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(Please read Acts 6:5; 9:1-30; 11:19-30; 12:25-13:4; 14:25-15:41; 18:22, 23)

Syrian Antioch is said to have been the third largest city in the Roman empire. It was a thriving centre of commerce and culture, noted alas for the licentious behaviour of many of its inhabitants. With its large Jewish population it was not surprising that in the early days of the Christian era Jewish disciples settled there and preached the gospel to their fellow Israelites. At first Gentiles were not actively evangelized, for the Jews from Jerusalem were slow to appreciate the universal scope of the gospel.

But the message of the cross was urgent; there must be no delay in telling it to all men. How the over-ruling hand of God ensured this can be seen in the events of those stirring times. The first mention of Antioch is in connection with a man named Nicolas, a Gentile from that city who had embraced the Jewish faith and had subsequently become a prominent early Christian disciple in Jerusalem. This formed a strong link between the two cities. But there was an important development when, among the disciples fleeing from Saul's relentless persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, there were some Jews of Cyprus and Cyrene who arrived in Antioch. These brethren began to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and many accepted the message.

Barnabas and Saul

There was no doubt that this was a divine movement, for "a great number that believed turned unto the Lord". The evangelists in Antioch were not ~ as are many today. They kept in touch with their brethren in Jerusalem who, hearing their report of the new development, sent Barnabas to Antioch. He was a man of grace and spiritual maturity who had the confidence of the brethren both in Jerusalem and Antioch. On his arrival he was glad to see the grace of God operating in the hearts of the new converts. With his aid the work progressed rapidly. He wisely saw in this great city with its international communications a possible advance base for the further spread of the gospel message. The fields were "ripe unto harvest" and more reapers were needed. So Barnabas thought of his former fellow-worker, Saul of Tarsus. Now a disciple, Saul had in early days persecuted the Christians with great zeal until the Lord spoke to him on the Damascus road, changing his life completely. Without delay Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for him and bring him back to Antioch.

Again the leading of the Spirit of God could be seen in this new move, for Saul was a zealous man with a background ideally suited to the needs of Antioch. Although a Jew by birth and exceptionally well grounded in the faith of his fathers, he had grown up under the influence of both Greek and Roman cultures, so that he was able to understand the outlook of anyone he was likely to meet in Antioch. Above all, he had been given a commission direct from the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The immediate result was that these two fellow-labourers were together in the city for a whole year and "taught much people".

Christian Testimony

Why were the disciples called Christians first in Antioch? We can visualize a growing number of saints meeting in one or more regular meeting places and conforming in their lives God-ward to the pattern of Acts 2:42 continuing steadfastly in the apostles' teaching, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. They would be diligent in their daily work, living honest, hardworking lives and keeping themselves pure from the prevailing immorality. Such an unusual group of people' would attract the attention, and perhaps the jibes, of the populace. So a name would naturally have to be invented to describe this new development. The disciples did not give themselves the name; it was first used by others, perhaps in jest, but it later came to be commonly accepted (1 Pet. 4:16). The word is very much misused today; it is wrongly applied to anybody native to a country which professes nominal "Christianity".

An example of the valuable part played by Antioch among the churches of God in those days is the generous way in which it helped the saints in Judea in a time of world-wide famine. Antioch was a prosperous city in a fertile district. The disciples would be relatively affluent and able to send help to others. Their responsibility was made clear to them by the prophet Agabus who forewarned them of the coming famine. They rose to the occasion with alacrity, sending their gift by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. Luke's description of these events is brief but informative. It illustrates the close ties which existed between the churches, and the disciples' love one for the other, with Jews and Gentiles no longer opposed (Eph. 2:11-22). The principle of elders being involved in relations between churches is established also.

"Go ye into all the world"

When Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch there developed, or perhaps came to a head, an earnest longing among the disciples that the message of redeeming love should be spread still further afield. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city in which trade and commerce flourished, so that the

spiritual needs of other parts of the Roman empire would be quickly communicated to the saints. They were fired by the vision of an expanding Fellowship comprising many churches of God in which believers would serve God and be beacons of light in a desperately dark world. Saul himself was consumed with a desire to fulfil his commission from the Lord to "preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8).

It was appropriate and divinely ordered that the first missionary campaigns should have their base in Antioch. There Jew and Gentile saints worked together harmoniously, forgetting old enmities. The Jewish Christians were not deterred by their upbringing from associating with Gentiles as were those from Jerusalem; their mental horizons were wider, enabling them to enter wholeheartedly into a plan to bring the good news to all nations. But they would do nothing without divine approval, and so they fasted and waited upon the Lord. It was not long before the Holy Spirit revealed to leading men that He had called Barnabas and Saul to the work. They fasted and prayed and laid their hands on the two apostles and sent them away; "they, being sent forth by the Holy Spirit, went ...."

Paul and Barnabas

Hitherto the two missionaries have been called in the divine record "Barnabas and Saul", but soon after the events just mentioned the phrase changes to "Paul and Barnabas", and so it remains while the two men worked together. The Lord had now recognized the leader, but a change must have taken place also in the mind of the gracious Barnabas. He saw the qualities of Paul and yielded precedence to him as "the apostle of the Gentiles". After preaching the Word everywhere and establishing flourishing churches in Galatia and neighbouring provinces, they returned to Antioch. On their arrival they called the church together and reported with joy how the Gentiles had received the message of the gospel. But certain men from Judea, formerly of the sect of the Pharisees, were not at all happy about these developments. They maintained that the Gentile disciples must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. They came to Antioch without the consent of the elders in Jerusalem and began to teach this false doctrine. Paul and Barnabas resisted them strongly. The two apostles knew that God had set aside the nation of Israel and had brought in an entirely new order of things in which acceptance of the gospel message was all that was needed for eternal salvation, and that obedience to the "faith once for all delivered unto the saints" was the one way of discipleship.

Jerusalem Council

The dispute was disturbing the harmony of the churches which was crucial to the continuance of Paul's divine commission and the world-wide evangelization envisaged by the disciples in Antioch. So important was it to resolve the problem quickly that a deputation of elders from Antioch, including Paul and Barnabas, went to Jerusalem for this very purpose. Paul had no doubts about the soundness of his own position. He had a direct command from the Lord to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:11-17). But it was vitally necessary to maintain unity among the churches and to ensure that future unfettered gospel effort among the Gentiles would be carried on with the full fellowship of all the churches of God. This was achieved by wise chairmanship and restraint on all sides. A few simple decrees for the Gentiles to keep were drawn up and circulated to all the churches. That the decrees were mentioned as still being observed in Acts 21:25 seems adequate reason for observing them today.

Tasks well done

Paul's second missionary journey, this time with Silas and others, was more wide-ranging than the first, but was equally fruitful. After completing a long and arduous campaign he once again returned to Antioch, apparently for the last time. The initial stages of Gentile evangelization had been completed, but the apostle's work still went on: There were now churches of God in many lands and the main task for the future was their upbuilding and preservation. Antioch had nobly fulfilled its God-given role of pioneering the establishment of churches of God throughout a large part of the Roman empire.