanding their prior religious devotions, they now loved and worshipped JESUS. They had heard the true Gospel that faithfully proclaimed HIM - who He is and what he has done to save us, So -
a) They had believed the Message.
What had they believed? That salvation is ALL GOD’S WORK, and that to be saved demands absolute trust in Jesus Christ - that the object of saving faith is JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF. In no one and nothing other is there salvation. This is not a matter of religious philosophy, tradition, and preference. Jesus Christ is Lord of all and the faith He demands involves an unconditional surrender to Him. That is, the bringing of one’s entire life under His sovereign control. This was what following Him meant. How did they respond?
b)They had turned unto the Lord.
This evidently implies they had turned from something. And here is true repentance, See Acts 2:38. 3:19. 17:29-31. You cannot live simultaneously in a way contrary to God AND walk in fellowship with Him and His Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:6. Repentance is a change of mind that issues in a change of heart. Once it was walking in sin, indifferent to Christ, pleasing self, gratifying the flesh, loving the world, and being dominated by the devil. BUT, here is the change - having been awakened through hearing “the gospel of God concerning His Son Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:3) they received that grace to “turn from idols to serve the living God". You cannot be saved without owning Jesus as LORD. Faith IN HIM means trusting Him implicitly with one’s whole life. It is ALL of me embracing ALL of Him, so that everything about me is brought under His control, under His authority. “THY will be done..." And this is out of sheer delight in Him and NOT some legalistic way of living; this is our highest joy. I know Him as my LORD, my SAVIOUR, and my GOD; hence fullness of my peace and joy, my Counsellor, my Hope. Is this so with YOU?
Verse 26 - “And the disciples (followers) were called ‘CHRISTIANS’ first in Antioch...” These believers showed by the way they lived and behaved that they were now followers of Jesus Christ. The “spirit of Christ" at work in people’s lives does have a transforming effect. Titus 2:11-12. A life of a person who becomes a Christian is not the same any more. There is a refining of character, a bringing of one’s whole personality into accord with the loveliness of Jesus. It’s the impact of HIS LIFE IN OURS - the entire life: body, soul and spirit. The moral and spiritual effect of the grace of God IS SEEN in an ordered, godly life, in the HOME, SCHOOL, COLLEGE, OFFICE - everywhere. The grace of God teaches us TO LIVE THE ‘JESUS’ WAY, which is reflected in our thinking, our conversation, our habits, our ambitions, our attitudes, our relationships, our disposition to this world, and our regard for spiritual and eternal things. Philippians 1:21.
What a life this is - with its joyous friendship with Jesus, its daily communion, its sense of completeness, and life and hopes that no one and nothing else is able to provide. It’s really living! Proverbs 14:12, Philippians 1:21. There are NO options as to the kind of life we will live as Christians. YOU CANNOT LIVE ANY-OLD-HOW! 1 John 2:6 - “He that abides in Him ought himself to walk EVEN AS HE WALKED." And THAT may be with great personal cost! Thus another evidence of the grace of God in one’s life is -
Please note that it was NOT fellow believers who were calling each other “CHRISTIANS” THAT was the name-tag applied to them by an unbelieving and unsympathetic world - in derision and scorn. Later, believers were called “Nazarenes”, which, again was intended as a term of contempt. It was not easy in those days to take one’s stand for the Lord Jesus. BUT STAND THEY DID! It says of Barnabas (also of Saul, who had just been converted, verses 25-26) that for “a whole year they assembled themselves with the Church, and taught much people”. People were NOT ASHAMED to be identified with Jesus and His people. It was not easy - but the grace of God was sufficient for them. They proved God’s faithfulness in those days of trial. They had something that was REAL, not only worth living for but DYING for! See 2 Timothy 1:8-12. NOT ASHAMED!
I recall a young couple in Romania, gladly receiving me into their little one-room dwelling, knowing that they might well get into trouble for housing this 'man from the West’... but they were NOT ashamed, and prepared for the cost of being true to Jesus, and affording loving hospitality in Jesus’ name to this young preacher! Then there was Janos Beres in Hungary, who faithfully preached the Gospel. He built an extension to his house to have believers gather there for meetings, so as to “exhort them all that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord” - contrary to the restrictions imposed by the Communist authorities. Yes, it meant prison for him, and such a heavy fine that amounted to about eight months’ wages; and having to sell items to raise the amount, even his wife's wedding ring. 0, the stigma she would bear in her culture having no wedding band to identify her married state " yet they did it all with joy, deeming it an honour to suffer for their Lord. See Hebrews 11:24-27.
We are not dealing with theory here. This is practical Christianity. It's only one thing that can keep people from bowing to the pressure of trials and what preserves the joyous faith of an apostle in prison. God’s GRACE! THIS is what will enable YOU also to remain steadfast when everything seemed against you as a devoted follower of Jesus: it is this gospel of the GRACE of God, to know that His acceptance of you into union with Himself carries with it the guarantee of his never-failing strength and encouragement. Can you see how it was that the believers in Antioch GREW in their Christian faith, and more people were brought to faith in Christ? Verse 24: “And MUCH PEOPLE were added unto the Lord.” What's the secret? Yes, it WAS the convicting work of the Holy Spirit - BUT it appears to have been the impact of the testimony of these one-time idolaters, how they loved the Lord, followed Him with passion and zeal, and lives irradiant with His life and peace and hope amidst all their tribulations. Let this inspire us to remain true to the Lord Jesus despite the toughness of the way- He will knew let us down. There is grace for EVERY trial. 1 Peter 1:3-9.
Another evidence of the grace of God in a believer’s life is -
You could SEE this in them as they faithfully met in fellowship, eager to learn more about Jesus their Lord, and hungry for that Word which would build them up in their faith, encouraging them to. purposefully “cleave to the Lord” (verse 23). It is a marvellous thing to see SPIRITUAL APPETITE AND DESIRE in believers. It’s an evidence of the grace of God. You see, a ‘Christian' profession devoid of any obvious spiritual desire makes no sense, Psalm 25:4-5. 26:3f. See 3 John 3-4' Of course, devotion to Truth is NOT simply wanting to HEAR the Word of God, but the readiness - out of genuine love for the Master - to apply the Truth to one’s personal life. LIVING OUT THE WORD OF GOD - that’s where the grace of God is SEEN! And in this day of compromise, and of deception and apostasy, how important it is to “buy the truth and sell it not” (Proverbs 23:23). This is the only way we shall be able to remain steadfast in the faith, and be ready to meet Jesus when He comes again. Ephesians 6:14.
Now, I draw you attention to just one further evidence of grace of God in a Christian’s life. And it has to do with -
Ah, what a mark of the grace of God in our lives! For God’s grace always deals a deathblow to self-centredness and selfishness. Look at verses 27-30. “Each of them according to his ability". The actual amount of aid would have varied considerably from person to person, yet this spirit of brotherliness and kindness was uniform. The love of God was in them, motivating such beautiful actions. Their faith was not dead but seen to be living, by their ‘works’.
And since we have received so bountifully from the Lord in grace toward US, ought we not to be manifesting a sense of indebtedness to be so KIND to others? Galatians 6:9-10. Yes, it’s a mark of the grace of God in our lives. When the grace of God is working in your heart, you will want to enjoy the best of relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Do YOU know anything about the grace of God in your life? Have you met the Lord for yourself, experiencing the joy of sins all forgiven and knowing God’s peace within? If not, then you have to come the same way as these Christians in Antioch. The Gospel has not changed, and sinners are still commanded to repent and turn to God. I assure you that He does not turn away one sincere seeker. Come to Him - and NOW.
And what about we who profess to have obeyed the Gospel of the grace of God - are there these marks of Jesus’ own God-pleasing life being exhibited in our lives? Are other people seeing the grace of God IN YOU AND ME?