What exactly was the grace of God that Barnabas saw at Antoich?

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Puritan Board Freshman
Acts 11:23 When he [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.

The NIV 1978 uses the phrase "evidence of the grace of God" although later editions and other translations don't use the word evidence. But still I wonder, just what was it that he witnessed? Raw numbers of believers increasing? Acts of mercy to the poor? Christians speaking in tongues like they did at Cornelius's house? Can we in fact know?

Matthew Henry writes:

When he came, and had seen the grace of God, the tokens of God's good-will to the people of Antioch and the evidences of his good work among them, he was glad. He took time to make his observations, and not only in their public worship, but in their common conversations and in their families, he saw the grace of God among them.

This was a new church so Barnabas wasn't comparing their growth from his visit the previous year. But there must have been something visible, something tangible, something quantifiable that he saw in the church at Antioch. Or am I reading too much into the passage? There was obviously room for further growth because Barnabas finds Paul and takes him to Antioch where they spend a whole year teaching. (What I would give to have been in that Sunday School class!)

Of course the application that I am making is this: If an outsider comes to my church, does he see a similar grace of God at work? Or does he leave thinking, what a nice group of people. Pretty much the same reaction he will have at a Rotary Club meeting.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
I don't know that I agree with you when you write: "Barnabas... his visit the previous year." Unless you believe that he belongs in the number some of whom "traveled as far as... Antioch," v19. Just because men of Cyprus (Barnabas was from there, Act.4:36) and Cyrene came to Antioch, doesn't mean Barnabas would have been in that group. His being sent later from Jerusalem indicates to me that he was not part of the beginning of that congregation.

I do agree the work was relatively new. We should understand that Barnabas is sent from the apostles in Jerusalem in order to gauge this work, news of which had come to them from that relatively distant place. The church centered at Jerusalem had received news of God at work--his grace in evidence-- on an earlier occasion, when news of the move of the Spirit in Samaria had come to them; so they reached out to look, to evaluate, possibly to contribute (which they did, see Act.8:14-15) and hopefully to embrace and acknowledge this in Samaria as "one with us." The proof was received, and so it was all one work and one church in Judea and Samaria.

The same pattern is followed when word comes back to Jerusalem about Antioch. Rather than send Peter and John (as in Act.8:14), they sent Barnabas as their eyes and ears. (I believe that one reason is not mentioned until 12:1, when we learn of harassment of the church by Herod; James the apostle and Peter might have been arrested already.) It was Barnabas' responsibility to look, evaluate, possibly contribute, and bring word back to the apostles and the mother-church if indeed the presence and reach of the church was expanding as Antioch might demonstrate.

Here are some sermon notes of mine from the passage, vv18-30
The middle of the passage focuses 1) on Barnabas’ work of evaluation and comfort for the believers in Antioch; and 2) his engagement of Saul for the work of establishing the church, organizing and regularizing it. Barnabas was well regarded (we know) for his encouragement. He would find the good in any situation, and build that part up. In Antioch, he found good report running over. “When he had seen the grace of God he was glad.” He didn’t have to hunt for it, turn over a few rocks looking for a hint.​
We must read “them all,” whom he encouraged or comforted, as firstly those witnessing, gospelling men. When they set out, they probably had more zeal than experience. Since their success (the success of the hand of the Lord and the grace of God) they were experiencing the ups and downs of being the de facto leaders of a real, but barely organized church. This large body was no more spiritual or sanctified—no more holy—than is a true church today. Plus, it had about sprung up overnight. Antioch Church must have been a challenge.​
But also, the rest of these Grecians now professing faith in Christ, Barnabas exhorted them to purpose in their heart, “I will continue with the Lord,” meaning: I will continue with him and his people. This is my people; this is my church.” Barnabas here asks them: “You all in?” Luke then describes pastor Barnabas as: 1) a good man, broad minded in the best sense, fully aboard the Gentile-inclusion mission, a generous spirit (the sense in this context is not his moral virtues). 2) He is described as full of the Holy Spirit and faith, fundamental qualities we’ve already seen mark those called to serve in Christ’s ministry.​
It isn’t as if this new church had failed to see such character in those who witnessed to them. Doubtless they had. But in Barnabas, they observed it present, mature, balanced in one who was called to pastor. They heard it in his preaching, acknowledged the Holy Spirit’s work through it, and grew in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Christians—the real deal—recognize this gift when it is present, and develop a zest for it. Won’t be happy if they lose it.​
Now, while a great many people (more people!) were added to the Lord still, as he pastured the charge, as weeks and months passed, Barnabas saw he needed help, the gifts of another man. He thought of Saul. It might have been 8-9yrs now, since he had been a great encouragement to the gifted but new believer (recently a persecutor). Perhaps Saul might come and encourage Barnabas? See then, this trip to Tarsus (that’s about another hundred miles up the coast) is because this great work in Antioch needs more than Barnabas alone can supply.​
Then, once he arrived, the division of their labor served the best interest of the church. For a solid year Paul’s powers together with Barnabas’ bathed the congregation of Antioch in the powerful teaching that we have exhibits and excerpts of in Paul’s letters. A “great many people” were taught. They were taught the Lord Jesus Christ, as promised in the Scriptures, now come in the flesh. They were taught to follow Christ. So far did they absorb this doctrine, that outsiders began to call them “Christians,” the party of Christ, followers of Christ, “belongs to” Christ.​

What I would say about application is this: Barnabas is a Christian, and so what he's looking for as "evidence of the grace of God" is predicated on the existence of a faith of his own that recognizes its own kind, and a background of preparation for a ministerial evaluation of a particular church. That's not the same as an unbeliever (outsider) coming in your congregation and leaving with the impression: "They are a friendly bunch," and that's the best he can say. The grace of God may well BE evident, yet he has yet to be given eyes to see and ears to hear it. The only way an outsider comes in and leaves with the impression, "God is truly among you," 1Cor.14:25, is if the Spirit of grace works on his heart.

If we want God's grace to be evident in our congregations, then we first need to be faith-filled. Then, we need to be committed to the Word of God as our final authority, and as our ONLY authority in terms of the worship we render. The Word must saturate our worship, in the songs we sing, in the prayers we offer, and in the proclamation. Then, let our religion express itself in various ways of conversing with one another and outsiders, as wisdom from God teaches us. If we put God first, we can stop worrying about how his grace toward us and with us is perceived. If as "good," praise the Lord. If falsely as "bad," well praise the Lord anyway.

Hope this is helpful.

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
I suspect that the "grace of God" mentioned in v. 23 is a shortened way of referring to the same phenomenon explained in more detail earlier in v. 18: "To the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." So Barnabas sees repentance and faith, evidence that God is saving people among the largely Gentile population in Antioch. What wondrous grace! This fits the main thrust of God's grace throughout the book of Acts: the expansion of the gospel to the nations.


Puritan Board Freshman
Thank you for your lucid, helpful replies. I guess I worded my post incorrectly. I was saying that Barnabas wasn't comparing the condition of the church to what he would have seen had he been there the previous year. I agree that this was his first visit to Antoich. Your replies shed light on this passage and I appreciate your insights.
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