Acts 11:21 – “And the hand of the Lord was with [the church in Antioch], and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”
By: Jason Tarn, Lead English Pastor, Houston Chinese Church
April 10, 2018
Twenty-first century Houston and first-century Antioch have much in common. Both cities could be described as multi-national, multi- cultural, and multi-ethnic. Now the growing diversity of Houston has been well documented, but you may not be as familiar with Antioch. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Among its population were Romans and Greeks. But due to its location within the cradle of civilization, the city was filled with Syrians, Phoenicians, and Jews. There were also Africans, Arabs, Persians, and Indians among the inhabitants.
In fact, there were at least 18 different ethnic quarters. The builders of the city recognized that a growing diversity would lead to growing tensions. So not only did they build walls around the city to protect the people of Antioch from outsiders, they built walls within the city, separating these ethnic quarters, to protect the people of Antioch from each other.
But according the book of Acts, when the gospel was introduced to Antioch and the disciples began preaching the Lord Jesus to the Hellenists (Greeks), something new happened. Revival broke out. We’re told in Acts 11:21 that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”
And all of a sudden, people from all the various quarters of the city began walking past those dividing walls to congregate and worship the same God. How do we know this was happening? Because Acts 13:1 introduces us to the leaders of the Antioch church. There was Barnabas, a bi-cultural Jew from Cyprus, and Simeon, a sub-Saharan African, called Niger (Latin for black). Then there was Lucius, a North African, of Cyrene. There was also Manaen, a social elite and member of Herod’s court. And of course there was Saul, whom we know as Paul, a Jew of Jews. If these were their leaders, then imagine the makeup of their congregation.
This is why in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (11:26). It’s not a name they gave themselves. It’s likely their non- believing neighbors who coined the phrase, Christ-ians, since these disciples were always talking about a man named Christ. You
couldn’t peg them with normal labels. They didn’t fit the normal categories. Up until that point, every nationality or ethnicity had its own religion. If you’re Roman, you have your Roman religion. If you’re African, your African religion. And of course if you’re Jewish, there’s Jewish religion.
But now, in the church of Antioch, a mixture of different nationalities and ethnicities were all worshipping the same God together. Their neighbors were at a loss for words. They didn’t know what to call these people since there was no one nationality or ethnicity that stood out as dominant. They had to come up with a new label. Those are Christians. The one dominant feature among them was an allegiance to Christ. That’s what unified them.
This kind of unity among a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic people is what Barnabas saw when he arrived in Antioch. In Acts 11:23 it says, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad.” What did the grace of God look like? Like a diverse church
united, not by a shared culture, but a shared Christ. Barnabas recognized that that unity is only possible because of God’s grace in the gospel. That’s what made him glad.
What makes you glad about your church? What would you say is your church’s dominant feature? If your neighbors were to give your church a label, what would it be? Let’s pray for the same kind of revival to break out in the city of Houston. Let’s pray for a growing diversity in our churches, so our neighbors can catch a glimpse of the grace of God uniting a disparate people in Christ.
Father, may your grace in the gospel of Jesus shine all the more brightly as a Spirit-filled revival breaks out in our city. By your grace, let a growing diversity take root in all our churches – where old lines of division are erased and a new humanity in Christ is established. May disciples come to appreciate their nationality and ethnicity. To value the culture in which they were raised and seek to redeem aspects of it within their own life and family. But in our churches, may our allegiance to Christ be the dominant feature that binds us together. May our unity in the Spirit transcend our differences and prove, to the watching world, the truth, goodness, and beauty of your gospel. Amen.