Lesson 6: The Church at Antioch
[Note: The source for most of this material is The Spreading Flame, by F.F. Bruce.]
Let us recap. The time is about ten years after the formation of the church at Jerusalem. Paul is in his native Tarsus, living the period of his evangelical life about which we know the least. He is being prepared, it would seem, for his mission to the Gentiles.
Hellenist Jewish Christians (Nazarenes), against whom there was much discrimination, had scattered as a result of the persecution following the stoning of their leaders, Stephen.
The church in Jerusalem was still exclusively Jewish, i.e., no Gentiles. For one inclined to see God’s sovereignty at work, we have arrived here because:
The apostles, who were Hebrews, not Hellenists, stayed “Jewish”. This, along with their belief in resurrection, their pious lifestyle, and their adherence to the Sabbath and the temple appointments, gained them favor with at least some from the party of the Pharisees, including Gamaliel. This was enough of an impediment for the Sadducees; without the support of the Pharisees they didn’t have the clout to persecute the Hebrews.
However, since nobody much liked the Hellenists, there were persecuted and many fled Jerusalem and began preaching the gospel in outlying areas, including, in a twist that would have been condemned by the Jerusalem church, to Gentiles.
At about this time, Peter was in Joppa, when a vision told him to go with some men to Caesarea, where the apostle’s inhibition against witnessing to the Gentiles was breached, in the home of Cornelius the Centurion.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, Peter discovered that the church had heard about what had happened, and was not at all happy about it. But after Peter explained his vision, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles, they had no further objections.
The Nazarenes were ready for the next step. It would be a dangerous one, because now the uncircumcised were welcome, and the myth that they were but an odd yet more-or-less orthodox sect of Judaism was shattered. Now they would have no friends in the Sanhedrin.
Antioch in Syria
In the north of Syria lay the city of Antioch. Founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in was annexed into the Roman Empire in 64 B.C, declared a free city, and named the capital of the Syrian province.
When the persecuted Hellenists fled Jerusalem, many headed to the centers of Hellenistic Jewry in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. They too, at first, preached only to fellow Jews. But, away from Jerusalem, the pressure on them to be exclusively Jewish was less. At Antioch, some enterprising souls began preaching to the Greeks:
20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:20-21)
News of this proselytizing reached Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate. If Peter had not yet had his vision and encounter with the household of Cornelius, Barnabas would probably have been armed with an order to cease and desist. Instead, he went on a fact finding mission and to see if he could help.
Upon arriving, Barnabas was delighted with what he saw, and believed it was the work of Lord. He encouraged his countrymen from Cyprus and the others to continue reaching out to the Gentiles. Things had progressed so rapidly that Barnabas felt that another man of stature was needed to help him organize and to teach. He knew just the man for the job: Paul, who had been in Tarsus for some years, and who probably had some experience there witnessing to Gentiles.
Paul returned with Barnabas to Antioch and spent about a year building up the church there. It is in Syrian Antioch where others began calling the believers Christians. This never could have happened in Jerusalem, where they were the Nazarenes, for the word Christ means Messiah, and for other Jews to call the believers the “Messiah followers”, would have been unthinkable because of its tacit acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah. But to the Gentiles, Christ was a sort of name, so they had no problem with the label Christian.
About this time, a physician by the name of Luke joined the church at Antioch. He would later write a two volume history of Christianity called Luke to Theophilus, Parts I and II. At the end of the first century, the first volume became the gospel that bears his name, and the second became the book of Acts.
Another leader of the church at Antioch was Simeon called Niger (Acts 13:1), whom some believe is none other the Simon the Cyrenean who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. (Mark 15:21).
In the early days, the church had a number of prophets who spoke divine utterances. Later, this sort of activity disappeared. One such prophet in Antioch was Agabus of Jerusalem, who declared that there would be a great famine:
27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul [Paul]. (Acts 11:27-29)
The famine did indeed occur, as Josephus tell us that in about A.D. 46 the Jewish Queen mother of the kingdom of Adiabene bought foodstuffs abroad to relieve the hunger in Palestine:
But as to Helena, the king's mother, when she saw [that her son was a happy man], and admired among all men, and even among foreigners, by the means of God's providence over him, she had a mind to go to the city of Jerusalem, in order to worship at that temple … and to offer her thank-offerings there. So she desired her son to give her leave to go thither; upon which he gave his consent … and gave her a great deal of money, and she went down to the city Jerusalem, her son conducting her on her journey a great way. Now her coming was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem; for whereas a famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal, queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others of them to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs. (Josephus, Antiquities, XX 2:5)
As a result of Agabus’s prophecy, a collection was made for the Palestinian Christians, and Paul and Barnabas were sent to deliver the gift to the church in Jerusalem. In meeting with the leaders in Jerusalem, Peter, John, and James the brother of Jesus, it was agreed, and sealed by a handshake, that Barnabas and Paul had been set aside by God to witness to the Gentiles, while the primary job of the Jerusalem church was to evangelize Jews. (Paul’s account is not in the book of Acts, but in Gal. 2.)
James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Gal 2:9-10)
There are some who believe that the Jerusalem church leader’s instruction to “remember the poor” meant that the Gentile Christians should continue to pay a tribute to the Jerusalem church, just like the temple received a tribute from Jews throughout the world. Paul, it would appear, never understood to be a tacit regulation.
At the same time, a persecution ensued against the Hebrew Christians, which scripture tells us pleased the Jews:
1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. (Acts 12:1-3)
Here is a clear sign of the cost of embracing the Gentiles: the church at Jerusalem lost its support among all Jews—now it was viewed, at least by many more than before, as an apostate abomination.
After completing their goals, delivering a gift to the Jerusalem church and having their mission to the Gentiles blessed, they returned with Barnabas’s cousin, John-Mark. In a sense Barnabas and Paul are now on standby, but they didn’t have to wait long, for one day in Antioch the Holy Spirit spoke through another prophet: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." The two men were released of their local responsibilities, so that they could carry out their global mission.
Paul’s First Missionary Journey
Paul and Barnabas were, in effect, ambassadors-at-large with portfolio. They had the blessings of both the leaders in Jerusalem and their home church at Antioch. Off they went, along with John-Mark.
Their first stop would be Cyprus, Barnabas’s home.
They had a plan. They should concentrate on cities along the great highways of the Roman Empire, for from there it could spread quickly to the surrounding areas. But where could they find the Gentiles who would listen? Here we see a stroke of genius: for although they are missionaries (and in Paul’s case an apostle) to the Gentiles, they should target synagogues. Why? Because the low hanging fruit were the “God-fearers”, (uncircumcised) semi-converts to Judaism who went to the synagogues to be taught—accepting Judaism’s monotheism but not its rites and ceremonial law. And, if along the way, Jews were also converted, then all the better. For the most part, the Jews would reject the message, while the God fearers would be receptive.
The three passed across Cyprus, east to west. On the west coast capital of Paphos, they had an amazing success with the proconsul Lucius Sergius Paullus, at the expense of his false-prophet attendant Bar-Jesus, who was blinded for his apostasy:
8But [Bar-Jesus] opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at [him] and said, 10"You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." 12Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord. (Acts 13:8-12)
From Paphos the three set sail for Perga in Asia Minor. From this point on, it is clear that Barnabas and Paul are no longer equals: Paul is in charge. John-Mark left them at this point, returning to Jerusalem. Some have speculated it may be due to a perceived slight of his older cousin. Paul was certainly disappointed with John-Mark, viewing his departure as a desertion, a view that would eventually cause a rift in his friendship with Barnabas. Ultimately, however, there was reconciliation.
Paul and Barnabas traveled to a different Antioch, Pisidian Antioch, a Roman colony on one of the great Romans roads through Asia Minor—just the kind of place they planned about. In Pisidian Antioch they, again following their plan, visited the synagogue and, after the scriptures were read, they were invited to speak. Luke records what might have been Paul’s standard stump speech.
Starting with the Exodus, Paul summarized Jewish history up through King David. Then he announced that, as God had promised, a Savior had arisen from the line of David, the Lord Jesus. His crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances confirmed Him as the one foretold, and through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and salvation offered.
This message was eagerly received by the Gentile “God-Fearers”, who invited Paul and Barnabas to return the following Sabbath. This they did, but the numbers of Gentiles they attracted the following week got them into trouble:
42As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. (Acts 13:42-45)
Paul and Barnabas respond forcefully to the Jews, saying in effect that while in their view the gospel was first for the Jew and then for the Gentile, as soon as the Jews rejected it then they would only preach to the Gentiles (in a given region.) This amazed the Gentile God-Fearers even more: in their minds Paul and Barnabas treated them as first-class citizens:
46Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
" 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'"
48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. (Acts 13:46-48)
The Christians formed a church, distinct from the synagogue, and then the Jews initiated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, chasing them from the region. So we see the establishment of a pattern:
- Visit a city on a main highway
- Go first to the synagogue and proclaim that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies
- Receive warm reception from the God-Fearers
- Be rejected by the Jews
- Form a church comprised of the God-Fearers and other converts, separate from the synagogue
- Get chased out of town by the Jews, who were frustrated that Paul had “stolen their sheep”, the God-Fearers, men whom they hoped would sometime be circumcised and then become full-fledged Jews.
Leaving Pisidian Antioch, they went next Iconium. Same story, although there it seems that they had a little more success with the Jews. Still, it ended just as in Pisidian Antioch. From there it was to the region of Lycaonia, and the cities of Lystra and Derbe.
In Lystra, another Roman colony, we see something new: Paul healing a lame man, which made great impression on the indigenous, non-Romans, leading to one of the more bizarre experiences of their journey:
8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. (Acts 14:8-13)
Paul had caused a great revival; unfortunately it was in a false religion. In mythology, the district had once been visited by two Greek deities, Zeus and Hermes. Barnabas was identified as Zeus the king of the immortals, and Paul, since he most of the talking, as Hermes the chief herald. Amongst themselves, in their own language, they discussed all this and decided that the two must be shown great honor. (In part, no doubt, because the elderly couple who, unaware, showed hospitality to Zeus and Hermes were rewarded with great riches.)
Paul and Barnabas did not at first understand what was happening, for neither spoke the language. Perhaps they saw the joy on the faces of the people and were encouraged. But when they discovered the truth, and preparations were made for sacrifices, they were mortified:
14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15"Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. (Acts 14:14-18)
After calming the mob, just when they must have thought it was safe, things went from bad to worse. For it turned out a posse from their previous two stops was in hot pursuit:
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. (Acts 14:19-20)
Paul went, in just a moment, from being proclaimed a deity to being nearly lynched.
The two then went to Derbe, which sat at the eastern frontier of the Roman province. There they had much better success, winning a large number of disciples.
Then they backtracked, through Lystra (which personally I would have avoided), Iconium and Antioch. Along the way they worked to strengthen the churches they had established, appointing elders and encouraging them to continue in the faith and endure the hardships. Finally, after some additional stops on the way back, they returned to Syrian Antioch, their home church, and reported on their success.