Initiation and Confirmation
Frank McConnell, Pretoria
We have seen that the persecution of the believers as recorded in Acts 8 resulted in the proclamation of the Word. This was a great step forward in the expansion of the Church. However, there was one disappointing feature in the witness of those early Jewish believers.
Limitation. They imposed a limit upon the Gospel. They preached the Word "to none but unto the Jews only", Acts. 11. 19. It would appear that the implications involved in the Lord's commission had not yet dawned upon them. They were prepared to go into the world, but not to preach the Gospel to every creature. God had removed the barriers between Jew and Gentile, but they carried on as if the barriers were still there. The biggest lesson the early Church had to learn was that the Gospel was not for the Jews only. It might be to the Jew first, but it was not to the Jew only.
What a joy it is to enter into an appreciation of the universal character of the message of the Gospel: "whosoever (without any limitation whatever) shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved", 2. 21.
Initiation. For what happened next we might use the word initiation. It was nothing less than the initiation of the Gentiles into the blessings of salvation—a wonderful forward step of expansion in the great task of world evangelization.
As we have already seen in our previous paper, among the believers who were scattered abroad there were "some of them", 11. 20, who were men of Cyprus and Cyrene. When they reached Antioch, these decided to ignore the limitation of preaching to Jews only, and began to preach to the Greeks (not Grecians a.v., but Greeks r.v.). Who told them to do this? Certainly not the apostles. It was undoubtedly the result of the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and it proved to be the great break-through. There was immediate approval of what they had done—divine approval. "The hand of the Lord was with them". There were immediate results: "and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord", v. 21. Later on we read, "and much people was added unto the Lord", v. 24. Antioch was a great city. There were many Greeks living there. It was the ideal place for the initiation of this wider movement, this new beginning. And what a break-through it was! The work among the Greeks in Antioch did not result from the actions of the apostles. They were not immediately involved in this new and exciting development. The instruments used by the Holy Spirit to pioneer this new missionary enterprise were ordinary rank-and-file members of the Church. We know nothing about them apart from what happened here. We do not even know their names. But at the present late stage of the history of the Church in this latter part of the twentieth century, we take the opportunity to salute these unnamed pioneers. We pay them the tribute which they justly deserve, but which it would appear has been largely overlooked.
What is the practical lesson here? The willing involvement of ordinary Christians resulted in the exciting break-through. In this case they took the lead, which the leaders followed. Is it not true that when there have been times of revival and expansion in the history of the Church, these, under the control of the Holy Spirit, have been initiated and pioneered by ordinary and sometimes unnamed Christians? Outstanding leaders have emerged to direct these times of spiritual blessing, but the basis of revival has usually been the initiative taken by praying Christians.
One of the reasons for the lack of blessing in our own day is surely to be found in the lack of involvement in the work of the Lord on the part of ordinary rank-and-file believers. It is admitted that the Church needs leaders. We need gifted evangelists, pastors and teachers. But it was never the mind and intention of the Spirit of God that these should do all the work while the rest of the believers sit back and do nothing. The success of spiritual leadership must be measured, not by the size of the congregation, but by the amount of involvement it has been able to bring about among the members of the local church.
Confirmation. "Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch", Acts 11. 22. There had already been divine confirmation of the work in the great response of souls, but there was also the need for human confirmation in the form of the approval of the spiritual leaders of the Church—the apostles.
Just as the visit of Peter and John had prevented a rivalry developing between the work in Samaria and that in Jerusalem, 8. 14, so the coming of Barnabas to Antioch had the effect of preventing a rival Gentile church being set up in that city. His visit also points to the need for the exercise of fellowship and co-operation between the various local churches, each of them being autonomous, yet working together in the fellowship of a common loyalty to the Lordship of Christ.
Exhortation. Spiritual wisdom is seen in the choice of Barnabas to visit Antioch. Those who had initiated the break-through were men of Cyprus and Cyrene. Barnabas was a Levite of the country of Cyprus, 4. 36. This would undoubtedly give a sympathetic contact. But there was more to it than this: Barnabas was a man with a large heart. His name means "son of consolation", v. 36, and his special gift seemed to be that of exhortation. So we read, "Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord", 11. 23. Then we have the choice commentary of the Holy Spirit on the character of Barnabas: "For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith", v. 24.
Here then is an indication of the need for spiritual leadership, especially in times of blessing such as had happened at Antioch—involvement of all Christians in the spread of the Gospel, but also the recognition of spiritual gift and leadership, as seen in Barnabas. The needs of the Church more than ever today are spiritual leaders who, like Barnabas, are men with large hearts and a love for the people of God, men who will take it upon themselves to lead the saints into a closer and deeper relationship with the Lord. Barnabas exhorted the believers, not only to cleave to the Lord, but to do it "with purpose of heart", v. 23. He gave direction to the spiritual energies of the children of God.
Consolidation. Then there was another important development. A new work had begun, and for the consolidation of this work the Lord had another of His workmen in readiness, the one who was destined to play such a large part in the expansion of the Church. It speaks well for Barnabas that he did not regard the work at Antioch as an opportunity for himself alone. Indeed, it is probable that he did not think about himself at all. His thoughts were directed, no doubt by the Holy Spirit, to the young man Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant Pharisee who in such a wonderful way had been transformed from a persecutor into a preacher of the Gospel.
At once Barnabas departed and went to Tarsus in order to seek for Saul. "And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch", Acts 11. 26. In this magnanimous gesture there was the recognition by an older servant of the Lord of the God-given abilities of this younger man. Together they undertook the work of consolidation, the building up of the church in Antioch. "And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people", v. 26.
Thus in what happened at Antioch we have a clear illustration of involvement on the part of ordinary believers in the spread of the Gospel, and the exercise of gifted leadership on the part of Barnabas and Saul. It is an indication of the right balance between expansion and consolidation. Little wonder that Antioch became the starting point of the first missionary journey, 13. 1-4.
There was also another first happening in Antioch. In view of all that we have considered, it seems to be so right and fitting that the disciples should be "called Christians first in Antioch", 11. 26.