The (new) grace of God

Ever since I first set my sights on being a leader, I was told that the first, instinctive response that everyone has to change is resistance. Over the years, I’ve sat in countless seminars and discussions where the varying degrees of that resistance are outlined and explored, but the fact remains that, whoever we are and wherever we might come from, we don’t naturally like change. We don’t want to move to a new house. We hesitate to get a new car. And we are reluctant to pick up new skills or do things in a new way. And if there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that sometimes, the Church can be one of the most resistant groups of people to work with when it comes to change. I suppose that’s why we still have carpet from the 70’s, paint from the 80’s, and hairdoes from the 90’s. We just don’t want to change. But that’s far from new. In fact, in Acts 11, we find the dawn of what will eventually be a revolution in the church. And the first reaction that the apostles had to the situation was skepticism and – you guessed it – resistance.

At the start of Acts 11, news of Peter’s encounter with a Roman centurion named Cornelius has spread to Jerusalem. And the apostle is called on the carpet for it. As soon as he returned to Jerusalem, in verse 2, we’re told that “those who stressed circumcision argued with him, saying, ‘You visited uncircumcised men and ate with them!'” These people thought that Christians had to be, first and foremost, Jews. And since Cornelius was most definitely not a Jew, they threw themselves a little hissy fit. Fortunately for Peter, he had had a bonafide vision from God, which was backed up by something Jesus had said, and he had managed to silence them all. But starting in verse 19, as the church continued to expand, driven by the threat of persecution, it wasn’t long before the actual implications of that revelation were met.

In verse 20, we’re told, “But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus.”

Now, the fact that these men from Cyprus and Cyrene would be the ones to start preaching to Hellenists (aka, Greeks) is predictable. Cyprus and Cyrene were both Greek colonies with large Jewish populations. These men, though Jewish, had known and interacted with Greek-influenced Gentiles every day of their lives. So it was only a natural thing for them. In fact, I doubt they even meant to preach to these Gentiles. At first, anyway. But then someone asked them a question about why they were different. And they answered. And the Gentile wanted to pray to receive Jesus. Then they told another, who wanted to receive Jesus. And on and on, it snowballed until word finally reached Jerusalem about the Hellenists who were getting saved in Antioch.

Unfortunately for the Cypriot and Cyrenian men, they did not have a divine vision and personal memory of what Jesus had said and done going for them. So despite Peter’s argument before the council in Jerusalem, there was resistance. Were Gentiles really believing in Jesus? Was it being done right? How did they know that the whole Cornelius thing wasn’t an exception and that the vast majority of Gentiles weren’t really going to be allowed in?

So they sent Barnabas. And in verse 23, when Barnabas arrived, Luke (the writer of Acts) tells me, “he was glad” (HCSB) or “he rejoiced” (NASB, NET).

Barnabas rejoiced this change. Why? Because he “saw the grace of God” at work in the people of Antioch.

Here’s the thing. Change can be good. In fact, change can bring tremendous rejoicing. If I’m (a) patient enough to see its actual effects (as opposed to pre-emptively jumping to conclusions and rejecting it before it starts, let alone has a chance to make a difference) and (b) quiet enough to see and appreciate God’s grace at work, change can be a tremendous source of joy.

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