A study in Acts 11. 19-30, 13; 1-3.
2. Fellowship – the practical view
Local church life is a spiritual exercise but it also brings into focus the practical side. Experience teaches us that there is nothing ‘mystical’ about life within the local church – this is reality – where things are worked out in practical terms. Note the basic steps that are preparatory to the enjoyment of that fellowship:
a) Salvation, then baptism
In Acts chapter 2 verse 38 Peter tells the crowd, ‘Repent … be baptized … for the remission of sins … receive the gift of the Holy Ghost'. In verse 41 we read, ‘They that gladly received his word, were baptized’.
b) Identification with a local church
When Paul writes to the New Testament churches in the various cities he assumes that believers would be in fellowship in those places:
1. ‘Unto the church of God which is at Corinth’ – 1st and 2nd Epistles
2. ‘Unto the church of the Thessalonians’ – 1st and 2nd Epistles
In the main he writes the other letters in the same vein – to the saints, the faithful brethren, with the bishops and deacons, etc. There may have been isolated individual believers in an area but he normally identifies them as belonging to a local company of believers.
c) Reception by the church
Paul asks the Christians at Rome to take Phoebe into their number by saying, ‘Receive her in the Lord’, Rom. 16. 2.We need to remember that he is writing to the church with these instructions! It is not the elders or the brothers only who receive a believer into the assembly fellowship, although they have a prime role to play – the whole church receives. It is both good and right to know that people haven’t just turned up and ‘joined’ – reception should be a time of joy as we welcome someone new into the fellowship of the assembly.
3. Fellowship – The basic elements
Acts chapter 2 verses 41 and 42, sets out what happened in those early days of church testimony. Baptism marked a change in direction of a person’s life. It was that kind of experience in those early days but perhaps not so clearly defined now. It was immediate upon the confession of a trust in Christ and linked to salvation– so, we do not get baptized to enable us to share in the Lord’s Supper – we ask for baptism as a confirmation of our salvation and in obedience to the command of the Lord.
Following their salvation and baptism they gave constant attention to:
a) Apostles’ doctrine – teaching of the scriptures.
b) Fellowship – sharing fully in the life of the local church.
c) Breaking of bread – a focal point – not an option.
d) Prayers – the forefront life-line of the local church.
4. Fellowship at Antioch – what was at the heart of it?
a) Firstly, teaching, Acts 11. 25, 26
Barnabas recognized a need in the assembly that he personally could not wholly satisfy. But he knew someone who could meet the need and he shows his true character in his act of grace to invite Paul to come and help. There is no doubt that Barnabas could teach, v. 26, but his gift was perhaps not as wide as Paul’s. In smaller assemblies some are called upon to exercise a variety of roles but God has given each believer a gift, which is unique. Although we are encouraged to widen our exercise let us not worry about the gifts we haven’t got; firstly, we need to make sure that we are using the one we have got.
The important thing to note is that Antioch was a church that was teachable. The whole church came together regularly and for a whole year Paul and Barnabas taught the scriptures. This is not always what we see today and it may be that we have lost the vision of the local church being that living, vital body, indwelt by the Spirit of God, coming together to be taught from God’s word. There may not be the encouragements that we would like to see today either, but where opportunities open up let’s get on with what is important – to teach the teachable.
We might wonder what the people at Antioch needed teaching about? After all, Barnabas had not found any faults there. I suggest the teaching certainly contained the following two elements:
i) Church doctrine
Later in life Paul writes to Timothy about how men should ‘behave … in the church of God … the pillar and ground of the truth’, 1 Tim. 3. 15, and one can only assume that these matters were just as important at Antioch in those early days.
Today, believers still need reminding of the scriptural principles behind what we do within an assembly of God’s people. Maybe young people have been stumbled in the past because not enough time has been taken to fully explain why we do what we do. New believers need to know ‘how things fit together’ and in a way that they can clearly understand. We recall how Ezra went about his great task in Nehemiah chapter 8 verse 2 where Ezra reads the book and then, verse 8, making it clear and giving the meaning. There is always a need to give life application and meaning to the scriptures; the message never changes but the transmission of it can be lacking in clarity.
ii) Social and moral issues, 1 Cor. 5. 1
Firstly, this large city would have had all the usual problems linked with city life and we need to remember the idolatrous background of many of those people. Today we are faced with the similar challenges – the tide of moral problems rises constantly. How does the assembly, and also individual believers, handle these situations today? It is possible to simply be judgemental about these things and lose sight of the fact that these social and moral backgrounds exist today in us, ‘and such were some of you', 1 Cor. 6. 11. It is not always the public preaching of the word that is going to bring the unsaved to that sense of guilt and need – so often it is the life and witness of an individual believer that starts them on the road to salvation.
Secondly – Christian awareness of need, Acts 11. 29, 30
How refreshing to see that these people were aware of the needs of believers elsewhere. They had a healthy exercise and were ready to respond. It appears to have been spontaneous – they knew what was going on elsewhere and acted accordingly. It is possible to become so parochial and self-centred that we lose sight of what is happening outside of ‘our little world’.
Thirdly – Exercise and recognition of gift, Acts 13. 1 – 3
Teaching over a period had brought out an awareness of gift within this church, and the Lord’s provision to meet the growing need of the assembly at Antioch. By the time we reach Acts chapter 13, there are teachers and prophets (those able to recognize particular needs of the day), and there were those willing to fast and pray. In other words, leaders in every sense were being raised up through positive teaching. We can only assume that gift was identified and specifically encouraged by the leadership. Thus Paul, when reaching the last stage of his life, urges the younger Timothy in the same terms as he would speak to us today, ‘stir up the gift of God, which is in thee’, 2 Tim. 1. 6. Similarly, he writes to Titus about the sisters – ‘teachers of good things’, here speaking of the sisters in their unique role among younger women, Titus 2. 3, 4.
5. Fellowship involving missionary vision, Acts 13. 2
Here was a church that was aware of the Spirit’s work in others. Is that how we view things – can we recognize and encourage others in the work of God? We don’t all have the call of God to go overseas – there is a part for us at home too and that to lay hold on God for His blessing on the labours of others. Remember that it is the local church as a whole, which commends other believers to the work and thus it was to that whole church at Antioch that Paul and Barnabas eventually reported back to when they returned to Antioch, see Acts 14. 26-30.
6. Fellowship in encouraging the younger generation
Much is spoken about Paul’s companion Timothy but it does us good also to look at Titus and the quality of this man’s life. Saved at Antioch, a convert of Paul, we find him here a trophy of that faithful teaching and care within the local assembly. He has become a sturdy and trustworthy servant, able to be entrusted with very difficult tasks. Timothy had Ephesus to deal with but Titus had Corinth and Crete and we know which of the two areas most of us would have preferred! With the challenges all around him, Titus is instructed by Paul on how to live ‘in this present world’, Titus 2. 12. Titus was a man for his time – he had sat at the feet of Paul, had seen his own place in the life of the assembly, and in due course had followed the call of God.
Are we also here as encouragers of others? Do we recognize and seek to develop gift? We need those who will follow on after us if the Lord has not returned before our own departure from this scene.