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A Missional Model

The Church in Antioch - Acts 11

Written by Mike Biolsi on .


I grew up going to church services. When I was a kid we attended a Plymouth Brethren church in New Jersey. When we moved to the North Country in the 70’s we attended several baptist churches. As a youth I attended both Baptist and Assembly of God youth groups. Some of you come from Catholic backgrounds, others Mennonite. Some from Assembly of God, and yet others from Presbyterian Church of America.

Aside from our various denominations backgrounds, we have civilian and soldiers, working class and retired, North America and South America, English and Spanish and a variety of skin colors and hair styles.

We have single adults, married couples, parents, and grandparents. We are male and female, young and old.

Yet, today we are all gathered here as “the church”. The external things that appear to represent differences between us melt away in light of a greater reality that transcends ethnicity, education, geography, occupation or gender. We are, above all else, children of the Most High God, and therefore we are brothers and sisters. This new reality is only possible because we are unified in Jesus. Because of Jesus we are not only accepted by God, but adopted into his family.

‌Ephesians 1:3–6 (CSB)
3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. 5 He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One.

‌However, I would dare say that this type of unity is not present everywhere. Nor has it been present at all times. Our own country and parishes were divided on this less than 80 years ago. We had segregated congregations that elevated a persons skin color over his position as an adopted child of God.

In the days of the early church, the division was more of Jews and Gentiles. Those with a pedigree that could be traced back to Abraham and those that could not. Uncircumcised or circumcised would be another way to put it.

The early church had to wrestle with this. Was the good news just for those born of Abraham? Did Jesus come to only die for the Jews? Were Gentiles destined to be excluded from the kingdom?

‌Last week, we covered Acts 9:32-11:18 - a whopping 78 verses! Those verses tell the story of God peeling away the layers of division in the church. This week we continue that theme.

‌NOTE: one of the goals of our Acts small group was to have them help me with prep for the sermons. I order for the group to catch up I need to slow things down a bit, so we will only be looking at 12 verses today 🤣

‌The end of chapter 11 is about God continuing to break down the walls that divided his people. We are opening up a fuller revelation of what God intended from the very beginning of his relationship with Abraham, and even the beginning of mankind - a unified people who are willing to trust God and obey him.

‌Let’s dive into our passage:

‌Acts 11:19 (CSB)
19 Now those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.

‌Those who had been scattered because of Stephen.

‌Interesting way to put it. Steven was not the cause of the persecution. The goal is not to lay blame, but to take us back to the event that kicked off the dispersion of Jesus followers away from Jerusalem.

‌Acts 8:1 (CSB)
1 Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria.

‌The stoning of Stephen set ablaze the fires of persecution of those that follow “The Way” by the religious institution and leaders. Luke has been taking us on a journey of what happened from there.

‌Phillip went to Samaria (the half-Jews if you will) to the North.

‌Acts 8:4–5 (CSB)
4 So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.

Because he was preaching to the Jews, he proclaimed the Messiah to them, as every Jew would have been looking for the Messiah if they knew the Law and Prophets.

‌Then, Phillip went South of Jerusalem heading towards Gaza

Acts 8:26 CSB
26 An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.)

‌Phillip told him, “the good news about Jesus”. He went to Jerusalem to worship, so we might assume he was a follower of Yahweh, though we do not know if he was of Jewish descent or a proselyte.

‌Phillip went to Azotus and Caesarea

‌Acts 8:40 (CSB)
40 Philip appeared in Azotus, and he was traveling and preaching the gospel in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

‌This man, a disciple of Jesus (not an Apostle) who fled the persecution in Jerusalem, was used by God to share the good news of Jesus to the North, South and even (indirectly) to Ethiopia!

‌The summary of that section (including the conversion of Saul) was this:

Acts 9:31 (CSB)
31 So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

‌THAT IS A SUMMARY of the spreading of the gospel to the lands that were considered “Jewish” territories. To go back a bit further in Luke records, we read where Jesus commissioned his disciples (not just the Apostles) regarding their mission: ⭐

‌Acts 1:8 (CSB)
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

‌That is a bit of a table of contents for the way Luke is addressing the witness of the disciples.


‌Acts 6:7 (CSB)
7 So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

‌Judea & Samaria

‌Acts 9:31 (CSB)
31 So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

‌So what is missing is the last piece: “to the ends of the earth”.

‌TO US, it is a given that the message of salvation through Jesus was not meant just for the Jews. Though some in that day might take the phrase, “to the ends of the earth” to mean to the Jews that have been scattered throughout the entire earth from previous captivities and such, Jesus’ command was meant to be much broader than that.

‌Matthew 28:19–20 (CSB)
19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

‌His command was to make disciples of “all nations”, of all “ethnos” or people groups. It is the same word we translate as Gentiles. Before Jesus left this earth he was clear that his work was not meant to be exclusive to the descendants of Abraham, but that through them “all the people on earth will be blessed” (ref Gen 12:1-3 and the Abrahamic Covenant).

‌It would be natural to see two groups of people then, those that are taking news of Jesus as Messiah to the Jews that are scattered throughout the world, and those that are taking the news of Jesus as Lord to the non-Jewish nations, or Gentiles.

Let’s go back to the narrative and see how this plays out.

Acts 11:19 (CSB)
19 Now those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.

This is a LONG ways away from Jerusalem! As this group headed out they focused on Jews only. That seems to make sense, right? When Jesus sent his disciples out he told them to go to the Jews. When Jesus answered a Canaanite woman who wanted her daughter healed, Jesus said he came for the Jews only.

It would be easy to form a missional world view that the good news needed to be taken to all of the Jews only.

Acts 11:20 (CSB)
20 But there were some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus.

‌“Some of them” would refer to disciples who were scattered from Jerusalem because of the persecution. These guys were bucking the system for sure!

‌Their homelands were Cyprus and Cyrene. The way they are named together makes it sound like they are neighbors. But they are NOT!

‌‌Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and Cyrene was a Mediterranean seaport in Northern Africa. They are NO WHERE near each other and only have the Mediterranean sea in common. And, Cyrene is no where close to Antioch!

‌Why the draw to Antioch?

‌It was the 3rd largest city in its day! According to most sources, it boasted around 250,000 residents (of which is was estimated to be about 25,000 Jews)!

‌For comparison, that is about the same as the populations of Syracuse and Albany NY COMBINED - or about the same as the population of Jersey City! OR the populations of Jefferson, Lewis and Saint Lawrence Counties COMBINED!

‌It was the Roman capital of Syria. It was home to many temples to the Roman gods such as Zeus. It boasted a main street that was 30-40 meters wide lined with 3,200 marble columns! It had a theater, amphitheater, public baths, aqueducts and bronze statues. It was a major trade port for Rome and a multicultural center of commerce and recreation.

‌90% non-Jewish population from all over the world.

‌Attracted people there were transitory - they would come and trade and then go home.

‌It was full of pagan worship, which meant people who valued deities and gods.

‌So, some of those scattered preached the Messiah to the Jews. Others, from faraway places, preached Jesus as Lord to the Gentiles. And we read this:

‌Acts 11:21 (CSB)
21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.

‌I will go back to our statement that we have been repeating almost every month:

‌“The ordinary people of God, equipped with the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, dedicated to the Son of God, can accomplish the mission of God.”‌

‌Let’s read on and see what happens:​

Acts 11:22–24 (CSB)
22 News about them reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added to the Lord.

‌The growth of the church through salvation came because the hand of the Lord was upon the believers as they shared AND because of the grace of God.

‌There is no mathematical formula for church growth. There is no specific methodology that you can follow where you can calculate growth. People come to faith in Jesus because of the grace of God and his hand working in their lives.

  • ‌We must be in prayer
  • ‌We must be sharing our faith
  • ‌We must be relying on God

‌But ultimately it is up to God, in his timing and in his way, to draw people to him. I believe Saul will put it this way in his later writings:​

1 Corinthians 3:6–7 (NLT)
6 I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. 7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.

‌As the church grows, word gets back to Jerusalem. They do NOT send Peter this time, they send Barnabas.

‌Enter Barnabas

‌We are reintroduced to Barnabas. I say “reintroduced” because we were first introduced to him in Acts 4

Acts 4:36–37 (CSB)
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas (which is translated Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

‌He was a Levite, so a Jew from the tribe of Levi, and he was from the Island of Cyprus. His nickname was “Son of Encouragement”. In chapter 9 we read that he accepted Saul and even stood up for him when the church wanted nothing to do with him.

‌WHY send Barnabas?

‌He was from Cyprus, which is where some of the disciples who were preaching in Antioch were from. He knew the region and would have more in common with the disciples there than a Hebraic Jew from Jerusalem. And, true to his name, "he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts.”

‌And we get a side note about Barnabas. He did these things because he was:

  1. ‌A good man.
  2. Full of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Full of faith‌.

He was NOT one of the Apostles, he was a disciple who lived in Cyprus who was willing to be used by God to encourage the church.

“The ordinary people of God, equipped with the Word of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, dedicated to the Son of God, can accomplish the mission of God.”‌‌

This new church was growing in number but it also needed to grow in the faith and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. To accomplish that, Barnabas decided to recruit some help.

‌Acts 11:25–26 (CSB)
25 Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.

‌We read that Saul left Jerusalem and went to Tarsus, remember? And Tarsus was not that far away from Antioch.‌

Besides, Saul and Barnabas had already been together for a while and knew each other. Barnabas would have known that it was Saul’s mission to reach the Gentiles, and this was a new Gentile work!

‌So the church grew in number and it grew in knowledge of the faith.

First called Christians.

There is a phrase that is a bit odd in verse 26. It seems like a random factoid. What is it? “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch”.

Why is that significant?

Well, up to this point there were two groups: Jews and Gentiles. Those born of Abraham and those not born of Abraham. The circumcised and the uncircumcised.

NOW there are Jews, and Messianic Jews or “Followers of the Way”. There are Gentiles, and Jesus following Gentiles. There is a whole new classification of people as those that follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ and those that do not - regardless of their ancestry or geography. This is the first great multi-ethnic church and because of that, the distinction was not about Jew or Greek, but they were one church family based upon their commitment to Jesus the Christ. This multiethnic unified family of Jesus followers needed a new way to be recognized, a new social and religious moniker that would show them as the same group based upon Jesus. They were called (by those outside the group) Christians.

‌Jewish men from the Island of Crete, along with Jewish men from Africa, preached the gospel to an international crowd of non-Jews in Antioch and the church was born. Then a Jew from Cyrene and a Jew from Tarsus spent a year teaching this new Gentile church.

Let’s read on:

Acts 11:27–30 (CSB)
27 In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the reign of Claudius. 29 Each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers and sisters who lived in Judea. 30 They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul.

‌The church in Antioch was generous.

‌Agabus predicted a famine, which, by the way, has been historically documented from 45-47 AD. When this was shared with the church in Antioch, they did not form a committee to see how much they could save and preserve - but instead the took up an offering to send to Jerusalem to help the believers who lived in the Southern Kingdom. Notice they referred to the believers in Jerusalem as their brothers and sisters?

‌Not only does this show generosity, but it also shows a commitment to the greater church. It is never about any one church body. The Kingdom is about God’s church, in all of it’s forms and geographies, working to spread the good news of salvation thorough Jesus.

‌As a church family we are committed to the greater church. We pray or other congregations, we budget ways to bless other churches (like the church in Antioch did).

‌A Model, Missional Church

‌I believe one of the reasons the church in Antioch is such a model for us today is because of all of these things we just read:

  • ‌They were committed to sharing their faith.‌
  • They accepted others who were different.
  • ‌They studied to grow in their faith.
  • ‌They were generous, including to "outsiders."

‌A church family gets this way not because of great programming, but because of the obedience of the saints and the grace of God. It is really that simple. As you and I are faithful to listen to the Spirit of God and share the grace of God and gifts from God with others, we become a church like Antioch.

‌One of the beautiful things about this account of the establishment of the Antioch church is that it was done by committed disciples of Jesus. It was not a project from the head church in Jerusalem. It was not the work of Barnabas or Saul. It was established by disciples who we never get the names of. While our society is looking for big names to create big works, God looks for people who will simply follow his leading and share the grace they have received with others.

‌Sometimes people ask me what the goals are for North Country Fellowship. I believe it is our goal to have authentic disciples of Jesus that are like the disciples in Antioch. That each of us would be:

  • ‌Sharing our faith with our communities
  • ‌Accepting those that are different than us
  • ‌Studying and growing in our knowledge of Jesus
  • ‌Generous to others, especially those in the family of faith

I pray that these are the things that characterize you and me in 2024 and the years to come, and I also pray that the hand of God may be at work in our community and the grace of God evident by people coming to know him.

A Missional Model