Antioch of Syria

(Acts 11:19-30)

Antioch in Syria (modern Antakya) was the third greatest city in the Roman Empire and its influence was felt far and wide. Only Alexandria and Rome were greater. In the United States, the three largest cities are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Antioch, then, was like Chicago. Just as Chicago has a great impact on our country, so Antioch had on the Roman Empire. It was situated on the Orontes River (modern Asi River) about 15 miles inland. The river was navigable after the Romans diverted it around some rapids (it is not navigable today except to small boats). Antioch was prosperous because it was situated at a crossroads and had a port on the Orontes with access to the Mediterranean. It was the capital city of the Roman province of Syria,and it was a pearl city of the Empire, with statuesque buildings and marvelous sculptures; it was a city of beauty. Hence it was called the “Queen of the East.” As with any prosperous, cosmopolitan city, Antioch was known for hedonism, sexual immorality, and pleasure seeking. (Sound familiar? How about our own USA?). Yet, for all its vices, it was also situated in a location that was easily accessible from anywhere in the empire. The roads were good and some are extant to this very day. It was an ideal location for the spread of Christianity throughout the empire.

Act 11:19  Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.

The scattering is revealed in Acts 8:1-4:

Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went.

Saul meant to stop the worship of Christ, which he believed to be a new heresy, dead in its tracks. He took a group of men with him and warrants that allowed him to arrest any and all adherents to this blasphemous worship and to jail them. As we can see from the case of the stoning of the deacon Stephen, killing Christians was not out of the question. Saul meant harm, but God allowed it for good. It appeared to Saul and others of his mindset that they had broken up the church and sent it packing. Not so. It was God’s will all along so that the Gospel would be spread throughout the empire.

Those scattered abroad preached to the Jews only as many in the early church did. The study of Cornelius and Peter affirms that the early Jewish Christians did not understand that the Gentiles were included in the Gospel. That is probably the main reason they only preached to Jews. Another may be familiarity. They were familiar with Jewish ways and naturally gravitated toward Jews for that reason. Let us not forget prejudice. In the case of Cornelius and Peter, Peter at first said that he would never eat anything unclean or associate with those considered unclean. National prejudice among the Jews was prevalent and even those who became Christians still had some of their prejudices intact. No doubt there was some prejudice against Gentiles involved in this as well.

Phenice, or Phoencia, was basically the land of Canaan from the southern tip of the Sinai to the border of Turkey. It also included Cyprus. Antioch is at the very north end of Phonecia. In New Testament times, Phenice was principally within the borders of present day Lebanon. The persecution sent Christian Jews to Lebanon, Syria, specifically to the city of Antioch at the northern end of Syria, and to the Island of Cyprus. However, it is apparent that Luke was simply trying to define a geographic area and, with the exception of Antioch, not specific towns. That area was to the north of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, and as far out as Cyprus. Generally, the persecution of Christians in Judea sent them northward. Many ended up in the major city of Syrian Antioch, and that is the subject of this Lukan discourse.

Act 11:20  And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.

Some of the believers in the dispersion were not from Judea, but were Grecians from Cyprus and Cyrene, Libya, who were saved in Judea and present there when the persecution broke out. They told the Gospel to the Greeks at Antioch. Apparently they went to the Greeks because they were of the same Greek culture as those in Antioch. Hence they preached to the Gentiles as well, for it is apparent that these Greeks were not Hellenist Jews but Gentiles. This is according to several scholars and commentators. To sum up, The Jewish Christians from Judea preached to their own kind, the Jews who were in those northern precincts, while the Grecian Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene, preached the Gospel to the Gentile Greeks. This was the first time that the Gospel was preached directly to Gentiles. Cornelius, who was a believer in Judaism, sought Peter; the Ethiopian eunuch was a proselytized Jew, and the Samaritans were related to the Jews, so none of these folks were actually Gentiles. Antioch is the first city in which the Gospel was preached directly to Gentiles.

Act 11:21  And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

The Gospel was not only preached, but accepted even in such a pagan and sinful society as that in Antioch. The scripture tells us that the hand of the Lord was with them. It was God’s power and might that allowed the church to prosper and grow in such a city. The men that preached there were up against odds that would have prevented their success if not for the hand of God. A great revival took place there because it was God’s will, and because the Christians in Antioch were willing to allow God to work through them to produce great results. This shows us that no place is an impossible mission field, even in the deepest recesses of anti-Christian nations. Look at the great churches in New York City and what they have accomplished. Ditto for Los Angeles, Chicago, and many other areas that seem opposed to God.

Act 11:22  Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch,

Remember that the first Christian church in existence was at Jerusalem. It started at Pentecost, when all the Apostles were in Jerusalem together. The Apostles were the first members of that church. The first converts were in Jerusalem. The church converted many to Christianity and it was basically considered the leading church in the world at the time. It seems that momentous decisions were all made with the advice and counsel of the church at Jerusalem. The church at Jerusalem apparently continued in existence through the sixth century AD. After 70, the church consisted only of Gentiles because the laws of Rome did not allow any Jews to go into Jerusalem.

When the church at Jerusalem got word of the growth of the church at Antioch, they decided to send an emissary to find out what was actually happening. Barnabas was also from Cyprus and would work well with the Cypriots and Cyrenians already there. Barnabas, as we know from Acts 4:36-37, was a Levite, who was very possibly saved that day that Peter preached at Pentecost. He was also known as a son of consolation, which is what his name meant. He was an encourager, a comforter, and he was apparently a very kind, wise, and loving man. His birth name was Joses “sustained of Jehovah,” but the Apostles called him the son of consolation. He earned that name by his actions. He was an apt individual to act as an emissary. We also know that God sent Barnabas, for the scripture also calls him an apostle, that is, one sent by God.

Act 11:23-24  who, having come, and having seen the grace of God, was glad, and was exhorting all with purpose of heart to cleave to the Lord, (24) because he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit, and of faith, and a great multitude was added to the Lord.

When Barnabas actually saw what was going on at Antioch—how the church was growing and the Gospel was preached, he understood that God was blessing the ministry to the Gentiles and that made him very happy. Being an encourager, he urged the church to stay true to the Lord.

Have you ever met someone who seemed to love everyone? Someone who is kind and considerate and when he or she speaks you are immediately pleased, cheered, and edified? It is easy to love a person like that. That is the kind of person Barnabas was. He always put others first. He was the epitome of the acronym J.O.Y. That is, Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. He was the opposite of today’s me first, self-esteem foolishness. We know also that Barnabas would stand his ground when he thought he was right, so he was no Milquetoast individual. When Paul did not want to take Mark with them on a missionary journey, he and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement and they parted company.

Barnabas’ presence in the church at Antioch was a stimulus for more growth. Barnabas was an open and welcoming individual. He put people at their ease and mentored them. He took a genuine individual interest in each person. He was a loving, encouraging person that saw the good in everyone. Hence many more were saved because of his influence.

Act 11:25-26  Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:  (26)  And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

The believers at Jerusalem had sent Saul to his home in Tarsus when his preaching had caused threats upon his life. Tarsus is about 85 miles to the northwest of Antioch as the crow flies across but lies across the Gulf of Armenia. By land, going around the gulf, it is about 120 miles. Traveling on foot would take about four days one way. If Barnabas had a horse or donkey or a cart the time would be lessened a few hours. Barnabas was probably gone nearly a fortnight.

Since the ministry at Antioch was so successful, perhaps Barnabas needed help. He knew that Saul was nearby at Tarsus, so he journeyed there at brought Saul back with him to Antioch. Saul had proven himself to be a powerful preacher and Barnabas was fully aware of his abilities. With Saul’s help, Barnabas and the other preachers at Antioch reached large crowds. The city of Antioch would have noticed that. But, as a cosmopolitan city that was tolerant of the multitude of Hellenistic Jews that lived there would have considered Christianity a sect of the Jews and would have accepted them. We do not know of any persecution of Christians at this particular time, though persecution eventually arose there. The church there grew exponentially.

The word, Christian, comes from the word Christ, which is a transliteration of the Greek word Χριστος, kristos, meaning an anointed one. To anoint with oil was a practice that predated Jesus for centuries. Kings were anointed with oil. The sick were anointed with oil. The dead were anointed with oil. To anoint someone became a metaphor for appointing them to an office, such as priest, prophet, or king.  So the phrase Jesus Christ, Ιησους Χριστος, Iesous Kristos, means Yehovah’s Anointed Savoir. Jesus, which is properly Yeshua or Yehoshua (Joshua) in Hebrew, means Yehovah’s Savior and kristos in Greek is the same as Moshiach (Messiah) in Hebrew, which means anointed. The early Christians did not call themselves Christians—they usually referred to themselves as disciples or saints. They did not consider themselves a separate “religion,” but Jewish believers in the Messiah. The title was given to them by outsiders, perhaps mockingly. The people at Antioch probably used the term to distinguish them from other groups of Jews. The Roman authorities later used the name to show them as political followers of Christ, Whom they thought of as political leader.

Eventually the appellation became one of derision and scorn. The word became associated with heinous crimes and vices. This explains how normal people would allow such terrible persecution of Christians. The average Joe thought they deserved being torn apart by lions because he thought they were atrocious criminals. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first recorded use of the term by actual Christians describing themselves was in a letter written to the Magnesians by Ignatius, the Bishop of the church at Antioch dated around the turn of the First Century AD. To the public, the term Christian was a diminutive and a cause for persecution until the public grew tired of the killing of innocent Christians in the reign of Diocletian in the late Third Century.

Christians have been in and out of vogue throughout the centuries. Christianity was highly respected in the early era of the United States, but “Christian” has now once again become a term of derision. People call Christians evil. We are accused of being hateful killers on the level of Islamic terrorists. Many people claim Christians are just as hateful and murderous as Muslims. They say the Christian terrorists are as bad as Muslim terrorists. There have been a few instances of terrorism against abortion clinics, by a few supposed Christians, but they are very few when compared to Islamic terrorism. These Christian “militants” do not have the blessing of any church, nor are they state sponsored like the terrorism of Islam is1. Yet Christians are considered by many Americans to be of the same timbre as Muslim terrorists. Just this week (June 13 -17, 2011) Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) equated “Christian militants” with Islamic terrorists2. I have never even seen a Christian militant, but I have seen plenty of Muslim terrorists. Christians are on the verge of persecution once again in history; this time in the United States which was once known as a Christian nation (Supreme Court, Holy Trinity v. The United States, February, 1892).
Act 11:27-28  And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.  (28)  And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

The historians Eusebius and Orosius state that a famine occurred during the reign of Claudius. Orosius says in the tenth year of his reign; Eusebius says in the ninth. Josephus also tells of a great famine during the reign of Claudius, probably in the fifth through seventh years of his rule. Apparently, during the reign of Claudius, there were rolling food shortages and at least four famines in the Empire. Extra-biblical history agrees with the Bible once again.

Agabus in mentioned only twice in the Bible—here and in Acts 21:10 where he prophesied that Paul would be bound at Jerusalem by the Jews and be handed over to the Gentiles, which would, of course, be the Romans. Apparently Agabus was a recognized prophet. The Bible tells us how to know a real prophet. We know a real prophet because all of his prophecies will come to pass. Certainly the Jews would not have accepted him as a true prophet if just one of his utterances did not come to pass. Therefore his prophecies must have always been correct in order for the Jews to consider him a prophet. Tradition has it that he was one of the seventy (Nestle-Aland text, based only on four manuscripts, says 72; the remaining texts–nearly 5000–say 70; my opinion is that 72 is spurious) disciples Jesus sent out in Luke 10:1. Tradition also says he was one of the martyrs that suffered at Antioch. We know that the two prophecies he uttered in Acts came true.

Act 11:29-30  Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:  (30)  Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

It is evident that the Christians or disciples from the church at Antioch trusted Agabus. We are not told what type of relief was sent, but that everyone gave something according to his ability. As large as the church was at Antioch, the relief would have been considerable. We are not told of its composition, so it could have been money, or goods, or both. Money would have been subject to loss by robbery on the road trip and goods would have required a means of transportation such as a donkey and cart. Whatever it was composed of it was delivered safely, through the providence of God, to the elders who were most likely those at Jerusalem.

Here we have another precedent. The first being the presentation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, and this action setting a precedent to give to those in need. The precedent carries through to today.  For example, when there is a tragedy or a catastrophe in the USA, many churches send money, goods, and help in the form of workers to those places. The recent devastating Tornadoes are an example of that. Our own church sent aid to these areas. The Southern Baptist Convention as well as state conventions have teams and kits assembled to help those in need during disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes. Other denominations and associations of churches do the very same things. Nevertheless, I am more familiar with those associated with Southern Baptists and that is why I mention them. These organizations provide meals in devastated areas free of charge and are usually among the first on the scene. When Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida in 1992, I was down there the very day after it struck because I had relatives in Cutler Ridge. When I arrived, there were the Southern Baptists with a tent set up already providing meals. This is not to say that there were no others there, but the Southern Baptists were close to our location, so I of course noticed them. Many churches, and not just Southern Baptists, are involved in similar activities. It is a universal Christian response to those in need.

The church at Syrian Antioch had a number of firsts. It was the first area where Gentiles were evangelized, it was the first place that followers of Christ were called Christians, and it was the first recorded church to render aid to other churches. It was also the first recorded time that Paul preached to the Gentiles for in Damascus and Jerusalem, he had preached only to Jews and we are not aware of his actions while he was in Tarsus.


  1. I am discussing “Christian Militants” in the USA. There have been other supposed “Christian” terrorists such as those in Northern Ireland, and in Serbia, however, those have been political organizations and Christian in name only; the same can be said of the Crusades. Yes the Crusades were a religious war, but “religious” does not always mean Christian. They were following the Pope of Rome, who was a major political power at the time. That was a political attempt to recover lands conquered by the Seljuk Turks, specifically what was considered by the Pope to be holy lands. One cannot accurately equate Muslim terrorism, which is almost universal in Islamic countries, with Christian “terrorists,” whose numbers pale in comparison to Muslim terrorism, though many attempt to do so.
  2. Ibid.
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