The Church on Mission: Witness, Disciple, Give
Topic: Discipleship Passage: Acts 11:19–11:30
We had a good time at Hold the Rope last Wednesday; I hope more can make it next year. Our missionaries from South Asia, Max and Laura, were able to join us; and you’ll be hearing more from him today. As I said on Wednesday, many of you are new and haven’t met our missionaries. Please introduce yourself and get to know their family, so you can better pray for them and have that personal connection.
We’re still in missions month, and Acts is such a fitting book for that subject. We’ll begin in verse 19. Let’s give our attention to God’s holy word.
19 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. 20 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. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 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, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 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. 27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
Catching on to God’s Plan to Save the Nations
I come from a family of welders. When my dad was first teaching me welding, I was ignorant and slow. When I helped, there was a lot I didn’t know about his technique, his next step, his plan with certain projects. So for some time I stood around and watched. He’d have to remind me what I should be doing and preparing for. But the more I grew to know him and his plan and how he did things, the better the welder’s helper I became. He’d say, “Now you’re catchin’ on, son!”
Similarly, the last two chapters of Acts have been the church “catching on” to God’s plan. Chapters 10-11 focus on the mostly Jewish church embracing the Gentile mission as they come to know God more truly. God is a missionary God. He saves people from all ethnicities. His blessings fall on Cornelius and his family and friends. And these Jewish Christians conclude, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life. Who am I to stand in God’s way?!” “Now you’re catchin’ on, church!” It was God’s plan from the beginning with Abraham—that in Christ, all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. By knowing God more truly, by understanding his plan more carefully, we’ll catch on to our role in the mission as well.
Three Snapshots of the Church on Mission
Today, we get three snapshots of the church on mission. These snapshots reveal patterns of what healthy participation in God’s mission looks like. Sometimes the Great Commission seems so huge that we wonder what sort of splash we can make really. But these snapshots depict some of the most basic ways all of us can contribute. Specifically, we can witness, disciple, and give.
The church bears witness to Jesus Christ
Notice first the church bears witness to Jesus Christ. Verse 19, “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.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because we’ve seen it before in chapter 8. Persecution scattered the church into Judea and Samaria. But 8:4 adds that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Luke picks up right where he left off.
His theological point is the same: persecution can’t stop the gospel’s advance. The gospel is unstoppable, because God’s plan to save people from all the nations is unstoppable. Our witness will prevail, because God will save all his people. A deficiency in our witness says more about the state of our hearts than of God’s power to advance the gospel. He’s unstoppable. If we keep quiet, he’ll use others.
But be amazed that he uses all his people to witness. Notice who God’s witnesses are: it’s simply “those who were scattered.” It’s not the apostles—mare stayed in Jerusalem. It’s not even those other leaders in Acts who are regularly named. It’s just an anonymous bunch of ordinary Christians. Persecution moves them around, but it can’t keep them quiet about the Savior. Never think that evangelism is just the pastor’s job, or just limited to those who are really gifted in it. Evangelism is for the whole church, every Christian. God doesn’t need us, but he chooses to use everybody in the church. Who you are determines what you do. You are witnesses; therefore, you witness.
Wherever we go, we share about Jesus. That’s what happens here. God uses them to advance the gospel across geographical and cultural boundaries. Geographically, their witness spreads to Phoenicia—that’s the region north of Israel along the coast. Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean. They went also to Antioch, which is modern day Antakya in Turkey—massive city during the Roman Empire.
This provides a setting for some to witness across cultural barriers. We see this in verse 20. Some were sharing with 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.” The gospel advances to those in a Greek culture, just as it advanced to those in a Jewish culture. The whole goal is their salvation. It says in verse 21 that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” That’s why we witness.
Our goal in evangelism is conversion to the person of Christ. Out of sin to the person of Christ. We want people to know the Lord and experience his grace. Yes, we warn them of the terrible consequences of sin in this life and in hell. But our goal in evangelism isn’t just rescuing people from eternal fire; it’s getting others to satisfy their soul with the Bread of Life. He’s the goal of our witness. We offer him to others.
Witness was the rhythm of the early church, no matter what they faced. If the church is bold to proclaim Christ in the face of persecution, how zealous should we be to proclaim Christ with the freedoms we have? Witness needs to become our rhythm as well. Just like Bible meditation and prayer and hospitality are part of the Christian life, so is evangelism. The church doesn’t grow by building programs and website designs; it grows by people sharing the gospel. Wherever we go, let’s be praying for opportunities to witness. Let’s be attentive to people’s need for Christ, and speak in ways that turn others toward him. A healthy church bears witness to Jesus.
The church disciples by exhortation & teaching
Next snapshot: the church disciples one another by exhortation and teaching. Missions doesn’t stop with conversion to the Lord; we must encourage each other to continue with the Lord. That requires exhortation and teaching. Notice how Barnabas exhorts the church.
Verse 22, “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.” We’ve met Barnabas before. Once again, he’s living up to his name: “son of encouragement.” The grace of God brings him great joy; and from that joy, he exhorts them all to remain faithful to the Lord. And notice also that it’s the Spirit compelling Barnabas to talk this way.
Pay attention: he doesn’t see the grace of God and say, “Well, everything’s good here. God’s got this. I’m heading back to Jerusalem.” No. Grace makes perseverance possible; so he exhorts them all to remain faithful to the Lord. God inspires exhortation as a means to keep his people persevering in the faith.
You know temptation to sin, every day. You feel the pull of this world. You’ve tasted certain pleasures the world offers, and they just feel so good until you’re dead. We’ve seen people walk away from Jesus, choosing their own passions over Jesus. Just this week I was telling my kids at breakfast Jesus’ parable of the four soils. Some seeds fall among thorns—these are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word.
This is no joke, if we don’t remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, we prove that we’re not truly Christ’s. We need exhortation, brothers and sisters, to persevere. We need people that speak into our lives like the writer of Hebrews speaks: “Pay close attention to what you’ve heard, lest you drift away from it!” (Heb 2:1); “Take care…lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God!” (Heb 3:12); “Don’t throw away your confidence, which has great reward, for you have need of endurance, so that when you have done all the will of God you may receive what is promised!” (Heb 10:35-36). “Strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord!” (Heb 12:14).
Healthy participation in the mission involves exhortation to persevere in our walk with Christ. A church that is full of the Holy Spirit will be full of exhortation, because there’s nothing we need more than Christ. He’s too precious and hell is too painful to let each other just walk away without concern. As Jesus put it, only those who persevere to the end will be saved.
Teaching is also an important part of discipleship. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 says we must teach disciples to obey all that Jesus commanded us. Here we see Barnabas and Saul teaching. Verse 25, “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.” What might that teaching include? We don’t have to guess, that’s why the letters to churches follow the book of Acts. They’re perfect examples of the type of teaching churches needed: “Here’s the gospel and here’s what those truths about Jesus imply for all your various relationships.”
When the church exhorts and teaches, the Spirit makes us more and more like Christ over time such that others start noticing where our allegiance belongs. We belong to Christ. That’s why people start calling the disciples Christians. The name “Christian” appears only two other times in the New Testament, and in both cases it’s found on the lips of unbelievers—in Acts 26:28 it’s King Agrippa; in 1 Peter 4:16 it’s persecutors. Also, there’s no historical record of Jesus’ followers calling themselves “Christians” until the late Second Century. So it’s very likely that the unbelieving world so recognizes their public allegiance to Christ, they start the name-calling “Christian.”
We should pray that our exhortation and our teaching would so transform this church, that it would impact the people around us; that we so think like Christ and speak like Christ and live like Christ, that people can’t help but notice that Christ is everything to us; that we’re not just Christians in name only, but we’re Christians because our lives give tangible evidence that Christ himself is living within us.
The church gives generously to meet needs
In the third snapshot, we see the church gives generously to meet needs. In verse 27, some prophets show up from Jerusalem. This fulfills what Peter said would happen earlier: God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh and his sons and daughters would prophesy (Acts 2:17). The Spirit gives Agabus insight to a future famine; and Luke adds a little historical note for his readers that it was the one that happened in the days of Claudius. Agabus was speaking true prophesy—what he said came to pass.
Then verse 29 says this: “So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
We could also make some very practical observations about their giving. They did it together—all the disciples determined what to do. They’re also not creating new needs by giving to meet other people’s needs. No, each one gives according to his ability—some have the ability to give more, others less. They also choose trustworthy men to carry the gift to those in Judea, Barnabas and Saul.
But there’s much more going on here if we look at the bigger story. Already Luke has given us examples of the early church’s generosity. People believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, and one of the first fruits you see in that people is open-handed generosity toward each other—that happens in Acts 2 and 4. But there’s a few differences here that really matter in terms of what Luke means for us to see.
Those earlier examples happened among Jews in Jerusalem; this giving happens by the church in Antioch which had both Jews and Greeks. Meaning the gospel transforms all peoples, regardless of background, and makes them one in generosity. Even more significant, the church with Greeks in it sends relief to Jewish brothers and sisters. Meaning, the gospel produces a kind generosity that shows no favoritism based on ethnicity or culture. And then also, the earlier examples happened between members in the same church; this giving happens between churches in different cities. Meaning, the gospel unites Christians from all over such that they care for one another. There’s solidarity. Churches aren’t competing; they’re partnering to meet needs.
Every week we pass the offering plate. I know that many of you give even outside of Sunday morning, but this is the time we give together. When you give to this church, you’re giving to support this much larger mission we’ve been talking about. When you give, you’re giving to support the advance of the word here; you’re giving to support other local ministries outside this church and several missionaries from this church. Some of our budget even goes to a cooperative program, where other churches help one another fund agencies like the IMB and our Seminaries.
The offering plate isn’t just a formality; it’s one way we encourage one another in worship to give generously to the mission. An important mark of maturity as a church is whether we’re generous toward others in need.
God’s Powerful Grace Enables the Church’s Mission
Three snapshots: witnessing, discipling, and giving. These snapshots reveal patterns of what healthy participation in God’s mission looks like. All of us can participate in these three basic ways, being faithful with all the Lord brings us. But I can’t end there, because I’ve skipped a major point throughout Luke’s portrait of the church. That major point makes all the difference in the way we leave today.
You see, we must leave today depending wholly on the grace of God to do these things through us. These Christians aren’t witnessing and discipling and giving in their own strength. Rather, these healthy patterns grow by the grace of God. God’s powerful grace enables the church’s mission. You may have caught it yourself, but there are several ways that Luke emphasizes God’s powerful grace.
Notice it first in verse 21, “the hand of the Lord was with them.” The hand of the Lord. You see this idiom quite a few places in the Old Testament. In the Exodus, it referred to God manifesting his supernatural power in judgments on Egypt. I was reading in Joshua 4:24 this week. The Lord dried up the Jordan River and the Red Sea, it says, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty…” In that case, God manifested his supernatural power in salvation.
That’s more of what it means here. For God’s hand to be with them, was for his power to be working for them. His power was working in their favor. All that was happening—the witness, the conversions—God did it all.
Notice also what Luke says Barnabas saw in verse 23: “when he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad.” What did he witness? The grace of God. Grace in itself is invisible. What Barnabas witnesses is the visible outworking of grace in this new church plant—conversions; repentance; vocalized faith; people following Jesus. People don’t convert themselves to Christ; God converts people to Christ. Barnabas can see them.
Notice also the end of verse 24: “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” That’s what you call a divine passive. God added them to the Lord Jesus. Again, his powerful grace stands behind the success of their mission.
God’s grace is also what leads the church to be generous. Luke doesn’t mention it here, but it seems implied by the pattern of giving we’ve seen elsewhere in Acts. As we see it clearly in Acts 4:33. It says that “great grace was upon them all.” Grace compelled the church’s generosity there; it makes sense that it was doing so here.
It also seems implied by the pattern of giving in other churches planted and taught by Paul. Second Corinthians 8:9 is one clear example. Paul is encouraging the church to give to the poor in Jerusalem, and he motivates them with this word: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” When that grace converts your heart, you give when you see needs.
All that to say that witnessing, discipling, and giving didn’t happen on their own. God’s grace was at work. The power driving the church’s mission is God. God is the chief evangelist, the best church planter, and the most generous giver—he gave up his only Son for our sake. The church’s witness, discipleship, and giving was a window through which to see the grace of the risen Lord Jesus at work.
It has happened before when God moves in a miraculous way. Hundreds come to know the Lord through one church’s ministry program or one guy’s evangelism method. But then we get this idea like we can just copy that program or copy that method, and the results are guaranteed. People even start marketing their method as the best way to grow your church. Sadly churches start placing confidence in programs and methods instead of God’s grace. We can’t fall into that trap.
Our confidence must rest solely in the grace of God. Grace is what will make you a bold witness for Christ. Grace is what will help us exhort and teach one another. Grace is what will compel us to give generously to others. Yes, we strategize and preach and act. This takes effort, intentionality, and sacrifice. But at the end of the day, all the glory belongs to the Lord for giving us the grace to do it. What does Paul say? “I worked harder than any of them; though it was not I, but the grace of God within me.”
So as you go home and evaluate your contribution to the mission; as you evaluate what your witness looks like to the lost, and what your discipleship of others looks like in this church, and what your giving looks like—remember how dependent you are on God’s grace to work these things in you. Start with praying for his grace to change you where you need to be changed. Cry out for the hand of the Lord to be with us, for God to manifest his power through us, so that many others turn to the Lord.