Today we will examine Acts 11: 19 – 30 in order to further extrapolate information about the role of elders in the early church. The key player here was initially Barnabas, then Saul and Agabus were later included in the chapter. Subsequent to the persecution that arose after Stephen’s death, the brethren in Jerusalem scattered abroad in other cities, preaching the gospel to Jews only. We must pay attention to a critical issue in the early church which involved the omission of the gentiles from the kingdom of God largely because of the mindsets of the Jewish believers (we will speak more on this). They preached the word to Jews only (Acts 19: 19), in contradiction to the will of the Lord (that is why He raised up Saul). Some of the believers preached to the gentiles when they got to Antioch (Acts 11: 19 – 21). A “great number of them” were converted in response to the preaching of the gospel. In response to these conversions, the church at Jerusalem (the apostles and brethren, after the pattern of Acts 11:1), sent Elder Barnabas to Antioch to assess the work there. Elders Peter and John had taken similar action when the Samarians had received the Lord after Phillip’s preaching.

BASIS FOR ELDER BARNABAS’ SELECTION

Elder Barnabas was chosen based on the following criteria. Firstly, he was “a good man”. Secondly, he was “full of the Holy Ghost” and thirdly, he was full of faith (Acts 11: 24). Do we see the common threads in the selection of elders in the early church? We cannot underestimate the infilling of the Holy Spirit as a key criteria for leadership. God Himself is full of the Holy Ghost! I wonder why Barnabas was sent. Was he, as a good man, more open minded to people of other nationalities? Jews were very insular as commanded by the law, but as we will later discuss, many problems arose in the early church because of the disciples’ inability to make the transition from law to grace.

WHAT WAS ELDER BARNABAS’ ROLE?

Elder Barnabas’ role was very important although encapsulated in one verse. On his arrival in Antioch, Barnabas rejoiced when he saw the grace of God unto the new believers. He therefore “exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord” (Acts 11: 24). His ministry to the church was inherently that of teaching them to love God. We do not know what he taught, but he may have taught them to pray, worship, read the scriptures and to love the Lord. More people believed as a result of Barnabas’ teaching, and for some reason unknown to us, he went to Tarsus to seek Saul (Acts 11: 25). I would like to speculate that as more gentile believers were added to the church, that they posed questions about the new faith that this devout Jewish Christian was unable to answer. This could have been the basis on which Barnabas sought Saul’s help. Saul’s conversion to the faith and his calling to the gentiles were well known to the early church and Barnabas must have considered him the best person to function in the role of Assistant Pastor of the church as Antioch. You would have had to be in a remote place not to have heard the wonder of Saul’s conversion.

Barnabas’ humility is revealed in his actions in seeking Saul. He could have gone to Peter, who had been involved in the conversion of the first gentile believers. However, Peter was a chief administrator and teacher in the Jerusalem church and was mainly stationed at Jerusalem. He would therefore have been unable to give full attention to the needs of the gentile church in Antioch. Moreover, he himself had personal hang-ups about his relationship with the gentiles as we learn in Galatians 2. Was Barnabas led by the Lord? We are not told. He must have been, because this event marked Saul’s inauguration into church ministry. These two men of God spent an entire year teaching the people in Antioch. Based on their role and the duration of time spent in Antioch, I would safely call Barnabas and Saul the Pastors of this church. Their pastoral ministry was so effective that the people who they taught so resembled the Lord that the believers were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11: 26). Now this epithet is not to be taken lightly, because it was a sign from the Lord that the gentiles (and anyone who believe) could become like Jesus when they were taught the way of the Lord and that this was the path the church needed to follow. Are we producing people who resemble the Lord? What is the focus of the church today? Have we become distracted by the diversities of needs in the modern church? We must never lose focus that the role of the elders in the church is encapsulated in Eph 4: 11-15.

PAUL AND BARNABAS LINKED THE GENTILE AND JEWISH BELIEVERS

The apostles and brethren in Jerusalem, on hearing that the disciples in Antioch were being called “Christians” sent prophets down to them, possibly to encourage and confirm them (Acts 11: 26, 27). I am not sure if the title “Christian” was degrading or congratulatory in nature, but it must have caused quite a stir in the then known world. The role of the prophet in the early church was highlighted when the Prophet Agabus prophesied about a famine that would take place in the days of Claudius Caesar. The ministry of the prophet was so respected in the early church that the Antioch believers responded by gathering supplies together to be sent to meet the needs of the brethren in Judea. This tells us that the gentile believers had been well taught that they were one in the faith with their Jewish brethren. Barnabas and Saul were selected to take the goods to the elders in Judea, the first of key liaisons with the Jewish brethren. This response of the gentile believers to their brethren was a sign of the unity of the faith and therefore the unity of the early church.

To date, we can see that, apart from administration, the elders in the early church were men of God who also fulfilled various teaching and preaching functions, laboring in the word and doctrine (1 Tim 5: 17). We have now met elders who were preachers of the gospel to unbelievers/evangelists, teachers of the believers and pastors, prophets and apostles (we will speak of the latter at a future time). Blessings. Acts 13 next time.

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