Acts 11: A Strategy for Change

Application

Something started in Acts 8. Back then, Philip the Evangelist took the gospel message to the half-breed Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch, and the church learned that the gospel wasn’t just for Jews. Then in chapters 9 and 10, we saw Peter challenged in a vision to accept things which God deemed clean and then allowed to minister to a Roman centurion and his family. Now, in chapter 11, the transition of the church from Jew-only to all-inclusive was about to be completed. But there was a road block in the way. As significant as those first converts were who were not exactly traditional Jews, there was still a giant leap from Samaritans and an Ethiopian proselyte to Cornelius and the rest of the Gentile world. And inevitably, there was resistance to that. Indeed, a wise person once told me that the first, initial reaction to change is almost always, “No.” No, we don’t like the cost. No, we don’t like the new. No, we don’t like change.

The only problem is that change is, whether we like it or not, inevitable.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that we can mitigate the dislike of change and even transform it into something positive. And I believe that we see a tremendous strategy for doing just exactly that outlined for us in Acts 11. Here, whether it was intentional or not, church leaders did a number of absolutely key things which I believe were essential to maintaining the integrity of the church moving forward. In fact, if it hadn’t been for these critical actions, I think we could legitimately question whether the church as we know it would exist today. So let’s take a look at what happened at each juncture of this change process in Acts 11.

Acts 11 opens with a group of circumcised – that is, Jewish – believers confronting Peter about his fellowship with Cornelius and co. I love how it is introduced in verses 1-3: “The… brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them'” (NIV). I love this because it is so absolutely typical of our aversion to change! Despite the obvious movement of the Lord in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household, which we’re told these brothers had heard about, these Jewish brothers took exception to Peter calling on and eating with uncircumcised men. To borrow a cliché, they overlooked the entire forest of what God was doing for the single tree of Cornelius’ Gentile-ness! So often, when confronted with change, we tend to skip past the big picture to the one often-trivial thing which offends our sensibilities. And as we try to effect change in our churches, we should not be surprised when our parishioners to do the same.

So what do we do about it? Well, I think there are two things that we can see in Peter’s response here. The first is what he did not do: Peter didn’t question these brothers’ faith or motives. So often, when people hesitate to get on board with the change that I propose as a leader, I find myself entertaining thoughts such as, “Well, if they really believed as much as they say they do, they would embrace this idea!” or, “They just want to protect their position of control,” etc. Peter didn’t do that, and I think that was key.

Just as important as what he did not do, though, is what Peter did do: he took the time to explain everything from his vision all the way through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his family. For me, this was huge because, so many times, when I find myself encountering resistance to change, I have a tendency to say nothing, but to simply plow right ahead and crash through the resistance. To be certain, this is sometimes what has to happen, but as I considered Peter’s recollection of the events which prompted this resistance, I found myself wondering how much of this resistance could be transformed into support if we leaders would only take a few minutes to explain what had led us to this point of change. In verse 18, we find that, when Peter did this, the circumcised believers who had been criticizing him “had no further objections” and in fact “praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.'” And as I look back on my history as a leader, I realize that, more often than not, when I do the same, the people who are following me generally tend to do likewise.

I think those two observations are important, but I also think there’s more to be had from this chapter. Consider, for example, how the church responded to news that more Gentiles were believing in Antioch, now in verse 22: they sent Barnabas. Yes, the same Joseph called Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, who had sold a field and brought the money to the apostles’ feet at the end of chapter four and vouched for the newly-converted Saul – who would become the apostle Paul – when he first returned to Jerusalem in chapter nine. We were told in chapter four that his name, Barnabas, meant “Son of Encouragement,” and I truly believe it was no coincidence that this encourager was the one the church sent to Antioch where it was experiencing so much change. Why? Three reasons:

  • Barnabas was objective. The fact that he was from Cyprus (4:36) meant that he had a connection with the ministers who were effecting this change. And the fact that he was a Jew – a Levite, no less – meant that he had an association with those who would naturally criticize it.
  • Barnabas had a reputation for being open to new movements of God. He had proved this when, sight unseen, he stood up and vouched for the authenticity of Saul’s conversion.
  • And most importantly, Barnabas was an encourager. In contrast to a criticizer, who would tell those who opposed the change why they were wrong and only exacerbate any tensions that existed already, he would encourage both sides to recognize each other and to clarify and pursue God’s will together.

Taking cues from Barnabas, then, to be effective change agents, we should be objective (I know, it’s profound!). This is actually harder than it sounds, though, I think. I mean, often when I’m trying to effect change in my church, the only thing that I can see is that this is what needs to happen, and I forget to consider things from the perspective of those who might resist the change. This is why I very much prefer having a team of leaders, rather than just one. I have found on too many occasions that I am blinded to one angle which someone else on the team will be able to see.

We should cultivate an openness to the movement of God. I truly believe that this involves four things: (1) spending time in Scripture to explore godly precepts and principles which may apply; (2) spending time researching to understand our historical and cultural context; (3) spending time planning to figure out where it is we need to go and what it is we need to do; and (4) spending time listening to ourselves, others and God to discover how He’s working today. Not coincidentally, this is strikingly similar to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which encourages us to consider the four legs of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (in that order, no less) to discern God’s will.

And we should assume a mantel of encouragement. This is starkly contrasted to what I believe is most leaders’ natural inclination. We see what has to be done, and we don’t understand why others don’t. But how much stronger would we be if, rather than trying to shove change down people’s throats all the time, we took the time to cultivate an atmosphere of cooperation and discovery by encouraging people to work together to discover and implement God’s will?

There are two more things that I think were essential to the successful completion of the transition from a Jew-only to all-inclusive church. The first was the fact that Barnabas didn’t go it alone. He recognized that his gift was in encouraging others to work together, and he knew that the church at Antioch, comprised as it was of mostly Gentiles, would need someone who could teach it the ways of God. So he went and found Saul. Why Saul? I believe it was because Barnabas knew he could work with Saul from their experience in Jerusalem. He also knew that, as a former Pharisee, Saul was eminently qualified to teach people the will of the Lord. And probably most significantly, Barnabas knew that Saul understood the magnitude of God’s grace. After all, the Lord had saved him, a Christian-killer and Christ-persecutor. Why couldn’t He save a few Gentiles? Don’t try to effect change by yourself. Find a few key people who will go with you to complement your weaknesses and augment God’s vision.

And the second was the fact that the church at Antioch didn’t sit around and dwell on the change. Rather, in verses 27-30, we discover that, as soon as the change was made, they turned their attention to the next thing that God had for them to do. Far from sitting around stewing about who didn’t get their way or how amazing that victory was, they focused on sending aid to the brothers in Jerusalem who were already beginning to feel the effects of a spreading famine. There is a reason why someone coined the phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” Our enemy loves to weasel his way into our lives when we’re not doing anything. But if we’re busy doing the will of the Lord, it’s awfully difficult for him to gain our attention. Indeed, when we’ve effected change, we must not take the time to stew or gloat. There is work to do. And there are few things as unifying and as healing as getting things done together for the Lord.

So that’s a lot of stuff for one blog entry. But I really think it’s a great strategy for anyone who ever needs to effect change in their church or life. And let’s face it: that’s everyone!

Notes

  • (3) Isn’t it funny how people can cut right through all that God is doing to the part that offends their sensibilities?
  • (4-17) Peter’s patience and clarity in taking the time to explain all that had happened from the vision in Joppa to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and co. is compelling. How many church fights and splits would be prevented if leaders would simply take the time to sit down and explain what has happened to lead us to this point?
  • (18) I would very much like to think that all believers would react this positively to the movement of the Lord!
  • (19-21) The faith of Cornelius cleared the path for this next step, where the gospel was taken to people who had absolutely no Jewish connection whatsoever. Cornelius’ connection was minimal, he had a reputation for being “devout and God-fearing.” Now, at Antioch, the gospel was going to people who didn’t even have that.
  • (22-24) Do you suppose there is a significance to the fact that, when the church was poised for a great change, they sent a man known as an encourager? How many changes would be smoothed over if we would actually encourage people in the right direction, rather than force feed it?
  • (25-26) I find it ironic that Saul, the devout Pharisee who had been persecuting Christians, is now the one that Barnabas seeks out to help raise up Gentile Christians at Antioch. Then again, this same Saul was the one who had been killing Christians for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe his own awareness of that past made him the perfect candidate. I.e., if God can save and use me, the persecutor, why can’t He save and use some Gentile?
  • (26) I never thought of this before, but it makes sense that disciples would be called Christians at Antioch, given what we’ve been told here in chapter 11. Up until this point, the church had been essentially Jewish, and so it had been considered a Jewish sect. At Antioch, though, the church was primarily Gentile, a fact which very clearly distinguished Christianity from Judaism. These were not Hebrews following the Messiah. They were a mixture of everyone following the Christ. Thus, Christian.
  • (27-30) I think it amazing that, when confronted with the possibility of a worldwide famine, the disciples at Antioch thought immediately of how they could help the less fortunate disciples in Jerusalem. They didn’t worry about storing up food for themselves, stocking up resources to make sure that they would be okay. Rather, they determined immediately to send aid, each according to his own ability, to their brothers and sisters in Christ – not in blood or culture, even! And it’s even more amazing that they did so via Barnabas and Saul, the two men who had been leading their congregation! To be willing to sacrifice resources AND leaders for the cause of Christ is pretty impressive.
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