The establishment of the first Gentile church at Antioch, recorded in Acts 11, was a major step forward for New Testament believers fulfilling Christ’s commission to teach all nations and be His witnesses unto the uttermost parts of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
Even though the events of Acts 10 confirmed in an undeniable way to the believing Jews that Gentiles were to be included in God’s program, the mostly Jewish church was still a bit skeptical when they heard of the spread of the gospel some 300 miles north in Antioch among the pagans.
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).
The church at Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to Antioch to investigate if what was taking place was really of God.
Confirming whether or not a work was of the Lord was not uncommon for the early church, as Acts 8 records a similar situation where the gospel was being spread in Samaria, at which point Peter and John were sent to look into the matter (Acts 8:14).
In the early part of Acts 11, Peter was called to task for daring to fellowship with Gentiles and sharing the gospel with them.
Both cases proved to be a work of God, and they would discover the same reality with what was going on at Antioch, as Luke tells us when Barnabas arrived there, he “… had seen the grace of God …” (Acts 11:23).
In other words, the grace of God was on display in their lives in an undeniable way; it was manifest and could be observed. It wasn’t just lip service, but a notable, visible change among the people.
Oliver Greene said,
“[Barnabas] saw the results of God’s grace in the lives of the believers in Antioch, he detected the supreme spiritual evidences and the fruit of the miracle of God which had been wrought in their lives …”
As wicked as Antioch was, something so completely contrary to that type of society and that way of living would have been impossible to miss, and that is exactly what Barnabas found when he showed up. Certainly, that explains why Barnabas “was glad” (Acts 11:23).
As I studied this account, I found the words of Barnabas to these new believers very interesting.
Luke tells us Barnabas “exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord” (Acts 11:23).
In Barnabas’s exhortation, we see a great example of how we should respond to new believers in Jesus Christ.
Having been a believer for some time in an environment hostile to those committed to following Christ, Barnabas knew all too well that the Christian life was not easy.
Barnabas faced his own trials, such as persecution, which was the common lot of all genuine believers of that day.
He knew these new believers would likely face persecution as well.
In addition, he knew that the culture around them would not be a great environment for new believers to cultivate a life of commitment to the Lord.
It’s hard enough for a new believer to grow even when they are surrounded by a somewhat moral society that is not hostile to their faith. It’s quite another thing for a new believer to grow while surrounded by the most vile, sensual, and degenerate offerings sinful man could be tempted by.
Barnabas was aware that new believers in Antioch would constantly be bombarded with temptations to lure them back into their once pagan lifestyles.
That was the impetus for the exhortation he gave in vs 23: “… that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.”
The phrase, “with purpose,” is very interesting.
The Greek word for that phrase only shows up about 12 times in the N.T.
Interestingly enough, four of those times are in reference to the shewbread that was placed on the table in the Tabernacle.
One such example is in Matthew 12 when the Pharisees saw Christ’s disciples walking through a grain field and plucking some grain to eat on the Sabbath, and they chided Jesus for His disciples violating Sabbath law.
Jesus responded by saying,
Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; (4) How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? (Matthew 12:3-4).
The word translated “shewbread” in the Matthew 12 text, is the same word translated “purpose” in Acts 11:23.
Now you may be wondering, as I did, “How in the world are shewbread and purpose related enough to be used interchangeably?”
Well, what was the process for the shewbread in the Tabernacle?
Leviticus 24 gives all the details, but just to summarize: The bread had to be made of fine flour, baked in 12 separate loaves, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, arranged in two groups of six loaves each placed on a table of pure gold, then covered with frankincense, and served as a memorial food offering to the Lord.
At the end of the week, that bread was removed, and the bread could only be eaten by the priests.
That whole process was repeated each week.
So what is that and how does it relate to the use of the word in Acts 11?
Everything to do with the shewbread was a detailed process that was planned, deliberate, and purposeful.
That is the idea behind what Barnabas was saying. “You new believers are going to have to be intentional, you are going to have to plan, you must be deliberate, and you are going to have to be purposeful about living your life for the Lord.”
It’s almost as if he was telling them, “If you, especially in your pagan surroundings, wake up every day half-hearted and half-committed, when you go out into the world you are going to be gobbled up.”
Anytime I think about someone with purpose I think about Daniel.
One of my favorite verses in Scripture is Daniel 1:8, where we read:
But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.
Do you know what Daniel did? He made up in his mind long before the temptation ever arose, that he was not going to defile himself with the ways of the pagans.
That is the same idea that Barnabas is making here.
“New believers, this life is going to be hard. So purpose in your hearts right here and now, so that when the temptation arises, you already know how you are going to respond.”
For those of us who are a little farther along in our walk with the Lord, we need to dispense with this notion that glamorizing the Christian walk is somehow going to be more effective at convincing people to trust in Jesus.
There are enough false teachers out there trying to convince the masses that if they would only follow Jesus all their troubles will just disappear.
“Just follow Jesus and have enough faith and your health problems will vanish, your financial woes will fade away, and life will be smooth sailing,” seems to be a common false teaching.
Jesus Himself taught no such thing.
And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have [sufficient] to finish [it]? (Luke 14:28).
Certainly, Jesus wants all to follow Him, but He also requires commitment and He wants us to be fully aware of the cost associated with discipleship.
No doubt the Christian life is worth it, and the joy and blessings received despite the cost is beyond compare.
But new believers will fare far better if they begin their walk with the Lord with an understanding of what lies ahead, and we do them a great disservice if we lead them to believe the Christian life will be one lived in the lap of luxury.
That is what Barnabas is doing. On the one hand, he is overwhelmed with excitement to see all these people coming to the Lord. But on the other hand, he wants them to have a realistic view of the commitment required of them to be found faithful.
Likewise, it should thrill our hearts when the lost turn to Jesus for salvation.
Without a doubt, we should be there to encourage them in their new walk with the Lord. But in that encouragement, let’s not forget the exhortation offered by Barnabas.
The Christian life is one of great commitment, and to remain committed, one must purpose in his/her heart that they will cleave unto the Lord no matter the cost.