06 Life and Ministry of Apostle Paul
Bible Text: Acts 11:19-26 | Preacher: Pastor Gary Miller | Series: Apostle Paul – Life and Ministry | 6th of series “Life and Ministry of Paul” – Sunday, January 13, 2019
Gary Miller, Pastor, Christ Community Church, Weatherford, Oklahoma
The 5th book of the New Testament that follows the four Gospels which tells us about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ has often been referred to as the book of Acts. Sometimes it is called the Acts of the Apostles, but probably the better or more fitting title should be the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles, as well as through those early first century Christians, because throughout the book it is the working and moving of the Holy Spirit that is prominent again and again.
One of the accounts of the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way is one that we’re going to look at this morning in the 11th chapter which records another episode in the life and ministry of the one known as the apostle Paul.
Now when he had that life-changing encounter with the living Christ as he neared the city of Damascus that one day as given in the 9th chapter of the book of Acts, which was some 100 miles or more to the north of Jerusalem, with plans to move in on Christians who were there, new believers in Jesus to terrorize them, even to persecute them, he was probably somewhere in his mid-30s, which would have made him probably a few years younger than Jesus Christ. He was born probably several years after Jesus was. Within days of views that he previously had about Jesus, that he found had been so wrong, those views went through a total and complete overhaul. And soon he was before audiences in Damascus and he was laying out convincing proof that the Jesus whom he had opposed was actually the real Jesus, the promised Messiah. Only a short time before that would have been a belief that he would have adamantly opposed.
Now when we connect that chapter with another account that he wrote about 10 years later, which is the book of Galatians, we learn that there was a period of about three years that went by in which he left and he went to a place, a desert place called Arabia, which probably was not all that far away, somewhere to the south and east of Damascus. At some point he returned to the city of Damascus. But not long after he had to escape a murderous plot of some Jews under the darkness of night, after which he made his way to the city of Jerusalem. That was a city he knew quite well. He had spent a lot of his years from maybe being a teenager through his young adult life going through rigorous Jewish training. But there also he encountered some death threats on his life. And because some fellow brothers in the Lord came and stood by him and helped him, he was able to get away safely and he ended up returning to his hometown of Tarsus which was in the southern portion of what was then known as Asia minor, Turkey today. And that is where the account of Saul’s life is put on pause for a while as far as the New Testament accounts are concerned. He kind of fades into the background for a period of time, probably 4 to 5 years. There are some who believe that it was as much is 8, 9, and 10 years that he was in the city of Tarsus his hometown. That would have meant that he would’ve gone from his mid-30s to about his mid-40s, and it was that period of time that went by.
Now one of the reasons that we find it a little bit difficult to determine the dates of all this is because in the book of Acts there are only a few time markers that are given to us. And so as a result we’re kind of left with guessing and trying to estimate, to make some estimations and to try to figure it out. But the dates are not as important as the fact of what had happened with Paul during that time. While he was in that portion of his home province, we learn that there is a shift of focus in the latter part of the book of Acts, chapter 9, and also in which it goes into chapters 10 and 11. And during that section it’s the apostle Peter who once again comes into the limelight. He becomes the central character. And we read the story of how he was used by God to bring the gospel of Jesus to the Gentile people, the non-Jews in other words. You might recall the interesting account of how he was one day praying and all of a sudden he saw a vision of a sheet that was lowered from heaven and all kinds of animals were in it. And he was given a command through a voice that said, “Kill and eat.” And he was resistant to that. And this happened three times in succession, each time the sheet was taken back to heaven. And as Peter was wrestling with his understanding of the Old Testament law that had clearly prohibited eating some of these animals, how could God now be making such a thing lawful? But the Lord was using all of this to work upon Peter’s eyes and his heart to a new outpouring of His grace to the Gentile peoples.
Well, as Peter was processing all this in his mind, about that moment God brought three men to his front door who called upon him to go back with them to a nearby town because there was a Roman Centurion by the name of Cornelius who with his family was seeking for God, and just the day before actually had been visited by an angel of God. And so Peter went with them and when he arrived he saw and he heard the openness of these Gentile peoples. He declared to them Jesus, and before he even finished the Holy Spirit came upon those in that non-Jewish audience. Word got back to the church at Jerusalem that the Gentiles had begun to receive the word of God. Now I don’t know if you realize how big of a deal this was, but for Jews to accept that Gentiles would actually be recipients of the gospel of God’s grace through the message of Jesus Christ, I mean that was a huge hurdle to overcome. And so as a result you can see why they were skeptical about this whole thing. And so Peter went there and he told these believers what had happened, and when he laid it all out they began to see that God had done this work, and they accepted what God had done and gave Him praise.
Now all of this was a huge work of God and obviously it didn’t span over that entire period of time, maybe only a short period of time. But it was one of the big events that occurred while Paul, or still known as Saul, was still back in his hometown area. As to what else may have gone on during that period of time we are only left with a few clues. Let me just mention several of them really quickly. One of them is given that in Galatians chapter 1 that after he had been in Jerusalem, he said he “went to Syria and Cilicia” (Galatians 1:21). Cilicia, of course, was the province where his home town was located and in connection to that time he went on to say that “churches in Judea…heard the report” that “the man who formally persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:22-23). We get from that that maybe that’s one of the things that was going on while Paul or Saul was in Tarsus. He was going around evangelizing, maybe individuals one by one, or maybe small groups, maybe even larger groups. We don’t know. Nothing more is given to us. It is also possible it was during those years that he endured some of the hardships that are spoken of in the 11th chapter of 2nd Corinthians (vs. 22-27) – various forms of harsh treatments, like beatings and lashes, and going through some of the dangers that he set forth there. We can’t claim that with full certainty but that is very possible, and the reason for that is because he went on to state in the next chapter that there was a time in which he had gone through a very unusual and unique experience that left its mark on him for the rest of his life, that he referred to in 2nd Corinthians chapter 12 when he talked about visions and revelations that came from the Lord, one of which he said that there was a man, probably referring to himself, most likely referring to himself, who was caught up to the third heaven and there he heard things that were inexpressible (2 Cor. 12:1). And the interesting thing about this is that he does put a timeline on this – some 14 years ago that it happened. And if we kind of determine when it was that he wrote the book of 2nd Corinthians and then we work back 14 years, that would have been during that period of time when he was back home in Tarsus. And so when you put that together with what he wrote about some of the hardships in chapter 11 plus what he also went on to say in chapter 12, which was a sequel to the vision that he had of the thorn that was given him by God that he carried around with him in the flesh, whatever it was, that ended up being a knockout blow to his self-confidence so that he would be dependent on the ongoing enablement and the strength of the Lord in his life, learning that God’s grace was sufficient for him so that His grace would be made perfect in weakness and he would be strengthened by God. Each of those things very likely were situations and events and experiences that Saul experienced during this period of time.
Now there may have been many other things that we’re not told anything in the New Testament about. But all of these together served to Saul’s growing in his Christian walk and becoming strong in the Lord and usable for the cause of Christ, so that when this next episode occurs that we do read about where he comes back into the picture, he has been prepared to indeed be what God had said to him when he was converted that day in going to Damascus, “You are going to be my chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15). Now that is going to come to fruition.
So follow along as we read the first several verses of this account as given in Acts chapter 11, beginning at verse 19 –
Acts 11:19-21 (New International Version)
19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Now this is a very short summary of which obviously there’s a lot of things that are going on in these few lines. First of all, the persecution that is spoken about here in connection with Stephen goes back to what we read about that followed after Stephen was stoned to death at the end of Acts chapter 7. And then Acts chapter 8 begins with these words, “Saul was there, giving approval to” the death of Stephen – he went along with all this – and “on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Judea, of course, was the province in which Jerusalem was located, so they began to move out from the city and then also they went to the nearby province to the north that was known as Samaria.
Now you might recall something that when Jesus gave instructions to His disciples before He ascended into heaven, that one of the one most well-known verses in the Bible and certainly in the book of Acts, is Acts chapter 1 and verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses,” it says there. And it gives three phases in which they would go out, His disciples would go out and be His witnesses: first of all, in Jerusalem, then in all of Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. Well, they had been doing that already in Jerusalem. Now persecution breaks out. So what happens? They begin to fulfill what Jesus had said in Acts 1:8 in which they would be going out into Judea and all Samaria. Sometimes we wonder to ourselves – maybe we ought to pray for a persecution the break out so that the gospel message of Jesus Christ might spread. I don’t know that any one of us want any of that, but that’s what God used in this particular time.
Saul at that time, of course, had been directly complicit in all of that cruelty and brutality. As it says here, that he set out “to destroy the church” (Acts 8:3). He set out to work against it.
Now at this point in the middle of Acts 11, it’s somewhere around 10 years after that. And we get an idea, we’re given an idea of some of the places that those Christ-followers had also scattered to. One was to Phoenicia which was a narrow strip of land along the coast that was northwest of the sea of Galilee. Also the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And then the city of Antioch which was located about 300 miles to the north of the city of Jerusalem. Some of these focused only on sharing the gospel message with fellow Jews, probably because they spoke only Hebrew, and so they spoke the message to fellow Jews who also spoke that same language. But there were others who had also become impacted by the gospel in places like Cyprus as well as to the northern part of Africa which would been way down of the bottom here of the map that you see here on screen – a city by the name of Cyrene. By the way, there is someone else who is well-known who came from Cyrene, a man by the name of Simon who carried the cross for Jesus for part of the way to Calvary that day. He was from that same location as which some of these who had been impacted by the gospel. And they came and made her way to Antioch to share the good news about Christ to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Very likely they were Greek-speaking Jews.
Now Antioch was a major city of that first century period in the Roman empire. It is said that it was the third-largest city of that day of the world behind Rome and Alexandria in northern Egypt. It was located about 15 miles inland from the shores of the eastern side of the Mediterranean. And it was a melting pot of multiple cultures. And interestingly there was a community of Jews that lived there. But it was a city also that was in spiritual darkness. It was flooded with a deliberate pursuit of pleasure, all forms of immorality and wickedness – it was filled with all those forms. And it’s into this cesspool of depravity came just some average believers in Jesus, men and women whose names we don’t even know. They’re only mentioned in kind of a passing reference in what we read here moment ago. They made a special effort, traveled by sea, a long distance by land, to come to the place of Antioch to bring the light of Jesus Christ into that darkness so as to hopefully begin to break the hold of paganism on souls that were so desperate and needy. And they were effective. Verse 21 goes on to state that “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Isn’t that interesting? A pagan city where probably there were few if any Christians before and suddenly these believers come in from the outside and they’re turning to the Lord.
But I want you to notice though that the text does not put the focus so much on these believers, as significant of channels of Christ as they were, but it rather is focused upon the Lord – “the Lord’s hand was with them.” Now that’s an interesting expression. It is an idiom that is used to describe the work, the power, the might of God. He was behind all of this. He was the primary source behind their outreach. It wasn’t high-powered programs or elaborate organizational structure – just the Lord’s power who used these everyday believers to spark a blaze that had the results that it did, of a great number turning to Lord. God was sovereignly by His Spirit doing something big, capital letters, BIG in the city of Antioch. By the way, this underscores again that even in the darkest pit God’s light can still shine brightly.
Well it wasn’t long until word began to spread around in the area of what was going on in Antioch. And so we read beginning at verse 22 of Acts 11, “News of this reached the ears of the church of Jerusalem.” That’s another interesting expression isn’t it? – “the ears of the Church of Jerusalem.” What this simply means – we use expressions like that in our everyday language as well – what it simply means is they heard loud and clear what was going on 300 miles away to the north. And so “they sent Barnabas to Antioch,” and “when he arrived and he saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24). So word gets back to the believers who made up this church at Jerusalem. And we can only begin to wonder, imagine that is, what some of them were wondering – “Could God really be moving in this way in a place like that to reach Gentile peoples?” Now they had already heard about what happened with Peter and Cornelius and his household, which was not all that far away. But now this was going to places where they could not believe that this was possible. Was it possible that people in Antioch who were Gentiles could come to Jesus Christ just as Jews had come? Well, they needed to find out some more details about this. So they had a business meeting – well, I don’t think they had one, they just kind of began to talk about this somehow and decided that they needed to send someone to be a representative on their behalf. And who better than Barnabas who had already become a significant part of the church in Jerusalem in previous years.
When he’s first introduced in the record at the end of acts chapter 4, verses 36 and 37, you might recall that he was one of those early disciples who when there was great needs among the people in the church there, he had sold a field and took the proceeds and brought it to the apostles and said, “Here, you can use this to help some of our fellow brothers and sisters who are in need.” Not only that but it tells us there that he was a Levite from Cyprus which would indicate then that he was a Greek-speaking Jew since he came from that island province. As a result he would have been able to identify with those others who had come to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene. In fact they maybe had even been, some of those had even been personal friends of his in the past, since some of them had come from Cyprus. All this to say that Barnabas would have been a perfect fit for going there. I mentioned the other week that his name literally, “Bar” means “son of”, and the last and the main part of his name, the word means “encouragement or consolation”. So when you put them together Barnabas’ name was “son of encouragement”. And how he operated in his life was really fitting of his name. He had stood by, for example, Saul when Saul had come to Jerusalem sometime earlier, in which others were skeptical about him. And Barnabas had said, “No, no, Saul’s the real deal. He really has seen the Lord. He’s been impacted. His life is changed.”
Here we find that Barnabas was just an all-around good man, meaning that he was openhearted, gracious. He was a man through whom the Holy Spirit flowed, which produced a faith that believed God and expected God to act. And that inspired another spiritual desired expectation and dependence upon the Lord. What a great need there is today for far more “Barnabas’s” among God’s people. Each of us can be and should be a “Barnabas”.
And so Barnabas with the sanction of the church of the believers there in Jerusalem heads out of town off to Antioch, a 300-mile trek. And as he goes, he’s expecting to be led of God. He’s expecting God to open his mind and his heart and his eyes to see what God wanted him to see. And when he arrives it was more than he could possibly have imagined. There was clearly evidence of the grace of God that had been at work because a great number of people were brought to the Lord. And he saw the grace of God in reality. These were not just individuals who were saying they were Christians. They were already showing that they were Christians because they shared the common life of Jesus Christ who had come to live within them. So Barnabas’ message was very simple, “Look, folks, don’t let up. God has begun a good work in you. He will carry it on through you, so stay true to Him in whom you have believed with all your heart.”
And the presence of a man of such authentic character, who displayed the fulness of the Spirit no doubt would have given these new believers the stimulus they needed to reach out even more, and they did. It resulted in converts continuing to increase rapidly. I don’t think just by these statements we can really get the full sense and the full feel of what was going on here. There was something major that was occurring in Antioch.
But this also was beginning to create a problem, particularly for Barnabas. As he could see that this new body of believers was swelling, growing day by day he saw that he himself did not have the gifts and probably even the energy that was needed to single-handedly oversee the responsibility of this enormous growth. He needed a coworker. It needed to be the right man, and there was one who came to his mind immediately, whom he knew would be suited for the work, his buddy Saul, if only he could find him. Remember now the last time Barnabas had contact with Saul had been before Saul was escorted from Jerusalem and death threats were being made upon, and so he had to leave to the coastal city of Caesarea, and from there he went on to Tarsus. That’s where Saul has been all this time. But they didn’t have any email, no texting between them. Saul had left no calling card with his address.
And so we read in the next verses, verses 25 and 26, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul.” Now just for a second, I want you to see where these two places are relationship with each other. Antioch is there just in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, and then Tarsus is around the bend, and it’s a distance of close to 100 miles. I don’t know, they maybe could have taken a ship to go across that little inlet there, or whatever you would call it of the sea. Maybe he walked all the way. Whatever it was, he takes off for Tarsus to look for Saul. “And when he found him,” it says, “he brought him to Antioch,” and “so for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)
Now all those years that Saul had been in Tarsus were years of preparation for him, so that he had become a well-seasoned servant of the Lord. So that when Barnabas came in to town to track him down and somehow found him and told Saul, “Hey, you’re needed, and here’s why,” and explained to him the process, “and we haven’t got a minute to lose,” I believe that it didn’t really take much persuasion for Saul to say, “Okay, let’s go.” By the way, we don’t get any indication that during those years Saul ever put out his name or his resume out there, kind of leaving a message behind to Barnabas somehow that if he ever needed someone, feel free to contact him. Rather, Saul was just being faithful where God had put him, carrying on where he was, content to not have to be out in the open where he would be the center of attention, but even times remaining in obscurity if need be and for as long as necessary until God had plans for him otherwise. I can almost imagine the fast pace that both of them together maintained as they made their way to Antioch. They wasted no time getting there, talking all the way about their strategy and the primary focus of their ministry. Barnabas was probably telling him one account and story after another about this person, how this individual had been lost in deep sin and came to know the Savior, and this individual, and how these people were gathering together. We can imagine all kinds of things that were being shared with Saul and his appetite was being whet for ministry for what he was about to be experiencing when he got there. God was about to use them in a special way for His glory and for His honor. How long their trip took for them to get back, how much time Barnabas was actually gone – you know, if you go a hundred miles and you have to walk it and then you walk it back, well that’s going to take a few days each way if you are pretty strong and healthy. And the sense I get from this passage is that while he was gone probably God had done even more, so that when they both got into town they got to work and began teaching, as it says, “great numbers of people” who continued to come to Christ. And they became heavily involved in that teaching ministry for the next year. Notice it says they “taught” them. That is a key thing. That is what new believers need – they need teaching, they need God’s Word. That’s what Barnabas and Saul did.
Now because the sin city of Antioch could not fit this new people into any of their known categories, there was a new identity that needed to be used in order to say who these people were. Perhaps it was used first in jest, then maybe with some scorn and contempt, later on even with rage, because these new believers in Jesus were quickly becoming a contradiction to the culture in Antioch. These sinful people in Antioch, some of them were probably saying, “Just look at these people – they come into our city, they don’t worship our idols, they don’t observe or participate in our standards” – if you want to call them that – “they live lives that are entirely different from ours.” Yeah, right. So the label coined for them was the name “Christians”. Disciples were first called “Christians” at Antioch. I want to suggest to you that this was not the term that the church, the people, used for themselves, but rather it was given to them by the outsiders who were part of the city itself. The last part of the word “ian” simply means “to belong to” or “to be a part of”. And who were they a part of? Who did they belong to? Jesus, thus “Christians”. They belonged to Christ. Christ was so much a part of these believers’ lives that there was no other name that would have been fitting to give to them.
The great preacher W. A. Criswell who led first Baptist Church in Dallas for many years once told of how Alexander the Great learned one time that in his army there was another soldier by the name of Alexander who had displayed some cowardice. So one day he summoned the soldier to be brought in to him, and he ask him, “Is your name Alexander? And were you named after me?” And the trembling coward said, “Yes, that’s my name, and yes, I was named after you.” The great general replied, “Then either be brave and change, or change your name.” Those who were first called Christians in Antioch lived up to and they lived out the name of Jesus Christ, which is in contrast to far too many in our day even for whom the term “Christian” is only a vague label with little meaning. All this is to say that if we take on the name of Christ, then we should be committed to letting the life of Jesus be preeminent so that he lives in and through us.
So this twosome, Barnabas and Paul, they’re out there teaching day after day. One author that I read puts it this way, uses a few interesting expressions – They “complemented one another beautifully.” This was because of the special “orchestration of the Spirit of God” working within both of them. Here were two men with very different personalities and gifts:
Barnabas who would have been described as “sensitive, empathetic, gracious.”
Saul – brilliantly equipped with a “razor-sharp lawyer’s intellect”.
Together with the Spirit’s power working through them they made a mighty and formidable team.
And their ministry in Antioch would establish a base from which later these two would be launched to carry the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ even to further reaches, and from there it would go further as Paul would indeed go to the ends of the earth, as Jesus had told his disciples in Acts chapter 1 and verse 8 before His departure into heaven.
You know, if we wonder what it was that caused Saul’s teaching and his ministry to make such a remarkable difference, there’s one explanation – it’s because Saul was different. During that period when he was behind the scenes, we might say, that was when God had given him fresh revelation of Himself and of His plan, had given him new insights regarding the grace of God and all the many doctrines that were connected with that, and also the work of His church the body of Jesus Christ. It was then that Saul would have learned to minister out of weakness so that God could be able to use him and strengthen him and make him powerful. And God is still working in that way in each of us no matter what our place may be. We may be an individual who may be doing things occasionally out in the open, very visible in public. On the other hand, there may be times, lots of times when what we’re doing for the Lord is unseen, few people are noticing. In either case God’s intent is to display His strength out of our weakness, urging us so that we can do as what Paul would write in the end of his letter to the Philippians, “I can do all things, I can do everything through Christ who gives me the strength.” (Philippians 4:13) Let’s make that our prayer as we close this morning.
Heavenly Father, we thank You again for the many lessons that we are able to gain from these special characters that You have chosen to fill up some of the pages of Your Word, and particularly with Saul who became Paul. Thank you for lessons that we can learn from his life, the recognition that when he started out he certainly was not the kind of individual that people would have held in high esteem. He needed total renewal and You brought that through an encounter that he had with Your Son, Jesus Christ. Lord, we pray that You would refine and polish us so that like Saul we can be usable men and women to serve You in the places that You have put us, whatever those might be. And we pray even this week with experiences that we might have or with people we might encounter, we might display the light of the living Christ to them as well so that they might become like many of that day in Antioch, turning to the Lord and to His light. We pray in His special and glorious and wonderful Name. Amen.