READ – Acts 11:19-30
The story of the church in Antioch gives us a “blueprint” for the kind of church Jesus can build in a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and pluralistic place like Orange County. The church at Antioch became one of the most vibrant churches in early Christianity. How did it happen? Acts 11:19-26 tells us how this church was born and how large numbers came to faith. It all happened as more and more people encountered, learned and were taught the gospel (v19, 20, 26). Acts 13:1-3 shows us how their gatherings were also centered on prayer. Their corporate prayer life brought a deep sense of the presence of God into all their gatherings. Through a deep and ongoing commitment to the word of God and prayer, this church became vibrant and people’s lives were changed.
But the story of Antioch also clearly shows us that this church didn’t choose between going deep inward together or going outward for others. These two were things integrally connected, inseparable and mutually reinforcing in this church. Acts 11:27-30 is the story of how this church responded to a need. From their response, we learn three key steps a church must take to go out in compassion for the poor and needy.
1. KNOWING THE NEEDS OF OTHERS (AWARENESS)
Verse 27 says “in those days” (ie, those days of spiritual vibrancy and excitement in the church), some prophets came to Antioch from Jerusalem. One of these prophets, Agabus, predicted there would be a severe famine through the Roman world. Luke tells us this prophecy did come to pass under the reign of the emperor Claudius (multiple historical sources verify the severity of this famine). Why did God make this church aware of a need before it happened? What was the purpose of this prophecy? He was making this church aware of a need to move them into action. He sent someone who would be directly impacted by this famine—someone who would be hungry when the famine struck his city.
The first step in meeting the needs of others is awareness. God wanted this church to become aware of a need that he would use them to meet. This awareness was two-fold 1) prophetic awareness – this need (the physical, material needs of the poor) matters to God. He delivered the message through the mouth of a prophet 2) personal awareness – this need would be experienced by Agabus himself. He would go hungry if no one came to his aid.
2. FEELING THE NEEDS OF OTHERS (COMPASSION)
When we read these few short verses, there is such a natural flow to the story. The need is shared, the church becomes aware of the need, they respond to the need and send relief. End of story. We aren’t told that anyone connects the dots for them or that any leader stood up and took a collection. It’s as if the whole church naturally and spontaneously all felt the same thing. It’s like they said, “We should help. We are called to help. We’re all in.” But we all know from experience – it’s never that easy! Awareness of a need doesn’t always lead to action. How did a whole community respond so unanimously and spontaneously?
The answer to this question is found by looking at a pattern found here and in the larger context of the book of Acts. In Acts 2:42-47 the first church is devoted to going deep in the gospel (“apostles teaching”) AND they are selling their possessions to meet the needs in the community. In Acts 4:33ff, the apostles are teaching about “the resurrection”, “great grace was upon them all AND there was not a needy person among them”. Here in Antioch, the pattern is repeated. In 11:26 we are told they are spending a whole year saturated in the gospel AND in verse 29 we are told they “each” contributed to meet the needs of others. The pattern? As the gospel goes deep in a community, the gospel will go out in compassion to the needy and poor. In the NT, compassion on the poor is the sign, the test, the proof that the gospel is going deep in a person and a church (see Luke 19:1-10 Gal. 2:10, James 2:14-19, 1 John 3:16, 17)
The link between awareness and action that motivates, empowers and sustains the action is the link between our spiritual poverty and the material poverty of those in need. Paul makes this link explicit in 2 Corinthians 8:8, 9 - I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Here Paul was encouraging the church in Corinth to help the needy in Jerusalem (the church there continued to struggle with poverty for many years). He didn’t use guilt or manipulation to motivate them, instead he “uses” the gospel to awaken compassion in them. What did he want them to see?
I am poor – I have nothing and will never have anything to give or offer to God except my sin and need. I am empty, bankrupt and in debt before him.
Jesus became poor for me – But in his great compassion, Jesus gave up the riches of glory and joy in heaven to take on all my sin, need and debt. He was emptied, he felt the death of spiritual bankruptcy, he paid all my debt!
so that through his poverty I might become rich – Why would Jesus do this? So that I get all his riches! Nothing is mine by right, by merit or effort but all from the riches of Jesus’ merit, effort and righteousness. This means everything I have is a gift; it’s all pure grace.
If I know how poor I am apart from Jesus and how rich He is toward me, how can I not use what I’ve been given by him to meet the needs of others? This is the “test” of whether we have understood the compassion of God toward us.
3. MEETING THE NEEDS OF OTHERS (ACTION)
Each phrase of verse 29 is instructive for us as we seek to act to meet the needs of others in our communities:
1. “Each of the disciples” – This was not a side ministry opportunity for those who were passionate about social justice or whose “thing” was compassion ministry. This was the whole church; each person sharing in ownership and taking action to help meet a need. Meeting the needs of others is something every Christian is called to do.
2. “According to his ability” – Not everyone participated in the same way or at same level. Why? They didn’t have the same resources – and that’s ok. We should not compare ourselves to others or measure our compassion by what others do. Our season of life and responsibilities shape our response and involvement.
3. “Determined” – Giving to and serving the needy takes a determination. The word used here “horizo” is the same word used for God determining the boundaries of creation and determining His plan for redemption. It’s not a wishy washy, when I can get to it kind of thing. It’s a decision to live within new boundaries, a new horizon of life - that expands to include the needs of others.
4. “To send relief” - The word used for “send relief” is diakonian. It’s where we get the word deacon. It’s almost always translated as either ministry or service. Why is this important? They thought of their support as ministry. Ministry in the bible is to the whole person. There is no such thing a division between spiritual ministry and physical ministry – it’s all just ministry. Compassion ministry is a tangible expression the gospel to the world.
5. “to the brothers and sisters who lived in Judea” – The church at Antioch realized they were a part of a new family that stretched across ethnic and geographic lines. There is no difference in the NT between the needs of a fellow Christian and the needs of our immediate family. This was and is a radical concept! What’s more is that this family (the church) is not a closed family but a family with an always open door to take in, serve and give to the poor “outside the family” in order to show them the love of our Father and the endless grace of our older brother, Jesus.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. What is hardest for you when it comes to going out in compassion to serve the needy? Do you believe God calls all Christians to “go out” in compassion to the needy in some way? Why or why not? Reference Scripture if possible.
3. How aware are you of the needs of the poor in your community? How can you become more aware? How important is it that we become aware in a personal way (ie in face to face interaction with the needy, poor themselves)?
4. How does the gospel enable us to feel the needs of the poor and needy? Re-read 2 Cor. 8:8. 9 – consider how Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel in terms of poverty/riches. Use the bullet summary above for help in answering this.
5. Look at the following examples of how the gospel works on our honest objections to serving the needy. Which resonates most with you? Can you add any others to the list?
“I’m indifferent to the needy” – Jesus was not indifferent toward us in our need, he felt it so deeply, he felt it with us, he had to act for us.
“I can help but I need to keep my distance” – Jesus didn’t keep his distance from us (in all our brokenness, mess, sin) he fully entered it; he took it all on Himself.
“I’ll give a little to ease the guilt” – Jesus didn’t give a little to help us out and move on, He gave everything to save us and he keeps giving because He’s committed to us become whole.
“I judge the poor/needy in pride. It’s their fault” – Jesus didn’t say to us, “It’s your fault, you got yourself into this now get out of it.” Jesus took the judgment we deserve so we’d be free from judgement and rich in his love and grace.
6. In the message, we were encouraged to develop compassion for the poor by thinking about how God sees us at our poorest, most broken and most empty moments; to imagine how God sees us when we are overcome by sin, unable to get out and stuck in a cycle or a struggle that we can’t escape by our own resources- How does He feel about us? How do you think God sees you in these moments? Look up Matthew 9:36, Luke 7:13ff, 10:33, 15:11-20 for help.
7. What is one thing you can do individually or as a group to go out in compassion in 2019?