When was the last time you saw the grace of God?
Did you know that we can see grace — that the unmerited favor of God sometimes breaks into our world in ways that we can perceive? We know that we can because Barnabas saw grace in the blossoming church at Antioch. Luke welcomes us into what he experienced:
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. (Acts 11:23)
When Barnabas visited the church, he saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them to remain faithful. He saw the grace of God. What must that have been like — for grace to rise up from the gospel he preached and unfold before him untamed and irresistible, for lifeless souls to come alive to God and become fountains of good, for a church to sprout, as green as spring, from the ashes of sin? Oh, for grace to see as he saw.
And God still gives such grace — and such eyes to see what he has done — if we, like Barnabas, learn how to look.
What Does Grace Look Like?
Why did Barnabas come to Antioch? Persecution had driven faithful men from the church in Jerusalem to places like Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:20). These men were forced out of their homes into strange places filled with strange people (many of whom would hate what they believed). Yet they kept holding out hope to whomever they met. “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). They trusted God, they loved the lost, and grace fell among them.
“How might the tone and aroma of our lives change if we responded to grace like God does?”
The apostles heard what was happening (Acts 11:22), and they wanted to hear more, so they sent Barnabas. And when he came, he “saw the grace of God” (Acts 11:23). As he walked around the city, grace was not just a concept or a theological term, but a living and surprising work of God. It was God himself working in a weak and wayward people. But what specifically did he see?
Well, we’ve already seen the clearest answer: “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Barnabas saw many Greek people believing in Jesus (Acts 11:20). He saw God breathing on dead bones (and Gentiles bones, at that), raising them with spiritual flesh and muscle. He saw souls walking out of the graves of bitterness, worldliness, covetousness, and sexual immorality.
And as God added to their number, Barnabas also saw grace building and unleashing the church. Like the church in Jerusalem, the church in Antioch surely “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They gathered regularly, gave generously, and shared boldly (Acts 2:44–47). Barnabas was watching God intervene in a city, a city like yours or mine — rescuing the lost, conquering sin, unleashing forgiveness, reconciling relationships, inspiring love, providing for the needy, building his kingdom. He was witnessing a miracle community — sinful people bathed in the mercy of God, declaring the mercy of God, and loving each other in Christ. Grace was saving, redeeming, restoring, uniting, transforming, equipping, and sending — all in ways he could witness. Barnabas saw the grace of God.
So do we? Do we see the grace of God in our church, in our families, in our neighborhoods? Or have we started taking it for granted? Are we too busy or distracted to notice anymore? Has the saving and sanctifying grace of God ceased to surprise us?
Does Grace Still Affect You?
Barnabas, however, not only saw the grace of God; he also rejoiced in what he saw. “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad.” You might think, Well of course he was glad. But how often do we see the grace of God and yet feel nothing? How often do we grow dull to what God is doing in us and around us?
As we regain our ability to see all that God is doing around us, Satan will do what he can to make grace seem unremarkable. But Jesus says, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Even angels peek over the galaxies between us to see the grace that God has given us in Christ (1 Peter 1:10–12).
God himself does not tire of the wonders of his grace: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save,” Zephaniah 3:17 says. “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” How might the tone and aroma of our lives change if we responded to grace like God does — with a happiness so full and strong that it forced us to sing?
And so we pray, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). We don’t want to see grace and merely believe and obey; we want to be glad. More than anything, we want to rejoice in grace wherever we find it because the glorious grace of God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Let Grace Make You Hungry
Seeing all that Barnabas saw, what would he now say to the church in Antioch? What would you say to a new and flourishing church like theirs? “He exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23). As he watched and enjoyed the grace of God breaking out in Antioch, why would Barnabas charge them to remain faithful with steadfast purpose?
Because he knew just how easily we fall from grace into spiritual laziness and complacency. For some, the continual strain of adversity and temptation eventually wears us down and leaves us disillusioned. Following Christ is unavoidably hard, like carrying a Roman cross (Luke 9:23) — so hard we can often be tempted to lay ours down. For others, the experience of blessing can subtly make us spiritually sleepy and negligent. We begin to rush through Bible reading, to pray a little less, to spend more of our time and money on ourselves, to let our minds wander in worship. Experiencing the merciful intervention of God can leave us feeling strangely entitled to the merciful intervention of God.
“True grace nurtures love where the weeds of laziness, selfishness, and pride might have grown.”
Both groups need to be reminded, again and again, to remain faithful with steadfast purpose — to not take tomorrow’s faithfulness for granted, but to press in and be ready to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). When a healthy soul witnesses grace, it makes him all the more hungry for grace, all the more dependent on God, all the more vigilant before temptation. True grace nurtures love where the weeds of laziness, selfishness, and pride might have grown.
So, learn to look for the grace of God, fighting the obliviousness that often comes with familiarity. And rejoice in what you find, asking God to give you the pure and full-hearted pleasure he feels over his grace, ever expecting to see and experience even more tomorrow than you have today.