When our Lord Jesus ascended on high he gave gifts unto men, not only apostles and evangelists, but prophets, who were enabled by the Spirit to foresee and foretel things to come, which not only served for a confirmation of the truth of Christianity (for all that these prophets foretold came to pass, which proved that they were sent of God, Deut. 18:22; Jer. 28:9), but was also of great use to the church, and served very much for its guidance. Now here we have,
I. A visit which some of these prophets made to Antioch (Acts 11:27): In these days, during that year that Barnabas and Saul lived at Antioch, there came prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch: we are not told how many, nor is it certain whether these were any of those prophets that we afterwards find in the church at Antioch, Acts 13:1. 1. They came from Jerusalem, probably because they were not now so much regarded there as they had been; they saw their work in a manner done there, and therefore thought it time to be gone. Jerusalem had been infamous for killing the prophets and abusing them, and therefore is now justly deprived of these prophets. 2. They came to Antioch, because they heard of the flourishing state of that church, and there they hoped they might be of some service. Thus should every one as he hath received the gift minister the same. Barnabas came to exhort them, and they, having received the exhortation well, now have prophets sent them to show them things to come, as Christ had promised, John 16:13. Those that are faithful in their little shall be entrusted with more. The best understanding of scripture-predictions is to be got in the way of obedience to scripture-instructions.
II. A particular prediction of a famine approaching, delivered by one of these prophets, his name Agabus; we read of him again prophesying Paul’s imprisonment, Acts 21:10, 11. Here he stood up, probably in one of their public assemblies, and prophesied, Acts 11:28. Observe, 1. Whence he had his prophecy. What he said was not of himself, nor a fancy of his own, nor an astronomical prediction, nor a conjecture upon the present workings of second causes, but he signified it by the Spirit, the Spirit of prophecy, that there should be a famine; as Joseph, by the Spirit enabling him, understood Pharaoh’s dreams, foretold the famine in Egypt, and Elijah the famine in Israel in Ahab’s time. Thus God revealed his secrets to his servants the prophets. 2. What the prophecy was: There should be great dearth throughout all the world, by unseasonable weather, that corn should be scarce and dear, so that many of the poor should perish for want of bread. This should be not in one particular country, but through all the world, that is, all the Roman empire, which they in their pride, like Alexander before them, called the world. Christ had foretold in general that there should be famines (Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11); but Agabus foretels one very remarkable famine now at hand. 3. The accomplishment of it: It came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar; it began in the second year of his reign, and continued to the fourth, if not longer. Several of the Roman historians make mention of it, as does also Josephus. God sent them the bread of life, and they rejected it, loathed the plenty of that manna; and therefore God justly broke the staff of bread, and punished them with famine; and herein he was righteous. They were barren, and did not bring forth to God, and therefore God made the earth barren to them.
III. The good use they made of this prediction. When they were told of a famine at hand, they did not do as the Egyptians, hoard up corn for themselves; but, as became Christians, laid by for charity to relieve others, which is the best preparative for our own sufferings and want. It is promised to those that consider the poor that God will preserve them, and keep them alive, and they shall be blessed upon the earth, Ps. 41:1, 2. And those who show mercy, and give to the poor, shall not be ashamed in the evil time, but in the days of famine they shall be satisfied, Ps. 37:19, 21. The best provision we can lay up against a dear time is to lay up an interest in these promises, by doing good, and communicating, Luke 12:33. Many give it as a reason why they should be sparing, but the scripture gives it as a reason why we should be liberal, to seven, and also to eight, because we know not what evil shall be upon the earth, Eccl. 11:2. Observe,
1. What they determined—that every man, according to his ability, should send relief to the brethren that dwelt in Judea, Acts 11:29. (1.) The persons that were recommended to them as objects for charity were the brethren that dwelt in Judea. Though we must, as we have opportunity, do good to all men, yet we must have a special regard to the household of faith, Gal. 6:10. No poor must be neglected, but God’s poor most particularly regarded. The care which every particular church ought to take of their own poor we were taught by the early instance of that in the church at Jerusalem, where the ministration was so constant that none lacked, Acts 4:34. But the communion of saints in that instance is here extended further, and provision is made by the church at Antioch for the relief of the poor in Judea, whom they call their brethren. It seems it was the custom of the Jews of the dispersion to send money to those Jews who dwelt in Judea, for the relief of the poor that were among them, and to make collections for that purpose (Tully speaks of such a thing in his time, Orat. pro Flacco), which supposes there were many poor in Judea, more than in other countries, so that the rich among them were not able to bear the charge of keeping them from starving; either because their land had become barren, though it had been a fruitful land, for the iniquity of those that dwelt therein, or because they had no traffic with other nations. Now we may suppose that the greatest part of those who turned Christians in that country were the poor (Matt. 11:5; The poor are evangelized), and also that when the poor turned Christians they were put out of the poor’s book, and cut off from their shares in the public charity; and it were easy to foresee that if there came a famine it would go very hard with them; and, if any of them should perish for want, it would be a great reproach to the Christian profession; and therefore this early care was taken, upon notice of this famine coming, to send them a stock beforehand, lest, if it should be deferred till the famine came, it should be too late. (2.) The agreement there was among the disciples about it, that every man should contribute, according to his ability, to this good work. The Jews abroad, in other countries, grew rich by trade, and many of the rich Jews became Christians, whose abundance ought to be a supply to the want of their poor brethren that were at a great distance; for the case of such ought to be considered, and not theirs only that live among us. Charitable people are traders with what God has given them, and the merchants find their account in sending effects to countries that lie very remote; and so should we in giving alms to those afar off that need them, which therefore we should be forward to do when we are called to it. Every man determined to send something, more or less, according to his ability, what he could spare from the support of himself and his family, and according as God had prospered him. What may be said to be according to our ability we must judge for ourselves, but must be careful that we judge righteous judgment.
2. What they did—they did as they determined (Acts 11:30). Which also they did. They not only talked of it, but they did it. Many a good motion of that kind is made and commended, but is not prosecuted, and so comes to nothing. But this was pursued, the collection was made, and was so considerable that they thought it worth while to send Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem, to carry it to the elders there, though they would want their labours in the mean time at Antioch. They sent it, (1.) To the elders, the presbyters, the ministers or pastors, of the churches in Judea, to be by them distributed according to the necessity of the receivers, as it had been contributed according to the ability of the givers. (2.) It was sent by Barnabas and Saul, who perhaps wanted an occasion to go to Jerusalem, and therefore were willing to take this. Josephus tells us that at this time king Irates sent his charity to the chief men of Jerusalem, for the poor of that country; and Helena, queen of the Adiabeni, being now at Jerusalem, and hearing of many that died of famine there, and in the country about, sent for provisions from Cyprus and Alexandria, and distributed them among the people; so says Dr. Lightfoot, who also computes, by the date of Paul’s rapture, “fourteen years before he wrote the second Epistle to the Corinthians” (2 Cor. 12:1, 2), that it was in this journey of his to Jerusalem, with these alms and offerings, that he had his trance in the temple (which he speaks of, Acts 22:17), and in that trance was rapt up into the third heaven; and then it was that Christ told him he would send him thence unto the Gentiles, which accordingly he did as soon as ever he came back to Antioch. It is no disparagement, in an extraordinary case, for ministers of the gospel to be messengers of the church’s charity, though to undertake the constant care of that matter would ordinarily be too great a diversion from more needful work to those who have given themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.