Acts 11: 19 – 30 The church in Antioch
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 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. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. 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.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
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This short passage captures another moment in the transition of Christianity from a variant of Judaism to a religion in its own right. The church in Antioch starts to tell Greeks, who were Gentiles, the good news of Jesus. It is the first mission to the Gentiles.
We are told a little about how the early church organised itself. Barnabas, who was himself an apostle, was sent to Antioch. Perhaps there was some kind of council, a group of the faithful who were particularly open to the prompting on the Holy Spirit, who made decisions as to what the church was required to do next.
The passage re-introduces Saul, who has been in Tarsus. Barnabas fetches him from there to Antioch, and the two of them spend a year in Antioch, teaching the believers. Saul is going to play a huge role as we read through the remainder of Acts.
Finally, there’s a rather odd little anecdote about a prediction by a prophet named Agabus from the church in Jerusalem. Through the Holy Spirit he predicted a severe famine throughout the Roman world. There was in fact a severe famine in Syria in 46/47 AD, and it was sufficiently widespread to be recorded by contemporary historians. Josephus, Suetonius and Tacitus all refer to it
(Suetonius in Chapter 18 of his ‘Life of Claudius says, “When there was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he (Claudius) was once stopped in the middle of the Forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the Palace by a back door; and after this experience he resorted to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season.”)
When I first read about Agabus’ prediction, it felt rather inconsequential, but when I thought longer I found it more helpful.
I think the key to the story is “…Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted…” In a few days’ time we’re going to meet a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet. The story about Agabus is to show us how prophecy should really be done.
The thing is, biblical prophecy is quite different from clairvoyance or second sight or any other supernatural attempts to see the future. It’s always inspired by the Holy Spirit and it always prompts actions that implement God’s plan. In this case, hearing of the predicted famine, “the disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.”
God wanted the Antioch Christians to have the opportunity to help their brothers and sisters in Judea. It was a demonstration of how Christian churches should support each other in times of hardship. It was clearly part of God’s plan.
Thank you for the way you bring people to faith in Jesus. Please give us an eagerness to respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting so that we, too, can help to build your kingdom on earth.
In Jesus’ name, Amen