|International Bible Studies|
LESSON FOR FEBRUARY 5, 1950
The First Gentile Church
TRULY “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” There are many illustrations of this in the experiences of the Early Church, and one of them is the manner in which God’s providences were manifested in connection with the establishment at Antioch of the first ecclesia in which probably the majority were Gentiles. Two of God’s providences had an important bearing on what occurred at Antioch. One of them was the martyrdom of Stephen, and the other the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile to become a divinely accepted follower of the Master.
God permitted the slaying of Stephen, and the spirit of persecution as it centered around his martyrdom caused many of the believers to be scattered into other parts of the country. Some of these traveled as far as Antioch, and the account indicates that all along the way they bore witness to the Gospel of Christ. However, until they reached Antioch, the witness was confined to Jews. The account does not indicate what caused them to depart from this procedure when they reached Antioch, but they did. They began preaching the Gospel to the Grecians.
“And the hand of the Lord was with them,” the account states, “and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” The Lord then saw that these faithful witnesses for the truth needed help; and, in his providence, word reached the brethren in the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to assist the brethren at Antioch. But in order for the church at Jerusalem to be willing to do this, a certain preparatory work had been going on in their hearts.
Shortly before this, Peter had been used of the Lord in connection with the conversion of Cornelius. This, of course, entailed the necessity of his eating with Gentiles, and associating with them in other ways. News of this reached the brethren at Jerusalem, and when Peter arrived they were ready to condemn him for his “sinful” course. However, they gave Peter an opportunity to explain his position; and when he did, they seemed convinced that God was indeed pouring out his blessing upon believing Gentiles, and were ready to co-operate. Thus, when they heard of what was taking place at Antioch, they were quite ready to send Barnabas there to help.
Barnabas was a willing missionary. He had the proper spirit, the spirit of rejoicing to note the manifestation of God’s grace upon the believing Gentiles at Antioch. The account says that he “was glad.” What a true Christian spirit! Anyone who begrudges the grace of God to others is not in a fit heart condition to be worthy of an entrance into the kingdom of Christ.
Jesus said that the Pharisees sought to shut up the kingdom of heaven to others; and there are some even today who are trying to do this. The favorite way of doing it now is by a misuse of chronology and by wrong conceptions of dispensational truths. By their misinterpretations of these truths, some seem able to maneuver themselves into a feeling of smugness inside of what they considered to be a closed door to the high calling, and apparently take some satisfaction in telling others that it is too late for them to enter. This was not the spirit of Barnabas. Even though it was something new for God to accept Gentiles, Barnabas believed the evidence of God’s grace which he saw at Antioch, and immediately began to exhort these Gentile disciples to cleave unto the Lord.
Barnabas, we are told, was a “good man.” Another evidence of this is seen in his journey to Tarsus to seek Saul that he might bring him to Antioch to share in the inspiration of the ministry there. Barnabas may have had a twofold reason for this. He probably felt his need of help in ministering to the growing church at Antioch. But he also could have had in mind what such an experience would mean to Saul.
In this account the great apostle to the Gentiles is still referred to as Saul, rather than Paul, which may indicate that he had not as yet been generally accepted by the Jewish believers in the Early Church. Barnabas may have reasoned that Antioch, with its many Gentile believers, would be an excellent place for him to use his great talents. In any event, the plan worked out well. Together, Saul and Barnabas met with the church at Antioch, and “taught much people.”
It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. There is no evidence, however, that this name was given to them by the authority of the Holy Spirit. More likely it was intended to be a title of derision. It was very unpopular in those days to be a Christian. It is quite different now, for the title is applied to nearly everyone who is not a Jew or a heathen. After the title was first given to the believers at Antioch there is practically no further mention of it in the New Testament. Apparently it did not come into general use until some time after the death of the apostles.
From the account just considered it is apparent that Saul and Barnabas took a leading role as servants in the church at Antioch. But the goodness of Barnabas in seeking out Saul to help him was also shared by the apostle; for now we find that under their leadership other qualified servants were brought to the front in this congregation. Here again we find manifested the true spirit of discipleship. The question of who would be greatest in that church did not seem to have been raised. They were all brethren, and one was their Master, even Christ.
Because other servants qualified to carry on the ministry had been trained under the leadership of Saul and Barnabas, the Lord indicated that it was his will for these two to move on to other fields of service. As is usually the case in these brief accounts of incidents in the Early Church, not many details are given. Apparently, though, what occurred was that after praying over the matter, the church took a vote and thereby expressed the will of the Lord concerning Saul and Barnabas. And this is referred to as a choice of the Holy Spirit; that is, the Holy Spirit, or will of God, expressed itself through the minds of his consecrated people.
Jesus had told his disciples that when they received the power of the Holy Spirit they were to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. The brethren at Antioch would certainly know of this divine commission, and realizing that now they could spare two of their number for service afield, expressed themselves in keeping with the mind of the Lord. They not only had learned the truth, but were on the alert to put it into practice. The truth had given them a world vision, and they were not content merely to see their own congregation at Antioch rejoicing in what the Lord had done for them.
What providences of the Lord were manifested in connection with the establishment of the church at Antioch?
What were some of the evidences that Barnabas was a “good man”?
Why did Barnabas want Saul to help him in Antioch?
Did the name Christian ever come into general use in the Early Church?
In what way may the Holy Spirit have indicated the choice of Saul and Barnabas for missionary work?