Story 47 – The Church at Antioch
Based on Acts chapter 11 verses 19 – 30
After the death of Stephen, many believers were scattered out from Jerusalem during the persecution of the church. As well as Philip travelling to the area of Samaria, others continued their travels far outside the land of Israel. Some went south to Egypt and beyond, even ending up, to the west of Egypt in Cyrene, North Africa. Others headed north of Israel into the area beyond Joppa and included the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Still others travelled to the island of Cyprus, while some ended up in the city of Antioch in Syria, which at that time was probably the third most important city in the Roman empire behind Alexandria in Egypt and of course Rome itself.
As they travelled, these believers shared the good news about Jesus, but only with other Jews. However, some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, arrived in Antioch and started to share the good news about Jesus and all He had done with Greeks as well as Jews. These men were Jews who probably hadn’t lived in Israel but, instead, they’d lived among Greeks all their lives and understood the culture and mindset of the Greek speaking people. So, instead of speaking about Jesus as the ‘Messiah’, which wouldn’t have meant a great deal to the Greeks, they talked about the LORD Jesus – sharing about his origins, His life, His death and resurrection.
At that time, it would have been unlikely that they would have heard about what the Lord had done for Cornelius and his household through Peter but, somehow, the Holy Spirit was still prompting these men to share what they knew widely. And, the Lord blessed their message to these Greeks, causing a great number of them to firstly believe the message they were given about the Lord Jesus, and then to turn away from their old lifestyles and start living in a way that would please Jesus. In other words, they became true believers and members of the church.
Of course, you can’t keep these kinds of things silent for long because of people travelling around. And, as they travelled, they told others about what was taking place in Antioch. This in turn led to a report of what was happening in Antioch reaching the attention of the church in Jerusalem.
By this time, Peter had met with Cornelius and the church had begun to understand that Jesus had come not just to save the Jews but also everyone else who would believe in Him and follow Him. Therefore, instead of reacting with a heavy hand, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem chose to send someone to Antioch who would both understand what was taking place and be a help and encouragement to the church. So, they chose to send Barnabas because he was from Cyprus and had been given the name Barnabas because of his God-given character of encouraging and building people up. His original name was Joseph, and he was a Jewish Levite from Cyprus but, because of his character, everyone knew him as Barnabas.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he saw the goodness and power of God at work and rejoiced! And, living up to his name once again, he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with fully devoted hearts. Barnabas was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith and, because of his visit and all the Lord was doing in Antioch, a vast number of people became followers of Jesus.
However, another feature of Barnabas was that he was a humble man and, seeing the vast work going on in Antioch and recognising the need of the church there for good teaching, he decided to head up north to Tarsus to go and look for Saul. Now, Saul had been sent to his home city of Tarsus some years before after people had tried to kill him in Jerusalem. It seemed that, during that time, Saul had suffered a lot, even being disowned by his family. This made finding Saul hard work, but Barnabas was tenacious in his search and, when he eventually found Saul, he brought him back to Antioch with him. Barnabas no doubt remembered that Saul had been told by the Lord that he was to be an apostle both to the Jews and also to the non-Jews, or ‘Gentiles’ as they’re known, and the church in Antioch was filled with both.
Then, for a whole year, Barnabas and Saul met with the believers in Antioch and taught a vast number of people all about the Lord. In fact, when the Gentiles began to understand what Messiah or Christ really meant, they started to talk often of Jesus the Christ (‘Christ’ being the Greek word for ‘Messiah’). This led to some people in the city starting to poke fun at the people in the church by calling them ‘Christians’. This was the first time that name was used and, while it took a while for ‘Christians’ to accept the name and use it for themselves, it was a name that stuck!
Now the church in Jerusalem still had good contact with the churches that were being set up around them and so, after a while, some prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, a prophet named Agabus, stood up and predicted, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, that there would be a severe famine across the whole Roman empire in the not too distant future. (In fact, a time of famine and difficulty actually came during the reign of Claudius).
Well, what do you do when you’re confronted with such news? How do you respond? To answer that, you need to see just how much the church in Antioch mirrored the church in Jerusalem and then understand why they responded in that way.
Both churches, the original church in Jerusalem and now the church in Antioch, had seen rapid growth, with many coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and added to their numbers.
Also, both churches had congregations that had devoted themselves to the teaching of their leaders, with the church in Jerusalem devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the church in Antioch being taught by Barnabas and Saul.
So, when it came to responding to need, is it any surprise that the church in Antioch responded in a similar way to the church in Jerusalem? In fact, Barnabas himself had been an example of how the church in Jerusalem had responded when faced with the destitution and poverty of some of its new members. He had sold a piece of land, probably in Cyprus and, when he’d got the money for that sale, he’d brought it to the feet of the apostles and left it with them to use as they felt appropriate to meet the need. And he hadn’t been the only one, many others had given sacrificially to help meet those needs. So, here was the church in Antioch, probably also with lots of poor members itself, faced with the news of impending famine and hardship for their fellow ‘Christians’ in Judea
How did they respond? Well, each one of them gave as they were able. Some richer people gave more and poorer people gave less, but all of them had the privilege of being involved in giving. (PAUSE)
Once the collection had been made, it was given to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders and leaders of the church in Jerusalem to use as they saw fit to meet the needs of the people.
So, one church very much mirrored the other as: the Lord added to their numbers; they devoted themselves to sound teaching; and they enjoyed the privilege of being involved in giving to meet the needs of others.
God was at work in His churches and, in due time, the church in Antioch was to prove very important for the continuing spread of the Good News about Jesus around the world.