Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Paul Arrives in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30)

Paul had been out of sight of the church in Jerusalem for almost a decade after he was sent back to Tarsus by them. Those unknown years were years of preparation for him. Luke takes his readers back to the persecution initiated perhaps by Paul himself because he was heavily involved in the death of Stephen. That persecution had many effects on the church in Jerusalem. But Luke points out that the Lord was at work in the lives of countless others from the church there for the development of his kingdom and Luke mentions some of them in his brief description of the commencement of the church in Antioch. There are two Antiochs mentioned in the Book of Acts and this Antioch was located in Syria. It was a cosmopolitan city, with a population of about half a million. The church there was to play an important role for several centuries.


Believers had been forced to leave Jerusalem by the persecution connected to Stephen and Luke mentions that some of them travelled north. As they did so, they continued to witness to Jesus, a reminder that persecution does not need to damper spiritual zeal and witness. They chose to do so among their fellow-Jews initially, but then in Antioch some of them decided also to tell Gentiles about Jesus. (The word translated Hellenists here could mean Jews influenced by Greek culture, but there would not be anything surprising about the believers witnessing to such. So it is better to see those witnessed to as Gentiles).

We might not be surprised at that development because we are used to hearing about people speaking to Gentiles concerning Jesus and evangelising them. Yet this was a major development in the early history of the church as God’s people spread the faith wider and wider into other people groups, of which there were several in Antioch. There are two details that we can observe about this development.

First, those who evangelised were what we call laypeople. There were no apostles or other leaders from Jerusalem among them. Those Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene took the initiative and preached to Gentiles. Second, we can see that those believers stepped out of their comfort zones when they did this. Prior to doing so, they had spoken about Jesus in synagogues where both they and their listeners could consider how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Now they were speaking to a different set of people who did not share a reverence for the Old Testament. It is like us moving away from speaking to church people about the gospel to speaking to non-churched people.

It is evident that the Lord Jesus approved of their actions. Luke tells us that the hand of the Lord was with them and many believed in him. The author is showing us here how Jesus continues to bless his message even although he is now ascended to heaven. From there he helps his witnesses to testify and the initial outcome he gave was a large number of converts.  


It was customary for the apostles in Jerusalem to verify gospel work elsewhere – we see an example earlier in the Book of Acts when Peter went to Samaria to see the gospel work that Philip had engaged in there. Verifying included the idea of strengthening. The one they chose to send to Antioch was not one of the apostles who had been with Jesus. Instead they sent another leader, Barnabas, whom we had seen earlier as a generous man (he sold land to help the poor in the church) and he had also known about what had happened to Paul after his conversion and he introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem.

I wonder why they chose Barnabas. We could say it was because of his nationality (he was from Cyprus and he probably he would have known some of the people who commenced the church in Antioch), and this is a reminder to us that suitable people ethnically should be set apart for special tasks. We also could say it was because of his name (Barnabas was a name given to him out of respect for his Christian life – he was the son of consolation who knew what to say to people needing encouragement). The apostles could be sure that the messages preached by Barnabas would be helpful for the new church in Antioch.

What was the need in the church in Antioch? They had conversions, many of them. Yet it looks that those who evangelised them were not able to edify them in the sense of teaching them about the doctrines of the Christian faith. This is not just an ancient problem. We are told that a common problem found in places today where large numbers of conversions occur is lack of teaching. A healthy church grows numerically and in understanding. The church in Jerusalem wanted the church in Antioch to grow and chose to send one of their most accomplished leaders to bring this about. I suspect that they did not need to ask him twice.


The scale of the spiritual need in Antioch was so great that Barnabas realised that he needed help in meeting it. Perhaps surprisingly he did not send a request to the church in Jerusalem that they should send another of their leaders to help him. Instead he remembered the gifted man he had introduced to the apostles several years previously and set off to find him in Tarsus. It looks as if he had some difficulty in locating Paul, perhaps because he was away from the city preaching the gospel. But Barnabas persevered, and eventually he found Paul and took him to Antioch. This was the beginning of a beautiful team ministry that would last for several years.

What kind of man was Barnabas? Evidently, at this stage, in their shared ministry Luke regards Barnabas as the leader because he names him first when referring to both. Later on in his account Luke will reverse the order, but in the initial period in Antioch we could say that Barnabas was modelling leadership attitudes and actions for Paul. So what would Paul have seen? I don’t think there is any evidence that Luke actually met Barnabas, so perhaps the description given of Barnabas here came to Luke from the mouth of Paul.

Barnabas was glad to serve the church and showed it by his willingness to travel many miles in order to do so. Indeed, in this chapter he is on the move and we could entitle it ‘the journeys of Barnabas’ from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Antioch to Tarsus, from Tarsus to Antioch and from Antioch to Jerusalem. His personal comforts, even although he was a wealthy man, were not his main concern. He was prepared to go out of his way, or to go the extra mile, and that is an essential mark of any who lead in Christ’s church.

Barnabas, as a leader, used his eyesight in a certain way and that was to look for evidence of the grace of God. He was not snooping and analysing in a suspicious manner the way the new converts were living. Instead he rejoiced in watching new disciples take their first steps in the Christian life and he urged them not to follow him but to remain faithful to the Lord. He had no desire to have a church of Barnabas in Antioch.

Why did he do this? Because of his spirituality. We can easily tell where we are by the way we respond to new converts. Barnabas’ response revealed that he ‘was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’ I suppose we could say that ‘good’ was his character and he became good because of the work of the Spirit in his life and because of the strength of his faith. Luke seems to be saying here that a person in whom the Spirit is working will have faith. Therefore, sanctification and anticipation of success, which I suspect is the aspect of faith highlighted here, go hand in hand.

And we can see that this happened because ‘a great many people were added to the Lord’. That is an unusual way to describe what happens to converts. What did Luke mean his readers to take from his description? One answer could be that they were all united to Jesus spiritually because that is what happens at conversion. A second answer could be that they are not added to anything else. Elsewhere in this book, Luke says that believers were added to the church. In this book, there is only one church and it is the church that is united to Jesus. We are united to one another because we are first united to Jesus.

Another feature of the leadership outlook of Barnabas was that he knew when he needed help and he did something about it. The first aspect indicated his honesty and the second revealed his humility because he did something publicly that revealed he was not superman. Imagine what would not have happened if Barnabas had not responded in this way. Luke would have had to write about someone else in the second half of his book because Paul would not have been there, including visits to places, as well as his Roman imprisonment, because in such locations he wrote all his letters. So we should say to God, ‘Thank you for making Barnabas the leader he was and for the benefits that have come to us because of what he did.’

The outcome seems to have been an increased public awareness of their existence because the disciples were given a new name by those who lived in Antioch. No doubt, the new name was connected to what they were speaking about. They spoke about Jesus as the Messiah, so they were called Christ’s ones. This obviously raises the question as to what the people who interact with us call us. It is very sad if they do not connect us with Jesus.


After a year or so the church in Antioch had a visit by several prophets from Jerusalem. These individuals were persons to whom God revealed his mind about events in providence as well as about truths that we now find in the Bible. I suppose the question that we should ask regarding this prophecy by Agabus concerning a worldwide famine is why was it given in Antioch rather than in another place. The answer could be that God was testing the spirituality of the disciples in Antioch because it would be revealed in their response to this divine revelation. What was the desired response? Brotherly love expressed in an act of mercy by some who were Gentiles to those of another ethnic group. As we can see, the response was unanimous and yet personal, because while they all gave, each gave according to what he had.

Who could the disciples trust to deliver this aid to the churches in Judea? They chose Barnabas and Saul, and of all people leaders must be trustworthy. Maybe it does not mean too much, but it is worth noting that Luke does not say by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. Instead he says hand, which could be his way of saying how united those two men were in the service of the Lord. We are not surprised to read in Acts 12:25 that they completed the task entrusted to them.

What an interesting period of a couple of years Paul had experienced. No longer in isolation around Tarsus, he was now in the centre of things in the growing church in Antioch and was once more in contact with the leadership in Jerusalem. He was seeing God do amazing things in a pagan city and he observed brotherly love in the lives of the converts. No doubt he was thinking about what God wanted him to do next in service for his Master.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Jesus the Priest (Psalm 110:4)

We have all met individuals who were exceptionally competent in what they did. Yet if we knew them long enough we would see that they made occasional mistakes or came across situations for which they did not have an answer. There is only Person of whom it can be said that he has been, is and will be fully competent for his roles and that Person is Jesus. Three of his roles are mentioned in this psalm. We looked previously at what it means for him to be king and next time we will consider his role as judge. In this sermon we will focus on what it means for Jesus to be a priest.


It looks as the psalmist is speaking here to his Lord. Remember that in verse 1 David had distinguished between two persons, each of whom is called a divine title. One is LORD and he is the Father; the other is David’s Lord and he is the Son. David addresses the Son personally and mentions what the Father has said to his Son.

David says two things about what the Father said. First, his words were an oath and, second, he will not change his mind about giving the position of priest to his Son. God does not need to make an oath because his word is always true. The reason why he made this oath is for our benefit, to give us great assurance. After all, our salvation depends on the permanence of Jesus, and our loving God wants us to have the confidence of knowing that Jesus will be there.


David also refers to an obscure Old Testament priest in order to show the reality of the priesthood of Jesus. Melchizedek is mentioned in Genesis 14 when he blessed Abraham when he returned in triumph after defeating his enemies. There are six features of that occasion that are of significance for understanding the priesthood of Jesus. First, we are not told about when his priesthood began or concluded; second, he was a king as well as a priest; third, his name means king of righteousness; fourth, his location was Salem (or Jerusalem), which means peace; fifth, he functions in a situation of victory; and sixth, he provides refreshment for Abraham after his campaign.

We can see how those details picture Jesus. He is an eternal person, without a beginning or an end; he also is a king as well as a priest (unlike the Aaronic priesthood); he lives up to his name and provides righteousness for sinners; his location is the heavenly city of peace; he engages in his activities knowing that victory has been obtained; and he provides refreshment for his weary people.


Having made those comments, the first item we need to ask is when did the Father say this promise to his Son. Clearly from the psalmist’s perspective it was said in the past. He is speaking to his Lord after he has been crowned king and invited by the Father to sit on the throne and mentions that at some stage previously the Father said something else to his Son. The question is, did he say this to his Son at the same time that he arrived in heaven from Bethany or did he say it to him before then, perhaps even before he had become a man.

One way of answering that question is to ask what a priest was required to do. Usually, a priest offered atoning sacrifices and engaged in other activities on behalf of those he represented before God. We know that Jesus offered his atoning sacrifice on behalf of his people when he was on the cross, which means that the Father must have said this statement to him when he called him to become the sinbearer, which took place in eternity. So we can deduce that this calling to be a priest was given to Jesus before he became a man. It describes the entire work that he was going to engage in.


When we remind ourselves that this call was made before Jesus commenced his priestly ministry we should be able to see that the words are a promise of success because he is going to be a priest forever. Jesus is not the only priest that died, but he is the only priest whose death was part of his priestly work. But if he died, how could he remain a priest forever? He would need to be raised from the dead, which is what took place.

This means that we have in this statement a promise to the Son from the Father that his priestly death will not prevent him functioning as a priest afterwards. We should not be surprised, therefore, that this verse meant so much to Jesus as he drew near to the cross. After all, it was a divine promise of success both at the cross and after the cross. So we can see that Jesus was speaking as the successful priest when he cried on the cross, ‘It is finished.’ He had achieved the purpose of why he had gone there, which was to complete part of his calling to be the priest his people required.

Here we are reminded that the work of Jesus as priest has both a finished and an unfinished aspect. The work of atonement for sins is finished and accomplished; but the work of applying the benefits that he purchased for his people when he dies goes on in heaven.


Why in the context of the psalm are we asked to think of this call to the Son to be a priest? Think of where we are in the psalm. The exalted Jesus has been to the cross and engaged in a magnificent and successful task, that of dealing with our sins. Now he has ascended on high and is about to continue his priestly work on the basis of his sacrifice on the cross. As this new stage appears, will the Father change his mind concerning the One he has called to this task? The Father had confidence in him when he called him, and the Father has confidence in him now that Calvary is behind him and glory stretches out into the unending future. We may say that the Father had great delight in calling his Son, and continues to have great delight as the Son fulfils each requirement, and will have eternal delight in the eternal priestly activities of the Son. Hugh Martin’s comments on the Caller are appropriate: ‘There is a song in the oath of God. He singeth while he swears, “Thou art a priest for ever.”’


But what does Jesus do as priest in the presence of God? There are several answers to that question. Before we consider them, we must remind ourselves that he engages in his priestly activity as one who is also the highly exalted King.

One is connected to the leading of the praise that occurs constantly in heaven. This activity was predicted of him in the psalm that details his amazing priestly activity on the cross – Psalm 22. There we read about the depths to which our Priest went down when he experienced forsakenness on the cross, and then we also read that after the cross is over he will lead his redeemed people as they praise God. In the midst of the church, he says, he will celebrate.

A second activity is procuring a people to inhabit the world to come. Paul reminds the Ephesians that Jesus had come to them in a spiritual way through his servants and proclaimed peace to them. The announcement of achieved peace with God was a priestly activity in which a priest assured the one seeking peace that it was his. In a far higher sense, Jesus does this when he declares with supreme authority to penitent sinners that through faith in him they have peace with God. As he does this, he gathers in those he purchased on the cross. Paul reminded the Roman believers that no one can condemn them because Jesus their priest is at God’s right hand making intercession for them (Rom. 8:34).

A third activity that he provides is purity. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus saves his people to the uttermost (Heb. 7:24-25). His priestly work ensures that one day all those who have peace with God will be pure in heart. The day is coming when all of them will be perfect.

A fourth activity we can describe as preparing a place for his people. He used the illustration of adding rooms to a house when new members joined a family, usually through marriage (John 14:2) to describe what he would be doing in heaven for his disciples. For each of them, the day is coming when Jesus will show them to their room that he has provided. Part of his intercession is that each of them will get there.

A fifth activity of Jesus is ensuring that spiritual provision reaches his needy people on earth. He arranges for this to take place through the channels that we call the means of grace. Those channels are living because each of them is connected to the activity of the Holy Spirit who uses the channels to bring benefits from Jesus to each of his people. The means of grace include times of worship, prayer, Bible Study, and fellowship.


Most of the above activities are connected to his intercession. It is difficult for us to work out what his intercession looks like because it includes both his deity and his humanity. His intercession is not like ours because he engages in it as One who is also the supreme King. We should not assume that his intercession resembles ours in any way. We can mention the following features of it.

First, when he intercedes with the Father, both he and the Father have the same knowledge as divine Persons – they are omniscient. The Father and the Son constantly know what each believer needs and there does not need to be verbal communication as if Jesus had to come with a list of such needs to mention at any given time. Continually the needs of the church are met by the Father in response to the desires of the Son and they meet them by providing the Spirit in whatever way is suitable.

Second, Jesus as a man may pray vocally about specific circumstances, although his humanity cannot pray audibly for millions of people simultaneously. If we imagine that he does, we are forgetting that he is still a man. One occasion of such asking would have been his response to the Father’s offer, ‘Ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance.’

Third, the intercession of Jesus involves him pleading on behalf of sinners. The word ‘pleading’ has a variety of meanings. A wife may plead for the life of her husband if he has been captured by an enemy, although that form of pleading has no guarantee of success. A lawyer may plead an argument that cannot be ignored and which declares his client innocent. Jesus is the Advocate of his people and he pleads for them when they sin, which means that this pleading is a constant activity because they are continuously sinning. Not only is his pleading constant, it is always successful. What is the argument he uses that is always effective and which ensures their ongoing acceptance with God? The plea that he gives is himself as the risen Saviour who paid the penalty for their sins.

Fourth, as the priest Jesus is full of sympathy for his people in their spiritual weakness. He experienced various difficulties when he was here on earth – he was tempted, he was derided, he was persecuted, he was rejected despite doing good constantly. Sometimes believers find themselves in situations in which they imagine that their circumstances are unique. Yet they should remember that Jesus sympathises with them and knows what kind of comfort they need, which he sends to them by the Spirit who applies divine promises with power to their souls.


There are three details that we should think about when we consider what it means to have Jesus as our priest. First, it is personal, and we can experience the blessings he provides as if all his attention was focussed on us individually, and this is the case because they are applied to us by the Spirit.

Second, it is lifelong, which means that there will never be a moment in our earthly experience when Jesus will not be engaged in intercession for his people, ensuring that their needs are met.

Third, it is eternal, so while there are aspects of this relationship that are limited to our lives on earth, he is also a priest forever. What that will involve cannot be known by us in this life, but we can think about it. One aspect that we do know will occur is the involvement of Jesus as the leader of the ongoing worship of God in the world to come.