Acts 11:26

In this time of change and resistance to change, we must—in the world and in the church—revitalize our vision of the church by reviewing what the Holy Spirit teaches us about it. Lest the salt should lose its savor, we turn to study the pattern given us in the New Testament. In particular, let’s look at the New Testament portrait of the church at Antioch, found in Acts 11.


The church at Antioch is the most complete example in the New Testament of a Spirit-led church. It was founded by the unpredictable blowing of the wind of the Holy Spirit. It gave us our name, Christian. It was the first church that included Gentiles as members. It was the first church with a worldview of its mission. It called Saul out of obscurity and started him in the ministry. In that city, the cutting edge of advancing truth caused the most important confrontation in the apostolic church, resulting in a new outlook in the church and a new strength of organization. Antioch was where the action was. If we will let Him, the Holy Spirit will do as much—and perhaps more—for our church today.

First, observe what the Holy Spirit had to work with in establishing the church in Antioch. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch, and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:19, 20).

Notice the kind of people they were. They had lost their jobs, their homes, and their friends, and they were refugees from religious persecution. To them, Jesus was worth everything, and God allowed them to pay that price. The Holy Spirit cannot create a church with people whose beliefs cost nothing. Real Christianity costs, but it also pays. Jesus said, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

Notice the kind of leadership they had. The Antioch church also had wise, spiritual leadership in Barnabas. The record says that “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 faith” (verses 22-24, RSV).

Barnabas was a man who could rejoice in the success of others without feeling envious. He could enthusiastically endorse plans and methods that he himself had not initiated. When he saw God’s work succeeding among the people, “he was glad.” We learn here that God’s appointed leaders are not to function as funnels or valves through which everything must pass as if they were in control. They are to be watchmen with discernment to encourage and exhort, allowing room for God to control, by direct contact with His people through the Holy Spirit, and to share leadership with people who strive for position and authority, who feel threatened when the Lord’s work goes beyond their own capacity to plan and devise. Barnabas was not that kind of man.

This man Barnabas had started Paul in the ministry in Antioch. Years later, when Paul (Luke 15:36-39) refused to work with the more passive and timid John Mark, Barnabas took the young man with him and saved him for the Lord’s work. Now I ask you, what redemptive work do you think the Holy Spirit could accomplish in our city if not only were the members as committed as they but also if our officers and leaders in every capacity were as spiritual, imaginative, tolerant, and self-effacing as Barnabas?


Notice the kind of results the Antioch church experienced while being led by the Holy Spirit. Several prominent features stand out in the portrait of this church.

A. Victorious over rational prejudice. The most prominent of these was victory over racial and national prejudice. The Jewish refugees from Jerusalem did not anticipate joining in fellowship with Grecians. This was contrary to their lifelong religious and cultural background. But two disciples, one from Cyprus and one from Cyrene, shared their message with some of the non-Jewish people, and no one could control the result. They believed! The Holy Spirit of God accepted them!

The Holy Spirit chose a cosmopolitan group as “prophets and teachers.” In Acts 13:1, we read, “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch) and Saul.”

Simeon had a Jewish name, but he was also called Niger, which in Greek means “black.” He was evidently a black man, perhaps from northern Africa.

Lucius is a Latin name, leading us to conclude that he was of Roman background.

Manaen is a Greek name, and he is identified as having grown up with Herod. He was probably not predominantly Jewish. These men led the church in a unity that was miraculous and that set the pattern for the church for all time to come. People whose backgrounds were markedly different were subject one to another. Why? Because all were subject first and foremost to the Holy Spirit! What an earthshaking organization a Christian church can be!

In this city with its great church (yes, a model church), God did not allow the spirit of parochialism to develop. After only a year of exciting growth, God asked the leaders of the church to give up their two pastor-evangelists, Saul and Barnabas, for foreign missions. “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went . . .” (verses 3, 4). There is no mention of the church’s grief in losing such great leaders or of their fear for the future of the church at home. When God calls, it is always safe to respond. With their willing spirit of sacrifice, the evangelization of the world for Christ began. With the same spirit, it will climax and close.

B. A generous church. Another aspect of the Antioch church is revealed when the prophet Agabus told of a coming famine in Judea. The generosity of the church was spontaneous and thorough. “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29, 30). There was no pocketbook protection in that church! No one asked to be excused. Every man “decided” to do what he could. No one proposed that every member give a dollar. Their response came from the heart. And so they gave according to their ability. That is the way people give when the Holy Spirit leads them.

C. A warm and friendly family. In connection with this act of generosity, notice how they referred to other Christians in Judea: “the brothers and sisters” (verse 29). What a warm, beautiful term! Paul and Barnabas knew what that meant when they returned from their foreign-mission tour: “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them. . . . And they stayed there a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:27, 28). The men in Antioch understood the support and strength of the Christian brotherhood. It was a warm and friendly family, a comforting group to which to return, to which any person would be happy to belong. Where people follow the Holy Spirit, there is more than servile fellowship; there is heavenly fellowship. People need to belong, to feel at home, to be welcome. The greatest sickness in the world today is loneliness. People need the fellowship of a Spirit-led church.

D. Positive in conflict resolution. At this point, you may be thinking of the Antioch church as a sweet, placid group with no problems. You might even be discouraged as you think of your own church. But wait—I have news for you, encouraging news! Antioch was a church where differences came out into the open and could be discussed frankly and openly. When people from Judea urged circumcision (Acts 15:1, 2), the Jews and Gentiles were separated—they had a “sharp dispute and debate.” Paul tells more about it in Galatians 2, where he says he withstood Peter “to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11). Although it was an inflammable moment, it was not a hopeless situation. This is always true when people are honest, sincere, and willing to be taught of God. The integrity of their search for truth was more important than the status of either Peter or Paul. Paul did not sacrifice honesty for strategy. A spiritual crisis, an important and unavoidable issue, may be the Holy Spirit’s way of guiding the church through study.

E. Led by the Holy Spirit. You might think that such serious disagreements would surely result in the forming of splinter groups in the church. Not so in Antioch. Not where the Holy Spirit is allowed to lead. The people themselves decided to submit the problem to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. The unity of the church had to be preserved. God leads many minds, “where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety” (Prov. 11:14 KJV).

Notice what happened in Jerusalem. Peter, who had been publicly rebuked in Antioch for his evasive opportunism, and who could, humanly speaking, be expected to harbor resentment, revealed his greatness and submission to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15, Peter recounts the evidences of the Spirit’s leading of God in the controversy and new concepts in Antioch. For him as a great leader, it was an act of humble submission.

Nor did the discussion occur privately in a cloistered, elite group. We read, “The whole assembly became silent” (Acts 15:12). Many disciples must have been present in that open meeting. When the decision was reached, a letter was prepared which said in part, “then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church” (verse 22, KJV).

The brethren in Jerusalem were even critical of themselves. They wrote, “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you” (verse 24). The church felt free and secure under the leadership of the Spirit. The local church submitted to the judgment of the apostles and elders, and the apostles and elders submitted to the evidence of divine leading in the local church. And when the apostles’ letter came to Antioch, “the people read it and were glad for its encouraging message” (verse 31). What confidence is evoked when leaders are led by the Holy Spirit!

F. “The Lord’s hand was with them.” The secret of the Antioch church is found in Acts 11:21: “The Lord’s hand was with them.” His hand is in our church, too, though not as unrestrained as in Antioch. He is willing, if you and I are, to make ours such a church. To make room for Him to lead, we must look to Him for ourselves. I must be the kind of Christian that God can guide by the Holy Spirit. You must be, too.


What kind of Christian is that? Antioch provides the answer. Here were the people who saw Jesus suffer and die on the cross; here they were who went forth with a broken heart to tell the world about Him. They were people overwhelmed and transformed by their awareness of the love of Jesus. They were so affected by Him, talked so much about Him, acted so much like Him, that the Gentiles in Antioch called them “Christians.”

Has anyone called you Christian lately? Is that how our church is known in this community? Are you a Christian? Ask God to make you sure of that, and then we can be sure He will do great wonders for His church today.


“God has made His church on the earth a channel of light, and through it He communicates His purposes and His will. He does not give to one of His servants an experience independent of and contrary to the experience of the church itself. Neither does He give one man a knowledge of His will for the entire church while the church—Christ’s body—is left in darkness. In His providence, He places His servants in close connection with His church in order that they may have less confidence in themselves and greater confidence in others whom He is leading out to advance His work” (Acts of the Apostles, 163).

“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. The name was given them because Christ was the main theme of their preaching, their teaching, and their conversation. Continually they were recounting the incidents that had occurred during the days of His earthly ministry, when His disciples were blessed with His personal presence. Untiringly they dwelt upon His teachings and His miracles of healing. With quivering lips and tearful eyes they spoke of His agony in the garden, His betrayal, trial, and execution, the forbearance and humility with which He had endured the contumely and torture imposed upon Him by His enemies, and the Godlike pity with which He had prayed for those who persecuted Him. His resurrection and ascension, and His work in heaven as the Mediator for fallen man, were topics on which they rejoiced to dwell. Well might the heathen call them Christians, since they preached Christ and addressed their prayers to God through Him” (Acts of the Apostles, 157).

“I testify to my brethren and sisters that the church of Christ, enfeebled and defective as it may be, is the only object on earth on which He bestows His supreme regard. While He extends to all the world His invitation to come to Him and be saved, He commissions His angels to render divine help to every soul that cometh to Him in repentance and contrition, and He comes personally by His Holy Spirit into the midst of His church” (Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 15).

This sermon by Francis F. Bush is excerpted from the book If I Had One Sermon to Preach, edited by Herbert E. Douglass. Used with permission.