Recently I had the privilege of attending the annual Men’s Christian Convention here in Christchurch. David Cook from Sydney was helpfully unpacking truths from John 11 and 12, and showing us their vital application to life and ministry. On the second night he highlighted something that has been much on my mind and heart for much of this year. David opened up John 12:23, 24: "And Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Here Jesus states that He will be glorified through His death. Through His death on the cross He will be like a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, and in death He will bring forth much fruit.
How would Jesus accomplish His purpose? How would He save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? How would the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? By His death! The grain of wheat MUST fall into the earth and die, and through that death … Fruit would come! Life would come! Salvation would come! (Isaiah 53:8-10). All by the death of the suffering servant in the place of his people. In John 12 we see that this is not only a wonderful picture of what Jesus does, but it also provides a pattern for our life and ministry. This is how the disciples of Jesus must also live, individually and corporately. This Christ-like selflessness must characterise both the Chrisian believer and the church.
We often focus on the individual outworking of this biblical principle, but I want to draw your attention to one New Testament example of this selfless attitude seen in the events surrounding the establishment and early life of the church in Antioch, a major city some 500 km north of Jerusalem and the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Antioch was the third largest city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Here are six examples drawn from the book of Acts of churches and believers learning to think and live ‘us’ and not ‘me’, being willing to fall into the earth and die in order to see real gospel fruit.
(1) Persecuted believers continue to preach Christ. Believers fled from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) under intense persecution. Christians had lost their homes and jobs, and their lives were under serious threat. All because they aligned themselves with Jesus and His Church. The natural tendency in such circumstances would be to go quiet about Jesus in order to avoid more trouble. These believers did the opposite. They arrive in Antioch and freely and boldly preach the Lord Jesus despite the threats (Acts 11:19-21).
(2) A persecuted church still cares for others. The persecuted believers in Jerusalem could have been excused for retreating into a shell of self-interest: keeping their heads down for fear of more persecution. This was emphatically not the case: the church’s ‘ear’ was still open to hear of God’s work in other places, to pray for it, and to help where they could. (Acts 11:22-24) They send Barnabas (the ‘son of encouragement’) to assess and strengthen the work in Antioch. A 500km journey to benefit others! For the Jerusalem church it was clearly not all about them: it’s about their Lord’s glory, the good of their brothers and sisters in Christ, and it’s about the world hearing the gospel.
(3) Barnabas recruits Saul (Paul) to help the church in Antioch (Acts 11:27-30). The gospel work in Antioch was going forward strongly (Acts 11:21-24), but Barnabas longed for it to be established and further extended. He thinks of his friend Saul and believes he could make a significant contribution to the work in Antioch, so he goes off to Tarsus (240km away) and recruits Saul. These two men spend a year teaching many in Antioch, pouring out their lives to build up the church. Barnabas doesn’t care that the gifted apostle Paul might become more prominent – all he cares about is the fame of Jesus Christ and the good of the church.
(4) The generosity of the church in Antioch toward their brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Hearing of the real need of the Chrisians in Judea because of a widespread famine, the Christians in Antioch (even though most of them have never met any of the believers down there) determine to send financial "relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea."
(5) Very different men work together (Acts 13:1).The leaders of the church at Antioch were a very diverse bunch. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus who had been a prominent encourager in the Jerusalem church; Lucius of Cyrene in North Africa, perhaps one of the founding members (Acts 11:20); Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and was probably from a noble family; Simeon, called Niger; and Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia, who had been a Pharisee and fanatical persecutor of the church! These men, despite their differences in personality, background and gifts, worked together selflessly for the good of the church and the glory of Christ.
(6) The church in Antioch surrendered key leaders to frontline mission (Acts 13:2,3). Led by the Holy Spirit as they worshipped, prayed and fasted, the church set apart two of their most able, useful, influential and much loved leaders to a new work. This was not easy, these men still could have been very useful to the work in Antioch. They sent away two beloved pastor-teachers for the benefit of others and the glory of Christ. This became known as the first of the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, through which many came to Christ and churches were planted throughout the Roman empire.
May the Lord help us, as individuals, families and churches, express the same selfless spirit in our lives and ministries today! And may the Lord use us to bear much fruit to His glory!