Barnabas: Encouragement

Explore the Bible Series

July 13, 2008


Background Passage:Acts 11:19-12:25

Lesson Passage: Acts 11:19-30




This weekís lesson reveals a great deal about the early development of the church.Two things, in particular, arrest our attention.First, the gospel spread to the Syrian city of Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire (Rome and Alexandria were larger).For centuries this sprawling, cosmopolitan city served as one of the most important centers of Christian activity. Second, significant changes occurred in the leadership of the church in Jerusalem.During the earliest years, church leadership revolved around Simon Peter, James the son of Zebedee, and James the brother of Jesus (half-brother, apparently the son of Joseph and Mary).Most believe that other apostles, by this time, had left Jerusalem for missionary labors throughout the known world.In Acts Eleven, we will observe a tragic, significant change when part of the leadership triad, James the son of Zebedee, died at the hands of Herod Agrippa I.


Along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome, Antioch (Syria) will serve as one of the great centers of early Christian history.Seleucus Nicator founded Antioch, on the Orontes River, about 300 B.C.This thriving maritime city had, according to Curtis Vaughan, a population of 800,000, and was infamous for its immorality and idolatry (one of the centers for the worship of the goddess Tyche).Antioch had a large Jewish population, and it appears that many Christians had migrated to the region.Some of these believers evangelized Gentiles, and this church, from its earliest development, had a pluralistic nature. Under the leadership of Barnabas, Antioch became an early center of missionary work in the Mediterranean.


The execution of James the son of Zebedee is one of the most moving stories recorded in the Book of Acts.About fourteen years had passed since the ascension of Jesus, and local persecution of the Lordís followers had continued in the aftermath of Stephenís martyrdom.Herod Agrippa I arrested Peter and James, two critically important leaders of the church in Jerusalem, with the intent of appeasing the Jewish religious hierarchy.The unscrupulous king killed James by the sword (probably beheaded), and planned a similar fate, no doubt, for Peter.The text indicates that God sent an angel to miraculously deliver Peter from Herodís hands.Imagine the reaction of the church to these events.James died at the hands of a wicked king, and Peter, by divine intervention, escaped the sword. Why did God intervene in one case but not in the other?Whatever answer we propose to this dilemma, these developments changed the leadership dynamic in the church in Jerusalem.




Lesson Outline:


I.                   The Establishment of the Church in Syrian Antioch (11:19-30)

A.    The founding of the church in Antioch (vv. 19-21): As a result of the martyrdom of Stephen, believers scattered to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Syria.This Diaspora resulted in evangelization of the Jews, and, in time, these Christians witnessed to Hellenists.Vaughan argues persuasively that these Hellenists were Gentiles (not Hellenistic Jews) who embraced the gospel.

B.     The work of Barnabas (vv. 22-26): The Jerusalem church dispatched Barnabas to examine the new work in Antioch.This wonderful man rejoiced with the new believers, and helped establish the work by exhorting the church to faithfulness and continued evangelization of the city.In time, Barnabas realized he needed help in the work, and he enlisted Saul, in nearby Tarsus, to assist in leading the church.

C.     The prophecy of Agabus (vv. 27-30): Prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch, and, among them, a man named Agabus predicted that a terrible famine would strike the region.Apparently the hardship became particularly acute in Judea.Luke observed that this famine occurred during the reign of Emperor Claudius (reign 44-54 A.D.). The historian Josephus affirmed that famines plagued this region during the late 40s of the First Century.The generous, thoughtful Christians in Antioch mobilized a relief effort, and commissioned Saul and Barnabas to carry resources to the Judean believers.


II.                Renewed Persecution of the Believers in Jerusalem (12:1-25)

A.    The execution of James (vv. 1-2): Six members of the Herod family appear in the biblical record: Herod the Great, Archelaus (Herod the Ethnarch), Herod the Tetrarch, Philip (son of Herod the Great), Herod Agrippa I, and Agrippa II.The ruler who killed James was the fifth person in this list. He was the grandson of Herod the Great and son of Aristobulus.Agrippa spent most of his life in Rome, and he grew up as a close acquaintance of Emperor Gaius (Caligula).When Gaius ascended to the throne of Rome, he appointed Agrippa to govern Palestine (41 A.D.), and, when enemies assassinated Gaius (41 A.D.), Emperor Claudius expanded Agrippaís powers.On the whole, the Jews disliked the Herods, but Agrippa won a certain amount of popularity in Palestine.No doubt, he fostered this goodwill by persecuting the early church.James died by beheading, and it certainly appears that Agrippa planned to execute Peter in like manner.

B.     The deliverance of Peter (vv. 3-19): Passover observance interrupted Agrippaís sinister plan, and the king assigned sixteen soldiers to guard Peter until the Feast of Unleavened Bread passed.Note that Herod, in respect for the religious practices of the Jews, waited until after Passover to commit murder!As the apostle waited in prison (probably the Fortress of Antonia), the believers in Jerusalem prayed fervently for his wellbeing. In answer to these prayers an angel appeared in Peterís cell and awakened the apostle from a deep sleep.The heavenly messenger instructed the sleepy saint to arise and dress, and then he led Peter out of the prison.Finding himself suddenly alone, Peter made his way to the home of John Markís mother, apparently an important gathering place of the Lordís people.An astonished servant girl announced the arrival of Peter, and the startled believers received their dear friend.At this point we should note the strange providence that allowed the death of James but miraculously spared the life of Simon Peter.No human explanations, of course, will decipher these crosscurrents of providence. It does not seem fair to us that God would protect one man and not the other.The text does not indicate any reason why events unfolded in this manner, and God often remains silent in his actions.Godís silence frequently serves as the signature of the divine prerogative.

C.     The death of Agrippa (vv. 20-23): Shortly after Peterís escape, Herod had the prison guards executed; then, the irritated king left Jerusalem for Caesarea.The citizens of Tyre and Sidon had, in some way, offended Agrippa, and they wanted to curry his favor.The crowds gathered for a public festival (Josephus indicated this may have beencelebration of the emperorís birthday), and Agrippa, dressed in his regal finery, agreed to address the crowd (again, Josephus claimed Agrippa wore a robe of woven silver).The throng, eager to flatter the king, praised the oration as the words of a god.Agrippa, swollen with pride, received their accolades, and, in doing so, he brought upon himself divine condemnation.An angel struck down Agrippa.Josephus pointed out that indeed a sudden illness struck Agrippa, and the wicked king died in agony, five days after he fell ill.

D.    The continued spread of the gospel (vv. 24-25): Apostles and kings lived and died, but the timeless gospel of Christ continued to thrive.In time, Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark returned to Antioch, and soon they would leave for the first great missionary journey of the church.