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A Healthy Church

April 21, 2024

A Healthy Church

Passage: Acts 11:19-30
Service Type:

A Healthy Church

Rodney Gehman – April 21, 2024

We’ve been going through the book of Acts verse by verse, and Acts 2 tells us that just a month and a half after Jesus’ death and resurrection, one of Jesus’ followers named Peter preached his first sermon and 3000 people respond to the gospel, accept his message, and are baptized into Jesus.

Then in the next couple of weeks, maybe months, that number swells to over 5000, and in another few months it’s too many to keep track of. People are turning to Jesus in droves. The religious elite are not happy with the movement, and are looking for ways to shut it down. In chapter 7, they get so frustrated with one of the new disciples named Stephen that they murdered him in the streets.

And one of the religious leaders, a member of the ruling class named Saul, agreed with the sentiments of one of our former Presidents, and decided to never let a good crisis go to waste. [ 004 ] He rounded up a posse and like the Wild West they patrolled the streets of Jerusalem “ravaging the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women, and putting them in prison.” (Acts 8:3)

[ 005-1 ] So that’s the persecution that Acts 11:19 is talking about which ended up having people scattered far and wide, some of which have now made it [ 005-2 ] [19] …as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, which is North of Jerusalem, and look at this last part… speaking the word to no one except Jews.

We talked about this a few weeks ago, how Jews had really gone overboard to separate themselves from Gentiles. If they were going to pass a Gentile on the road, they would pull their coats or robes in around them so their clothes wouldn’t even accidentally touch a Gentile. And here in Acts 11, some of those old tendencies are still hanging around.

How many of you know that following Jesus doesn’t just immediately change everything about you? Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for a while and it frustrates you that some of those old habits are sticking around. You thought you’d have mastered them by now. Or maybe you’re a brand new Christian, and that is something you’re most surprised by. You are fired up about following Jesus, but you thought maybe Jesus would take all of your sin struggles away immediately, and you’re surprised that things didn’t just all change like you thought they would.

Sometimes God is gracious and merciful and takes away those old desires immediately. I’ve heard stories of people who repent of alcoholism or addiction, and the next day they have no more desire for it and they never touch it again. Other times, he simply asks that we trust him in obedience and faith, and it requires hard work, discipline, prayer, fasting, counseling, and more.

These Jews, by force of habit and upbringing and tradition, went straight for the Jews. They knew the insider language, the culture, the history and it was easier than trying to talk to Gentiles. But Jesus had commanded them to make disciples of all nations, not just Jews. So God simply intervenes by sending additional believers with different backgrounds, different stories, different approaches, and they help round out the work here in Antioch.

[ 006-1 ] [20] But in contrast to the Jews who only talked to Jews, there were some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks, the non-Jewish people – Gentiles – also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. [21] [ 006-2 ]The Lord's hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.

Cyrene and Cyprus both had sizable Jewish communities. People from these locations would have been present at that first Pentecost, heard Peter’s message, turned to Jesus, and then taken the gospel back to their hometown. So now some of those men are showing up in Antioch to help spread the word – and while the Jerusalem crew is speaking mostly to Jews, the Cyprus and Cyrene crew is also speaking to Gentiles, and it’s pretty unique that Luke mentions the Lord’s hand was with them. God’s help and his presence is one of the main storylines of scripture!

God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they sinned – it was a normal part of their existence.

In Deuteronomy, the last sermon Moses ever gave, he reminds Israel It is Yahweh who goes with you. He will never leave you, and will never forsake you. So don’t be afraid of anything or anyone.

Remember the Old Testament story of Joshua? Joshua had been Moses’ apprentice for a long time, but after Moses dies and he’s in charge, Joshua is a bit fearful. And in one of the famous verses in the whole Bible, God tells him to be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged – why? – because I the Lord am with you wherever you go!

Don’t worry about the opposing armies, you have me. I want you to step out in faith and I’ll meet you there in power.

In Psalm 23, David sits down to write a Psalm, and says even when I go through the valley of the shadow of death – even when I’m the most vulnerable, when I’m in the most dangerous place to be and my life is on the line – even there I will not be afraid of what is lurking in the shadows, why? Because you are with me. Even when you correct me or allow me pain, it’s strangely comforting because it means you’re still here.

In Isaiah 41:10, Yahweh speaks to the people of Israel, and says, I’ve chosen you, you are my servant, I haven’t rejected you – Do not fear, for I am with you. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand. I imagine a dad or mom walking down the sidewalk holding their 2 year old’s hand to make sure he doesn’t dart into traffic.

Then of course, Matthew 28:20 – Jesus says “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” so go and be and make more apprentices of me, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded, AND – remember this: I am always with you.

That’s been God’s heart from the very beginning – that you would know his presence, his power, and his closeness. No matter what you may have experienced here on earth, God is not an absent Father to you.

So, as these believers descend on Antioch from all directions bringing the good news of Jesus, all working in and under the presence of the Lord, Antioch doesn’t stand a chance, do they? Large numbers turned to the Lord.

[ 007 ] Antioch was the third largest city in the known world, with possibly as many as six hundred thousand inhabitants, founded in about 300 BC. Only Alexandria and Rome were larger. With multiple gods available for worship, Antioch was a city full of religious activity and presence and sat in a very influential spot in the known world at the time. Antioch was a cultural melting pot, with people from all walks of life from all over the known world finding a place to exist here – think Los Angeles or New York City or London, with about the same level of morality you would stereotypically expect in those cities. It was a commercial hub for foot traffic, but it also sat on a river that gave easy access to the Mediterranean Sea just a few miles away. It was the perfect place for the gospel of Jesus to catch on and spread around the world like wildfire.

And it’s here in Antioch that you can see what true faith in Jesus looks like, as Luke describes it. He says a large number “believed and turned to the Lord.”

So true faith looks like turning away from sin and toward Jesus, believing that he is the way the truth and the life. Now, this was a modern city full of gods and all kinds of immorality and corrupted forms of worship, like temple prostitution – So, anyone who followed Yahweh and started to live differently – especially these Gentiles who have recently turned to worshiping Yahweh through Jesus – would have stood out in the city as we’ll see in a second.

Well, verse [ 008-1 ] [22] News about them (the Gentiles who believed in Jesus) reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch.

When we first met Barnabas back in Acts 4, the early church was just getting off the ground. His real name is Joseph, and he was one of the early followers of Jesus who sold some of his land and brought the money to the apostles to help the church get started. We also learn there in Acts 4 that Barnabas is from Cyprus, which is an island in the Mediterranean Sea not far from Antioch. Barnabas is a nickname that means “Son of Encouragement,” and he was instrumental in introducing Saul to the apostles when Saul met Jesus. So Barnabas knows the area and he knows a thing or two about Jews and Gentiles turning to Jesus. So the church leaders in Jerusalem (probably Peter and James) decide to send him north to check things out.

[ 008-2 ] [23] 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, [ 008-3 ][24] for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added to the Lord.

Barnabas is such a gift to the church at this time, right? He’s not recognized as an apostle, he’s just a normal dude who is a good man. He’s responsible, they picked him to help sort out food for the widows in need back in chapter 6 so he must be compassionate and at least somewhat organized. In Acts 9, he came alongside Saul when no one else believed that Saul was now a disciple of Christ. He protected Saul during persecution, and now he is here in Antioch excited with them about the new believers, and encouraging them to stick at it. He’s encouraging, generous, he’s patient, full of grace and full of the Holy Spirit, and he’s a man of faith. [ 000 ] If you remember this chart I showed you last week, Barnabas is on the right. That doesn’t mean he’s perfect and that he never sins, or that he has crossed the finish line of faith, but maturity in Christ is marked by generosity. Humility. Patience. Grace. And Barney is all of those things.

Not only did he come alongside Saul at the beginning, Barnabas is here in Antioch which really isn’t all that far from Tarsus, where Saul has been hanging out for the last 7 years, and Barnabas is like, how can we build up this church? You know who would be a great contact for these people? Saul! He’s someone who grew up Jewish and turned to Jesus. He received a call from God to preach to Gentiles. He’d be perfect for this. I wonder what he’s been up to.

[ 009-1 ][25] Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, [26] and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. [ 009-2 ]For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.

We’ve been referring to people who turned to Jesus as “followers” or “believers” to this point, but now we can refer to them as Christians, because it started here in Antioch. And that word doesn’t carry nearly as much of the weight today that it did back then. Today you have people throwing around the title of “Christian” simply because they want to be perceived as a person of faith. It’s the easy one. If you have to fill out a form and say which religion you are, and you don’t want to pick “none” – eh, Christian. I believe there is a God, that’s good.

But that’s nowhere close to what it means here. In fact, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the whole Bible. Here in Antioch, it refers to “a group of people who identify so much with Jesus as the Christ that it’s noticeable to people who don’t.” There were enough conversions in Antioch that people started to take notice, and actually gave them a name. The word in Greek literally means, “The Christ Group,” or “Jesus People” and it was here in Antioch, the New York City of the ancient middle east, that disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.

And it’s not only Barnabas that comes from Jerusalem to speak to the Christ Group in Antioch. [ 010-1 ] [27] In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. We’re not going to spend time today talking about these prophets, who they are, what New Testament prophecy is all about, if it’s still something that continues today, and that kind of thing. We’re going to hit that topic later this summer as we head into a sermon series on the Gifts of the Spirit. But for now, we’ll just acknowledge that certain people in the Jerusalem church were recognized as prophets and apparently made their rounds to different churches.

[ 010-2 ] [28] One of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the reign of Claudius. [ 010-3 ] [29] Each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers and sisters who lived in Judea.[ 010-4 ] [30] They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul.

So if you were with us for Vision Sunday last week, you know we took the whole service to look at a few specific things we want to aim at as we move through the next five years of River City Church. But I think as we look at these verses today, we can learn a lot from the Jesus people in Antioch. This is a great set of verses to follow up Vision Sunday, because in them we can find the marks of a true Jesus-following, disciple-making church. Some of the signs are more obvious than others, but let’s look at seven of them:

  1. [ 011-1 ]A healthy church is founded on the gospel of Jesus - v20
    1. People naturally talk about and celebrate what’s important to them, whether that is a healthy diet, or workout program, or a brand of vehicle, or a new drink they’ve stumbled on, or a vacation spot – you get the idea. We talk about what we love, and the church in Antioch talks about the good news of Jesus. They are building their lives on this truth, and it’s what they proclaim. Which leads to number 2:
  2. [ 011-2 ]Jesus people are evangelistic - v20, 24
    1. The gospel isn’t just something they talk about or sing about when they gather together on Sunday mornings. They speak about the gospel enough during the week that people who don’t believe in Jesus and don’t gather with them on Sundays, call them “The Jesus People.”
    2. 2x it says large numbers of people are added to the Lord. The Antioch church does not keep the message of hope and peace and redemption and repentance and reconciliation with God through Jesus to themselves – they spread it to others.
  3. [ 011-3 ]Jesus people turn to the Lord/ There’s repentance - v21   I think this can look like two kinds of turning:
    1. Obviously, there’s the turning of conversion – turning away from worshiping other gods, or worshiping self, or whatever your life before Jesus looked like. There’s that kind of turning. If you’re with us today and you’re NOT a follower of Jesus, today can be the day. To become a Christian is to “turn to the Lord.” I don’t know what you’re currently running after in your life – finding yourself, or chasing the dollar, or fighting addiction, or you really, really, really live for what other people say or think about you. The encouragement from the text today is that you would turn from all of that, and turn to the Lord. That’s where hope is found, and you can do that today in prayer.
    2. And, if you’ve been a believer for a while, there’s also the turning to the Lord that is ongoing repentance, turning from sin, putting off pride and putting on humility, putting off sexual sins and putting on purity, putting off greed and putting on compassion; putting off foolishness and putting on wisdom. Jesus people are marked by turning to the Lord.
  4. [ 011-4 ]A healthy church shows evidence of grace - v23
    1. Luke doesn’t describe what he means by this in verse 23, but with other scriptures in mind, evidence of grace could be that people aren’t trying to earn their way into heaven. Not trying to work hard to be on God’s good side. They are resting in and delighting in Jesus, and they are quick to forgive, quick to listen, slow to anger, compassionate, etc. They are eagerly seeking and asking for the gifts of the Spirit as we’re instructed in 1 Cor 14, and it is noticeable that Jesus is with them. Their lives themselves are the proof that God has poured out his love and his Spirit on them.
  5. [ 011-5 ]A healthy church realizes that being a disciple of Jesus is a long game. Barnabas encourages them to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts - v23
    1. Remain true. Devotion. Those are words that talk about the long game. This isn’t a drive through kind of Spirituality. I am reading a book about discipleship by a guy named John Mark Comer, and here’s how he described this: For all the value that technology has added to the world, it has had at least three disastrous effects on our generation. It has formed us to expect life to be Easy, Fast, and Controllable. We can slide our thumb, and dinner will magically appear at our door twenty minutes later. As a result, we are conditioned to expect quick, fast results anytime we want it, with very little effort. And we often carry that mindset into our spiritual formation. We assume we just need to find the right technique or life hack to solve the problem of the soul. But in reality, formation into the image of Jesus is Hard. Slow. And we are not in control. There is no killer app, no quick fix, no shortcut. The formation of the human soul is more like growing a vineyard than ordering takeout.
    2. Remain true. Devotion. The true church of Jesus Christ understands that discipleship is a long game. Or as the late Pastor Eugene Peterson put it: A long obedience in the same direction.
  6. [ 011-6 ] A healthy church submits to the Word of God:
    1. Barnabas shows up full of the Spirit, and then spends a year with Saul teaching Bible studies and large groups. Part of being led by the Spirit is in submitting to faith-filled, Spirit-led teaching from the word of God - v26.
  7. [ 011-7 ] They are growing the fruit that comes by living in the Spirit. They are maturing in Jesus, and it’s marked by generosity, compassion, kindness, love, etc - v29-30.

And this is so awesome, because what started with Barnabas following Jesus into compassion and generosity back in Acts 4, has now come full circle. Here’s what I mean.

For a year, Barnabas and Saul taught the church in Antioch what it looks like to follow Jesus, and just like James 1:22 says – they didn’t just listen to the word, they did what it says! Because Saul was doing the teaching, and he ended up writing â…” of the New Testament, we might assume that he told the believers in Antioch what he wrote in his second letter to the church in Corinth, where he said that the grace of Jesus came to all believers in this: that though he was rich (with all the glories of heaven and all the benefits of his divine nature) he became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty (by him emptying himself) that we would become rich!

Barnabas had followed that example of Christ back in Acts 4 when he sold a field and handed over all the proceeds. Barnabas became poor so that the poor could have their needs met. And here in Ch 11 when the famine hit like Agabus predicted it would, BAM! The church in Antioch didn’t hesitate to become poor so that the brothers and sisters in Judea could have their needs met! And guess who carries the bag of money or groceries back to those believers? Barnabas! The encourager’s encouragement encouraged the church in Antioch to encourage the brothers in Judea! How encouraging!

That’s discipleship. It’s Barnabas and Saul following and learning to live like Jesus himself and then helping others how to do the same thing.Maturing as a follower of Jesus isn’t about gaining more knowledge, learning better doctrine, having all the right answers. Good doctrine is extremely important, especially for church leaders, but it’s not a fruit of the spirit. Maturity in Christ is about looking more and more like Jesus in his humility, in his patience, in his holiness, in his generosity, in his love, in his self-control, in his peace, in his surrender to his Father. He became poor for our sake. He emptied himself, Philippians 2 says. And that’s the example we follow in discipleship, and it’s called the fruit of the Spirit for a reason. You can’t force it. You can’t rush it. It’s a long game. It’s a lifetime of growth and maturity, a lifetime of obedience and seeking the Lord.


  1. Following Jesus for the long haul is countercultural. We like things fast and easy. What do you think are some practical ways to maintain devotion to the Lord for the long haul? Has God set up any of those practical ways for us in his word already?
  2. Reflecting on the characteristics of a healthy, disciple-making church outlined in the text, which ones do you see exemplified in your own church community, and which ones do you think could be further developed? How can you personally contribute to the church’s growth?



1. Bock, Darrell L., Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 413-415

2. John Mark Comer, Practicing the Way: be with Jesus, become like him, do as he did (Colorado Springs, Co: Waterbrook, 2024), 114-115