When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord" (Acts 11:23, 24)*
The word "grace" immediately evokes theological images: the way God acts toward us, the way He has chosen to save us, His acts of mercy as well as judgment. But in this remarkable passage about a remarkable church, inspiration records for us a definition of grace that we need to hear again and again, and practice more often.
The remarkable church
The Christian community at Antioch of Syria was founded by believers who fled there during the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen (see Acts 11:19). A thriving commercial city, with historic connections to famous names such as Seleucus I, Antiochus IV, and Pompey, and with pride etched in gaining the title "Queen of the East," Antioch provided safety, wealth, and security. But the fleeing believers did not settle down in the security of the third metropolis of the Roman Empire, whose business was money and whose priority was how to make more of it.
The few believers in that city had a higher commission: to turn that "Queen of the East" into a global center for the good news of Jesus Christ. At first the gospel was preached only to the Jews (see Acts 11:19), but soon the church realized that it was a travesty of the highest order to limit the good news to a few and to restrict the power of the Holy Spirit to any particular frontier. Antioch ranks among the first congregations to envision a church with out walls, a global community with out confining borders. And so the gospel was preached to the Greeks and to every other ethnic group in that great city. A new creation emerged. No name could describe this new community. It was not Roman, Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, or Phrygian or anything else. A unique community such as this deserved the coining of a new name, albeit a contemptuous one to begin with: "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (verse 11:26).
The news of this—so unbelievable, so startling—shocked the church at Jerusalem. The headquarters decided to send a calm, fair, dependable leader to investigate the Antioch miracle. Could the wall be tween the Jew and the Gentile really come tumbling down?
The color-blind pastor
The man the Jerusalem church chose for such a delicate mission was Barnabas, "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (verse 24). Certainly the Holy Spirit was behind the choice of Barnabas; one can only imagine what calamitous fallout would have hit the Antioch church and the missionary movement on her drawing boards had the choice been, say, one of the "circumcision party" at Jerusalem. Would that person have recognized the creation of a new community of faith in that great metropolis? Or would he have interpreted the breaking down of the barrier between the Jew and the Gentile as a threat to the uniqueness of the law? Would he have rejoiced at the mysterious workings of God's grace in bringing about reconciliation, both vertical as well as horizontal? Or would he have led in a crusade to preserve the historic tradition of the synagogue and protect the carefully detailed and visibly identifiable marks of religion such as circumcision? A church leader, without continual reliance on the em powering of the Holy Spirit, is an awesome risk for the church and an invitation to judgment for the individual.
But Barnabas was "full of the Holy Spirit." As a Levite (Acts 4:36) and an active anticipant for the Messianic kingdom, the natural thing for Barnabas to do would be to suspect the happenings at Antioch and to assert his national cult and racial exclusiveness. Was it conceivable that the great Yahweh would permit the Jew and the Gentile to come together as equal partners in redemption, worship, fellowship, and service? The Holy Spirit had already prepared Barnabas to recognize that the movements of God are not necessarily parallel to the purposes and the priorities of mortals. Did not Barnabas witness the great happenings at Pentecost, sell his possessions, and bring "the money and put it at the apostles' feet" (verse 37)? Did he not also recognize the workings of the Spirit in the conversion of Saul and risk his reputation by pleading with the church executive committee in Jerusalem to set aside their suspicions and reservations and fully accept the call of Saul? Barnabas believed that the Holy Spirit could do the impossible: Saul could be come Paul.
The impossible possibility
And Barnabas also saw what the Holy Spirit had done in Antioch. The impossible had become possible. A Jew could accept Christ. A Gentile could accept Christ. Both could claim to follow Christ. But could a Jew and a Gentile come together, shake hands with each other, share a common meal, worship one Lord, fellowship in the presence of one Spirit? Could the wall really come down? Antioch showed it could. And Barnabas gave credit to whom credit was due. It was not the work of the Jew. It was not the persistence of the Gentile. It was not the combined goodness of both. No. It was the "evidence of the grace of God" (Acts 11:23).
God's grace that initiated the cross and redeems us from the guilt and the power of sin as individuals is the same grace that enables us as human beings to accept one another and live together in peaceful harmony. Where there is a frontier between person and person, between people and people, the power of the gospel of grace has not taken effect. That's the simple lesson from Antioch.
Can such an experience of togetherness and victory over human divisiveness face the possibility of reversal? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. In our salvation experience, we know there is no such thing as once saved, always saved. Likewise in creating a fellowship without frontiers, there's the possibility of reversal. Even Barnabas fell victim to that, and for a moment hugged the grace-denying evil of "hypocrisy" (Gal. 2:13). There is a crucial difference between defining grace theologically and witnessing its powerful evidence experientially.
* All Scripture passages are from the New International Version.