Antioch: The City, The Church, The Christians.


Paul & Barnabas' 1st Missionary Journey starting in Antioch

Paul & Barnabas' 1st Missionary Journey starting in Antioch

"Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.  20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose,  24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." (Acts 11:19-26)

Before the conversion of  Saul, the severe persecution under his zealous leadership had scattered believers as far as Phoenicia, which is present day Lebanon, the island of Cyprus which is off the coast of Lebanon to the Northwest, and all the way up north to the coastal city of Antioch (in modern day Syria). The believers who fled to these places brought the gospel message with them. Most of them, Luke points out, had preached the gospel to other Jews only. But some believers crossed cultural divides and proclaimed the gospel to non-Jews too. As a result we are told, Gentiles were also coming into the Kingdom. The city of Antioch then became the location of a new new outpost for the advancement of the mission of the church into the rest of the Roman Empire.

But even though the church experienced a relative time of peace with the conversion of Paul, sporadic persecution continued over the years. A great amount of time is summarized between the end of Chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 13 – possibly nearly 15 years. During that time Herod had James, the brother of John put to death and sought to arrest Peter (12:1-3). Peter ends up thrown in jail but was miraculously rescued when late at night an angel loosened his bonds and escorted him out past the gate into the street. Herod was enraged but eventually met his own end when he received the praise of some of his subjects from Tyre and Sidon calling him a god, and “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory…” (Acts 12:23). With Herod out of the way “the word of God increased and multiplied” more freely again (Acts 12:24).

Now once Barnabas had brought Paul to Antioch a new phase in the advancement of God’s Kingdom began (Acts 13:1-5).

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

And that would constitute the start of what we call Paul & Barnabas’ first “missionary Journey” which is tracked from city to city in the Roman Empire in chapters 13-14. So here we see a shift of geographical focus from one city (namely, Jerusalem) to another city (Antioch). Jerusalem was largely a Jewish city but with Antioch, now we see a shift to a radically diverse metropolis. The hub of the church’s gospel mission has shifted from one major city to another major city. Now the young church has moved from its Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented origins, and is becoming increasingly Gentile as a movement based in a Gentile city. From this point onward Antioch will act as the starting point for all three of the Paul’s missionary journeys through out the Roman Empire (chaps. 13,15,18).[1] Let’s explore these passages from the word of God in three movements:

The City – The Church – The “Christian”

The City: Antioch & its significance. The city of Antioch was significant in the empire. The Roman Empire was one of the most urbanized empires the world had ever seen. Only now in recent history is the world beginning to look like what the Roman Empire looked like. It had the most densely populated cities, it was the most pluralistic Empire religiously, It was the most troubled – with disease and inner strife, and it was extremely multi-ethnic. The city of Rome itself had 1 Million people! After the fall of the Roman Empire that size and kind of city didn’t appear again until the 1850’s. And those more recent cities were much more homogeneous than Rome. Tim Keller remarks that we’re only just now catching up with kind of cities in the world that resemble the cities in the Roman Empire. Antioch was the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome & Alexandria) and some estimate that its population was about 500,000.[2] Antioch's importance in the Roman World cannot be underestimated. It was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator after his victory over Antigonus. The name Antioch was given in honor of his father. In Acts, two cities by the name of Antioch are mentioned, Antioch of Syria and Antioch of Pisidia. Antioch of Syria was located at the head of the Orontes River about twenty kilometers inland, east of the Mediterranean Sea and although it was inland it was possible to navigate by boat along the river from the sea to Antioch. Under the Greek Empire it flourished and became a wealthy sophisticated meeting point of Greek and Oriental cultures. When Rome occupied Syria in 64 B.C., Antioch became a regional military headquarters. Due to the importance of the city it underwent many renovations and improvements along Roman lines, which not only added to its beautification, but also served more practical purposes, such as communication and defense. Another significant factor about Antioch is that it was…

The city of Antioch was Culturally Diverse. With a population as high as 500,000, or more, Antioch was quite urban, even by today's standards.[3] The city, shared many of the characteristics typical of urban centers today. There was a great multiplicity of cultures. Many languages were spoken, as traders, travelers, and full-time residents interacted. Communication to and from Antioch was possible with almost anywhere in the Roman world.

 The City of Antioch was also pluralistic Religiously. Like we see in many of today’s cities, where there is a multiplicity of cultures there is naturally also a greater spirit of religious pluralism and tolerance (maybe even universalism). One scholar describes it this way:

In the time of Christ, a special religious situation had grown up in Antioch which was to make the city peculiarly fertile ground when Christianity reached it. Antioch had shared, with other centers in which Hellenistic religion and philosophy had flourished, the changes characteristic of the late Hellenistic age, in which the old religious cults and philosophies were tending to become matters of individual belief… In addition the city, as a meeting point of the Greeks and the Oriental civilizations, filled with orientalized Greeks and Hellenized Orientals of all classes and all degrees of education, had come to contain, as part of its normal daily existence, not only the old established Hellenic cults, of Zeus, Apollo, and the rest of the pantheon, by the Syrian cults of Baal and the mother-goddess—partly assimilated to Zeus and Artemis—as well as the mystery religions with their doctrines of salvation, of death and regeneration, and their promises for the afterlife. As one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire and one of the great commercial centers of the ancient world, with business connections in all parts of the empire, Antioch saw the coming and going of people of all sorts, bringing news of events everywhere in the Roman world. Another factor of prime importance was the presence of a large and ancient Jewish community. This community had attracted to its ceremonies and its teachings numbers of Gentiles who found in Judaism an ethical doctrine that was more satisfactory to them than the pagan teaching. Thus Antioch was peculiarly receptive to the new message.[4]

For the sake of keeping peace and order in a city with such a diversity of ethnicity, cultures, and religions, somewhere along the line in Antioch’s history, walls were built to fence off the various groups from one another. Jews lived in their quarter, Greeks in theirs, Romans in theirs. These walls were symbolic of the great divides between the worldviews of the co-inhabitants of Antioch. Later, by the time Barnabas and Paul would arrive there, “by far the biggest wall was that which divided the Jews and the Gentiles.” From a worldview perspective, the Jews had as the center of their religious culture their faith and law. They understood themselves as the people been chosen by the One True God, YHWH, for a special purpose to bring God’s will to bear on the world. The Greeks on the other hand, upheld their great civilization and wisdom as the center of their worldview. Gaining Knowledge and cultivating the human society was of utmost importance to them. For the Romans it was Power. For the Jews, everything revolved around their religion— their chosenness, the supremacy of the Lord God. 

The Church: Christ's body in Antioch thrived! (we’re moving from the “city” to the “church”) The amazing thing is that despite all this diversity and pluralism of religion and culture – something today we typically see as a serious challenge to Christianity…the book of Acts tells us that the church flourished in this environment. The gospel just broke out and spread like wildfire! That is the opposite of what most believers think when they think about the city. Why did the church at Antioch thrive?

The church at Antioch thrived because of the transforming power of the Gospel My son and I spent a lot of time in some rough neighborhoods in Detroit this summer. Josh was doing the filming for an urban ministry called Hope For the City that a friend of ours heads up. When we met people who have come from small towns to help with the ministry here they remarked about how fearful they were to come to the city. We have found that people in rural parts of Michigan even perceive Dearborn with fear. We have a friend who is a young adult planning to move here to Dearborn and her parents are scared to death about her coming here. Most Christians just don’t think the city is a good place for Christians. Tim Keller insists just the opposite: that “The more urban the place is the greater the power of the gospel to be revealed.” The more people there are in close proximity, the more sin, sickness, and desperation there is in one place. When people in these kinds of circumstances meet with difficulty, suffering, and trial there is a greater sense of their need for hope. The physical or circumstantial desperation leads people to a greater sense of their spiritual need for outside help. And when they hear the gospel it is more often met by people who already know their need for transformation and hope. This was what Jesus was describing when he told the story of two men praying at the temple:

"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14 )

There are many people who are humbled by their circumstances in our city and these people tend to be more able and ready to admit their humility and need within for a Savior to cleanse from sin. Why else did the church at Antioch thrive?

The Church at Antioch thrived because it’s congregation and leadership mirrored the Cultural Diversity of  the city (consider Acts 13:1-3)D.A. Carson points out that the “church leadership in Antioch must have been extraordinarily diverse (13:1).” Barnabas was a Levite (of the Jewish priestly heritage) but he was from the Greek society on the Island of Cyprus (4:36-37). Then there was Simeon (a Jewish name) “called Niger” an expression that pretty much just means “Simon the Black” so he could have been the son of African proselytes to Judaism or a convert himself. We don’t know much about Lucius of Cyrene but apparently, he, like Barnabas, was from a Mediterranean island, and the form of his name shows he belongs to the Hellenistic world.[5] Manean had enough connections with minor nobility that he had grown up with Herod the tetrarch. Then, of course we have Saul, by this time a veteran evangelist, church planter, and Bible teacher of fifteen years’ experience. Just as Jesus had called him he moved more and more in Gentile circles, and used the name connected with his Roman citizenship, Paul (13:9). Paul was from out of town – from Tarsus. So the leadership of the church Antioch reflected the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city of Antioch! It is our desire too that CCC’s congregation and leadership would reflect, yes, mirror the ethnic demographic of our city, the age demographic of our city, and the socio-economic demographic of our city. This will mean we are doing our job to make disciples of all ethne! This means we celebrate diversity of race and language and culture. Why? Because this reflects what our eternity will be like:

"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  10 and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10 ) 

But how does this happen? This leads us to our final movement:  “The Christians”

Not only does the City reveal the power of the gospel to transform individuals but it also reveals the power of the gospel to transform our relationships. When Seleucus Nicator built the city of Antioch why did he build walls within it to separate people of different backgrounds from each other? He knew every race typically thinks of itself as greater than all the rest. So he built walls around the ghettos to protect each of the ethnic neighborhoods from harming the others.

Now here’s another question: Why were the believers first called “Christians” in Antioch? Many speculate that it was a derogatory name that stuck. Like “Yankee Doodle” or the “nun” in Iraq. But consider this: if some citizens in Antioch from every race and creed were putting their faith in Jesus then people were literally crossing lines and climbing walls to worship with each other. There was a new identifiable group – it needed a new name! Jesus broke down the dividing walls! So, they could not be identified by their race or any of the existing religious or pagan identities. What these people shared was eternally deeper than culture, or race, or shared religious heritage and the people of Antioch could identify them according to their shared transformed lives in Christ – their new identity was in Christ! This new transformed identity transformed their relationships – the walls came down. Only the gospel message can do this in a city – and our city has a very checkered past when it comes to racism. High and thick walls must come down and only the gospel message can make that happen.

There has been a movement in missions in the Middle East to encourage the disuse of the label “Christian.” I would be careful.  This term appears in only one other place in Scripture. It is where Peter writes: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16). But more important than the name – is what the name represents. Consider this:

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,  16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility." (Ephesians 2:13-16) 

What's the Personal application here? Well, consider a few points: First, without the gospel and the City you wouldn’t have the friends you have – your pride or zoning would keep you away from each other.

Secondly, you can be like Barnabas. At a time when the church in Jerusalem was growing so quickly it must have been impossible of the apostles to remember everyone’s name, this Joseph was noticed for his remarkable gift of encouragement; as a result he was rewarded with a nickname that reflected his character: Barnabas – Son of Encouragement.[6] 

Barnabas was not involuntarily scattered like the others. He was commissioned and sent by the church in Jerusalem to move to Antioch and be intentionally and permanently “scattered”. Nobody does much for God if they stay put where they already are comfortable. At CCC we like to think of our GPS what is your Gospel Positioning Strategy – strategy cannotes intentionality – are you being intentional with where God has placed you in this city for the gospel?

Barnabas served. Isn't it amazing that Barnabas who probably could have done a decent job pastoring the church in Antioch, goes and gets a better preacher (Paul)! Barnabas came not only to build a great church but to transform a great city. He new he needed someone as cross-cultural and articulate as Paul. When you are engaged in that kind of kingdom-minded thinking and recruiting it makes you a more effective person for the gospel than you were before. 

So, how do you pray over Dearborn/Detroit? How do you pray over your city? Are you sent? Do you serve? May God give us the grace to do likewise.

Bibliography:

Johnson, Sherman E., Antioch, the Base of Operations” Lexington Theological Quarterly 18 no 2 (Ap 1983), p 64-73.

Rowe, C Kavin, “The ecclesiology of Acts,” Interpretation 66 no 3 Jl 2012, p 259-269.

Rutt, Douglas L., “Antioch as Paradigmatic of the Urban Center of Mission,” Missio Apostolica 11 no 1 (My 2003), p 34-42.

Strauss, Stephen J., “The Significance of Acts 11:26 for the Church at Antioch and Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 no 671 (Jl-S 2011), p 283-300.

Notes:

 

{C}

 

{C}[1]{C} Stephen Um & Justin Buzzard, Why Cities Matter, 74.

[2]{C} Rutt, Douglas L., “Antioch as Paradigmatic of the Urban Center of Mission,” Missio Apostolica 11 no 1 (My 2003), p 34-42.

{C}[3]{C} Douglas Rutt, “Antioch as Paradigmatic of the Urban Center of Mission,” Missio Apostolica 11 no 1 (My 2003), p 34-42.

{C}[4]{C} Downey in his definitive volume, Ancient Antioch 120-121 as quoted in Rutt, “Antioch as Paradigmatic.”

{C}[5]{C} Carson, For the Love of God, July 26.

{C}[6] Carson, For the Love of God, July 26