All in the Family
In the ‘70s, there was a sitcom named “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker, his son-in-law “Meathead,” daughter Gloria and wife Edith made up a strange family. Archie’s bigoted attitude toward everybody and everything along with the accompanying family dysfunction made for great comedy.
Racism, bigoted attitudes and snobbery are not limited to white, middle class, middle-aged men. It comes in all colors, shapes and sizes, and it goes in all directions. In addition, racism and bigoted attitudes are not new. These things are not modern inventions.
At the time of Jesus, there already existed ancient prejudices and animosities between different groups of people. The Jews hated Samaritans and had nothing to do with Gentiles. Samaritans and Gentiles returned the favor.
When the Church was born, there existed a unique situation that removed many political and language barriers. The Roman Empire did away with political boundaries and gave a vast area of the world a common trade language.
Because of the Roman Empire, it was possible for persecuted Christians from Judea to relocate within the Empire. Acts 11:19 tells us, “The believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria.”[i]
However, this political freedom did not do away with barriers of culture. Acts 11:19 finishes with, “They preached the word of God, but only to Jews.”
I do not think these early Christians were malicious, nor do I think they had bad motives. I think they were doing what came naturally. They were associating with those they felt comfortable with.
When the early Christians relocated because of persecution, it was natural that they should form connections in Jewish communities already in existence. For example, even the Apostle Paul, who was the Apostle to the Gentiles, went first to the synagogue when he entered a new community. This was a natural connection for him, a Jew.
This world’s system tends to build cultural barriers and some of these form into prejudices. There are those, who like Archie Bunker, adopt attitudes toward others that are simply un-“Christ-like.”
The early Church was remarkably open to different cultures and peoples, especially in light of their Jewish background. Barnabas rejoiced when he saw large numbers of Gentiles turning to the Lord.
This openness is remarkable, considering the cultural barriers that existed. In order to overcome these barriers, the Lord took the believers through a process. First, Peter had a vision of a sheet filled with all manner of unclean and forbidden animals. A voice from heaven commanded him to eat these animals. Being a good Jew, Peter refused. This vision was immediately connected with Peter sharing the Gospel with a Gentile, his family and friends. These Gentiles believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. When Peter’s fellow Jewish believers and apostles heard of this, they asked him what he was doing speaking with Gentiles. Peter explained what happened and the believers began to understand that the Lord wanted to save Gentiles also.
With the stoning of Stephen, persecution of believers in Christ began. This persecution spread believers and as they were going, they preached the Gospel. Cyprus was one of the places listed in Acts 11:19 where believers went when they fled persecution. These relocated Jewish believers shared with their new neighbors about Jesus. Verse 20 tells us that some of the believers from Cyprus went to Antioch.
The persecution spreading believers was in Judea not Cyprus. Believers fled Judea to Cyprus to avoid persecution. Verse 20 does not say the Cyprus Jews were fleeing persecution when they moved from Cyprus to Antioch. If these are Cyprus Jews converted by Judean Jews, there is a cultural difference. These believers have been living in close proximity to Gentiles longer than the Judean Jews. Associating with Gentiles is therefore more natural or comfortable for them.
This explains Acts 11:20 where it says, “Some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus.” It is what happened next that is a testimony to the leading of the Lord. Acts 11:21 says, “The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.” The power of the Lord caused a large number of Gentiles to turn to the Lord.
This outpouring of God’s power got the attention of the Church in Jerusalem, so they sent Barnabas. Barnabas saw the large number of Gentile converts and interpreted this as evidence of God’s blessings and he was filled with joy.
The strategy here was not of human origin. They did not have planning sessions and evangelism training. They did not have a visitation program and a bussing ministry. I am not speaking against these things. However, the explosive growth of the church in Antioch was not the result of a program or strategy.
The Church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas as a helper. His name means encourager, and that is what he did. He went and got Saul from Tarsus. Saul was the most educated man among all the believers. If anyone was equipped to teach these new Gentile converts the Scriptures and how they related to Jesus, it was Saul. In other words, the Church in Jerusalem was doing everything within its power to welcome these Gentiles into the family. They did not come with a program. They did not come to take control. They came to rejoice together, welcome them into the family, and provide assistance.
There is one thing that Barnabas did that is key, and it is a principle that we should follow today as well. If we want to see God work in our day, we must apply this principle. It is found in verse 23. Verse 23 says, “He encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord.” Besides the fact that the Gospel was preached, this is the only principle that Barnabas taught. My interpretation or translation of this verse would be, “He exhorted them to purpose strongly in their hearts to hold fast to and abide in the Lord.”
It was this principle that Jesus taught when He said, “Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
It was abiding in or remaining in Jesus that produced fruit in the lives of the believers. This is why Barnabas encouraged them to remain in the Lord. The spread of the Gospel from Judea, throughout Samaria and then to the far reaches of the earth was an organic process. It grew like a plant, naturally.
Saul and Barnabas taught. We do not know exactly what they taught. However, we know that Barnabas, the encourager, encouraged them to stay true to the Lord. Furthermore, we know that Saul was an expert in the Old Testament Scriptures. We can get a feeling for what he taught by reading the book of Romans.
In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus said:
Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This is pictured for us in what is happening in Acts 11. This word “go” in Matthew 28:19 could be translated “as you are going.” This is what the believers were doing.
As these believers became disciples, they joined a family. The family shared, helped and encouraged each other. We have here the touching story of prophets traveling from Jerusalem to Antioch. These prophets traveled 300 miles on foot to fellowship with their new brothers and sisters. To fellowship and encourage each other, they traveled 20 to 30 days. This family connection is reciprocated by the offering the Antioch believers shared with their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
In a world filled with bigoted attitudes and prejudices, the church was breaking down walls and crossing cultural barriers. It was not their strategy or program. It was God’s strategy and program.
As believers, we are all part of God’s family. As such, it is imperative that we stay true to the Lord. Remaining in Him will bring fruit. The power to make that happen is in Him.
If you have never received Jesus as your Savior, you are not part of the family. The Gospel the believers spread wherever they went has not changed in 2000 years. Although you and I have rebelled against and offended God in many ways, He invites us to be part of His family by accepting Jesus as our Savior. Please choose to do this today.
For us believers, I would say, “Remain in Jesus.”
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.