Agents of Grace

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report 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 was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:19-26 ESV)

We live in a world obsessed with removing all sense of pain or discomfort. If something even slightly hurts or makes you the least bit uncomfortable, by any and all means, get it FIXED! Spare no time or expense. We generally see no benefit in our experience of pain. Yet, our physical pain receptors are an extremely important part of our overall personal health. If we didn’t feel pain we wouldn’t be aware of potential danger. Pain can actually serve as not only a warning sign but even as a motive for personal change. Not only can it serve as a deterrent for immediate danger, it can also act as a guide for long term goals. If my lifestyle choices result in poor health and physical pain it can motivate me to make needed and necessary changes in my life and habits. Similarly, emotional and spiritual pain can cause me to stop, assess and seek change in my relational and spiritual health.

The early church began facing strong challenges and very painful emotional and physical persecution because of their commitment to Christ. The public preaching of the Word and the challenges to established beliefs and changes to religious culture that Jesus’ disciples were making resulted in growing persecution, as evidenced by Stephen’s death (see here). This painful experience resulted in a “scattering” of many of these believers to places outside of and away from the Jerusalem church. Luke tells us, “they travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (of Syria).” Don’t miss this, in their effort to escape the pain of persecution God was intimately at work. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m NOT saying God was the source of the evil and painful persecution the church was facing. But, I AM saying that God is able to redeem our pain and turns it into joy… He USED it for the purpose of the Gospel, and He still does!

While it is possible that these events occurred prior to Peter’s vision and Cornelius’s conversion to Christ (see here and here), it seems more likely that these thoroughly Jewish Christians simply struggled with evangelizing Gentiles as they continued to target only Jews, after all, it was a HUGE cultural shift for them. But God was moving and nothing could stop the incredible, life-changing message of the Gospel. The vision Christ had given the Apostles as recorded by Luke in Acts 1:8, must be achieved…

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)

In today’s passage, Luke reminds us of this fact with the phrase “the hand of the Lord was with them.” In the midst of struggles, especially persecution, it is easy to lose sight of God’s purpose. We become so focused on our pain that we forget God’s promises, we overlook His presence and His power. These Jewish believers had “escaped” Jerusalem and, thus, much of the persecution but their lives were still dramatically altered.

In the midst of pain it is easy to focus on our own personal needs, to get wrapped up in our own struggles. Pain can make us very short-sighted but it doesn’t have to. As I previously mentioned, pain can make us aware of danger, put us on alert to the situations and challenges around us, but pain can also be redeemed by God for His purpose. Not only do we become aware of what might be causing our pain, we can become sensitive to what might be causing pain in the lives of others. Notice in our story that Luke points out that most of the believers who escaped to Antioch spoke only to other Jews about the Gospel, but there were some from Cyprus and Cyrene who also spoke to the Hellenists or Greeks about Christ.

These believers from Cyprus and Cyrene were obviously traditional Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem but had come to faith in Christ. Most likely, they had been in Jerusalem for one of the feasts and had seen or heard about Christ from one of the disciples or Apostles. Cyprus and Cyrene were known to be locations where many Jews had relocated during the exile that occurred in the inter-testamental period (in the years between the Old and New Testaments). Some of this relocation occurred forcibly and some of it occurred naturally as they sought to escape persecution. In addition to being a part of the Jewish Diaspora (dispersion or scattering), these Jewish converts to Christ were now escaping persecution in Jerusalem that had arisen because of their faith in Christ. In other words, these folks were very familiar with pain but God was in the process of redeeming it for His purpose.

God was at work among these men and women and a great number of people came to faith in Christ through their witness. In fact, the church in Antioch was growing so fast and in such a way that the Apostles took notice and decided to send Barnabas to check on things. By the way, Barnabas was also from Cyprus (see Acts 4:36). Luke tells us that when Barnabas arrived, he SAW the grace of God, was glad and encouraged these new believers to remain faithful to the Lord. I find it interesting that he “saw the grace of God.” We often talk about experiencing the grace of God or receiving His grace. We don’t often talk about seeing His grace. How is it even possible to see grace? Titus gives us an idea…

“For the grace of God has appeared (become visible), bringing salvation for all people,” (Titus 2:11 ESV – my emphasis on “salvation for all people”)

You can SEE the grace of God in transformed lives, in the lives of those who have been truly redeemed through Christ. Barnabas saw the grace of God in the lives of these Antioch believers and he was certain that it was no different than what he had seen in the church in Jerusalem, across Judea and througout Samaria. God was fulfilling His promise to take the Gospel to the “ends of the earth.”

Grace is visible, clearly visible when we understand it correctly. Let me give you an example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-46 ESV) You see, when grace is present in the life of a believer it is visible.

Grace is the presence of God’s unconditional love and boundless forgiveness in the life of a sinner. When we experience grace, it should become clearly visible in our lives. However, grace can only be experienced by those who “own” their sin and confess it before our loving Father. If we approach God with self-pride and an arrogant demand of His favor then we will walk away empty and devoid of grace. Consider this admonition from James:

“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6-10 ESV)

The prideful stand before God and expect or even demand His favor but are denied grace, but the humble kneel before God and weep over their sin and they find grace poured out upon them. The amazing thing about grace is that it is so much greater than our sin and it is capable of taking the darkest and the worst within us and allowing God’s grace to shine through, to be VISIBLE to those around us. If the grace of God has been poured out upon you, then it will be visible in a radical change of heart and action. You cannot experience the grace of God and remain the same.

Finally, Barnabas looks around at this fledgling church and sees a need for leadership and teaching, and he knows just who can fill that role… Saul. These greek speaking, grace filled, Gentile believers needed a teacher, a pastor who could help them establish this church on a solid foundation. They needed someone who understood grace and forgiveness, someone who could see beyond their past and envision an incredible future and there was nobody better for that than Saul. Barnabas caught the very next camel for Tarsus.

Barnabas and Saul spent the next year teaching these believers what it means to follow Christ. That is important and needs to be heard by the church and many, many believers today. It wasn’t enough for these men and women to experience and exhibit the grace of God in a few, simple ways, they needed to be taught how to be disciples. They needed to learn scripture, they needed to learn about God, about His character and His qualities, they needed to learn obedience and sacrifice, they needed to learn how to follow Jesus in practical ways each day of their lives. We need to learn these things, too.

Once these folks came to faith in Christ through the grace of God they needed a shepherd who could guide them, teach them, help them, love them and, yes, even correct them. Barnabas and Saul began that process. How do you and I learn these things? In a fellowship of imperfect but Jesus-committed believers. We learn them in a bible-believing, bible-teaching, bible-preaching, bible-practicing church. We learn them through sacrificial obedience and sacrificial giving. We also learn them through struggles, conflict, victories and through AMAZING grace.

I think one of the reasons we struggle with sharing our faith is because we try and share it devoid of grace. However, when we remember that grace is the central aspect of our salvation and the cause of our faith then it becomes more natural to share our faith as a natural outflow of grace. I’m not a follower of Christ because of my moral goodness, I’m a follower of Christ because of His grace upon my life. My character is the natual result of God’s grace at work in me.

Grace isn’t just something you RECEIVE when you come before God in humble submission and confession of your sin. Grace is also something you GIVE to others, because you’ve received it from God. Barnabas went to Tarsus to get Saul because Barnabas knew these people would need to not only learn about grace, but learn how to give grace and Saul was intimately familiar with God’s grace.

Paul would be an agent of God’s grace to the church in Antioch, and you and I are to be agents of grace to those we meet each day. We are recipients of grace and when we keep that thought at the forefront of our relationship with God and with others then it informs and shapes our interaction with them. In our interaction with God, it keep us humble before Him and aware of our sin and His love. In our interaction with others, it keeps us mindful of our own failures and our own need of forgiveness. Grace makes us more graceful. More loving, more forgiving, more kind, more like Christ and, after all, isn’t that our goal?

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