Following the martyrdom of Stephen, “a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and (many) were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Others fled further north into the Syrian cities of Damascus and Antioch (Acts 11:19).
Antioch, three hundred miles north of Jerusalem, was a bustling seaport city, the third largest city in the Roman empire after Rome in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt. It was in this multicultural city that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). It was also in Antioch that the burgeoning church began the wholesale evangelization of Gentiles. God’s people “began speaking to the Greeks also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). This was groundbreaking! So, when “news about them reached the church in Jerusalem ... they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch” (Acts 11:22).
Doctor Luke introduced Barnabas earlier in the Book of Acts. “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas (which is translated Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet”(Acts 4:36-37). His parents were from Israel’s priestly tribe, he was born on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and he was affluent enough to own land. More importantly, he earned a nickname from Peter, James, John, and the others. They called him Mr. Encouragement! Barnabas was there to lend a hand. He offered a kind word and a complement. At just the right time, Barnabas was there to put his arm on your shoulder.
So, when the church in Jerusalem heard about the Holy Spirit’s work in Antioch, Barnabas probably didn’t draw the short straw. He volunteered for duty. “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24).
Can you imagine? The church was busting at the seams! Jews and Gentiles, men and women, sailors and merchants, the educated and blue-collar-workers, Syrian natives and immigrants from distant lands, were all coming to salvation in Jesus. Glory, glory, hallelujah!
With so many converts, the church hustled about trying to provide adequate discipleship. With multitudes of baby Christians, but few teachers, preachers, and pastors, God must have whispered in Barnabas’s ear. So, obedient to the Holy Spirit’s instruction, Barnabas “went to Tarsus to search for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers” (Acts 11:25-26).
God was at work in Saul’s life, honing the rough edges, preparing him for what lay ahead. When Barnabas arrived, Saul was ready. In Antioch’s synagogues, in homes and meeting halls, Saul and Barnabas labored, side-by-side, pastoring and teaching, loving and encouraging, discipling and evangelizing.
Could it have been Saul and Barnabas who, together, earned the nickname, Christians? “Look at them,” they said, “they act just like Jesus, like little Christs... Christians!”
I wonder... does anyone says that about us?