The Church at Antioch
Something like five years had elapsed since the martyrdom of Stephen and the journey of Saul to Damascus that resulted in his conversion. For Saul they had been five eventful years. First, there was his short time with the brethren in Damascus, then his three years in Arabia preparing himself for his life's work and after that his equally short stay in Jerusalem and his flight. For the remainder of the time he had a quiet residence in his native town of Tarsus in Cilicia. Five years gone, and as yet nothing definitely achieved and still no positive lead as to the future. The Apostle must have been sorely puzzled; the circumstances of his call were such as to indicate in no uncertain terms the importance of the Lord's purpose for him. The need was so obvious, the gospel of the Kingdom was to be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations and he was ready to play his part in that preaching. This was specially so since it did not seem as though the other disciples, still at Jerusalem, were particularly concerned about leaving that centre of the faith to extend its power and influence into the farther territories of the wider world. The ways of God are passing strange, Saul must have thought. The harvest was great and the labourers few. Even Jesus had bidden his disciples to lift up their eyes and look on the fields, and see that they were white already to harvest, and exhorted them to pray that God would send forth reapers to gather in that harvest. Well, here he was, an ardent reaper, burning with desire to take the message of life and salvation to all whomsoever he could persuade to listen, wherever he should find them. Yet for all his zeal and eagerness and readiness the door remained obstinately shut; the word to go forward remained unspoken. Nothing is said as to the results of such missionary work as he may have carried on in and around his home-town of Tarsus. He was of course well known there and although he may have been tolerated because of his connections and friends in the city. It was also probably true, as it was of Jesus in Nazareth and Capernaum, that no prophet has honour in his own country. So Saul must have remained, frustrated and yet, we must believe, assured that God would reveal his will in his own due time and that as a faithful servant he must patiently bide that time.
Now, at last, his faith and trust were to be vindicated and his eager spirit given the sphere of action he so ardently desired. For five years past the stage had been in process of being set, the place of his service being prepared. Right back at the beginning, when the persecution he instigated in Jerusalem at the time of death of Stephen led many Christians to seek refuge in far off lands, that preparation had begun. A few of those Christians from Jerusalem had reached Antioch, third city of the Empire and political capital of Syria, some four hundred miles from Jerusalem. There they had settled and there they had exemplified and preached their faith to such good effect that within that five years there came into being a flourishing Christian community which had the distinction of including within its numbers a substantial proportion of Gentiles, pure-blooded Greeks. The account in Acts 11.20 uses the term Grecians, Hellenistos meaning Jews of the Dispersion, Greek Jews but the A.V. is at fault and the correct term is Greeks ‑ Hellenes, definitely indicating true Gentile Greeks). It would seem from verses 19-20 that at most places in which they found themselves the refugees from Jerusalem confined their missionary activities to their fellow-Jews However, those who settled at Antioch, perhaps because it was so predominantly a Greek and Roman city, extended their preaching to include non-Jews, with a spectacularly successful result. "A great number believed, and turned to the Lord." (v 21).
Antioch was at that time a magnificent city of half a million inhabitants, ranking politically next to Rome and Alexandria in importance, the official residence of the Roman governor of Syria and a busy commercial centre. It was adorned with many handsome buildings and public monuments and was in no respect inferior to Rome itself in splendour and luxury. It is not surprising therefore that all the pagan religions of the world were represented at Antioch. The city boasted temples to every deity known to the Greeks and Romans and many others too, among which the synagogues of the orthodox Jews stood in almost equivalent splendour for the Jews of Antioch constituted a wealthy and prosperous community. It was in no mean city, therefore, that the first Gentile Christian church had its birth and rose to a position of influence among the general community of believers.
It was inevitable that news of these developments should reach the Church at Jerusalem, still recognized as the central authority by virtue of the continued residence there of the twelve apostles. The acceptance of Gentiles as fellow-believers and fellow-heirs was as yet an unacceptable proposition to the Christians of Jerusalem, brought up as they had been under the discipline and restrictions of the Law of Moses, and further investigation and consideration was obviously indicated. So they determined to send a commissioner to Antioch to find out at first hand just what was going on and report the position. The mission was evidently projected in a spirit of love and helpfulness, for the messenger chosen seems to have been under no obligation to return at all quick1y ‑ in actual fact he was away more than a year.
The one chosen was Barnabas, Saul's old friend. Himself a Jew of the Dispersion and a native of Cyprus, he was probably better fitted than most of them to undertake a mission like this to a virtually Gentile city where his contacts would be mainly with Gentiles. Barnabas is described here as "a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith." It is evident from various references in the Book of Acts that he was held in high esteem by his brethren.
So Barnabas went to Antioch and joined himself to the Church there and laboured with them. Continued success crowned their efforts and again "much people was added unto the Lord". Barnabas began to feel the need for more help—perhaps the high degree of culture and education in the city, the intellectual level of many of the potential converts. so different from the simple peasantry of Galilee and Samaria, or the insular Jews of Jerusalem, pointed to the desirability of an apologist having greater educational attainments than Barnabas felt he himself possessed. At any rate, he bethought himself of his friend Saul, living in obscurity in Tarsus, and determined to bring him to Antioch to assist in the growing work. Without much doubt the thought was instilled into his mind by the Holy Spirit, for the time had now come when Saul must take up his destined vocation. The long time of training and preparation was ended; now the call to action was to be given. So Barnabas made his way the sixteen miles to the seaport of Seleucia and found a ship which would take him the hundred miles across the Mediterranean to Tarsus in Cilicia
The day had been much like every day for a long while past, Saul reflected as he sat, quietly reading the Holy Scriptures. His work for the day was done—his trade of tentmaker was standing him in good stead these days and although it was commonly only a meagre remunerative occupation he was able to provide for his modest needs and still leave time for further study and consideration of the Word of God. Some day, he firmly believed, all this study and meditation would prove to have been worth while and have fitted him for whatever work it was that God would ultimately direct him to do. The waiting time seemed long and unnecessarily protracted, but the One he served knew best and would reveal his will in due time. His thoughts strayed for a moment to that last night of his short visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. He was in the Temple praying, and saw in a vision the Lord Jesus commanding him to make haste and get out of Jerusalem and giving him that staggering promise "Depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. He departed and come to Tarsus, and for two whole years now had watched and prayed and waited watching the n had come. Sometimes he had gone down to the sea not far from the city and looked across the sparkling Mediterranean He had watched the merchant ships corning in and going out, bound for Alexandria and Rome and the cities of Greece, fascinating lands of the Roman Empire with peoples of many races, none of whom had heard the only Name by which men may be saved. Sometimes he had climbed the slopes of Mount Taurus behind the town and looked inland across the mountains and valleys of Asia and wondered if that was the way he was going to be called to go. But no word had come and he was still reading the Book which told of God the Author of salvation and still harbouring within his breast the burning message of the One who came to earth to bring the word of salvation. He felt like Jeremiah of old "his word was as a burning fire shut up within my hones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay." Saul stirred in his seat as a knock sounded on the door of the house. He heard voices, that of his housekeeper alternating with deep resonant tones which somehow sounded vaguely familiar. His own name was being mentioned. He looked up as the door of his room was flung open and his eyes took in, with astonishment changing to warm pleasure, the stalwart form of the man who had befriended him in Jerusalem those two years ago.
It is not likely that Saul hesitated before agreeing to accompany Barnabas back to Antioch. His alert mind would discern instantly that here was the call he had been awaiting; here was the commencement of his being sent 'far hence unto the Gentiles", there in a city through which Gentiles of all nations were constantly passing. There was probably a hurried leave-taking of relatives and friends, a quick packing of a few essential belongings, and then Saul was onboard ship and on the high seas again, not as a fugitive this time but a man setting out on the greatest adventure of his life. When the ship reached the Antioch port of Seleucia and the gangplank was thrown across it was almost certainly Saul who was first ashore.
So, at last, Saul was fully accepted into the community of the believers. The greater part of his newly found brethren knew nothing of the old persecuting Pharisee. The few at Antioch who had originated from Jerusalem and remembered the martyrdom of Stephen and the havoc their new leader had then made in the Church were by now fully reconciled to the evident fact that this man was a chosen vessel unto God to preach His Word among the Gentiles. They were thankful for his fellowship and his help. For an entire year the work proceeded without interruption and with continuing success and steady increase in the number of the believers. It is remarkable that no indication of hostility on the part of the orthodox Jews of 5
Antioch is given. Unlike almost every other place in which the Apostle afterward laboured, Antioch seems to have tolerated and accepted him. The fact that this city was the political capital and seat of Roman government and that any kind of public disorder would have been more sternly and ruthlessly repressed than elsewhere probably had something to do with it. So might the greater pre-occupation of Jews at Antioch with commercial activities and money-making. Religion, other than the purely formal kind, most likely played only a secondary part in their lives.
It was at this time and in this city that the name "Christian" was coined and first used. It was not originated by the believers themselves; the form of the word is Latin and not Greek or Hebrew and it is more likely that the term arose among the general population of the city in reference to the constant dwelling of the believers upon the name of Christ. The name at that time had not attained the status of a proper name; the word means "the Anointed" and conveyed that meaning to Jewish Christians. The only proper name by which the Lord was known was the one given to Him at His birth, Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, a name which was common in Israel anyway. The believers themselves still referred to their faith as "the Way" and if they called themselves anything at all it was "brethren of the Way". The usual term applied to them by others was "Nazarenes" but from now on the word "Christian" began to come more and more into common use. Perhaps the greatest memorial to Saul's twelve months' labour in this Gentile city is the fact that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch".
It was at some time during this period that a further commission came to Antioch from Jerusalem and Saul met some of the brethren whose doubts upon the occasion of his last visit to the Holy City had precluded their acceptance of him. Now there were no doubts; they knew him to be one of themselves and fellowshipped with him accordingly. These men possessed the prophetic gift and during their stay one of them, Agabus, his perception of the future sharpened by his spiritual attunement with the Holy Spirit, declared that a wide-spread and serious famine was imminent and would affect all the Roman world. Such happenings were not infrequent; it only needed a year of bad weather over Egypt and the Middle East to throw the whole grain-producing economy of the Roman Empire out of gear and something like near-starvation for much of the town populations was the result. Luke records the realization of Agabus' prophecy in the same verse by the terse comment "which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar" (Acts 2.28). Claudius reigned AD 41-54 and his reign saw several famines, a notable one affecting Judea and Syria being recorded by Josephus as occurring in about A.D 45. The visit of Agabus to Antioch must have occurred in A.D. 41, and the immediate response of the church was to build up a relief fund for the benefit of their poorer brethren in Jerusalem.
Barnabas and Saul were appointed to carry the money to Jerusalem evidently with the idea that the recipients would have time to buy in stocks of food before the famine came upon them.
So Saul returned to Jerusalem the second time. There was no opposition and no incident; evidently the two messengers did not engage in any kind of preaching or evangelism. They may not even have met the church. Their mission was to the elders, and having delivered the gift and the greetings of the church which sent the gift, they probably were eager to get back to their own sphere of labour and did not delay to depart.
They took back with them a companion, John Mark, nephew of Barnabas and son of his sister Mary, in whose house at Jerusalem, tradition has it, the Last Supper was held. Mark would be about twenty-four years of age at this time, probably already collecting the material for the Gospel which bears his name. It would be many years before the first of the four Gospels was to be written. Why he decided to go with them is not stated. In all probability he also wanted to have a part in taking the Gospel to the far places of the earth and the opportunity of joining up with Saul and his uncle, and labouring with them in a virile and active community like Antioch, was too good to miss. So, three earnest and zealous men travelled back the four hundred miles to the northern city to take up their places in the expanding work of the first church to send out missionaries to the Gentiles.