25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. 27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
A few thoughts for meditation:
1) This week we looked at biblical responses to disaster. We’ve seen how disasters call us to repentance and test our faith. We also saw how God calls us to trust him and keep moving forward when disaster strikes. Now, another biblical response to disaster is the opportunity to minister to others. In our passage today, the church in Antioch is told by God (via Agabus) that a famine was coming to Jerusalem. During the reign of Claudius, several famines hit the Roman Empire. Paul and Barnabas had been working the church in Antioch and the Lord had blessed their labors with a fast-growing church. Many Gentiles were saved. The “Christians” got their name in Antioch. Scholars debate whether Christians called themselves “Christians” or whether it was originally an insult from pagans. When the warning of famine arrived, the church in Antioch wasted no time in gathering support for the church in Jerusalem and sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver the aid. Paul did this again later, gathering aid for Jerusalem from other churches he helped to plant (1 Cor 16:1-3). There did not seem to be any hesitation. The churches immediately responded to disaster by offering aid to the church in need. Disaster provided the opportunity for ministry. Too often, when disaster strikes, we focus too much on ourselves. But if we are stable, then we must ask, is there anything we can do to help others? Even if it’s just a little? We don’t know how large a gift Antioch sent to Jerusalem. We know from Acts 6 that the diaconal needs were great and probably more so in time of famine. But every little bit helps. And by offering what help they could, they demonstrated unity and love within the body of Christ. Disaster can provide an opportunity to strengthen our unity and fellowship in Christ, much like war strengthens the bonds of camaraderie among soldiers.
2) But perhaps more significant, and Paul stressed this with his later gift too, was the unity expressed between Jewish and Gentile believers. For many generations, there was animosity between Jew and Gentile, and we see evidence of that tension lingering in the Church in the early chapters of Acts and in Paul’s letters. But the gospel was breaking down these hostile ethnic barriers. And the provision of gifts from Gentile churches to Jewish churches was proof of that. The non-Christian Jews and Gentiles were still as hostile as ever (war between the Romans and Jews was only a few years away). But the Christian Jews and Gentiles had become brothers. Their identity in Christ was more important than their ethnic loyalty. They were both citizens and members of the one household of God (Eph 2:19) and learned to treat each other that way. So the disaster in Jerusalem provided an opportunity for the church in Antioch to express that unity and solidarity together as the one church and people of God.
3) Let’s make one more observation about Paul’s role here too. We aren’t told why Paul was chosen as a messenger to the church in Jerusalem. But there is a great gospel irony here. This was the church he formerly persecuted viciously. Paul mentioned often how Jesus saved him from his former sin of persecution. And now Paul was sent to bring gifts of mercy and love to the same church. It is one more picture of how Christ and the gospel transforms people. It would be easy to imagine that some Christians in Jerusalem still had doubts about Paul, even after the apostles gave him the right hand of fellowship. In fact, teachers from Jerusalem would create different problems in the church later for Paul (Acts 15). But Paul continued to love the church in Jerusalem and coordinated efforts to help them in their suffering. Disaster provided the opportunity for ministry, and provided Paul the opportunity to love those he formerly hated. Perhaps there are opportunities around you to minister to others during this pandemic? In coming days we will likely learn of other churches around the world in need of help. Are you ready to help if you are able?