A 1920s religious revival at Fairmont Baptist Church in Covington, AL

Acts 11:19—26

After the martyrdom of Stephen, evangelism among the population in Jerusalem came to screeching halt. In God’s providence, the Christians who were forced to leave Jerusalem brought the Good News to the people in Palestine. Wherever they went, these Christians shared the Gospel and caused the Church to grow. God took an awful event, the death of Stephen, and the subsequent persecution of some members of the Jerusalem church, and turned it into a golden opportunity to enlarge the church through the mission work of the persecuted Christians. These wonderful Greek-speaking Jews who fell in love with Jesus through His teachings returned to their homelands, proclaiming the Gospel to their people.

This section of Acts tells of two movements of the Early church along the Mediterranean Sea. The first was northward from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria. The Gospel was freely preached and widely embraced in that city. The other movement was southward from Antioch to Jerusalem. The first carried the message of salvation to those in the north, the second carried material blessings from the new converts in Antioch to the the needy believers in Jerusalem.

In the history of Christianity, no other city of the Roman empire, save Jerusalem, played as large a part in the life and fortunes of the Church as Antioch, in Syria. This city was the birthplace of of foreign missions and the home base for Paul’s outreach to the eastern half of the Empire. It was the first place where believers in Jesus Christ were called “Christians.”

Unfortunately, Antioch was was also where the first schism threatened to split the infant church: should these Gentile-Christians submit to certain aspects of the Law, including circumcision.

Antioch also produced some of the greatest thinkers in the church, including Barnabas and Paul in the first century, Ignatius and Theophilus in the second century, Lucian, Theodore, Chrysostom, and many others throughout the third and fourth centuries.

1. Revival

(1) Its origin, verse 19

…the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed…

The Jewish establishment in Jerusalem thought Stephen’s death and their subsequent persecution of some members of “the church” would quash the enthusiasm of the followers of Jesus. They thought wrong! The unregenerate mind always thinks wrong when it comes to thinking about God:

Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee… (Psalm 76:10a, KJV)

The opponents of Christ may scheme ways to kill the Church, but it was Jesus who spoke those unchanging words of victory:

I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

God always works this way; whenever the Enemy thinks he has the upper hand, God takes that negative and turns it into a positive. He did it for Paul many time;, for example:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)

So God took what seemed like a terrible tragedy—the death of Stephen—and turned it into the event that changed the direction the Church was going in. This singularly negative event was the best thing that could have happened to the church in Jerusalem, for it got them out of their pews and onto their feet, carrying the Good News wherever they went.

(2) How it happened, verses 20, 21

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.

There were two things these missionaries had going for them: the Word of God and the Lord’s hand. In other words, these evangelists not only proclaimed the Good News (the Word of God), but there was divine power behind their words (the Lord’s hand).

God’s Word is not like any other written word. No book has the power behind it that God’s Word has. Paul expressed a similar sentiment in 1 Thessalonians 1:5—

…our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

It’s not the words of the preacher, it’s the Word of God he’s preaching that works with the hand of the Lord. We preach Jesus, and the hand of the Lord works wonders.

For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:9)

A preacher may preach a well-crafted sermon, but if the Word is not in it, there will be no power behind it. A preacher may may preach his opinion energetically, but if his opinion is not grounded in the Word, it’s all bluster that amounts to nothing. A preacher may preach great and soaring doctrines of the Church, but if those doctrines are devoid of the Word of God, he is nothing but noise coming from behind the pulpit. We are laborers with God when we work with God.

(3) The result, verse 21b

…a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Thanks to the work of these once-persecuted believers from Jerusalem, Antioch soon became the leading center of Christianity. This really is a verse of triumph. Luke, who himself was a Gentile-Christian, may have been on of the early converts.

From verse 19, we get the impression that the initial ministry of the Jewish-Christians among the Jews and Greeks took place in the synagogues of Antioch. But it didn’t take long before this revival broke out of the synagogues, spread throughout the city and beyond, and finally news of it reached Jerusalem. The church leaders in Jerusalem, all of whom were Jewish-Christian, were now faced with a dilemma: what to do with this influx of Gentile believers.

2. Barnabas pays a visit

(1) What he was, verse 22

News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

With the salvation of the Samaritans, the conversion of some Gentiles in Caesarea, and now all these new believers in Antioch, the folks back in Jerusalem were concerned that maybe the church was growing too fast and that things may have been getting out of control. In response to the Antioch revival, the Jerusalem church sent a delegation to Antioch to check it out. The man they chose was Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus, who had an outstanding reputation in the church and appeared to be an all-around good guy. He certainly was a man with a generous spirit:

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36—37)

He was the perfect man for the job. He must have been extremely friendly and outgoing since he garnered the nickname “Son of Encouragement.” The future of the church depended on what this man would report back. As a result of Barnabas’ response to the revival, it was enabled to continue, with many finding Christ as a result.

(2) What he saw, verse 23a

When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done…

Barnabas was amazed at the grace of God when he saw, not only all the new believers, but also the harmony that existed between Jew and Gentiles within the one Antiochean church. This was a breakthrough of momentous proportions. A man’s inward character determines what he sees. A Roman philosopher cold only see in this religious revival a “vile superstition.” Barnabas saw the manifested grace of God. The proud Athenians saw only their many gods, but Paul saw an entire city given over to the sin of idolatry. Some things can only be “spiritually discerned,” and God’s grace is one of them. Because Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (verse 24), he recognized immediately God was at work; he didn’t need anybody to tell him. Do you recognize God at work? Can you see the grace of God manifested in a person or situation? If you are full of the Holy Spirit, you will be able to discern the things of God.

(3) What he felt and what he did, verse 23b

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
…he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

Barnabas certainly live up to his nickname! He immediately began to encourage these new believers in their new faith. Bighearted Barnabas was so sold-out to Jesus that he was “glad” to see anybody serving the Lord, Jew or Gentile! Instead of looking for faults and criticizing this new movement, he gave it his stamp of approval and blessing.

3. Barnabas gets some help

Barnabas was the right man in the right place. He related well to the people living in and around Antioch. He was bilingual, familiar with Greek culture, and may well have been a businessman familiar with that culture of Antioch. But Barnabas needed some help; he couldn’t do it all by himself. While Barnabas was a mighty encourager, the believers needed more than just encouragement. This cosmopolitan, Greek-speaking metropolis needed the talents of an intellectual giant as well as a Spirit-filled encourager.

It had been some ten or more years since Saul, now known as Paul, found the Lord on the road to Damascus, and this was the man Barnabas sought out. We have no record of what Paul did during the intervening years, between the time he left Jerusalem (see Acts 9:20) and when Barnabas found him in Tarsus. From Galatians 1:21—24, we can be sure that Paul was not idle during those years; he continued to preach and minister for Christ in and around his hometown of Tarsus. It is likely during these years that the apostle received the “five lashings” he wrote about in 2 Corinthians 11:24, along with the other afflictions he enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:23—27. Some scholars think that it was during these years in Tarsus that he began to experience the “loss of all things” for the sake of Christ, maybe even the loss of his family (Philippians 3:8).

Barnabas seemed to always have a “soft spot” for this one-time persecutor of the church. He came to Paul’s support when others doubted his conversion (Acts 9:27) and he recognized that Paul had a ministry among the Gentiles. Together, they worked in Antioch for about a year. These two men, different as night and day in one way, were extremely effective ministers and became lifelong partners in the great work of the Gospel.

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

While there were many converts in and around Antioch, some in the city were not impressed with the work of Barnabas and Paul, and nicknamed this growing group of Jewish and Gentile believers “Christians.” The Greek word, Christianoi, means literally “Christ followers” or “those who belong to Christ,” was a term of derision.


Why are you called a Christian? Originally not a complimentary term, it was used of people who identified completely with Jesus Christ because they patterned their daily lives after His and His teachings. Unfortunately, for many so-called Christians today, that description applies to them only on Sunday. During the other six days of the week, many so-Christians seem to set aside that nickname, living not for Christ, but for their careers, for money, for their families, destroying their marriages with unChrist-like attitudes, ruining their bodies through chemical dependence, and using language that is not glorifying to God in any way.

So, the question, “Why are you called a Christian?” is an intensely personal and important one to consider. It may make you blush. You may not know how to answer it. Zacharius Ursinus answered that question like this in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Question: But why art thou called a Christian?

Answer: Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am a partaker of his anointing; that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life and afterwards I reign with him eternally, over all creatures.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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