Christians learn from the words and example of Jesus to help the needy. But these verses are more than just a tale of such kindness in action in the church’s early years. They also contribute to Luke’s description of the rebirth of Israel through the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. This metamorphosis is visible right through Acts, as we watch Jesus set up a kingdom – starting with his 12 disciples – which turns from sin and becomes faithful to God. However, not only does Luke show us the beauty and glory of Jesus’ new, eternal kingdom. He also shows us what happens to the old, left-behind Israel: the society which rejected Jesus as Lord (Ac 2:40).
That occurs here in a message from a Jerusalem prophet. A prophet is a person empowered by the Spirit to speak for God (2Pe 1:21). OT prophets challenged Israel about how God wanted her to live and how she was actually behaving (eg 1Ki 18:21); but they also pointed to a brighter future when God would change Israel’s heart & life (Je 31:31-34). Their words, therefore, were not only for their time but prophesied all that would come through Jesus (Lk 24:44). But then, when Jesus arrived, those partial messages were able to give way to a full disclosure about the Lord (He 1:1-3), which makes our era a wonderful time when God may be heard and known like never before. Indeed, today all Christians are prophets since we learn from the Lord and speak finer things of him than the OT prophets ever spoke, all in the power of the Spirit (Ac 2:1-21). Not every second, of course, since we still have our own thoughts as well. But nonetheless, what we do learn from the Lord is very powerful and we need never be embarrassed to speak of him to others.
However, in the first generation of the church Jesus also gave a special gift of prophecy just to some men and women. Paul explains their role to us in Ephesians. He writes that they came in alongside the apostles, like himself, to give clear insight into the message about Christ (Ep 3:4,5). Why? Because in the first century, God was laying foundations upon which his church would be built over the years to come, and the words of the apostles and prophets were the way in which he did this (Ep 2:19-22; Ac 2:42). So some of these prophets now join Barnabus and Saul in Antioch (v27), presumably to help build up the new assembly of believers. But Luke doesn’t lay out all the contributions they made; instead he just focuses on one: the prophesy of Agabus concerning a terrible food shortage which was to spread over the Roman world in the 40s AD (v28). Why does Luke focus in on that message? How did it help those early believers to understand Christ better? The answer comes in verse 29, where the believers decide to show loving unity with Jewish Christians by taking up a collection to help needy believers in Judea. That verse is a lovely indication of early believers being one in Christ. But another important truth is found in it too.
The further truth concerns what is happening to Israel. Jesus has formed a renewed Israel, which Antioch has now become part of. That reborn and greater people are now under the blessing of heaven. But that has implications for old, rebellious Israel. She was promised protection by God if she remained faithful, including from famine (De 28:12); but she was also warned of ruin if she did not (De 28:45). Those words are now coming true in Judea. Agabus’ prophecy concerns the bigger picture of what God is doing. However, the Christians in Antioch immediately realise how they should respond. Their fellow believers in Judea will need help in this painful time for their country, so they gather gifts and send them down with Barnabus and Saul (v30).
So Luke tells us more about the metamorphosis of Israel through Christ. But from it we can learn lessons about Christian giving. (1) We see the necessity of it. (2) We see that our giving flows from loving unity. (3) We see that individual Christians are to ponder and practise generosity. (4) We see that this should be done in an orderly way, through churches. But does that mean only through churches? No. The generosity we learn in church and inter-church life should spill out to touch many others (Ga 6:10), even our enemies (Lk 6:35).