In Acts 11:19-30, we see a little more of Barnabas’s character. Luke describes him as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ Acts 11:24), sent by the apostles in Jerusalem to check out what was happening in Antioch. (It’s interesting that first-hand reports were important in those days and in our tendency to believe all we read or see on the news or on social media, it’s worth considering the validity of first-hand reports even nowadays!) Barnabas, whose nickname meant ‘son of encouragement’, was originally from Cyprus, and it may be that because of his ethnicity the apostles felt he was the ideal person to check out what was happening in the ongoing evangelisation of the Gentiles. John Stott says, ‘He acted as a pivot or link between the Hebrew and Hellenistic elements in the church.’ (‘Acts’, P 202)
True to his name, ‘when he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.’ (Acts 11:23) Barnabas was not one to focus on legalism or outward conformity to rules; he knew the value of the grace of God and the need for whole-hearted obedience to the word. Barnabas had the spiritual insight to recognise that God’s plan was being fulfilled at Antioch. He recognised that there was potential for further advances and saw the need of additional help in evangelism and teaching.
Barnabas did not work in isolation. Instead, he went to Tarsus (a 100 mile journey) to find Saul and bring him to Antioch so that the church could be built up by teaching and preaching. He knew Saul’s call to be an apostle to the Gentiles and was generous enough not to think that he could do everything on his own. His selflessness and willingness to work with others, along with his perseverance and cheerfulness, are other characteristics which mark him out as a true blessing to the church. May we know many such people in our congregations!
Luke gives us a picture of a flourishing church in Acts 11:19-30, showing us the church in Antioch. Antioch in Syria (not to be confused with Antioch in Pisidia) was a cosmopolitan city founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. John Stott tells us he named it ‘Antioch’ after his father, Antiochus, and its port, 15 miles west along the navigable river Orontes ‘Seleucia’ after himself. Over the years it became known as ‘Antioch the Beautiful’ because of its fine buildings, and by Luke’s day it was famous for its long, paved boulevard, which ran from north to south and was flanked by a double colonnade with trees and fountains. Although it was a Greek city by foundation, its population (500,000) was extremely cosmopolitan. It had a large colony of Jews, attracted by Seleucus’ offer of equal citizenship, and Orientals too from Persia, India and even China, earning it another of its names, ‘the Queen of the East.’ Since it was absorbed into the Roman Empire by Pompey in 64 B.C. and became the capital of the imperial province of Syria (to which Cilicia was later added), its inhabitants included Latins as well. Thus Greeks, Jews, Orientals and Romans formed the mixed multitude of what Josephus called ‘the third city of the empire’, after Rome and Alexandria.
There can be no doubt that the formation of the church at Antioch was an event of great significance in the expansion of the church and its mission to the Gentiles. We don’t know which of the believers scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom was responsible for its formation, but men from Cyprus (like Barnabas) and Cyrene (like Simon who carried the Lord’s cross or Lucius, mentioned in Acts 13:1) took the word of God to this city and it was from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul, who worked here for a year, were launched as missionaries. (Acts 13:1-4). In this chapter, we see Jerusalem responding to the work of God by sending Barnabas to help, and Barnabas not only encouraged them to serve God whole-heartedly but worked alongside them with Saul, and we then later see Antioch responding to God’s word by sending Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem with a gift to help in times of famine. The influence of this church, which appears to have embraced Gentiles with welcome and sound teaching, cannot be over-estimated. Generosity, faith, teachability and whole-heartedness were characteristics which made the church at Antioch stand out. May these characteristics be ours today.
One of the interesting facts we learn from Acts 11:19-30 is that the followers of Jesus were first called ‘Christians’ there. This nickname, presumably bestowed on believers because they spoke so much about Jesus Christ that that was the term most associated with them, has now become a universal term for believers, but in those early days, there were many other terms:
disciples (Acts 6:1)
saints (Acts 9:13)
‘brothers’ (Acts 1:16)
believers (Acts 10:45)
those being saved (Acts 2:47)
people of the Way (Acts 9:2)
The word is only used in two other places in the New Testament (Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet 4:16) but is now probably the most recognised way of declaring affinity to Jesus Christ.
There’s a challenge in the word, however. To be a ‘Christ-one’ is to be like Christ: not only to follow His teaching, but to reflect His character and life. Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have said that he liked the Christ of Christianity but was not at all sure he liked the Christians who bore his name. Sadly, that can often be the case. We are all sinful, fallible, imperfect people, but as we allow the life of Christ to live in us, we come to take on His bearing and His nature. God’s purpose for every one of His children is that we are ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son.’ (Rom 8:29)
That will mean letting go of our need for control, to be first, to be the lord of all and will mean embracing sacrifice, self-denial and servanthood. Are we growing in our Christian journey? Are we becoming more like Christ?
The very first thing we read about in the Bible is God’s mighty acts of creation. Our God is a creative God and since we are made in His image, we too are creative people. This doesn’t make all of us artists, actors, dancers or musicians, but it does mean there is the urge to make, rather than destroy, in each one of us which can be nurtured and embraced.
In 2017 I founded the Dearne Community Arts’ Festival to ‘champion creativity and celebrate community.’ I was overwhelmed by the creativity of people in my local community who produced knitted cardigans and crocheted blankets for my new granddaughter with nonchalance. I wanted to give others the opportunity to see the dazzling array of creativity that goes on every day in my local community and to celebrate all that is good rather than focussing on the negative. We are now planning the fourth festival and I have been amazed at the creativity which pours forth: paintings, drawings, photography, pyrography, encaustic art, sand art, pottery, wood-turning, sewing, knitting, embroidery, crocheting, dancing, music, singing, circus skills, writing, mosaics, decoupage, to name just a few!
Embracing creativity means pursuing the desires of your heart (Ps 37:4), following the dreams God plants within and learning new skills. It may well seem a very selfish thing to do, but I believe in embracing creativity, we actually mirror God’s flourish of creation and become the people He has made us to be. The arts (in the widest sense of the word) provide so much benefit to our health and wellbeing; as a friend of mine says, ‘art changes hearts.’ I urge you to embrace creativity and be open to finding God through the skills and talents He has given. At this bizarre time when so many are being urged to isolate themselves, let’s use the time we have to be creative. My first project will be to create a ‘thankfulness jar’ which I’ll be painting and trying to put in a slip of paper each day naming things for which I’m thankful. What will your project be?
This has been one of the most surreal weeks I’ve ever lived through, with Government announcements and pronouncements on a daily basis. If we thought Brexit was bad, the current situation is much worse.
As a result of the announcements about social distancing and the need for social isolation, we have reluctantly and with great sadness decided to suspend meetings at our church building on Market Street from this weekend. There will be no Parent & Toddler group on Friday (20th March) and no Sunday services from 22nd March, nor will we have midweek meetings from 26th March. The last meeting in the building for the forseeable future will be tomorrow, 19th March, for the Bible study.
The fact that we can’t gather together is a difficult blow to us, since the importance of meeting together is stressed in the Bible (Heb 10:25) and forms a central part of our Christian lives. However, we don’t cease to be church because we currently can’t meet together. The previous verses tell us, ‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.’ (Heb 10:23-24) We need to continue to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God is faithful. And we need to consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, even if we can’t do that face to face.
We’re investigating ways to keep in touch with you all through livestreaming services on Facebook to regular blog posts (something we do already) and if you have any suggestions for how we can all spur each other on, please let us know! All of us can be involved in messaging and phoning people to check how they are doing. If people need help with practical issues such as collecting prescriptions or getting shopping, please let us know and we will do our best to help. We can all pray for each other, even if we don’t see each other – please check out our Facebook GPCC Prayer Group as well as our Facebook page so that we can share prayer needs and continue to support each other spiritually at this time. One thing we’re hoping to set up is a church WhatsApp group so we can talk to each other easily.
Over many months we’ve been talking about the need for deep vertical and horizontal connections and for us to be deeply rooted in God, accessing His living water to keep our lives fruitful and overflowing. Even though we can’t be physically together, we can be nourished and nurtured by God and can develop our horizontal connections with each other as we live out our faith in the everyday. Social isolation is not good for the soul, but we don’t have to be people who panic, are fearful or who despair, for we serve the Maker of heaven and earth. The times may be a’changing, but God never changes.
With the world plunged into uncertainty over the coronavirus, one of the most unsettling things is not really knowing how long the present situation will last. Uncertainty is one of the hardest things we find to cope with. We like to plan, to feel in control, to be able to map out where we are going. The current advice to distance ourselves from others and the disruption to normal routines leave us adrift on a sea of uncertainty.
‘How long is this going to go on for? How long will it be like this?’ we ask. We have been told so many different things – self-isolate for seven days, for fourteen days, for twelve weeks – and now see events being cancelled as far ahead as May and June that we feel a numbing sense of disorientation.
The question ‘How long?‘ is found on the lips of the psalmists on many occasions (see Ps 6:3, Ps 13:1-2, Ps 74:10, Ps 79:5, Ps 89:45, Ps 119:84). The psalms walk us through disorientation, doubt and despair with honesty, courage and hope. I’m not sure the question ‘How long?’ is ever answered in these psalms, but each time there is a transition away from despair and helplessness as the psalmist chooses to trust God in the midst of the uncertainty and fear.
This is our choice too. We probably won’t know ‘how long’ the present situation will last – even medical experts and government ministers don’t really know. We don’t know how long until ‘normal life’ can resume. We don’t know how long before travel can be restored. But we do know God is with us, never leaving us or forsaking us and therefore we can choose to trust Him and to live one day at a time.