Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Evidences of grace (Acts 11:19-30)
I was talking to a parent recently who told me that his daughter was showing evidence of grace. It seemed to him that her faith seemed really to be making a difference in her life. There seemed to be signs that her Christianity is real.
One of the weaknesses of evangelicalism is that we put more emphasis on the moment of conversion than we do on the evidence of having being converted. Christianity is not simply about making a decision or praying 'the sinner's prayer.' Becoming a Christian must demonstrate itself in a changed life. That is because becoming a Christian is about God giving us the gift of repentance (a change of mind) accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit (who enables a change of heart and life).
When I was a student in Dublin I read a book entitled 'Transforming Grace.' God's kindness and favour changes the lives of his people. In our passage Barnabas could see that Gentiles (non Jews) in Antioch had been truly converted because there was evidence of grace. God had enabled them to turn away from their former way of living and enjoy new life in Christ. In fact this whole passage is filled with evidences of grace.
1. Grace makes evangelists (19-21)
The opening words of our passage bring us back to chapter eight. There, after Stephen had been stoned to death, all but the apostles were scattered from Jerusalem. These ordinary Christians shared the good news about Jesus wherever they went. Most of these new Christians spoke only to their fellow Jews. But some men, from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch (a large cosmopolitan city in what is now Turkey) and evangelised Gentiles.
Antioch was known as a morally lax city. Five miles south of the city was a shrine to Daphne, where ritual prostitution took place. There were many religious cults in the city promising salvation and immortality. But the men from Cyrus and Cyrene looked upon these people with pity. Their heart went out to lost people who were stumbling in the dark. Compelled by love they pointed people to Jesus as the one who offers forgiveness, hope and an eternal rest.
Grace makes people evangelists. Grace makes people want to share the good news with others. Grace makes us evangelists. God blessed these men's efforts by using their witness to bring many people to himself
2. Barnabas - an example of grace (22-26)
The church in Jerusalem shouldn't have been surprised to see Gentiles come to faith. Didn't they recall that God had brought revival to the Gentile city of Nineveh in the time of Jonah? Yes, Jesus had focused his mission on the Jews but that was only to be the starting point. Indeed, we can see Jesus witness to a Samaritan woman and commend the faith of a Centurion. In this book of Acts the gospel has already being pushing boundaries, with the conversions of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman centurion Cornelius.
The leaders in Jerusalem commissioned Barnabas to go and investigate what was going on in Antioch. Barnabas was originally a Jew from Cyprus, like some of those who had evangelised the Greeks of Antioch. They choose a good man for the job. He had been nicknamed 'son of encouragement.' Remember how Barnabas had stood up for the newly converted Saul when many were sceptical about the reality of his conversion.
When Barnabas arrives in Antioch he sees evidence of grace. God had truly done a work in the lives of many Gentiles. He was overjoyed. Biblical encouragers are easily gladdened. Joy is a part of the fruit of the Spirit, we rejoice in who God is and what he is donning in the world. Encouragers are not sceptical and cynical.
Barnabas is a great example of the evidence of grace in a person's life. He is described as a good man. God makes his people Good. Goodness is listed as a part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He was full of the Holy Spirit, co-operating with God's influence in his life. He was noted for his faith, having confidence in the God who can do great things. The number of Christians in Antioch continues to grow under his influence.
Barnabas has the humility to realise that he needs help. He thinks that Saul would be the ideal person to work alongside him. Saul would have been more educated than he was but Barnabas is not insecure. He is not jealously guarding his leadership position but willing to work as part of a team. He takes the hundred mile trip to Tarsus to find Paul. Tarsus was Paul's home place. Years earlier the Christians of Jerusalem had told him to take refuge there after his conversion and zeal had stirred up the wrath of the Jewish authorities. Saul had spent those years in Tarsus sharing his faith. Saul and Barnabas valued the young church at Antioch, teaching them for a year.
3. Grace makes people generous (26-30)
I think that the church at Antioch must have been wonderful. There was a mixture of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, yet there is harmony. It is at Antioch that the believers are first called Christians (it would have been Gentiles that would have come up with this name because Jews would not approve of referring to Jesus as the promised Christ). Presumably the Antioch believers are called Christians because they spoke about Christ. He was these passion and joy. Now we see more evidence of grace as they give to their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
Some prophets had arrived from Jerusalem. One of them, Agabus, foretold a severe famine. So everyone in the Antioch church gives as much as they can afford to help their Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Note that grace makes us one with Christians in other churches, not just those in our local fellowship. In our context, grace doesn't focus on denominational allegiance and cherishes the global church. Grace fills people with compassion for those in need, and not just for believers in need (Galatians 6:10). Barnabas had shown such generous grace before, in chapter four, when he had sold a field and presented the proceeds at the apostles' feet to be given to those in need.
It is not being able to name the day or hour of our conversion that matters. What matters is that there is evidence of God's transforming grace in our lives. Not that we are perfect but that we are in the process of being changed. The reality of our faith must be demonstrated by the influence of the Holy Spirit over our hearts. Do we want to be people who are good, full of the Holy Spirit and faith? Is God giving us a love for those who do not yet know Jesus and a compassion for Christian brothers and sisters in need?
I enjoy reading biographies of evangelical heroes. One such hero is William Carey, an English Baptist in the late 1700s. Carey demonstrated many of the evidences of grace illustrated in this passage.
Carey had an evangelical zeal. Yet some within his denomination ridiculed him. He left for India, never to return to England. He persevered, labouring seven years before he saw his first converts. He was given a post teaching at a prestigious colonial college, and poured all his earnings into the mission. He cared deeply about the India's spiritual and social needs. He was open-minded, when established a Christian college, he refused pressure to make it exclusively Baptist. He had amazing faith, exhorting people to 'expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.'