The Awakening in Antioch in Syria in the Days of the Early Church
Through persecution Christians were widely scattered and thus the gospel was spread. From Antioch Paul went out and it became the centre of missionary expansion
by Paul Cook
[A message given at the conference for Reformation and Revival in Swanwick, England on November 19, 2002 and summarised by Geoff Thomas.]
We learn of the great work of God done in Antioch in Acts11:19-21. Antioch was a sophisticated city, the size of Edinburgh. An unpromising place for the spread of the gospel. The city was over 3 centuries old, a cultural centre full of temples built by Greeks and Romans. There was also a theatre, a stadium, forum and public baths. The main street was four miles long lined with colonnades, and along it the worldly wise would saunter. Antioch was the third largest city of the empire: "Antioch the beautiful" it was known as.
HOW DID THE GOSPEL COME TO ANTIOCH?
Through persecution Christians were widely scattered and thus the gospel was spread. From Antioch Paul went out and it became the centre of missionary expansion. The message they preached was the Lord Jesus Christ, not a moral system, nor a philosophy of life but a person, and what God has said and done through him. Christianity is much more than something ‘explained’ and then given assent to. It is a redemption that must be applied to the lives of guilty sinners.
In Antioch the hand of the Lord was with the church (v.21). The Spirit of God was working through their testimony and confirming its truth. The unbelief which they confronted (as we do) is not some rational problem but a prejudice deep in the human heart. It can only be broken down by the action of God. Christian faith is not a leap in the dark. It is a divinely created response to a divine revelation.
The news of this development reached Jerusalem and the church leaders sent Barnabas to investigate this development. When he saw the grace of God in Antioch he urged them to keep cleaving to the Lord and many more were added to the church. What was it that convinced him that these people had become Christians? It is an important question because there is today too easy a assurance given to people that they are Christians. What did Barnabas actually see which persuaded him that the grace of God was active in Antioch? There were evidently changes in their lives that could only be explained in terms of the power of God and the operation of the Spirit. The Christian faith is supernatural; it comes into being as a result of the action of God and it is sustained by his power. It is the gracious response God creates in us enabling us to embrace the gospel.
We who are Christians need to hear the gospel regularly because it is that which carries us through the Christian life. You need the gospel throughout your Christian life. When we are older we need to hear it more because the devil is ever active. We get physically weaker, and we also grieve over our follies and sins and then we need to be reminded of the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. On my death bed I have asked that those chapters that encapsulate the grace of God be read to me. The gospel is a message of what God has done for sinners by his power. The most important thing about any church is the grace of God active in its midst, not the numbers attending, nor the programme. Many things exist without the power of God – human excitement, a riot of emotion, mass hysteria, superstition, sentimentalism. Man’s religion can be any of those things. Great zeal without God’s power was evident in a man such as Saul of Tarsus. Men can tithe, fast, be diligent in churchgoing, evangelise as did the Pharisees, behave righteously like the members of the Holy Club in Oxford – all without the grace of God. Many church activities are explicable without any need to refer to the Holy Spirit. Denominational distinctives are not the really important thing about churches and their members. Barnabas did not go to Antioch to look for such distinctives did he? No, he looked for evidence that the Lord Jesus Christ had been at work there. The church is a divine creation that man cannot bring into being. It is a challenge to the world with all its human initiative and means. The world cannot produce with Christ produces. We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. The finger prints of God are on the elect.
So here in Antioch was a miracle – even though that congregation consisted of very worldly people. Every true Christian person is a miracle. No man is able to make himself a Christian. The arm of the Lord is made bare, and a church is born. That is the glory of true religion. All other religions are the works of man, but the gospel church can only be explained in supernatural terms: God has acted: God has spoken. In contrast, all of an unbeliever’s life can be explained in human terms – his objectives and desires are all of the earth, earthy. He is sensuous, selfish and pleasure-loving. His limits are entirely human. There is no categorical laid upon him, nothing at all of the divine power. He is easy to explain. He has never tasted of the wine of heaven, but our prospects are greater as we grow older but it all diminishes with the unbeliever. Everything is on an earthly plane.
What Barnabas saw of the grace of God was not mystical. A revival of the Christian religion is not some mysterious happening that you are waiting and hoping for. Such a mentality leaves people feeling deflated thinking they can do nothing at all to advance an awakening. If something cannot be explained in words then it is mysticism. A revival is not like that. It is the copious ‘supply of the Spirit’ convicting and converting many people. The consequences of it could be identified and observed in these Antioch Christians.
WHAT DID BARNABAS SEE IN THE ANTIOCH CHURCH?
i] He saw men and women who had been enlightened.
That is the first thing he was aware of. Grace took men out of nature’s darkness. That is what happens and that is what Barnabas beheld. These people had been enlightened. To have light is to know God and possess his mercy in Jesus Christ. We are living in a secularist society like the first century – quite unlike the pre-revival situation in the 18th century – they all were formally deists. When Paul Cook was in hospital he was sitting opposite a biker who had been involved in an accident. After some days he asked the biker, "Do you ever think of the God who made you?" That is a fundamental question to be put to all men. "I don’t know him," the biker said. Interesting response. But when men are converted God gives men light. William Haslam was an unconverted vicar, and one Sunday preaching on John 3 to his Cornish congregation, as he opened up the words of Jesus, he was himself enlightened. The evidence of this was witnessed by the congregation, and a man in the congregation cried out, "The parson’s converted."
ii] He saw the evidences of the spiritual birth in them.
There are the marks John speaks of in his first letter of love for the brethren, and overcoming the temptations of the world.
iii] He saw hunger and thirst for righteousness.
This world is under the power of wickedness and through the power of Jesus Christ is it broken, and a new taste for holiness is given.
iv] Love for God. The unbeliever loves himself, but the Christian has a new focus in himself. He lives for eternity and the coming glory. Barnabas saw this grace of God in them. The attractive power of the church of God lies in its distinctiveness and difference from the world. It is opposites that attract – that is the power of a magnet.
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