A Study of Acts 11:23
God has given to us the Scriptures in their entirety to set before us our duty in all of its vast character. For this reason Jesus said in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” Yet, God has also given in the Scriptures some very brief, penetrating exhortations which sum our entire life and duty as believers; statements which bring together what is our entire duty so long as we traverse this earth.
Such a statement is found in Acts 11:23. There we read of Barnabas, who had come to the church of Antioch. We read, “Who (that is, Barnabas), when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.”
“With purpose of heart…cleave to the Lord.” This is the heavenly Father’s exhortation to you and to all who have received the grace of God and confessed the gospel of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ. With purpose of heart, cleave to the Lord.
We know, from the Scriptures, that when God gives us faith, God will also preserve that faith. We know that, in the Scriptures, we are called to continue in the life of faith. We are to strive after holiness, we are to flee temptation, we are to take the whole armor of God, we are to desire the company of those who call upon the name of the Lord in truth. Yet, all of those exhortations may be summed in this: with purpose of heart, cleave to the Lord.
Let us look at that exhortation for a few moments together at this time.
The setting in which this exhortation comes to us is the setting of the grace of God-the grace of God which had established the church in a place called Antioch, and the grace of God which had placed each member of that church in her. Barnabas had been sent from the church of Jerusalem to investigate the reports of the advance of the gospel in Antioch. In fact, chapter 11 relates to us how, through persecution, the church had spread and had been established in Antioch. Under persecution, which was the devil’s attempt to stamp out the church, believers had gone everywhere preaching the Word. And they came to Antioch. There God, in His providence, gathered together a congregation of steadfast believers. Men who came to establish that church came preaching the Lord Jesus Christ. They did not come with political activism. They did not come with a message of “do-it-yourselfism.” They did not emphasize emotionalism or “feel-goodism.” But they preached the Lord Jesus Christ as the sovereign and almighty and only Savior. And a church had been formed, by the grace of God. Men and women had been turned unto the Lord and had been brought to faith. Now Barnabas, a man who was of mature spiritual vision, was chosen by the believers in Jerusalem to go up to Antioch and see what God’s hand had done. And he discovers that, indeed, this is not a “flash-in-a-pan” type of church. This is a church which is genuine, steadfast in godliness and in faithfulness. It had been established by the grace of God. Let us mark that down.
The setting in which this exhortation comes (to cleave to the Lord) is the setting of the grace of God which brings us to faith in Jesus Christ. By grace, that is, by undeserved favor and compassion to sinners, by that grace are we saved. It is possible for you to cleave to the Lord only when first the grace of the Lord has come to you. It is possible by faith to press your hand hard into His hand and to say to Him, “Lord I am thine,” only when first the hand of God graciously reaches down to you. Barnabas, we read, was glad.
Why was he glad?
Because he saw that it was God’s grace which had formed the church in Antioch and had placed each of the members in it.
There can be, you know, an outward appearance of cleaving or union to Jesus Christ. Judas Iscariot also gave the appearance that he belonged to Jesus Christ. But there are many who go away. When Christ stands in the way of their pleasure or of gratifying their flesh, or when Christ calls them to renounce their pride and their own sinful ambitions and their pet ideas, then they walk away from the Lord. Barnabas did not see that. He saw in the members of Antioch a steadfast church. And he traced that to the only origin for a steadfast church (the only origin of steadfast believers), namely, the grace of God-the mighty grace of God which was the power whereby the believers in Antioch had received the Word and had been brought to faith and repentance.
Do you see the grace of God as the reason why you belong to the Lord?
There is no other reason found for the existence of the church, no other reason found for the existence of individual believers.
Now, where that grace of God has come, joining a soul to Jesus Christ, that grace also works the spiritual resolve to cleave to the Lord. The grace which leads us to Jesus Christ does not leave us complacent. It does not make us say, “Well, I’m saved. Now let’s just go on with life.” But the grace of God works in us love, trust, devotion, dependence, commitment to the Lord. The mighty grace of God which is the only source of salvation does not produce cold or lukewarm, lackadaisical Christians. The grace of God produces those who with purpose of heart desire to cleave to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That is because the grace of God shows me what I am: a sinner. And the grace of God shows me who Christ is: the only Savior. Now, for those who have received the grace of God, the most frightening thought would be to be without Christ. And the most blessed thought is to press closer to Him in faith and in obedience.
Barnabas, then, exhorted them to cleave to the Lord. The word “cleave” means to adhere, to persist, to hold on, even under great pressure to let go; to continue in communion and attachment. Literally, Barnabas was constantly urging them, repeatedly, time after time telling them: Cleave, adhere to the Lord. The Lord, the One to whom you belong, the One who owns you now by virtue of His death upon the cross, by virtue of His mighty power in saving you. Cleave to this Lord Jesus Christ. And do this, he said, with purpose of heart. That means: intelligently, sincerely, deliberately, persistently. The word purpose here is the same as is used in Romans 8:28. There we read that we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. God’s purpose is His eternal commitment to save His children. The Lord hath purposed, we read in Scriptures, and who shall disannul it. There is a divine resolve that God will save His children whom He foreknew from eternity. There is a deep and abiding commitment to perform this act. Now, with purpose of heart, that is, with a deep and abiding commitment out of the heart, cleave to the Lord.
Barnabas exhorted them. He exhorted all of them: you who have received the abundance of grace in Christ Jesus, you who understand that it was by grace alone that you were brought to union with Christ and brought to be a member of His church; here is the exhortation, here are your marching orders, this must be your great resolve in life: cleave to the Lord. You must not do this with fits and starts. You must not do this with part of your life. You must not do this with part of your heart or commitment. But you must be resolved, by God’s grace, to be wholly committed to the Lord.
Now, according to the Scriptures, that involves a number of things. It means, first of all, that we will hold to Christ alone as the ground of our acceptance with God. That is what it means: with purpose of heart to cleave to the Lord.
In the world we struggle to one degree or another with the concepts of self-worth and confidence. There is much that is said in the world about that. The Christian has this question:
How do I know that I can be accepted of God?
How do I have that confidence that I am accepted of God, that I may have peace and stability in my life?
The answer to that question is, not by looking at your accomplishments, your talents, your beauty, your self-worth, but by cleaving to the Lord. Cleave to His righteousness. Cleave to His obedience. Christ alone is the ground of the believer’s acceptance with God. And to cleave to the Lord means that the believer holds to that truth steadfastly.
In Antioch, as in all of the spread of the gospel, that was crucial for their faith. The gospel had come to those who were at Antioch whom God had eternally chosen. The gospel had said, Christ crucified and risen. Salvation is not of works but it is founded in the work of Jesus Christ. And believers were brought to Christ, that is, were brought to understand and embrace that it was the work of Christ alone which gave them acceptance with God.
See, salvation is not: Christ has died for you and now you add something to it to make it complete.
Christ is the ground of our acceptance with God. As you battle your sin, and as you walk lonely paths of trial, and as at times you feel that you are cast away and forgotten; with purpose of heart cleave to the Lord. That is, cleave to the Lord as the ground of your acceptance with God.
But to cleave to the Lord with all of our hearts also means that we will draw strength from the Lord so that we might perform the calling that is given to us. Let us think again of the believers at Antioch. God had tremendous intentions for that church. The church of Antioch would become, according to the book of Acts, the mission center from which the Word of God would be sounded out throughout the known world of that day. When Barnabas says to them, “Cleave to the Lord,” then he is saying, “Now draw your courage, your strength, your wisdom, your moderation, your zeal from the Lord.” Barnabas was calling them to a necessary and total dependency upon the Lord.
That is what we read in the well-known text of Philippians 4:13, where Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.”
Did Paul say there that he thought that he could do anything?
No. He refers to the “all things” that God had placed on his path as a Christian. The duty that had come to him as an apostle. At that point (Philippians 4) he was learning how to be abased for Christ in a Roman jail, yet how to abound in that jail in confidence in the Lord. Paul says, I can do this; I can do all things that pertain to my Christian calling. I can fulfill every demand which is placed upon me by the Lord.
How can I do that?
With purpose of heart, cleave to the Lord. That exhortation means then that we must be constantly drawing our strength from the Lord.
Still more. Cleaving to the Lord with purpose of heart means to obey Christ’s word. It means to trust in Christ for acceptance with God. It means to look to Christ for strength to do our duty as Christians. But when you cleave to the Lord with all of your heart, it means that you will obey the words of Christ.
How can you cleave to Him if you do not obey His commandments?
It is by His Word, that Word not only in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but in the entire Scriptures. It is by cleaving to His Word that we cleave to Him. Whoever it is who does not practice the words of the Lord in his life is not cleaving to the Lord. No matter how good a confession he may give; no matter how clearly he may be able to analyze the faults of others; no matter how much he may know of Christian doctrine-if he is not obeying the Word of the Lord in his life he is not cleaving to the Lord. Jesus said, Ye are My disciples, ye belong to Me, if ye do whatsoever I have commanded you.
Jesus said that there will be many who will say, Lord, Lord, did we not cleave to you?
And Jesus will say, I never knew you; depart from Me ye that work iniquity.
With purpose of heart, cleave to the Lord. That is, out of a heart of love obey His Word, submit to Him as He stands before you in the holy Scriptures.
What does it mean to cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart?
It means this:
1) Find in Christ the ground of your acceptance to God.
2) Do all in reliance upon Christ to strengthen you.
3) Obey the Word of God from your heart.
When that happens it will be very evident in your life. The church of Antioch was blessed. And God added to that church such as should be saved. We read in verse 24, “And much people were added unto the Lord.”
Due to the grace of God, and due to this church’s cleaving to the Lord, this church increased spiritually and numerically. The congregation cleaved to the Lord. The Holy Spirit used that as a witness to bring sinners to the Lord. The lives of the saints in Antioch became an open epistle to be seen and to be read of men. They spoke of their righteousness as in Christ. They confessed the fact that they received strength from Christ through prayer. Their lives evidenced an obedience to Jesus Christ, and God used that as an instrument in His hand to build the church and to gather others into that church who had been chosen to life eternal. And to keep others away! Others looked upon that cleaving to the Lord, and looked upon those Antioch Christians who were cleaving to the Lord, and said, What a bunch of fanatics! It is a cult! They are all brainwashed! And they withdrew. But God used it for others to bring them to the Lord.
Not only did the church grow spiritually and numerically. The church increased also in stability and in maturity. That they cleaved to the Lord means that the church of Antioch submitted and attended to the ministry of the holy gospel; the ministry which was, for a whole year, brought to them by Barnabas and by the apostle Paul. They did not drift away from the church on Sunday for sports and other activities. They did not use the catch-phrase: Well, the church is full of hypocrites and cannot help you anyway.
Do you cleave to the Lord?
Then others will see that in your attendance and devotion to the church and, specifically, your devotion to the ministry of the church.
We read further, in verse 26 of Acts 11, that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. The world labeled them. The world saw that with purpose of heart they were cleaving to this one who was called Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior, the Son of God, the Shepherd, the Redeemer, the Lord of glory.
Then they would go up to them and would ask, Why do you do that?
The answer would come back, Because with purpose of heart we cleave to our Savior Jesus Christ. We cleave to Christ. And they called them Christians.
Is it plain to all the world around you that you are one who cleaves to the Lord with purpose of heart, with firm resolve, and with steadfast trust?
Oh, may it be more and more so. All who have received the grace of God, until Jesus comes, this is His word to you: With purpose of heart, cleave to the Lord.
May God grant it.
By Carl Haak