In the first century, the city of Antioch was a thriving commercial hub located in the north-western part of Syria, on important trade routes between East and West, such as the famous Silk Road. It prospered so well that it eventually became the third largest city in the world with a population of more than half a million. From the time it was founded around 300 BC, Antioch became home to people of many different races. It was a melting pot of different cultures, with Greek, Roman, Syrian and Jewish influences. The Gospel came to Antioch through believers from other lands. As souls were saved, a church. was planted there, which went on to have a pivotal role in the work of spreading the Gospel all over the Roman Empire.
Singapore, like Antioch, has become an important commercial hub in this region with a cosmopolitan population. Like the Church at Antioch, the Church in Singapore is largely the result of the Gospel of Christ brought in by believers from other lands. And just like the Christians of Antioch, people in Singapore now have the unique opportunity to make a powerful, far-reaching impact for Christ in the world, if God should work in and through them. The question is, what must they do to fulfil the role as the Antioch of Asia? Let us find out as we study how the Church of Antioch began and grew from Acts 11:19-30.
1. Its Inception through the Salvation of Souls (vv.19-21)
Here we learn that a new church begins when the people in a certain place respond to the Gospel by turning to Christ for salvation. The people of Antioch really needed the Gospel. In ancient times Antioch was notorious for its vice and corruption. It was a sinful city with a huge garden dedicated to Daphne, the lover of the Greek god Apollo who was worshipped there. This garden was the venue of a perpetual festival filled with licentious rituals. This gave Antioch a terrible reputation that was known even as far as Rome nearly 3,000 km away. The first century Roman poet, Juvenal, lamented that Rome had become so decadent because of all the filth that poured into it from Antioch. The only hope of deliverance from sin that Antioch had was the Gospel.
Besides this, the city’s cosmopolitan character often resulted in racial tensions. It had 18 different ethnic groups including Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Arabs and Romans and they were constantly at odds with one other. Social integration was very difficult and violent riots were common. The only thing that could bring them together was the Gospel. So how did the Gospel come to Antioch? It was brought there by believers who migrated from Jerusalem because of persecution. According to Verse 19, “they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the Word…”
I want you to note that the ones mentioned here were not apostles or missionaries or evangelists. Earlier on in our study of the Book of Acts we had seen the apostles witnessing for Christ. You may remember how the apostle Peter had preached the gospel first at Jerusalem at Pentecost, and also at Caesarea in the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. You may also remember how Philip the Evangelist had preached the gospel to an Ethiopian and also to the people of Samaria.
But here in Acts Chapter 11 we see something different. Here we see rank and file believers doing all the witnessing. These were ordinary Christians whose names are not even mentioned here. But as they fled away from persecution in Jerusalem and made new homes for their families in Phenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, they did not forget to witness for Christ. They bothered to communicate the Gospel to their new neighbours and new friends, and with the people they met in their day to day life.
Here then is the lesson we can learn from them: Witnessing is the responsibility of every believer, not just of those who are in fulltime ministry. Too many Christians today excuse themselves from witnessing and make no effort at all to win anyone to Christ, even those who are closest to them. They leave all the work of soul-winning to pastors, evangelists and missionaries. Please listen to this: There are many places that are inaccessible to us but they are easily accessible to you. Most of you spend 6-8 hours a day in your place of work or study, five days a week. You have the most contact with the people there, as well as the best opportunities to reach out to them with the Gospel. If you believe that nothing happens by chance and that God has placed you there for a purpose, will you then trust Him to help you to lead some souls to Christ?
We see Christians doing that in our text when they migrated to Antioch. Now, because these Christians were Jews, it was quite natural for them to come into contact with their own people, the Jews in Antioch. And as they interacted with them, they shared the Gospel with them. And so, many Jews believed in Christ and were saved.
But in verse 20 we see a change: “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.” They no longer confined their witnessing only to the Jews. You may remember that just before this account (in chapter 10), God had given the apostle Peter a strange vision about clean and unclean animals to show him that the door of witness to the Gentiles was opened. This was followed by the salvation of Cornelius and his Gentile family. Well, the news of this new development probably reached the ears of all believers, including those who were at Antioch. Some of them were from Greek-speaking areas like Cyprus and Cyrene. Hence they could speak Greek very fluently.
Because of the cosmopolitan character of Antioch, these believers soon came into contact with many Greek-speaking people of other ethnic groups (that’s the meaning of the term ‘Grecians’ in this verse). And as they began to speak to them about Christ, the wonderful result was that many Gentiles were saved. So now there was a large group of new believers which comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. From all these, a new church was planted in Antioch – a multi-ethnic church with a very cosmopolitan character.
In our cosmopolitan society we come into contact with people from many different cultures and countries. Foreigners from many countries come to our country, states for work or study – in fact, foreigners make up nearly 30% of our population. Besides that, many of us travel overseas a lot for work or business or for student exchange programmes, and we can easily make contact with people of different nationalities. This provides ample opportunities to share the Gospel of Christ with them. Let us make good use of every opportunity God gives to us. Ask yourself, “Who can I speak to about Christ? Who can I bring the Gospel to in the place where God has placed me?”
Our responsibility is simply to sow the Gospel seed whenever opportunities arise, and leave the results entirely to God. That’s what the Christians who came to Antioch did, and the results were amazing. Let us look at v.21– “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” Who knows how the Lord may work if we will only take the initiative to share the Gospel of Christ with others? Who knows how excited we will be when we see the results? Verse 23 tells us that Barnabas was glad when he came to Antioch and saw the grace of God bringing many souls to salvation through the efforts of the Christians there.
And the Lord used their efforts not only to bring in a great harvest of souls in Antioch, but also to start a new church there. That’s how new churches are started – whenever the people in a certain place get to hear the Gospel through Christians who go there, and they respond to it by turning to Christ for salvation. Having learned some lessons from the Inception of the Church of Antioch let us go on to learn from…
2. Its Increase through the Sanctification of Believers (vv.22-26a)
Here we see that a young church increases in strength and maturity as its members are edified through the use of spiritual gifts. The members of the new church in Antioch were all very young in the faith. Many of them would begin to face trials and be tempted to leave Christ and return to their old sinful ways. Why is this so? Because the Devil would be very sore about the Gospel’s advance into his territory at Antioch. And he would surely try recoup his loses and destroy this new church.
Something must be done to prepare these new believers to face his attacks. They needed strength to remain true to the Lord Jesus. They needed instruction on overcoming sin in their lives and living victoriously for Christ. They also needed spiritual guidance to do His will. How would all these needs be met? The Lord provided the answer through the use of spiritual gifts by various people. There are many different spiritual gifts which God has given to build up His church, but three of them are highlighted in our passage.
Firstly, we see the gift of encouragement exercised by Barnabas. You may remember a massage that was preached just three weeks ago on ‘Barnabas the Encourager’. He encouraged others by giving, by forgiving and by serving together with others. Here in vv.22,23 Barnabas gives the new believers at Antioch the encouragement they needed – “…and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.”
This encouragement must have helped them to remain firm and steadfast in their faith. All of us also need such encouragement whenever we are weary and feel like quitting. Now God’s Word is definitely sufficient to provide all the encouragement we need. But at times we need someone who is skilled in using it to come alongside and strengthen us with his gift of encouragement – Someone who will point us back to Christ and exhort us cleave to Him with purpose of heart, Someone who can direct us to the precious promises God has made, Someone who can challenge us to press on to run the race by using the inspiring examples of faith that are found in the Scriptures. If you are that someone whom the Lord has given the gift of encouragement, you must use it well to strengthen the church. We need it! Ask the Lord to make you a Barnabas to those who are young in the faith or who have become weak and weary in their spiritual life.
Another spiritual gift that is highlighted in our passage is the gift of teaching. This gift was exercised by Barnabas and Saul, which was the Jewish name of Paul. This is described in vv.25,26 – “Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 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.” In order to grow, the new church at Antioch had to be taught the whole counsel of God. They needed to learn especially about the person and work of Christ, His teachings, His deity, birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, return and reign. Barnabas was able to do this, but he knew someone who was much better than him in teaching the Word: Paul!
What made Barnabas think of getting Paul to teach? I think it had something to do with Paul’s background. In his youth Paul had received the best theological training from a Jewish rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3 cf. 5:34). He was one of the greatest teachers in the annals of Judaism and it is believed that Paul was his ‘star’ student. But before he was saved, all this knowledge had only made Paul a proud Pharisee who persecuted Christians. It was only after Christ stopped him in his tracks on the road to Damascus that his eyes were opened to understand the Scriptures. Now Paul could see how the Old Testament promises and prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus. He became very skilful in using the Scriptures to prove that Jesus is truly the Messiah of Israel. What Paul wrote in his epistles show us how well he could teach God’s Word.
And so when Paul was brought to Antioch by Barnabas, the new church was fully nourished with the Word through his teaching. And as they were fed for one whole year, they grew into full Christian maturity. All of us also need to be nourished with God’s Word in order to grow into mature believers. This is why the Lord provides pastors and teachers. According to Ephesians 4:12-13 they are given, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
The spiritual gift of teaching is therefore very needful for the growth and health of our church. And if you have this spiritual gift, please use it well. Our church needs it! But first make sure that you learn the Word well enough to teach it. Besides this, many of us have gone through years of learning in Sunday school. If you have been taught well with God’s Word, then perhaps the time has come for you to get involved in teaching others also, as we are told in 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” Who knows how the Lord may use your spiritual gift of teaching to bring a greater increase to our church?
The third spiritual gift which God used to build up the church at Antioch was the gift of prophecy. This is seen in vv.27,28– “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 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.” Here God used a prophet named Agabus to foretell the onset of a future disaster so that the church could prepare itself well for it. And this prophecy was fulfilled during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Claudius was the Roman Emperor from 41 to 54 AD. There are historical records which testify of a series of severe famines affecting various parts of the Roman empire during his reign. One that took place in 45-47 AD devasted Israel so severely that many Jews died of hunger. It was the prophecy given through Agabus that helped the Jewish Christians in Israel to survive this famine.
This spiritual gift of prophecy did not last long. It disappeared when the New Testament was completed. This is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 – “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”
The good news is that we now have ‘a more sure word of prophecy’ as mentioned in 2 Peter 1:19– “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts…” The Bible that you hold in your hands is this more sure word of prophecy. Thus the church today does not need the gift of prophecy anymore. It was needed only before the Bible was complete, and it helped the church of Antioch to accomplish the work of Christ on earth. They became His hands and feet through whom Christ ministered to the brethren living in Judea.
This shows how well the Church of Antioch had grown by now. And each spiritual gift contributed in some way to make this outcome possible. Through the gift of encouragement they cleaved to Christ. Through the gift of teaching they knew all about Christ. And through the gift of prophecy they were now showing the love of Christ. They became so fully identified with Christ, that the people of Antioch began to call them ‘Christians.’ This is seen at the end of v.26– “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
The term ‘Christian’ actually means ‘One who belongs to Christ.’ It was originally coined by unbelievers as term of ridicule. You may remember that Antioch had many ethnic groups constantly at odds with one another. Before they were saved, the believers would have been identified according to their ethnic group as Jews, Greeks, Syrians, Arabs or Romans. But things changed after they were saved and sanctified. They became a unified, multi-ethnic community that could not be called Jewish or Greek or any other name that was known in Antioch. So what should they be called? Well, the people probably noticed one thing: They always spoke about a certain person called ‘Christ’ and their lives were so filled with Christ that they wanted everyone to know Him and love Him. This led to people calling them ‘Christians’ in a rather uncomplimentary way. That has become the designation for all believers including ourselves today.
I think this ought to make us reflect deeply on what it means to be called a Christian. It is more than a convenient word we use to fill up one of the blanks in a form. It denotes the important role that Christ is given in our life. Can people around us sense how much Christ means to us through our words and actions? If not, how can we be called Christians? What impact are we making on them for Christ? This brings us now to lessons on the Church of Antioch that we can learn from…
3. Its Impact through the Service of its Members (vv.26b-30; 13:1-3)
Tertullian records what the pagans of his time were saying about Christians: “See how they love one another and are ready to lay down their lives for each other.” This love was clearly seen in the Church of Antioch. When they heard the prophecy about the coming famine, they immediately responded by sending help to the Christians of Judea. This is mentioned in v.29– “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea.”
Let us look carefully at each phrase in this verse. The words ‘every man’ tells us that they gave corporately. It was a combined effort, and not just the efforts of a few people. The impression given to us is that no one was indifferent to the need. Everyone, no matter what their situation may have been, seemed to have been involved in it.
The words ‘according to his ability’ tells us that they gave proportionately: Each man gave as much as he was able to give. Those who were richer gave a lot. Others, who were not rich, still gave some out of their concern. But other than the difference in amounts given, each was just as sacrificial as everyone else. And there seemed to be no one who used his own adverse circumstances as an excuse for not giving.
The words ‘determined to send relief’ tell us that each of them gave seriously. They were dead serious about meeting the need. Their giving was not a mere token offering. Sometimes we send a gift to someone to express our concern for his welfare. That isn’t wrong. There is a lot of good in that practice and there is a place for it. However, we should not let all our giving be token offerings. We should ask ourselves how serious we ought to be about meeting certain important needs.
These are the three things therefore which characterized the manner in which the Christians of Antioch gave for the sake of their brethren in Jerusalem. They gave corporately, proportionately and seriously. If we are to make an impact on the world, then that is the way we ought to give and serve.
The Christians at Antioch were willing to give not just their money but also their very best men to serve others. You will notice that in v.30 the ones they sent to bring the money to Judea were Barnabas and Saul. These were the ones who had taught the church for a whole year, and yet the church was willing to part with them to help others. Later on in chapter 13 we will see the Church of Antioch sending out these two men again, this time as missionaries to reach the lost with the Gospel of Christ.
The Church of Antioch went on to make a powerful impact for Christ. Within three centuries half of the city’s population professed to be Christians, among whom were many godly Christian men. Ignatius (AD 35-108) who pastored the church of Antioch for 40 years is reputed to have said, “It is right therefore, that we not just be called Christians, but that we actually be Christians.” For his boldness to be a genuine Christian he was executed and eaten by lions in the Colosseum at Rome.
One of the finest sons of Antioch was John Chrysostom (AD 349-407). He memorised the entire Bible and became a mighty Bible teacher and preacher, bringing many souls to salvation in Christ. The Church of Antioch also remained a strong bastion of Christianity for centuries. It was the venue for at least ten ecclesiastical councils, hosting church leaders from various parts of the Roman empire between 252 and 380 AD. It became a base for sending the first missionaries to Gentile nations, planting new churches all over Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece.
Thus we see that the Church at Antioch had come full circle – repeating the process of Salvation, followed by Sanctification, leading to Service! How about us? Let us be faithful in carrying out all three parts of this process – Salvation, Sanctification and Service, which is incorporated into our church vision and mission statement: “To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service to the glory of God.”
May the Lord make us ambitious for Christ and His kingdom – bringing the Gospel to people we meet everywhere we go. And who knows that new churches may one day be planted as a result of God’s working through us?
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