Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
“Meanwhile, the Spirit is busy getting on with things, out there in the world”, so begins Loveday Alexander’s exquisite commentary on this passage. And so the Spirit does – inspiring the greats of the Early Church and equally so, many unnamed evangelists. For it is anonymous believers who take the next momentous step in the spreading of God’s word. After the stoning of Stephen and the following persecution, they are scattered to places like Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, capital of the Roman province of Syria and the location of our story. Initially they speak only to Jews. But some, from places as far away as North Africa, also speak to the Hellenists, the Gentiles. A great number become believers and the Gentile church of Antioch is born. What marvellous things can happen when ordinary people get involved, just because the news is too good to keep to themselves.
News reaches the church in Jerusalem and they send Barnabas over. Acts 4:36 tells us that he was a Levite from Cyprus called Joseph. The apostles named him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” and here we can see why. Encouragement is indeed his middle name. He rejoices at the grace of God at work in others, he encourages the young believers to remain faithful and he discerns what they need. And then he remembers Saul, the firebrand from Tarsus with his gifts of preaching and teaching. He brings him over to Antioch and the year he spends with the new believers becomes a turning point in the life of the church. Barnabas shows us that the work of the spirit is as much about discerning and nurturing the gifts of others as it is about doing the frontline work. We need the people who can do things – as well as the people who discern and recognise their talents in the first place!
In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. The people of the Way are getting a distinct identity – the people who belong to Christ. What that identity entails is shown by Barnabas and the new believers: their lives are marked by grace, goodness, faithfulness, devotion and generosity. May we still be known for that today.
Gracious God, for those who by their faithful living encourage us and nurture us, we give you thanks and praise.
Francis Brienen is Deputy General Secretary (Mission)