The Church At Antioch
Many saints have found a special charm in reading the account of the Church at Antioch, as given in Acts, chapters 11, 13, and 15. That Syrian city, where first the Gospel was proclaimed and where ministry was then brought to the young converts, is very distinctive. It was the first assembly where Jews and Gentiles are seen together in church fellowship. Moreover, Antioch became the new centre of Gospel activity and missionary enterprise. Not the least, it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.
There seems a link between the great persecution that arose against the church at Jerusalem after Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1) and the work that began in Antioch some years later (Acts 11:19, 20). The persecution was long and severe, a great test to the endurance of the saints, but was used of God to the furtherance of the Gospel. “Therefore, they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.” (Acts 8:4).
Although no record is given of their origin, churches sprang up in Palestine that shared the fury of the persecution, but when Saul of Tarsus was saved, it is written, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” (Acts 9:31).
In chapter eleven, mention is made again of the persecution that arose about the death of Stephen and was still raging. In those days, God was using the apostles mightily to publish the gospel of His grace. But it was banished wanderers, who travelled from Cyprus and Cyrene, that came to Antioch preaching the Lord Jesus. Without any evident introduction, these wayfaring evangelists began their ministry in the city, preaching the Word, concerning the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow, as testified by the prophets of old. This message was spoken by them in the energy of the Holy Ghost and the hand of the Lord was with them. This was the secret of their power and success. A precious attainment! The Gospel preacher still needs this holy unction in his ministry: without it he is helpless, and with it he becomes a soul-winner, as these men were.
In those days the multitude was so moved by the preaching that a great number believed and turned unto the Lord. A new atmosphere must have prevailed through the city, as genuine converts from among the Jews and also the Greeks mingled together, praising God and delighting in His salvation. A mighty change internally and externally was wrought in them, for they opened their hearts to the Word and abandoned their sinful habits and religious formalities. The Jews and Gentiles, formerly so far apart, are thus bound together, taught and enlightened by the Holy Spirit of God.
It is very cheering to note the practical sympathy of the church in Jerusalem when tidings of this amazing movement in distant Antioch reached their ears. They might have treated the new work with cold, critical suspicion and so missed the golden opportunity of being in fellowship with God in this glorious work.
The contribution from the Jerusalem assembly was the sending to Antioch of Barnabas, once known as Joses, a Levite of Cyprus, but surnamed by the apostles, Barnabas, “son of consolation.” His new name reflects his character and also the high esteem in which he was held by the apostles. His liberality in the balmy pentecostal days is also left on record.
In coming to Antioch at such a time, Barnabas was not disappointed, for his spiritual perception was keen. He was made glad by the labors of other brethren and, in that multitude of converts, he saw and recognized the grace of God.
His ministry among these young saints began with the wholesome exhortation, “that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” Young believers who have the privilege of such teaching are highly favored. His gospel preaching in Antioch also bore precious fruit, for “a large crowd of people was added unto the Lord” (verse 24, Darby). Moreover, it was said of Barnabas, “He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.”
However, in the midst of that great revival, Barnabas departed from Antioch, though he did not return to Jerusalem to report to the elders, or to receive authority from them to establish an assembly in that new place. Rather, his object was to visit Tarsus in search of Saul. This was the young man who, when newly converted, had filled the disciples in Jerusalem with great fear, for they had known him only as a persecutor of the saints. On that occasion, Barnabas took him, as we learn from Acts 9:27, and brought him unto the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. We can visualize these friends meeting again in Tarsus and considering the importance of going to Antioch together.
What joy was brought to the disciples as Barnabas returned, accompanied by this able minister of Christ. Their united ministry is summed up in a few words, “A whole year they assembled themselves with the church and taught much people.” This is the first mention of the church in Antioch. The fruit of their ministry is seen in a healthy church being established with abundance of gift and with a high tone of spirituality, as seen in chapter thirteen.
The believers were known as disciples, but a new name (that had no connection with Jewish titles nor Gentile forms) was given to them by divine order, “called Christians first at Antioch.” Peter endorsed that title, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.” (1 Peter 3:14). That name brought reproach and suffering to the saints, such as was witnessed by the cruel tortures in the arenas of Rome and in the gardens of Nero the Emperor in the years that followed.
It is interesting to note that this church at Antioch, founded by men saved at Jerusalem, and helped by Barnabas sent from Jerusalem, eventually, after having received through the Jewish believers spiritual benefits, reciprocated, and sent as relief from the great dearth that was predicted, carnal things to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.