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The Spreading Flame - Series 3: Episode 4

The church in Antioch

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 11:19-30

As the Jewish believers travelled further, following the persecution, they found Jews to spread the gospel but they also began to speak to non-Jews. The church in Antioch spontaneously grew and the need for leadership was noted by the Jerusalem church. They sent Barnabas and he sent for Paul to join him.

As the Jewish believers travelled further, following the persecution, they found Jews to spread the gospel but they also began to speak to non-Jews. The church in Antioch spontaneously grew and the need for leadership was noted by the Jerusalem church. They sent Barnabas and he sent for Paul to join him.


It’s great to have you join us for this episode as we continue in Series 3. We’re now talking about the Gospel going to the non-Jewish people, the Gentiles. That’s the theme of Series 3.

Background and Introduction

If you’ve listened to the earlier episodes, you’ll see that in the last two episodes there was a key moment, when something changed in the history of the Church, because a profound miracle happened to an individual person, a man called Cornelius, who was a Roman soldier living in Judea in the Roman capital city of Caesarea; he was miraculously converted. You’ll remember the incredible story of how Peter was drawn to meet Cornelius by miraculous circumstances, a combination of dreams and angelic visitations and messengers which brought these two people together. Something happens in that moment which provides the key background to what we’re going to talk about today. When Peter was preaching the Gospel to a group of non-Jews, an entirely non-Jewish audience, in the home of Cornelius in the Roman capital city of Judea, Caesarea, before he had even finished speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on them. It was a moment of affirmation that these people were going to be reached by the Gospel; this was not a Jewish Gospel only. Peter saw with his eyes, that amazing affirmation of God going far and wide to many different people. That was one household, one family, one group of people, in one place. What we’re going to talk about today is the church in a very big city called Antioch in Syria. Something dramatic happens to take the story much beyond a household in Caesarea, a Roman soldier and his family.

We’re going to read a little about this and the other thing to remember is the Church started in Jerusalem, as we saw in Series 1, spread to the neighbouring districts, and what made it spread was opposition in Jerusalem - persecution. You’ll remember back in Acts 8, if you’ve been following through, there was suddenly a moment when the religious authorities turned against the Church. Acts 8:1, when Stephen, one of the preachers of the Early Church, was martyred: ‘On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem.’

Then in Acts 8:4, ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’

We’ve got persecution, pushing the Church out, and then we have an amazing response from the people of Samaria, a district north of Judea, north of Jerusalem with a different ethnic group there. Then we’ve got the story of Cornelius, where unmistakably, God shows Peter, the leading Apostle, “We must go to the Gentile people, a people who are completely far away from Judaism; the people who aren’t connected to the Jewish people in any way.

The Spread of the Gospel

This takes us to a city called Antioch. Let’s read the first part of this absolutely fascinating passage. Acts 11:19 - 21:

19 ‘Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.’

Acts 11:19-21, NIV

The instinct of the Jewish followers of Jesus, when they were scattered by the persecution, was to find fellow Jews wherever they went. That’s why it says they preached, first of all, to the Jews. Wherever they travelled, they’d look for a synagogue. They’d look for a gathering of Jewish people and say, “Guess what’s happened to us in Jerusalem. We’ve found the Messiah. Jesus is risen from the dead.”. They would start preaching to them. But some of these people, when they got to the city of Antioch, started speaking to Greeks. When Luke uses the word Greeks, he largely means non-Jewish people who are characterised by speaking the Greek language, which was the common language of the day; it almost means exactly the same as Gentiles, or non-Jews.


They got to the city of Antioch, and they thought, “We need to spread the word more widely.” Let me tell you about the city of Antioch. The city is about 600 km north of Jerusalem. It’s a long way from where the Apostles are. It’s in a Roman province called Syria, although in modern terms, it’s in southern Turkey. In those days, it was the capital city of the province of Syria, and was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. As far as we can tell, it was actually the third largest city in the whole Roman Empire with a population of anywhere up to 200,000 people, which for those days was a very big city. Here come these Jewish converts, these people who believed in Jesus the Messiah. They’re travelling north, going from place to place. It’s a good idea to go to a big city when you’re homeless because there’s work, and there’s a big Jewish community there. There were synagogues in Antioch, we know that. They could go to their fellow Jews and they could start looking for work. There’s more work in the cities than the countryside, generally speaking, when you’re on the move. That still applies today. They needed work. So, they spoke to the Jews about their faith, and then they got connected to the wider community, and started sharing their faith with them. This is a very spontaneous activity in a completely new environment. There had never been a church there before. The people who believed and arrived, who had been forced out of Jerusalem, took the opportunity to spread the message in Antioch. Interestingly enough, God blessed this in a very special way. It says in Acts 11:21, ‘the Lord’s hand was with them’. God was blessing them. Many people believed. A completely new situation is happening here. A large number of people, with no Jewish connection, are believing in Jesus for the first time. When Cornelius and his household believed, it was a small number of people - a household, and that was a big miracle. But now we’re talking about, probably hundreds of people who are suddenly forming a church in this large city. The city is larger than Jerusalem - a very influential city; the military headquarters were there; the civil administration was there; it was a centre of trade; it was very near the sea on a major river; major trade routes and roads went through Antioch; lots of things happened in this city. Now, in this very well-connected place, right in the middle of it, the church is springing up. Nobody is really organising it; it’s just happening. We’re not sure about leaders, and we’ll come to that story in a minute, but they are moving forward. Those people will have heard the story about Cornelius and they’ll know, ‘God wants us to reach the Gentiles. Cornelius and his household miraculously believed. That was incredible. It could happen here in Antioch.’ It began to happen and the Gospel started to spread.

Leadership Issues

As soon as people spontaneously gather in Christian communities, one of the first questions that arises is leadership. Nobody planned this; it just happened. Some of you listening will actually have had that experience, that Christian communities started spontaneously through a work of God in a village, or in a town. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Nobody actually was coordinating this. The question arises very quickly, “Who’s the leader?” If you can imagine yourself as one of the Jewish people arriving, and you’ve got dozens and dozens of non-Jewish people, Gentiles, believing, and they look to you and say, “Are you the leader?” and you say, “No, no. I wasn’t planning to be a leader; I’m just telling you about Jesus!” leadership becomes the number one issue.

Barnabas and Paul

The Apostles in Jerusalem had heard what was going on, and this is what they did. Acts 11: 22 - 26:

22 ‘News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived 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. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a great number of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.’

Acts 11:22-26, NIV

You can see what’s happened. The Jerusalem church, where all the Apostles are based, gets these incredible reports. “In Antioch there’s a church that started and it seems to be growing every single day.” Their first instinct is to send somebody to help them. They send Barnabas. We’ve heard of Barnabas before. He appears in Acts 4:36 and we described this in Series 2 and Episode 7, when the Early Church in Jerusalem is being described and Barnabas is mentioned, in passing, because he made a very generous gift of selling a field and giving the money to the Apostles to help with the distribution of relief to the poor people in the church. There he is in Jerusalem, a well-respected member of the church. Later on, in Acts 14: 4 and 14, we note that when he’s out on mission with Paul, he’s described as an Apostle. Interesting point. Probably adding all these pieces of information together, we can say that Jesus appeared to Barnabas in his resurrection appearances, because Barnabas was in Jerusalem at the time, and added him, along with several other people, to the group of Apostles, known as the Twelve. There were others who were added, notably Jesus’ half-brother James, who we mention in other contexts. Paul describes this process in 1 Corinthians 15, by which the Twelve are the founding Apostles, but in his resurrection, Jesus drew in other people, and Paul described the total group as ‘all the Apostles’. Barnabas almost certainly was one of these people. He’s joined the team. We’re just adding the pieces of information together, and that’s why later on he’s called an Apostle. Paul joined the team through his miraculous conversion on the Damascus road.

Barnabas is in Jerusalem, a recognised member of the team, supporting the Twelve and they said, “You’re the right person to go to Antioch.” Interestingly enough, Barnabas previously came from, or lived in, the island of Cyprus, which is very near Antioch. He’s going back to a city he probably knew from the past. So, they go, “Probably you’re the right person to go here.” Most of the Apostles had never been to that territory, to the territory of Syria, or the city of Antioch. Here’s a remarkable man. His name means ‘the son of encouragement’. He’s a community builder and he shows remarkable character, Acts11:24, notice this extraordinary character portrayal: ‘He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith’ -real quality of character, real openness to the Holy Spirit, and he had faith. In this sense, faith probably means the ability to imagine the development of the Church, to imagine things that hadn’t yet happened and to bring them about. He had a kind of adventurous side to him. He could see possibilities and he had faith. He becomes the representative of the Apostles in the midst of this spontaneously developing, fast moving church in Antioch.

Barnabas has a creative idea. He doesn’t want to do all this work on his own and he thinks about Paul, otherwise known as Saul. If you’ve listened to the previous episodes, you’ll know that the Jewish name was Saul and the Greek name was Paul, and they are used interchangeably. I’m going to use the name Paul to describe him because that’s what we commonly use in the Church. Barnabas remembered what had happened. Paul had been the arch opponent of the Church. He travelled around and when he was travelling towards Damascus, as we described in an earlier episode, he had a most incredible encounter with Jesus, was immediately converted and commissioned to be an Apostle. He then spent three years in Arabia, came to Jerusalem very briefly where it was Barnabas who introduced him to the other Apostles, seeing the potential of them coming together. But it was so dangerous for Paul to stay in Jerusalem because of his opponents that they sent him away. They sent him to the city he grew up in, which is now in the province of Asia in terms of the Roman Empire, southern Turkey, near Antioch. Paul lives near Antioch in a place called Tarsus. Barnabas is in Antioch, and he wants help and he remembers that Paul was commissioned to be the number one Apostle to the Gentiles, and here, not far from Paul’s home, a Gentile mission is starting and some miracles are taking place. It’s an interesting and obvious point that he might think, “I need to get Paul over here to help me. This is his calling. This is his moment. This is his gift.” Paul was waiting in Tarsus for God to show him the next thing to do, when one day Barnabas arrived in Tarsus, found out where he lived, said, “Paul, haven’t seen you since the days here in Jerusalem briefly, but I want to tell you what is happening over there in Antioch. This great awakening amongst the Gentiles has actually started. Please come and help me, because I know what your calling is. Your calling is to the Gentiles. I know you told us about your vision on the Damascus road and it didn’t seem quite the right time then, because other things were happening and the progression hadn’t reached that far. But now it is happening, Paul. Come and join me.” This is what we mean by Barnabas being a man of faith. He had an idea. He thought, “Let’s put this team together”, and it worked really well.

Paul thought, “This is my moment.” He travelled over and it says here, they spent twelve months - a whole year - gathering these people, and there were converts all the time who knew nothing about the Old Testament; they knew nothing really about the Hebrew God; they didn’t know a great deal about Jesus, apart from just the pure Gospel message that these evangelists had brought. There was a lot of teaching to be done. There are some times in the life of the Church when there’s a new and young church developing in a country, where there’s a lot of teaching to be done. Foundations need to be laid. This is a very important part of Church life. Paul and Barnabas didn’t rush around trying to go to other places. They spent a whole year with this single church community, building in the foundations of biblical truth. Isn’t that wonderful? What a great team and wouldn’t you have liked to have been in Antioch for that year? That’s the best year-out Bible college that I think has ever happened in the history of the Church. Paul and Barnabas together, teaching and answering questions for a whole year. It wasn’t just for the benefit of the church in Antioch because they were probably thinking that this is going to be a good base for developing things further. But what a positive passage this is. They built up the church and this is where the disciples were first called Christians, to distinguish them from other Jews and other religious groups.

Agabus’ Prophecy

That’s a great story, isn’t it? We could end the story there and the Church is growing and developing, but things don’t stand still very long in the New Testament. In the last part of this passage, something very surprising happens to this settled church. Let’s find out what it is. Acts 11:27 - 30:

27 ‘During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.’

Acts 11:27-30, NIV

The Jerusalem church is still thinking about the Antioch church. They’re still praying for them. One day, the leaders must have gathered with some of the senior team around the Apostles, and felt that they needed to send another delegation up to Antioch. This time they were prophets, and they were led by a well-respected prophet called Agabus. What do we mean by a prophet in the New Testament? We’re not quite in the same category as the Old Testament writers of the prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We mean principally somebody with a regular and respected gift of speaking words which are considered to have a prophetic quality to them, which is partly predicting the future and partly describing the activity of God in the present, in a way that helps people. The purpose of prophecy in the New Testament is not to write Scripture, to have the same authority as the writing of Scripture, it’s to stimulate the Church. We have a definition in 1 Corinthians 14: 3:

‘the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’

1 Corinthians 14:3, NIV

It’s building up the church; it’s stimulating the church into activity. That’s the general purpose but sometimes it has a predictive element. The prophet can see something in the future that hasn’t yet happened, which is important for the Church to take account of and prepare for. and this is what Agabus did. He predicted that during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, at around that time, there would be severe food shortages. We have records of significant food shortages in local areas from secular sources in different parts of the Roman Empire. Food supply was a vulnerable issue. The Roman authorities, if there was a shortage of food, would always prioritise the heartland areas, the central areas of the Empire, notably Rome itself. They would not prioritise the provinces on the periphery of the Empire, and Judea was right on the edge of the Empire as a very unpopular province amongst the Romans. Agabus felt that, for various reasons, there was going to be food shortage, and it was likely to have a big effect in Jerusalem and in Judea. This is why the church took a collection. They planned it. They decided over a period of time to gather in finance from the church members. Once they had collected the money, Paul and Barnabas made a trip down to Jerusalem and delivered a substantial gift of money to help the church in Jerusalem. This is very remarkable, isn’t it? Paul, in reflecting on the role of prophets, says, very famously much later in his life, having been in ministry many years, in Ephesians 4:11 - 13, which he wrote towards the end of his life:

11 ‘So Christ himself gave the Apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’

Ephesians 4:11-13, NIV

He identifies different ministries. The Apostles, he had in mind, in that statement, are the original group of Apostles that I’ve described to you. The second group were prophets, the third evangelists and the others, the Church leaders, pastors and teachers: probably one group of people described in two words. The second group were prophets. Prophets are going to strengthen the Church and make it more robust. The function of the prophet was to help a more affluent or more well-resourced church, to help the churches, the Jewish churches, in Judea and Jerusalem, who are going to suffer hardship and so, building up that poor church through a financial gift. Paul and Barnabas have gone to Jerusalem.

We see in the course of this passage, the establishment of a wonderfully strong church, by surprise, in a major Roman city. As the story goes on, we’ll find that this church is the springboard for an amazing mission that comes right out of the heart of this very church.


Before we get to that in future episodes, some reflections, some thoughts, as we bring this story to an end. There’s a balance here between the spontaneous initiative of people preaching the Gospel and the role of leaders to shape the Church. We need those two things for healthy churches. We need spontaneity and we also need gifted leaders to shape the community and bring it to maturity. That’s exactly what happened in Antioch.

Here we have a great example of the Holy Spirit doing something surprising and unexpected and powerful. The Holy Spirit of God today is operating in the same way across the world. Many remarkable things are happening in your lifetime and mine in many countries, as the Gospel is spreading through unexpected developments, where you suddenly see the Gospel breaking out in a new community, a new ethnic group, a new village, a new town, across an international border. That’s what happened here at Antioch. The Apostles in Jerusalem had to think, “This is really significant. We didn’t plan this. God has gone ahead.” I want to just remind us that often God goes ahead, to do new things.

Another reflection is that here’s a great example of a mature church. They’ve got some key foundations in place; they’ve got good teaching; good understanding of the Gospel; a really strong fellowship; a really strong emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a real willingness to give financially. A tremendously exciting church to be part of.

We’re really grateful that we’ve got this story in the New Testament. We’ll see that it becomes hugely significant as the Gospel goes much further, beyond Antioch to many new places. We’ll find the church of Antioch is resourcing that, releasing leaders and praying. But what happened to them will happen in many other places, as indeed it does in days to come. Thanks for listening to this episode and I hope you’ll come back and join us for the next one.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. God had planned to use Paul at this time and place. Can you see God’s plan for your life?
  • Discipleship
    1. Pray for the leaders of your church and consider your own calling.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What makes a ‘mature’ church? How can you encourage your leaders to fill any gaps in maturity?
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