Antioch in Syria, about 200 miles north of Jerusalem, must not be confused with Antioch in Pisidia, Acts 13. 14. The development of the church in Syrian Antioch is traced through several stages, the whole period under observation being no more than about ten years. In that short time, from a humble beginning, it became the spring-board of the great missionary enterprise to which the greater part of the book is henceforth devoted, eventually eclipsing the mother church at Jerusalem. It will be instructive to trace the steps which led to this church rapidly reaching a dominant position in the unfolding story of those early days.
In considering the phenomenal growth of the church at Jerusalem due weight had to be given to the effect produced by miracles; no reference, however, is made to the miraculous here, although some would see a suggestion of it in the expression ‘the hand of the Lord’, 11. 21; cf. 4. 30; 13. 11. Of course, the omission of any reference to the miraculous in no way proves that miracles did not occur. But miracles or no -we simply note that the inspired historian makes no mention of them and we feel justified in concluding that in his judgment, unlike the case of Jerusalem, they played no significant part in the results that he describes.
The work at Antioch commenced very simply. The martyrdom of Stephen must have struck the believers in Judaea as an unrelieved tragedy and we read that great lamentation was made over him. His ‘untimely’ death must have seemed an incalculable and inexplicable loss to the cause of Christ, but viewing the sequel in retrospect we are able to see that in the out-working of God’s inscrutable purposes it led to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and indirectly to the founding of the church at Antioch with all that this involved for the evangelization of the nations. The persecution which broke out after Stephen’s death scattered most of the believers, the persecuted fleeing first of all to the outer regions of Judaea and into Samaria, until the relentless pressure of the infuriated Pharisee, who followed them even unto strange cities, 26. 11, drove them further afield some travelling as far as Phenice, Cyprus and Antioch. Their zeal and joy were undamped by privations endured for Christ’s sake; wherever they went they ‘preached (i.e., spoke) the word’. Not as yet freed from the shackles of Judaism they confined their witness to fellow-Jews. The strength of ingrained prejudice which fettered the minds of Jewish believers may be judged from the reluctance of even a warm-hearted man like Peter to bow to the truth that God was no respecter of persons. We must not judge too harshly; rather we must try to understand these believers and take warning ourselves.
However, some of these fugitives were not Judaean Jews but Jews who had lived in Cyprus and Cyrene where their daily business would compel closer contact with Gentiles so that their prejudices were not so strong. When they came to this great cosmopolitan city, the third in the Empire and having a population of perhaps half a million, they over-stepped racial barriers and extended their witness to Gentiles.
It is said that these believers ‘spoke’ – a word which indicates not ‘preaching’ (a good deal is said about preaching elsewhere in the book) but ‘conversation’, a form of witness which is sadly neglected now-a-days with the consequent loss of many valuable opportunities. To the Jews they spoke ‘the word’; to the Gentiles they ‘spoke, announcing the glad tidings – the Lord Jesus’ (lit.). Is there here a suggestion that when dealing with people versed in the Old Testament they wisely based their approach on ‘the word’, but when talking with Gentiles ignorant of Scripture they relied upon the Holy Spirit to bless their personal witness to the Lord Jesus? (One of the multitude of lessons taught by this fascinating book can be learned by studying the different lines of approach used by the apostles according to their audiences.) When we remember the reaction at Jerusalem to Peter’s unprecedented action in going in to ‘men uncircumcised’ (i.e., Gentiles) 11. 1-4, and his own vacillation later in this very Antioch, Gal. 2. 11-12, we can better appreciate how revolutionary was this evangelization of Gentiles. It meant the decisive rejection of Jewish exclusivism.
Whatever their misgivings may have been as to possible reactions in Jerusalem, the hand of the Lord was with these pioneering spirits and their witness was so blessed that ‘a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord’. Not one of the names of these venturesome souls is recorded on earth but what an immense honour was conferred on them in being the virtual founders of a work which was to flourish into an influential church. How often have small beginnings led to great issues when God has been in them! Though no one knows who these founders were we may be sure that their record is on high.
Ecclesiastics would probably regard such pioneers as ‘unauthorized laymen’, but to the credit of the apostles at Jerusalem it must be said that there is no trace of resentment against the independent action of these men, even though as apostles they were invested with an authority never possessed by prelates. It says much for their tolerant and conciliatory spirit (already shown in their handling of the complaint of the Grecians in chapter 6) that the man they chose to visit Antioch was himself a Cypriot Jew and therefore a fellow-countryman of some of these ‘unorthodox’ believers, who would be able to understand them and so be more likely to take a sympathetic view of their action. Years before he had been surnamed Barnabas (son of consolation or exhortation) by the apostles and here we are told that he was a good or kindly man full of the Holy Ghost and faith. Later he was referred to by the apostles as ‘our beloved Barnabas’ 15. 25, and there given precedence over Paul. This is the man who had earlier discerned the reality of Saul’s conversion and introduced him to the apostles when the believers were still afraid and suspicious of the one-time fanatical persecutor.
Humanly speaking the sequel might have been very different if a zealous Judaist had been chosen to visit Antioch. Nevertheless, we learn from Galatians 2. 13 that even in the case of such an attractive character early prejudices which have been suppressed may sometimes only be lying dormant until re-awakened by the re-assertion of old influences.
On arriving (after an arduous journey of about 200 miles, probably on foot) this man did not proceed to cross-question the converts to test their orthodoxy. Richly endowed with the grace of God he was quick to discern the grace of God in others and he accepted this as far more reliable evidence of a work of God than the ability to answer doctrinal questions correctly. And because he was a good man, he was glad to see it, although it was a work in which up to that moment he had had no part. But although he was satisfied that here was a real work of God he did not take the comfortable attitude that he could return home without further concern because ‘the Lord would look after His own’. He had no illusions as to the spiritual perils which would beset them and the trials which would come in the wake of loyalty to Christ. Instead of being content that they had ‘turned’ to the Lord, he exhorted them all that with purpose of heart they should ‘cleave’ to the Lord. Does it sometimes happen that converts are given the impression that having taken the first step of faith everything henceforth will go smoothly, instead of being urged to continue in ‘patience’ the path they have entered in ‘faith’, Heb. 6. 11-12? Note that on a later occasion Paul and Barnabas, on a return visit to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, confirmed the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to ‘continue’ in the faith, 14. 22. See also 15. 41; 16. 5; 18. 23. Is it for lack of this that many drop out today? Barnabas was further encouraged by seeing his ministry blessed to the conversion of many more, of whom it is said they were ‘added to the Lord’. Obviously they were added to the disciples but the prominence given to the Lord at Antioch (11. 20, 21, 23, 24; 13. 2; 15. 35) brought the assembly so markedly under the authority of Christ that to become one of the assembly meant subjection to the Lord’s will. How many problems could be solved if this were more generally so today!
In view of Barnabas’s happy experience of the saints at Antioch, we might have thought that the good man would now return home to Jerusalem with an easy mind perfectly satisfied that all would go well. Not at all! He considered that they would need prolonged and systematic instruction and this emphasis on ‘teaching’ seems to be the outstanding feature of the work at Antioch. Although (or rather, because) he was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and faith, he was not self-confident of his ability to undertake the full instruction of this young church. Many a lesser man would have felt quite capable of it, for after all, were they not ‘babes’ in Christ who would need only a few ‘simple talks’? True to his name, ‘Son of Exhortation’, he had exhorted them all to good purpose but he recognized his limitations. Valuable as the distinct gift of exhortation is and well worth cultivating, Rom. 12. 8, yet ultimately exhortation, to be effective, must be able to appeal to a basis of truth accepted and apprehended by the saints. This calls for the gift of a teacher. Barnabas knew nothing of that pitiable jealousy which would prefer to tackle a task ineffectively rather than give place to a man better equipped. On the contrary he actually embarked on another arduous journey, farther away than ever from Jerusalem, to find his old friend Saul and urge him to undertake this honourable work even though he must have realized that it would mean that he himself would be overshadowed. Perhaps ‘urge’ is hardly the word! He ‘brought him’ as if to say he would not take ‘No’ for an answer.
Paul was not the man to under-estimate another’s gift so, instead of suggesting that Barnabas now return to Jerusalem to report that all was well, he welcomed his co-operation. Together they devoted a whole year to the task and any who wonder what subjects could take a whole year to expound betray their poverty-stricken ideas of ‘all the counsel of God’, 20. 27. Born of God and so having a Spirit-imparted appetite for the truth of God, the interest of these Antiochenes did not flag. These two servants of Christ established warm contact with the believers (they assembled themselves with the church) and taught, not a small proportion of the assembly,but ‘much people’. Evidently the congregations did not become exhausted. Now-a-days it would be the teachers whose repertoire would be exhausted before the twelve months were up! Why do we suppose that young converts need to be entertained if we are going to hold them? If the pure milk of God’s Word is ministered in freshness in a Christ-loving and Christ-exalting way and with genuine relevance to Christian living, we shall not need to hold them. The Lord will do that.
Not only did the church receive a year’s instruction from these two great men but prophets came down from Jerusalem, and although mention is made only of the prediction of Agabus we may be confident that seeing they were genuine prophets they did a prophet’s work, namely the edification, exhortation and comfort of the saints, 1 Cor. 14. 3.
But intensive instruction did not produce ‘theorists’ whose heads were as full of theology as their hearts were devoid of grace. Apostolic teaching was aimed at producing maturity of Christian character in a practical way, Col. 1. 28; 1 Tim. 1.5. The strength and warmth of new-born love was evidenced by a ready and sacrificial response to the predicted needs of the believers in Jerusalem, a response all the more remarkable when seen against the background of the reciprocal antipathy which normally soured the relationship between Jew and Gentile. But these were now children of the same Father, 1 John 5. 1. It is not unlikely that the gracious example of Barnabas when he first came to Antioch accomplished a great deal in this direction. It is worth noting that the record not only says they ‘determined to send relief’ but adds, in the inimitable way of Scripture, ‘which also they did’. The first does not always lead to the second!
Not very long after the establishment of the assembly ‘there were in the church … certain prophets and teachers’. Five are named and we are left to suppose that there were others. Divine wisdom is seen in the different types of men raised up to meet the needs of a cosmopolitan congregation. There was Barnabas (here given precedence) a once wealthy landowner, Simeon, possibly a negro to judge from his surname (no colour bar here!), Lucius whom some believe to be ‘the beloved physician’, Manaen an aristocrat and Saul the ex-Pharisee and scholar, here mentioned last.
There can be no doubt that these men ministered to the assembly in freshness and power but Luke tells us ‘they ministered to the Lord’. Although it may be difficult to decide precisely what this phrase means, it certainly indicates at the very least that they were men of deep spirituality with an acute consciousness that they were serving, not so much the assembly, but the Lord to whom the assembly belonged. Having such a sense of the lordship of Christ it is not surprising that they took their responsibilities seriously and solemnly and as occasion required they were prepared to forego legitimate comforts the better to devote themselves to spiritual exercise before the Lord – they ‘fasted’. They united to seek the Lord in a special way and the upshot prompts the thought that perhaps they were obeying the Lord’s injunction to pray ‘the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest’, Matt. 9. 38. Their spiritual sensitivity was such that the Holy Spirit could convey His commands in a clear and decisive way - ‘Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them’. Until we know what it is to walk with the Lord as closely as these men did, it is idle for us to discuss how the Spirit was able to do this. How would we know? Better for us to ask whether much of present day powerlessness is due to the scarcity of consecrated leaders of this calibre.
The Spirit had already called Barnabas and Saul to a special work but it was unnecessary for them to acquaint their brethren with the fact – their brethren were made aware of it by the same Spirit. This would be delightful confirmation to these two servants of Christ and it is an instance of the principle of double-leading, given for the assurance of the Lord’s servants; cf. 9. 5 with 9. 17; 9. 30 with 22. 17; and 15. 2 with Gal. 2. 2. On the one hand it ill becomes us to act independently of our spiritual brethren – on the other hand we need personal conviction as to the Lord’s will for us.
Whilst there are here important principles bearing on the commendation of men to some special work at the call of God, we must be cautious about applying this case too closely to that of young and therefore comparatively inexperienced men entering the mission field. It may be possible to touch on this subject when later we come to consider the churches of Galatia from which the young man Timothy emerged. We leave it now after remarking that the ‘separation’ of Barnabas and Saul was not accompanied by jubilation and congratulation. Instead, they resorted to ‘prayer and fasting’ suggesting that considerable time was spent in prayer, since an hour’s meeting would give no occasion for fasting. It was the Holy Spirit who sent them forth – their brethren ‘let them go’, j.n.d. The phrase is the same as used of the chief priests who reluctantly ‘let go’ the apostles when they would have preferred to have kept them in prison, 4. 21. The church would dearly have loved to keep these invaluable and appreciated men but the Spirit had to be obeyed. Their eighteen months missionary journey ended with a report to the church of what God, not they, had done and they abode no little time with the disciples. This missionary-minded company would be eager for information about the work of God in the regions beyond – always a healthy sign. We cannot doubt, however, that Barnabas and Paul (as he was now called, 13. 9) would rejoin their fellow-elders in caring for the church.
It seems likely that it was during this period that the visit of Peter, alluded to in Galatians 2. 11, took place. We notice the incident now only because it led to a deputation going to Jerusalem, one of the outcomes of which was that when they returned they brought back with them two ‘chief men among the brethren’ Judas and Silas. They were prophets who had evidenced their devotion to Christ by hazarding their lives for His sake, 15. 26, and had been chosen by Jerusalem as worthy messengers to Antioch. By this time the church at Antioch had had the benefit of years of superb teaching and had grown to a multitude, 15. 30, but the new-comers could still exhort and confirm them to profit. That their ministry was valued seems clear from the fact that when the time came for them to return we get again the phrase ‘they were let go’. Perhaps it was the evident appetite for the Word that induced Silas to remain, continuing with Barnabas and Paul teaching and preaching. So far we have had eight teachers mentioned by name but at this point we are told that ‘many others’ were similarly engaged. This indicates a very large church in which there was ample scope for God-given gifts but this is quite different from ‘any man’ ministry with which we are sometimes plagued.
Judging from his obvious emphasis on the ministry of the Word, Luke evidently considered that it played a major part in making the church what it was. Surely such teaching had the effect contemplated in Ephesians 4. 12 R.V., namely that the saints themselves were in turn equipped for the work of service – a term which covers a wide range of possible activities in the cause of Christ. Nowadays, it is to our loss that we tend to take too restricted a view of ‘ministry’. Antioch now fades out of the narrative but we know from history that it continued for generations to exert a powerful spiritual influence until the growth of ecclesiasticism stifled its spiritual life and eventually the candlestick was removed. As generation succeeds generation the impulse of an original movement of the Spirit of God loses its impact on the lives of believers unless they are personally and individually exercised to have dealings with God for themselves. To say that now-a-days we have not the time is another way of saying that we are giving priority to other things. Did the Antiochenes have more hours to their day than we have?
The next article in this series will deal with the Churches in Galatia.