A study in Acts 11. 19-30, 13. 1-3.
Just a dozen or so miles from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea stood Antioch – the third largest city of the area. It had a population of around a quarter of a million of mixed origins – Syrians, Jews, Greeks and Romans. It was a centre of culture and learning but as in all large cities at that time, sin and vice was very much in evidence.
Following the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem, widespread persecution had broken out and many of the believers had been forced to leave the city – the Apostles appear to have stayed on – Acts 7/8. Those who left had taken the opportunity to speak to Jews in other places in Judea and Samaria. But others took the message to Gentiles such as those at Antioch – and many had come to faith – Acts 11.19/20. News of these dramatic events reached the ears of the apostles at Jerusalem and Barnabas is despatched to Antioch to investigate and report back. What he saw was not a threat or danger, as is so often feared when something new happens but rather, as Luke describes it, ‘when he (Barnabas) came and had seen the grace of God, was glad’. Acts 11. 23.
What Barnabas saw was a church in action, manifesting the grace of God in their lives. But what was even more remarkable was the fact that this had happened without any personal direction by the apostles. The work of God was in evidence without any sanction by an outside body.
c) The dangers of centralised control
Judaism tended to centralise control of religious matters. Historically the nation had its religious centre in Jerusalem in the form of the temple, the priesthood and later the Sanhedrin, all tending to perpetuate the status quo – the sacred city/state religion. It was this very form of things that the Lord Jesus spoke of in John Chapter 4 to the Samaritan woman – ’the hour is coming when you shall neither in this mountain (Gerizim) nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.’
What He said in no way interrupts God’s long term plans for Israel as a nation and the city, which God calls His own, both of which would require to be truly cleansed and made spiritually alive in order to usher in millennial blessing.
However, it is important for us to understand and see God’s purpose working out following the killing of Stephen. The believers were thrust out from that closeknit community in Jerusalem and what Barnabas saw at Antioch brought him much joy – v.23 'he was glad’.This is one of those crisis moments for the early church because any authority imposed from the ‘centre’ at Jerusalem would have had a constricting effect on the life of the church at Antioch. The danger was that orthodoxy could have been be imposed by a central governing body. The question of local autonomy had to be faced - ‘Who makes the rules for the local church?’
The New Testament emphasises the autonomy of the local assembly, but there is always the danger of creating the ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ today. Once an assembly insists that it alone has ‘got everything right’ – giving the impression that others need to conform to this model they are on perilous ground. We are not here to create ‘centres of excellence’ as in the business world, but to be a source of encouragement to other believers and assemblies who may be struggling in our hostile world and, at the same time, to bring hope through the Gospel to non Christians who might also be struggling in that same hostile world.
In establishing the principle of autonomy for the local church at Antioch, Barnabas underlines that basic ingredient in ensuring its maintenance – ‘that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord’. That verse seems to underline the importance of sustaining a healthy relationship – being in close fellowship with the Lord. The reality of that divine fellowship should mark everything that we do and sets the pattern for fellowship with other believers – which I would like to develop.
Fellowship – the ideal view
The word fellowship was not strange to first century Jews or Greeks. Tradition related it to the ideal in human relationships. Looking for the ideal world society, Greek philosophers wrote extensively of these matters because men were searching for a better social system with a resultant better life down here. Pythagoras, better known perhaps to those struggling with his theory of ‘the square on the hypotenuse’ talked of ‘the fellowship of life’ – that mystical idea which would bind his disciples together. Two thousand years down the road, that ‘better life’ remains one of the chief aims of Western society with its theory that democracy is the panacea for all ills. But could such ideals ever be attained? Could there be a true ‘fellowship’ of humanity – a true brotherhood of men? Communism, Socialism and all the other ‘isms’ have failed to achieve this, their lofty ideals have never been sustained. Failure is never far away because of the weakness of human nature. True fellowship required another dimension and that would only be realised when the spiritual factor was introduced into the equation.
It is Paul, who stresses the spiritual dimension which alone can give a firm foundation for human fellowship and which can alter human relationships, giving them a powerful meaning. Thus, he speaks of:-
a) The fellowship of His Son, 1 Corinthians 1. 9. We are called into this relationship.
b) The fellowship of the Holy Spirit, 2 Corinthians 13. 13. The indwelling of the Spirit, giving the ability to maintain that fellowship.
c) The fellowship of the faith, Philemon 6, Here is the reality – the practical expression of it in the life of Philemon.
As John is concluding the New Testament writings he underlines that thought again, '… and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ’, 1 John 1. 3.
The scriptures emphasise that fellowship has to do firstly with a heavenly bond. True fellowship amongst men has to be based on that heavenly bond and if it is not, then there is the danger that relationships will be relegated to the level of the world’s organisations. The organisations of men demonstrate that if you don’t get your way or refuse to accept the authority of leaders you simply leave and do as they did in the book of Judges chapter 21 verse 25 – ’every man did that which was right in his own eyes.’
To be continued.
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