A Gospel Church
As we continue looking at how God brings different people groups together, we’ll see He gathers them into a community called the church, created by the gospel, matured by the gospel, and marked by love.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
We’re continuing our series in the book of Acts this morning, and we’ve been looking at how different people groups can be brought together. We talk a lot about tolerance today; every people group should tolerate each other, and that’s certainly a good thing, but today we’re going to see that God’s purpose is greater: He’s not just leaving diverse peoples in their own communities and teaching them to tolerate one another; He’s bringing them together into a new community and teaching them to love one another. Verse 26 of our passage refers to this new community as a church. So how’s that kind of community get built? The gospel builds the church. First, the gospel creates a church. Then the gospel matures a church. Then, through those things, the gospel creates a loving church.
The gospel creates a church
I mentioned that in verse 26 the community in Antioch is referred to as a church; how’s it get started? In verse 19 we read of those who were scattered from Jerusalem going as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch “speaking the word.” They themselves were Jewish, and it had been the assumption of many Jews that even the word of Christ was good news for them, but not for the Gentiles, so they only spoke with the Jews. However, in verse 20 we read that there were some of them from Cyprus and Cyrene, who when they arrived in Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. They didn’t preach Judaism or certain cultural customs; they weren’t trying to simply assimilate the Hellenists. They preached the Lord Jesus. In the passage just before this, which we looked at last week, we saw that because of His life, death, and resurrection, everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins in His name, and therefore it makes total sense to preach Him also to the Hellenists, the non-Jews. Verse 21 tells us that the hand of the Lord was with them, and therefore, many who believed turned to the Lord. In verse 26, that’s the group of people who are referred to as a church. He never tells us that they became a church; he just starts referring to them as such. It wasn’t even a possibility in the mind of Luke, the author of Acts, that these people in Antioch might turn to the Lord but not form a church. As God calls people to Himself, He gathers them together into a community called the church. The church is not a building or a service; it’s a community of the converted. The moment converts exist, those converts assemble and commit to one another, and the moment that happens, a church exists. The gospel creates a church when the gospel, accompanied by the sovereign hand of the Lord, creates and gathers converts to Christ.
A quick refresher also on who these people are who are speaking the word: They’re those who were scattered from the persecution in Jerusalem, an event narrated in Acts 8. There we read that the whole church was scattered, except for the Apostles. The apostles were the church officers, the ministry professionals as it were, but they’re not the ones scattered. The ones scattered are the “ordinary” Christians, whose names we never even hear. In Acts and throughout church history, there are some Christian preachers and evangelists who become famous, but the church in Antioch was planted by people we’ve never heard of, just as hundreds of thousands of others have been in the years between Acts and now. About 4 and a half years ago, this church was planted by a team of 40 people I’m guessing nobody will have heard of in 100 years. But the hand of God does extraordinary things through ordinary people faithfully speaking the word.
Now I know some of you are wondering, “Ok but what’s that look like?” and the text doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t show us how they spoke the word, how they preached the Lord Jesus, and that’s because throughout Acts and throughout the history of the church, there’s a diversity to how that happens. The message has some essential features: It’s about the reality of God, the guilt of our sin, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf, and it calls for a response of belief and turning to the Lord, but the type of encounter, when you say it, exactly how you say it, varies. To that end, let me give you some examples of what different stages of the evangelism process could look like that I’ve adapted from examples in our church and a book by a Pastor named Timothy Keller:
[Josh goes to work on Monday and one of his co-workers, Kevin, asks him how his weekend was. Josh relays that he went on a men’s retreat with his church that focused on the topic of friendship. Kevin comments, “That’s interesting,” so Joe takes a small plunge and mentions that what helped him the most was the idea that even though he’s not been faithful to God, God is faithful to him and calls him friend.] [Claire has a longtime friend from college named Jess, who is a lawyer. Jess’ anxiety is really hurting her career. Claire has been a sympathetic listener for some time, but finally she bluntly asks Jess to explore Christian faith with her. She says she thinks it might be the only thing that helps her overcome her problem. She further warns Jess that if Christianity will be any help to her, she must come to believe it is not only useful but true. They start studying the Bible together and listening to Christian sermons and lectures and discussing them.] [Joe comes to church with his wife, but he isn’t sure what he believes or where he stands. Matt and Joy meet Joe and his wife and start inviting them over for dinner and setting up play dates with their kids. After a few times, Matt grabs a beer with Joe and asks Joe if he’d be interested in exploring the claims of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. They agree to get together every-other-week for 6 weeks to do that.] [Laura and two other Christian friends are moms with young kids. They decide to start a daytime mom’s group and invite non-Christian friends. The conversations are generally diverse but every now and then faith comes up. After a while, a few of the non-Christian moms start coming to church with the Christian moms.] [Jamal and his roommates have committed to getting to know their neighbors, so they decide to host a dinner once a month and invite their neighbors along with some people from their Citygroup. One of the neighbors says he really loves a certain motivational speaker, so Jamal commits to listening to a talk by him. Jamal also mentions that he’s really been helped by his pastor’s preaching, so sends his neighbor one of the sermons. Next week they get dinner together and talk about it.]
In sharing these examples, I’m trying to paint a picture for you of how diverse the situations can be. There are different stages in the process: Sometimes just mentioning you go to church, something you’re learning, or sharing a resource is a great place to start. Eventually, though, for a church to be created, the gospel must be taught with the aim to persuade, and the hand of God must be with us to bless it. So pray for the hand of the Lord to bless the preaching of the word, and no matter who you are, God can use your evangelism to create converts. Since you’re ostensibly already part of a church, you wouldn’t have to start a new one, but it is our hope and prayer that God will grow our church, and enable us at Citylight Center City to plant another church in the near future. Our plan is essentially this: Send out a team of people to focus on evangelism in a new area of the city. In fact, some of you already live in other areas of the city from where we are now; you’ve already been “scattered” there as it were, and you can start doing this now. If the Lord converts enough people in a new area, it may create the opportunity for us to plant a new church there. The gospel first creates a church when the gospel is taught with the aim to persuade, and the hand of God gathers converts. But the process doesn’t end there. The gospel then matures a church.
The gospel matures a church
In verse 22 when the report of the conversions in Antioch came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, they send Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. Later he grabs Saul and with him spends a year with the church teaching a great many people. At that point the church already existed; remember the gospel created the church when the nameless Christians went about speaking the word and the hand of the Lord blessed it. But God’s goal is not just for churches to exist; it’s for churches to mature. And God’s goal for Christians is not just that they turn to the Lord, but that they remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose and are taught so that they press on to maturity in Christ.
To that end, God gives to His church people like Barnabas and Saul, people with a special calling from God to the ministry of the word to carry out the work of discipleship within the church. While the church was planted by a nameless crowd of ordinary Christians, we know these guys’ names. That said, the work of discipleship in which they engage is fairly ordinary as well. What’s the first thing Barnabas does? He came and saw the grace of God, and he was glad. One of the best ways for any Christian to help a church grow is simply to see the grace of God in the church and rejoice in it. Can I be honest with you? I’m downright bad at this. I’m a problem solver, so I’m better at seeing problems than seeing what the grace of God has already done and rejoicing in it. I’m working on that, but one way you can help this church is to compensate for my weakness here. If you see evidence of God working in our church, point it out and celebrate it. Tell others about it; tell me if you really want to help me. And pray for God to grow me in this.
One way I’m trying to grow in it that I would also commend to you is learning what to look for. You can’t celebrate what you can’t see. We read here that Barnabas saw the grace of God, but how did he see it? The word the Bible uses for the visible results of the grace of God is fruit. A simple thing you could do to grow in celebrating the grace of God would be to study the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, start to look for where you see that in our church, then point it out and celebrate it. The next ordinary thing we see Barnabas doing is exhorting the church to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. He doesn’t exhort them to change the world. He exhorts them simply to remain faithful the Lord with steadfast purpose. In other words, keep doing what you’re doing. You believed and turned to the Lord; keep believing and turning from sin to the Lord.
When someone first believes and turns to the Lord, there is usually a zeal to worship the Lord, build up the church, and speak the gospel to those who don’t believe. But if such a person tries to follow Jesus by themselves, or nobody is willing to take up the work of exhorting them, that zeal will fade, because think about where it came from: It came from seeing the glory of Christ as it is revealed in the gospel. But when you wake up the next morning, you don’t automatically “see” that again. What you automatically see is the work of the day, the difficulties of life, and the quick fixes sin offers. If you keep looking at that and don’t counteract it with looking to Christ, that initial zeal won’t last.
Of course that means you need to set Christ before yourself every day through things like Bible reading and prayer, but notice nobody in this passage thought those things alone were sufficient. Every Christian needs other people to exhort them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. In other words, every Christian needs a church. You’re not the exception. You will not remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose if you try to follow Jesus alone. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people who professed faith in Christ and seemed to be following him later renounce their faith, and part of that process has always been distancing themselves from their church. Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” Exhorting yourself is great, but keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus is too important for you to leave it to yourself. You need to be exhorted by others. The German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s word is sure.”
The flipside of that, is someone needs your exhortation. We already saw one way to do that well is to see the grace of God in peoples’ lives and celebrate it. Another way is to keep in mind this word “purpose.” One of the easiest things for people who have believed and turned to the Lord to lose sight of is our purpose. Why are we here? We exist for the glory of God. Why should I keep following Jesus? Because the joy of meeting Him will be worth it, because He’s working all things for my good, because the promises of sin are empty anyway, and so forth. When people are following Jesus and going through difficulty, one of the best things you can do alongside much sympathetic listening is not necessarily try to fix their problem, but simply point out the grace of God in their lives, remind them of their purpose, and remind them why following Jesus is ultimately worth it. In other words, remind them of the gospel. Give them good news, not good advice. I know sometimes they’ll say, “I already know that,” but keep gently and lovingly telling them anyway. If knowing it once was all we needed, Barnabas and Saul wouldn’t have hung around for a year.
It’s probably obvious to you at this point that this kind of ministry requires time and presence. Barnabas and eventually Saul didn’t just pop in and out of Antioch; they lived with them, not for a week long mission trip, but for a year, patiently celebrating the grace of God, exhorting them, and finally we see in verse 26, they met with the church and taught them. We meet together weekly as a church on Sunday mornings for the teaching of the word, what I’m doing right now. And I’m under no illusion that every week you go away saying, “Wow, that was a life-changing sermon,” but what we’re seeing here is that God uses the faithful, ordinary, teaching of the word in the gathering of the church to instruct Christians. When you come to church, listen for the sustenance of solid food, not the quick hit of a drug. And I have to say, popping in every few months is unlikely to give you that. If you want to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, you need to actually prioritize being at these gatherings to be taught the gospel again and again, deeper and deeper, because it’s the gospel that creates, and matures, a church.
I praise God because I’ve had the privilege of seeing Him do this in you all. I continue to hear stories of how you all are going about speaking the word where God has scattered you. While I’m busy solving problems, many of you have come up to me and told me stories of how God is working in your lives and the lives of those around you. Thank you for that. I know many of you who have moved other things around, who have cut travel plans short, in order to prioritize being at these worship gatherings to hear the word taught. Not only that, but you’re hungry for more. You’re faithfully part of Citygroups, helping us start 2 new ones already this year, and many of you have started discipleship groups, smaller groups of 2-4 same-gender individuals who meet to exhort one another. When I give out good books to grow our understanding of Scripture, you read them, then come back and talk to me about them. The gospel has indeed created and begun maturing a church here; just remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. You’ve believed and turned from sin to the Lord; keep believing and turning from sin to the Lord. Finally, the gospel creates love. Let’s talk about gospel love.
The gospel creates a loving church
In verse 27, we read of these prophets who came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one who prophesied of a great famine that then took place during the days of Claudius, a famine well attested in extrabiblical history as well that would be interesting to talk about more, but the important thing Luke is showing us is what the church in Antioch did in response. In verse 29 we read that they determined to give, every one according to their own ability, to send relief to the brothers in Jerusalem, and they did so in verse 30.
Now if you heard there was going to be a famine over all the United States, what would you do? Send relief to another city? Probably not; most of us at least would be thinking, “well geez I’d better stock up.” But the disciples in Antioch don’t think of themselves first. They think, “Oh man, that’s going to be rough for the brothers in Jerusalem.” Now maybe if you’re a parent with kids who live in another part of the country, you’d think, “Oh man; I need to send them help.” Maybe if you have a great friend in another part of the country you’d think that. But these disciples in Antioch think that way about Christians in Jerusalem they’ve never met, disciples of a totally different culture. In verse 26 we even get this little detail that for the first time in Antioch the disciples were called Christians. You know why that probably happened? There was no other label for them. You couldn’t call them the Jews or the Gentiles; they were a new community. They were a Christian church, which we confess in our creed to be catholic, a word meaning universal, made up of all peoples, who they now even call “the brothers.”
It’s not like Agabus guilts them into giving either. He doesn’t announce the famine and then say, “You better make a donation.” They determine to do it. Not just some of them determine to do it, but every one gives according to his ability. Nobody says, “That’s Jerusalem’s problem” or “We’ve got our own famine to worry about” or “someone else in my church will take care of that.” In every church there are people with more money and people with less, but everyone can still give their money; those with less give less, those with more have the privilege of giving more. The church in Antioch risked famishing themselves and gave their own money without being commanded to do so to relieve the suffering of total strangers. Giving to people we know or who can give to us in return is a sort of love, but it comes pretty naturally. Giving when there’s no real risk or sacrifice to us is a sort of love, but it also comes pretty naturally. This love Antioch is showing else. Where’d they get it from?
Well, what happened in this story before this incident? Someone preached the Lord Jesus to them, and by the hand of the Lord they believed and turned to the Lord. Then someone exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. Then someone taught them for a year. Then they hear this report of the famine, and naturally a very unnatural sort of love flows out of them. Where’d it come from? It came from hearing this message from the time they were converted and over the span of a year. It came from the gospel. The gospel creates a loving church. The disciples in Antioch risked potential famine for themselves and sacrificially gave to total strangers. But in the gospel, we hear news of the one who risked not just potential famine, but sure death. He knew there was not only a great famine coming on the whole world, but a great judgment, a judgment He could have remained totally free from by remaining outside of our world. The famine was going to hit Antioch either way, but Jesus came to take a judgment that would not have otherwise hit Him, and on the cross it did hit Him, full force. The church in Antioch gave its money; on the cross, Jesus gave His very life. He was famished that we might live, judged that we might be forgiven, died and rose again that we might die and live with Him forever.
That’s the Lord Jesus those who were scattered went about preaching. Believe and turn to Him today. Remain faithful to Him with steadfast purpose. If you notice your desire to speak these words is weak, if your faithfulness to Him is waning, turn to Him again today. Exhort one another with these words. Faithfully gather to hear them taught. The hand of the Lord uses these ordinary things to create in His people a new kind of love, a love for total strangers of a different culture who we learn to see as brothers in Christ, a love that manifested itself not merely in affection, but in costly action. Guilt can’t create that kind of love. In fact, it’s often those who feel guilty for all they aren’t doing who are too burdened to bear anyone else’s burdens when the opportunities arise. If an opportunity to help a fellow Christian arises and you feel like, “Ugh, I just have too many other things I’m trying to do right now,” what are those other things? Why do you feel burdened by them? Sometimes Pastors actually are the reason for it: We know how to tell you all the stuff you aren’t doing. Well, if I’ve been the reason any of you feel burdened, I want to correct that now. Jesus died and rose again to save you; you don’t have to save yourself. Just remain faithful to Him with steadfast purpose, and may His gospel mature us, may it make us a loving church, and may His hand use us to take the gospel out and create new churches.