The book of Acts in the New Testament tells the story about how the Christian movement spread like wildfire from Jerusalem where Jesus died and rose from the dead to Samaria to Syria to Greece to Rome and beyond. We've been following this story for over a year now to see what it has to show us about the work of Christ in today's world.
The Movement Spreads to Antioch
Today we read a part of the story that describes another decisive step in the spread of the Christian movement. It's found in Acts 11:19–24. In chapter 8 we saw how the movement spread to Samaria and built a bridge over the chasm of hatred between Jews and Samaritans. In chapter 10 we saw how the movement spread to the totally non-Jewish Gentile people of Caesarea and built a bridge over the alienation between Christian Jews and non-Christian Gentiles. Now in 11:19ff. we track the Christian movement all the way north along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the chief city of Syria, Antioch.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 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; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.
The sentence I want us to focus on this Thanksgiving Sunday is from verse 23: "When [Barnabas] came [from Jerusalem] he saw the grace of God and was glad." "HE SAW THE GRACE OF GOD AND WAS GLAD."
How Did God's Grace Become Visible in Antioch?
What I would love to see happen because of this service today is for everybody here to be able to say: "I saw the grace of God and I am glad." So my question for this passage of Scripture is: How did the grace of God become visible in Antioch? "Barnabas saw the grace of God and was glad." It was visible. And I think the grace of God becomes visible today in our lives the same way it did then in Antioch. So I want to ask this text, How did the grace of God become visible in Antioch?
Persecution Turns to Preaching
There are at least three answers. Probably more. But I am only going to talk about one of them. Namely, this: the grace of God became visible when it turned persecution into the preaching of Jesus Christ.
When Barnabas saw that persecution in Jerusalem had produced preaching in Antioch, and that many people had turned to the Lord Jesus, what he saw was the grace of God. God's grace becomes visible when he turns persecution into the preaching of Christ and sorrow into salvation.
Verse 19, "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch . . . (v. 20) There were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching [telling the good news of] Jesus Christ."
The Grace of God Uses Suffering
In other words, the good news about Jesus Christ came to Antioch because of persecution. Barnabas saw this and called it the grace of God, and it made him glad. God's grace becomes visible when it makes the anguish of persecution a means of spreading the good news of Jesus.
If anything is clear from the Bible it is this: the grace of God does not spare his people suffering in this age, but rather uses suffering to bring people to himself. The Son of God himself suffered to save people from condemnation. And now he turns suffering again and again for our good both in this age and in the age to come.
God's Grace Among Koreans in the 1930s
God has been showing his grace in our own time the same way he did in Acts. For example, in the 1930s thousands of Koreans fled what is now North Korea when the Japanese invaded. Many of them settled in the USSR around Vlapostok. Many of them were Christians and so by the suffering of the Koreans the gospel of Jesus was being carried into central USSR. But the grace of God was just beginning to be visible.
Joseph Stalin saw the Koreans around Vlapostok as a security risk to the weapons manufacturing center. So he relocated them to five areas around the Soviet Union, spreading the Christians even farther into the Muslim areas of the USSR (just like the persecuted Christians that went to Antioch).
One of the places they were sent was to Tashkent the center of the 20,000,000 Muslim Uzbek people who had violently resisted western efforts to bring Christianity. Over the next decades these Koreans became an accepted part of Uzbek society. Then, with Glasnost and Perestroika, on June 2, 1990, the first open air Christian meeting in the history of Soviet Central Asia happened. God used this meeting to awaken the Korean Christians especially, and the upshot was that the decades of acceptance by the Muslim Uzbeks and Kazaks has allowed the spread of good news about Jesus far more widely than it could have with merely western influence.
In other words, the grace of God was at work in all this. God hasn't changed. This is the same grace of God that used persecution to get good news from Jerusalem Jews to Antioch Gentiles.
God's Grace in the Life of Joni Eareckson Tada
The grace of God works the same way in the lives of individuals as well. Suffering becomes the stepping-stone to God.
Two years ago I saw Joni Eareckson Tada, who is almost totally paralyzed from a swimming accident, lift her arms as high as she could in her braces and shout, "This is the prison where God set me free." What she meant was that the pain and limitation and frustration brought on by her disability threw her back on God in such a way that she discovered what true freedom in life is all about—and it is not about arms and legs and skiing and jogging. It's about forgiveness and hope and love and meaning and eternal life. It's about knowing that God is for you and not against you even in suffering. That's how grace becomes visible.
God's Grace in My Own Life
I want to bear testimony that it has been true in my own life as well. The grace of God has become visible by turning sorrow into substance. I've told you several times how the years between the eighth grade in high school and my sophomore year in college were clouded by my inability to speak in front of any group. I would tremble so bad I could hold nothing in my hands. My heart would race so fast and hard I could see it move under my shirt. My throat and shoulders would tighten up so bad I literally could not get the words out in any normal way. It was terribly humiliating and kept me from many activities.
But do you know what the grace of God was doing in those awful days? Only a prophet could have known then what I know now: God was making a preacher. I believe he clogged my mouth so that he could fill my heart. He broke me again and again and made me desperate to find in him something I could not get from other people. He cut me off from the fast track of popularity and drove me into his Word looking for some kind of explanation for why my hundreds of prayers (e.g., just to give a one minute report on a 3 x 5 card in Sunday School) were not answered.
But now I know better. He was answering my prayers. I wouldn't see it clearly for about 20 years. But he was making a preacher. He was doing it the way nobody else would do it—because his ways are not our ways. And now I see all the embarrassment and all the humiliation and all the loneliness and all the crying out to God as sheer gift, and my standing in this pulpit today as the visibility of grace. If Eugene Lawrence, my old pastor from 30 years ago at White Oak Baptist Church, could sit where you sit today, he would say like Barnabas in this text, "I have seen the grace of God and I am glad."
I think the grace of God took every day's pain, and used it for my good—and yours. What a difference, if I had not spent certain fall afternoons staring out across Dellwood Valley toward Piney Mountain listening to the distant trains and wondering what it would be like to get on one and go where nobody would wonder why the preacher's kid can't even give a book report. What a difference, if I had never sat alone under the dogwood tree and tried to write a poem for my mother to somehow help her feel that I felt she was the only one in all the world who seemed to understand. What a difference if my teenage years had been smooth! But instead God clogged my mouth in order to fill my heart.
God's Grace in Your Life
So I testify to all of you today: I have seen the grace of God in my life and I am glad. He takes what seems to be the worst of circumstances and turns them into good news. He did it for the persecuted Christians in Acts. He did it for Korean refugees in the USSR. He did it for Joni Eareckson Tada. He did it for me—and still is. And he can do it for you, no matter what you are going through these days.
I don't mean that everything will be easy. I mean everything will have meaning. Everything will be bearable. Everything will make you wiser and more loving. Everything will draw you nearer to God. That and a lot more. That is how the grace of God will become visible in your life.
And God will do it if you trust him.
So I want to close with the plea that Barnabas gave to the church in Antioch in verse 23. It says, "He saw the grace of God and was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose [stay with the Lord; trust the Lord]."
That's my plea to you. Trust the grace of God. Don't put your trust in yourself. Don't put your trust in money. Don't put your trust in the government. Don't put your trust in the church. Don't put your trust in your job. Put your trust in the grace of God. And then hang in there. Don't let anybody trick you out of the greatest gift in the world—living in the joy and power of the grace of God.