Let’s dig back into Acts this week with the first of two posts about the church at Antioch. We will connect the dots between different parts of Acts and see how this church paved the way for our modern definition of church.
When the apostles appointed seven deacons to serve in the Jerusalem church, one of them was from Antioch: Nicholas (Acts 6:5). Nicholas was the only deacon for whom Luke felt it necessary to name his city of origin and note his spiritual history. Nicholas was a convert to Judaism who became a Christ-follower. Why did Luke mention all this? I think it’s because, by the time Luke wrote his history of the early church, he knew both the city of Antioch and the Gentiles who inhabited it were significant. It’s a bit of foreshadowing.
At the time of Acts, the city of Antioch was already over 300 years old. It sat about 15 miles from the Mediterranean coast, on the Orontes River in Syria. (That area is now part of Turkey.) Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman empire (after Rome and Alexandria) and played a key defensive role for the Roman Empire (reference).
Did Nicholas travel the more than 300 miles (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on Acts 11:22) back to Antioch when the Jerusalem church scattered (Acts 8:1)? We don’t know. I hope Nicholas was there to see this church in his hometown be the first to do so many things!
1 – First multi-racial/non-homogenous church
After Stephen was martyred, persecution scattered the believers in Jerusalem, and some Christ-followers ended up in Antioch. A few of those scattered believers were originally from Cyprus and Cyrene. Once they got to Antioch, these guys shared the Good News with “Greeks” (lit. “Hellenists,” a.k.a. non-Jews) as well as Jewish people. Why? Probably something to do with their cultural backgrounds. Cyrene had a notable Jewish population in an otherwise Greek city (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on Acts 11:20).
Antioch was the first place
Jews and non-Jews regularly
What?!? Jewish believers sharing with Gentiles? People becoming Christians without converting to Judaism first? That hadn’t happened before except on a very small scale, e.g. Philip talking to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) and Peter sharing with Cornelius’ household (Acts 10).* God really blessed this effort, and many people accepted Jesus as their Savior (Acts 11:19-21). As far as we know, this is the first church where Jews and non-Jews worshiped Jesus together.
2 – First intentional leader cultivation
Whenever a new church sprung up without one of the original disciples over it, the Jerusalem leadership liked to go check it out. You’ll remember Peter and John went to Samaria when Philip’s ministry was so effective there (Acts 8:14-17). This time, they sent Barnabas to investigate what was happening in Antioch—a logical choice because he was Jewish but, like one of the church planters, was from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Maybe he and the church planter were already good friends. Barnabas had been part of the Christian community in Jerusalem since the early days, when the believers shared everything and “were one in mind and heart” (Acts 4:32).
When he arrived [in Antioch] and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. –Acts 11:23
Antioch was Paul’s
Barnabas’ presence in Antioch only increased their influence and number. It seems he loved what was happening there. Soon, he tracked down Saul and brought him back to Antioch. Barnabas and Saul had met when Saul first visited Jerusalem after his conversion (Acts 9:27). Barnabas vouched for him then and included him in Antioch’s thriving ministry now. For a whole year, the two of them worked together, preaching and teaching. This was where Saul learned how to lead…and probably un-learned how to be a Pharisee. It was his training ground (Acts 11:24-26).
3 – First place followers were called “Christians”
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. –Acts 11:26b
It means “belonging to Christ.” The believers may have created the label for themselves, or it may have originally been a derogatory term given by others. Either way, it stuck, didn’t it?
4 – First offering taken to help others
There was a Christian prophet named Agabus who lived in Jerusalem but, for some reason, made a trip to Antioch. (He shows up again in Acts 21.) Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he foretold a famine that would affect the entire Roman Empire. I get the impression this First Church of Antioch, being a port city and mostly Roman, was wealthier than the church in Jerusalem, which was in the depressed region of Judea. This relatively new group of believers decided they could help their less-fortunate Judean brothers and sisters. They collected an offering—“as each one was able” (Acts 11:29)—and sent it to Jerusalem via Barnabas and Saul.
The Jerusalem church had collected offerings and accepted large gifts to help those within their ranks, but this is the first instance I can find where a group of believers collected money and sent it somewhere else. Barnabas and Saul delivered this monetary gift to Jerusalem, probably in ad44 (check a time line of Paul’s life for this date).
The sequel to the apostles
was–and is–the church.
It had been about forty years since Jesus ascended to Heaven. The disciples had gotten old. Jerusalem had lost much of its influence in the world. Then, here comes…not a person, not a small band of disciples, but a church. This church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) moving forward–the first of its kind–and God’s chosen instrument for the expansion of His Glory. Paul would realize it later, saying,
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Ephesians 3:10-11
We’re not done with Antioch! This was just Acts 11. We’re only halfway through the book of Acts. Come back next time for more ways First Church of Antioch was, well, first!
4 ways the church at Antioch (Acts 11) was a trailblazer in its time and continues to be a trendsetter for the modern church. This is what “church” should be. My #churchidentity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
This week, we’re doing create-your-own-application. Can you see how our modern churches reflect what first happened at Antioch? What questions are you asking yourself now that you’ve read this post?
For me, I wonder if people outside my church would recognize me and other church members as “belonging to Christ.” Would they give us the “Christian” moniker if it didn’t already exist?
*Philip had a booming ministry in Samaria before the Ethiopian encounter. Luke never addresses the background(s) of the people who believed. Samaritans, in general, were categorized somewhere between Jew and Gentile. For more about Samaritans, see Context and Consequences.