Now that Peter has taken the gospel to the gentiles and defended his actions to the satisfaction of the Jerusalem church, the gospel begins to spread in earnest to all people everywhere. In this text the good news goes specifically to Antioch, and the great city begins to establish itself as the headquarters for Paul’s ministry. Barnabas also reenters the story and shows what a life guided by the Spirit looks like and why he is considered the “Son of Encouragement.”
The persecution which broke out after Stephen’s execution – led at the time by Saul – scattered the believers in Jerusalem and forced them into the adjoining areas (8:1). Some of these believers made their way to Phoenicia (northwest of Galilee along the coast – present day Lebanon) and Cyprus (an island 100 miles west of the coast of Syria – Syria directly north of Phoenicia) and Antioch (large city in Syria – present day Antakya in Turkey). As they travel they preach the good news but preach to Jews only. The persecution preceded Peter’s mission to Cornelius so these believers continue the practice of keeping the gospel within the Jewish community.
Some men, however, from Cyprus (themselves presumably converted as a result of the scattered Jerusalem believers) and Cyrene (region in northern Africa – the scattered believers apparently reached this far from Jerusalem) come to Antioch and begin to preach to the Greeks (which may refer to both Jews and gentiles). Nothing is said about their knowledge of Peter’s taking the gospel to the gentiles so it could be that they just naturally branch out beyond the Jews. As Greek-speaking Jews from outside of Judea they may not be as rigid in their separation from the gentiles.
This spread of the gospel likely takes place over a period of 7 to 10 years. Using Gal 1:18-2:1 as a reference, it seems that Stephen’s execution took place roughly that many years ago (assuming the trip to Jerusalem described at the end of this chapter is the same trip Paul references in Gal 2:1). That means the events of this story may take place a few years after Peter’s ministry to Cornelius.
The decision to preach to the gentiles proves to be a good one as a large number who believed turned to the Lord. The Spirit works among the Greek gentiles in Antioch just as He did with Cornelius and his family. The men from Cyprus and Cyrene faithfully proclaim the message and the Spirit causes many who listen to believe.
[Antioch is the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It is the third largest city in the Roman Empire (behind Rome and Alexandria) with roughly half a million residents. It is very cosmopolitan and features many religions and cults. Its size and diversity make it a perfect location for the burgeoning ministry to the gentiles. It has a large Jewish population but its distance from Jerusalem makes for a less stringent devotion to the ceremonial Law and circumcision. (this information from The IVP Bible Background Commentary – New Testament, p. 354)]
The work in Antioch becomes large enough to be noticed in Jerusalem. Perhaps to make sure that what is going on is legitimate and truly of God – and to give guidance to the new community of believers – the Jerusalem leadership sends Barnabas there. Since Barnabas is originally from Cyprus (4:36) it is fitting that he goes where his countrymen are ministering.
Barnabas was among the first to accept Saul after his conversion (9:27) and to overcome the fears of the Jerusalem church that Saul was not sincere. Thus he is a good choice to send to another group that the Jerusalem church has questions about. His bridge-building and encouraging character makes him a good fit for the new community and shows how God uses the unique gifts of His disciples to further His church.
Barnabas comes to Antioch and witnesses the grace of God. The new body of believers is real and full of people genuinely converted. The Spirit is truly working in Antioch and the very obvious hand of God causes Barnabas to rejoice. Based on what he sees he begins to live up to his name and encourage the new believers to keep on serving and to remain true to the Lord.
As a result of Barnabas’ ministry of encouragement and teaching considerable numbers are added to the Lord. The congregation of Antioch was large before Barnabas came (21) and now grows even larger. The city is well on its way to becoming the center of the new ministry to the gentiles.
Note that the text says people are added to the Lord. This shows that evangelism is all about God. God causes belief and the belief is in Him and the souls added are added to Him. It is ALL about Him. When we see ‘the Lord adding to the Lord’, so that He is both subject and object, source and goal, of evangelism, we have to repent of all self-centered, self-confident concepts of the Christian mission (John Stott, “The Message of Acts,” The Bible Speaks Today, 204).
The congregation becomes large enough that Barnabas decides he needs more help with leading it. He travels 130 miles north – 8 days journey – to Tarsus to find Saul. Saul has been in Tarsus since leaving Jerusalem – because of threats to his life (9:30) – approximately 7-10 years ago. During this time Saul has been ministering in Syria and Cilicia (the province surrounding Tarsus) and presumably growing in his understanding of the gospel and gaining experience with new communities of believers (Gal 1:21). Thus he is the perfect person to bring to Antioch to lead the diverse community of new converts.
Saul and Barnabas return to Antioch and minister there for a year. They teach within the new church (met with the church) and apparently also continue to evangelize (taught considerable numbers). Their preaching and teaching focus so exclusively on Jesus the Christ that the converts are labeled Christians by the people of Antioch. This is the first use of the term and could be intended to be derisive. Nevertheless, it becomes the identifier for all believers going forward and serves to distinguish the new movement from Judaism.
Sometime during Barnabas and Saul’s ministry in Antioch a group of prophets comes from Jerusalem. The text does not say why the group comes or what exactly it means that they are prophets. One of them – Agabus – stands in the congregation and through the Spirit predicts that a great famine will occur all over the world.
Luke adds a comment that the famine does in fact take place during the reign of Claudius who ruled from 41-54 AD. No worldwide famine is recorded during his reign but several regional famines are. It could be, then, that the prophecy is understood to mean numerous famines instead of one and that they will occur throughout the world. One of these famines will apparently take place in Judea, which explains the actions of the disciples in addressing needs there.
The response of the Antioch community is telling. They do not doubt the accuracy of the prophecy since it is of the Spirit. They also grasp the need that will certainly arise in Judea as a result. Thus they immediately begin gathering contributions to send to the Judean believers. Everyone gives according to his means. This is a natural outgrowth of their conversion – they give what belongs to God to meet the needs of others. God has given them more than they need so they can minister to those with less. The abundance is from God and the need is from God and the knowledge of the need is from God (no reason for Agabus to prophesy if the Antioch church does not respond) and their giving is God’s method of meeting the needs and blessing the givers (II Cor 9:6-15). They are God’s children so they mercifully and willingly meet the physical needs of their brothers and sisters.
And that is a key description to notice. Verse 29 says the church in Antioch sends the contribution to the brethren living in Judea. They do not send aid to an unknown and unaffiliated group – they send their contributions to the brethren. The believers in Antioch and Judea may be different because one group is Greek and the other Judean and one is made up of gentiles and the other Jewish. But that is overcome by the fact that they are brothers in Christ and thus united as one.
The aid is sent with Saul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. This is likely Saul’s second trip to Jerusalem referenced in Galatians 2. Saul and Barnabas have led the new church and now lead the delegation to Jerusalem to deliver the aid (presumably before the famine hits because of the grace of God in telling them about it through the prophecy of Agabus). The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to address the spiritual needs of the believers there. The Antioch church now sends him back to Jerusalem to minister to the physical needs of the believers there. God in His goodness blesses the faithfulness of both congregations.
It is worth spending more time on verses 23 and 24 and what they say about Barnabas, so we can learn from his example as to what a child of God fully surrendered to the Spirit looks like. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but it paints a good picture of what should typify the soul walking in close fellowship with its Creator. The verses describe three things that Barnabas does and point out three characteristics that he has.
What he does:
- He comes and witnesses the grace of God.
- He rejoices over what he sees.
- He encourages the new believers with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord.
What he is:
- He is a good man.
- He is full of the Holy Spirit.
- He is full of faith.
The characteristics explain the actions and explain each other. He is a good man because he is full of faith. He is full of faith because he is full of the Holy Spirit. What marks him as a good man? If he is full of the Holy Spirit then he exhibits the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Luke and others see this so clearly in Barnabas that Luke can matter-of-factly state that Barnabas is a good man and full of the Spirit. Barnabas is the way he is because of the Spirit – nothing else explains it. Thus Luke can describe him as he does.
Barnabas’ actions are then completely consistent with his character. First of all, he is chosen to go to Antioch because of his inclusive nature. Then, when he gets to Antioch he witnesses the grace of God working in the new church and understands fully what he sees. He does not attribute the growing community of believers to anything or anyone other than God. He is full of the Spirit and so recognizes the Spirit’s work.
He then rejoices over what he sees. Again – he is full of the Spirit so it makes perfect sense that the Spirit rejoices over His own work. The Spirit-filled man celebrates the work of the Spirit in others. Barnabas is centered on God’s work and on spreading God’s news so he rejoices in seeing it successfully proclaimed and believed. The spread of the gospel is what excites the Spirit-filled man.
His third action is to encourage the new believers. He encourages them to remain true to the Lord with a resolute heart. “Walk with the Lord and serve Him with an unwavering resolve – do not turn to the right nor to the left!” Remember that ‘Barnabas’ (son of encouragement) is his nickname. His real name is ‘Joseph’ (4:36) but no one calls him that because he is so identified with encouragement. And the way he encourages is to spur the brethren to obedience – “…continue to serve with a resolute heart.” He does not simply complement people (“Nice tunic, Isaac! Have you lost weight?”) or tell them to hang in there. He encourages them in their faith and walk. He stimulates others to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24) and encourages others day after day as long as it is called “Today,” so that no one will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13).
So what does a man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith look like? He exhibits the fruit of the Spirit to the point that his character is obvious to those around him. He recognizes and rejoices in the Spirit’s work in others. And he encourages others in their faith and walk.