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Christians in Sin City

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 11:19–30

Perhaps the most vibrant church we find in the book of Acts is the church in Antioch. What made it an exemplary church? From its very founding, we see a church that is growing within through biblical teaching and reaching out in love and compassion.


I read some time ago about the dedication of a new church building. This simple building was a rather surprising sight—standing on a hilltop in the middle of a jungle. Had you asked about it, you would have been even more surprised to learn it was built by the sons of a local witchdoctor who had been murdered as a result of a tribal dispute. Those boys had come to Christ, and even though they were surrounded by a culture of unbelief, they constructed this building, and the church meeting in it was growing, to the glory of God.[1]

If you had been alive in the first century, you would have been surprised to see a New Testament church thriving in the city of Antioch. Located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem, Antioch was called the Queen City of the East. It was luxurious and wealthy—its main street was paved with marble and lined with beautiful columns. It was the only city in the ancient world that had its streets lit up at night. And that is because this city came alive, so to speak, during the night.

Chariot racing, gambling, prostitution—it was all legal and prominent here. In fact, the chief religion over at the temple of Daphne was nothing more than sexual immorality in the name of the goddess. Antioch was what you might call “Sin City.”

Any sin, any god, any pleasure was within walking distance. If there was a city in the Roman Empire where you would never imagine the gospel taking root, it was Antioch.

As we sail now into Acts chapter 11, we discover an amazing example of God’s grace, an example of godly living in the midst of an ungodly culture, and a leading example of what a New Testament church should look like. And here is how it got started:

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 no one except Jews. (verse 19)

Believers scattered from Jerusalem because of the persecution that began following the martyrdom of Stephen. They took the gospel to Jewish people on the island of Cyprus and north along the coast in Phoenicia and on up to Antioch.

Like other believers, they are excited with what Jesus Christ has done in their lives, and they want others to hear the message. Verse 20 tells us that some of these believers who arrive in Antioch begin delivering the gospel to Gentiles! And the results are astonishing. Verse 21 reports, “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”

Now all these new believers need to be taught correct doctrine and how to live as believers and how the church is to be managed. They do not have copies of the New Testament—that is still being written.

The Lord is going to use two men in particular to firmly establish this new church in the truth. The first is Barnabas. When the church in Jerusalem hears what is taking place in Antioch, they send Barnabas there. And as we have learned already, Barnabas is an encourager. Verse 24 adds that Barnabas was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”

Back in verse 23 we read that Barnabas came to Antioch and “saw the grace of God.” But how does he see the grace of God? Well, he sees it in people coming to faith in Christ; he sees it in their commitment to follow the Lord; he sees it in their concern for the lost; he sees it in the way they serve one another. He sees the grace of God at work!

And he is thrilled about it all. He charges them to “remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (verse 23). And verse 24 states, “A great many people were added to the Lord.” Sin City will never be the same!

Now Barnabas not only sees God’s grace; he also senses the need for more help. This brings us to the second key person in the spiritual growth of this church, and that is Saul, or, as we know him, Paul. The text simply tells us, “Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch” (verses 25-26).

The last time we heard from Saul was when he escaped back to his hometown of Tarsus as people in Jerusalem were trying to kill him. Well, he has been in Tarsus now for almost a decade. It has possibly been eight years since Barnabas has seen Saul. We have no record of what Saul was doing in that time, but we can assume he has been evangelizing and teaching people in this region.

Barnabas does not have an address for Saul of Tarsus or a telephone number. He has to “look for Saul.” This word for “look” is an intense verb. If you ever lose sight of your child in a store, this is the kind of “looking” you start doing. Your heart is racing; you are looking up and down every aisle; nothing distracts your attention—not even that 60 percent-off rack of clothing. You are totally focused on finding your child. That is the idea here.

Barnabas remembered Saul’s powerful preaching, and he knew that the church in Antioch needed somebody just like him. So, Barnabas finds him and brings him to Sin City and a brand-new church family.

Verse 26 says, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.”

Then the verse adds, “In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” “Christians” means “little Christs,” or “imitators of Christ.” Apparently, it was a label put on them by this pagan culture, and it was more than likely meant as a derogatory title. But it stuck, and frankly, it is a good description of we ought to be today.

Many years ago, my wife and I moved from Texas to North Carolina to plant a church. We were Texans, but then we became North Carolinians when we moved here. Well, beloved, if you moved into Christ, you now live in Christ—you are a Christian now. Even though you might be living in some sin city like these early believers, you ought to strive to be different—to live up to your wonderful name.

Beginning at verse 27, we see some of the ministry of the church in Antioch. The church now begins to serve fellow believers far away. No doubt this is the fruit of Saul and Barnabas’s teaching and the resulting spiritual growth.

In these early days of the church, a prophet named Agabus comes to Antioch and foretells the coming of a great famine. By the way, the role of the prophet is going to cease as the New Testament is completed. There is no new revelation today, beloved. Apostles and prophets have long since been replaced by pastors and teachers (see Ephesians 2:20; 4:11).

When Agabus foretells a great famine coming, the Christians in Antioch immediately realize the persecuted brethren in Jerusalem and Judea will especially be in great need during such a famine. So, “the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (verse 29). They are not commanded to do this at all. This is simply the response of a godly heart. A willingness to help others is a mark of spiritual growth; this is how you can see the grace of God at work in your own life.

You might think living in a place like Antioch could keep a church from growing and believers from maturing. Beloved, you do not need freedom in order to flourish; you do not need a clean culture to live a pure life. These early believers here show us it is possible to live up to our name, Christian, even while living in Sin City.

[1] Ruby Scott, Jungle Harvest (Kainos, 2011), 119-26.

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