When they were set apart for a special mission by the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas were functioning as elders in the church at Antioch. Before examining the first missionary journey I want to reflect a moment on this important but overlooked church.
Likely as not, Hellenistic Jews who fled Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen returned to their homes in Antioch and Damascus (Acts 11:19). It is also possible that the Hellenistic Jews purposely shifted their ministry away from Jerusalem to Antioch since there were a large number of like-minded Jewish people in the city. The next most likely cities for Hellenistic Jews to spread the gospel in Greek Speaking Jewish synagogues would have been Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria.
Why there is no tradition of a similar movement in Alexandria is interesting since that is another place with a large number of Hellenistic Jews. That at least two of the Christians mentioned in Acts 13 are from North Africa is perhaps a hint that most of the Hellenists moved to Antioch rather than Egypt. Schnabel cites Riesner as suggesting that the prosperity of Antioch was the motivating factor – these Christian Hellenistic Jews found a place where they could support themselves while participating in ministry in the synagogues of Antioch.
The church at Antioch seems to have done ministry among the Gentiles, but it is unclear that the move beyond the synagogue and God-Fearing gentiles. Acts 11:19 indicates that initially they only spoke to Jews, but a few did speak to Hellenists (11:20). As in Acts 6, the word Hellenist likely refers only to Jews who spoke Greek, in contrast to the Jews who spoke Aramaic. While I cannot prove this, I suspect there were synagogues which used Aramaic, and others which used Greek. If this guess is close to the mark, then the same cultural divide found in Acts 6 was present in Antioch as well.
The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to encourage the church to remain true to the word do the Lord (11:22-26). Schnabel points out that Barnabas was not simply an “inspector” from Jerusalem, but a “coordinator, missionary leader, and theological teacher (Early Christian Mission, 1:787).” Perhaps, but there may very well have been suspicion of the Antioch movement since non-Apostles are establishing local congregations. It is unlikely the congregations in Antioch made any attempt to reach Gentiles beyond the God-Fearing Gentiles. For Luke, Paul’s mission on Cyprus is the dramatic turning to the Gentiles.
Nevertheless, Barnabas recognizes this as an opportunity for Saul and draws him into the ministry at Antioch. Saul was doing ministry among the gentiles prior to this, although Luke does not describe this ministry. Why bring Saul to Antioch? It may be as simple as Barnabas knowing that Saul would fit the situation in Antioch well. While these are Hellenistic Jews, they are not necessarily “liberal” on the Law. In fact, as I observed earlier in this series, the Hellenists may have been more conservative on the boundary markers than the some of the Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem. As a former persecutor turned evangelist, Saul would have been a powerful testimony to the more conservative Jews.
In a sense, Saul is the ultimate conservative Hellenistic Jew.