Acts 13 – Gentiles and the Church in Syrian Antioch

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.

Syrian AntiochLikely 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 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.

15 thoughts on “Acts 13 – Gentiles and the Church in Syrian Antioch

  1. Who are the two north Africans in Acts 13? Are you equating Simon Niger with Simon of Cyrene? That is possible, I suppose.

    Luke’s lack of discussion of Alexandria, compared to Antioch, is interesting. It makes sense if Acts was written for an Aegean audience, which would have been interested in how the faith spread from Jerusalem, via Antioch, to them.

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    • Good question, I was taking “Niger” as an allusion to North Africa, which is at least a possibility. The next post has a few more details.

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  2. I don’t understand why it isn’t until Paul arrives in Antioch that they reach out to the Gentiles. In Acts 11 you read about Barnabas in Antioch, but it says that they spoke to the Greeks as you mentioned. Then in Acts 13, Paul comes from Paphos to Antioch. This is when they (both Paul and Barnabas) preach to the Gentiles. Why couldn’t Barnabas preach to them? I think it’s a great point to make that Paul has a powerful testimony that could reach out to the conservative Jews, but couldn’t Gentiles have been reached to by non-apostles? You said that Barnabas may have gotten Paul because he believed Paul fit the situation. I have kind of been in a situation that relates to this, at camp. There are times when I will have a high school camper who going through something in his life that I can’t relate to, so I would get a counselor who fits the situation better. I could have talked to him, but that wasn’t the best approach. Is that similar to what you mean when you say Paul may have fit the situation better?

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    • I think that the Antioch church was doing Gentile ministry, that is why Barnabas brings Paul to the city. My guess is that these were still God-Fearing gentiles, rather than Romans like Sergius Paulus on Cyprus. I am trying to make Cornelius sort of a half-way point between a Hellenistic Jewish convert and a Hellenistic Gentile convert. He was certainly gentile, but he was well on his way to being Jewish!

      Undoubtedly Barnabas did Gentile ministry alongside Paul, but he also recognized Paul’s commission as the “light to the Gentiles,” the situation in Antioch seemed to play to Paul’s strength and commission from the Lord.

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  3. I think that it is very important to look into some of the overlooked moves of Paul and Barnabas such as the mentioned because it gives us an idea of why they chose Antioch instead of Alexandria, etc. Paul and Barnabas went where there were Hellenistic Jews to speak the gospel in these Greek speaking Jewish synagogues. Since Antioch was a thriving city, it was ideal for them to be missionaries to Antioch as people could support themselves while participating in ministry. Barnabas realizes that Saul would be a good fit for working in Antioch because of his Jewish background. He knows the Law and has followed it well. However, Saul can then teach the movement from the Law to being saved by Grace. However, the Law and grace can work together because faith without works is dead (James 2:14) but also we are saved by faith and not works alone (Eph 2:8). It is important that these concepts are learned, and it would be very hard for someone to teach this shift if they were not well versed in the Law.

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  4. I also think that Paul would have been ideal for Antioch and for that reason Barnabas brought him there. I think there must have been some sort of ministry to the Gentiles in Antioch prior to Paul’s arrival because of the great response Paul received from the Gentiles when he spoke in the synagogues. Paul was at a unique place in which he could speak to the Jews as a Jew and also to the Gentiles because of his message of grace. As P. Long says, Paul’s testimony might be powerful enough to convince some of the conservative Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. In Paul’s speech in Acts 13, Paul is able to talk about the history of Israel and talk about many things that the Jews would agree on. But his message is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, something the Jews would not agree on (Schnabel 162). In verse 27 Paul says that the rulers of Jerusalem ‘did not recognize Jesus’. This is where the pious Jews would be upset, but this is where Paul would be trying to convince the conservative Jews.

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  5. As the post so blatantly states, “Saul is the ultimate conservative Hellenistic Jew,” which means that he would have been a perfect candidate to minister to the people of Antioch. This is because Paul though converted was prior a devote Jew that was very conservative on the law, this in turn means that though he may now be a Hellenistic Jew he can still relate to the conservative Jew. His conservative background Schnabel describes as coming from a family of devoted Jews (Schnabel, 41). Which would give Paul the social clout to have some pull with the conservative Jew. So in a way Paul was the perfect highbred preacher because he could relate to the conservative Jew but could also relate to the Hellenist Jew because in fact the Hellenist Jew was also quite conservative on the law. But what also made Paul the perfect preacher to minister in Antioch is that he had a heart towards Gentiles, in particular God fearing Gentiles. This is so evidently displayed in Acts 13:42-48, because Paul recognizes that the Jews were rejecting the word of God, but the Gentiles were open and excited about his message. Paul does however realize that it was God’s plan to give the word to the Jews first but since they are not accepting it he turns to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). I believe that it is evident that Paul was perfect for the ministry at Antioch because his personal testimony could relate to the conservative Jew, in addition his current beliefs could relate to the Hellenistic Jew, while his heart would indeed want to reach the Gentiles.

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  6. You say in your post at the end that “Saul is the ultimate conservative Hellenistic Jew”. Then Nick Mascorro said that Saul was the “perfect Hybrid Teacher”. The Bible itself has numerous examples of Paul preaching to Gentiles, Jews, and anybody that would listen to him. Paul was a man of passion and an educated man (All that study has made you crazy Acts 26:24). The combination of all these factors formed into one man made him an effective soul winner and a major reason that he wrote approximately half of the New Testament.
    However, the point I would like to make is that although it seemed that he had all the right factors, backgrounds, and words to say, he still was persecuted to no end. 2 Corinthians 11:25 gives Paul’s list of beatings and hardships. I also think that because he was so culturally diverse (Jew, Pharisee, Hellenistic, Hebrew, Roman Citizen) that there had to have been a couple people turned off by this. He had no real “home” to call his own. The Jews did not really want to claim him because he was preaching that Jesus was the messiah and the non-believing Gentiles thought that he was some crazy Jew who had been cast out. Saying Saul is the “ultimate conservative Hellenistic Jew” is a bit like saying he wasn’t a Gentile or a Jew, He was somewhere in the middle where Jesus was, which in all reality, is the best place to be.

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  7. I find it ironic how we assume that God took Paul and made him into something completely new upon his “conversion”. Paul says that he is the chief of sinners, that he is unworthy of his calling. This may be true, but without diving into the life of Paul it would be easy to say this “chief of sinners” mentality is why he was able to reach so many people. Paul was able to reach so many people because God was molding and shaping his life before his calling. This may catch some evangelical Christians off guard because we automatically assume that God instilled everything that Paul needed in him upon his revelation. But God chose Paul for his heritage, his family, his upbringing to better reach the world. When he is sent to Antioch he is the perfect testimony because he had that same inward Hellenistic Jew mentality before meeting God. In being among the people in Antioch he is doing so much more than just preaching. he is giving them a tangible example of what being saved by grace looks like, and how they should be reaching people. This example would have only been solidified when they found that he used to be a pharisee, someone who they would have most certainly looked up to and respected. This is great for the beginning portion of Paul’s ministry because it is dealing with people who he has dealt with before. he knows how these people think and act, so this is a great confidence booster for his ministry and his message. God was using Antioch as a building block for Paul’s ministry. And God was using Paul as an example for how the Christians in Antioch should be living.

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  8. I once again don’t doubt that Saul was and is the perfect man for the job. Saul is able to draw them into the ministry there and relate to them and able to talk to them in such a way that draws them to Truth and to the Lord. Just because he is the perfect guy for the job, doesn’t mean that there won’t be any trials or persecution along the way for him. Saul is the ultimate conservative Hellenistic Jew because of his background and what he has come out of and what he is passionate for. The fact that the people there were not necessarily liberal on the law, he was able to say things more clearly and they weren’t rejecting it. Barnabas was the right man to call Saul to the ministry at Antioch as he has seen and been with Saul and knew him well enough to know how he would be able to minister to the people there. We do have to remember too that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate person that set him and barnabas aside for the ministry that they did. There were a large number of people there at the church and the city and they needed someone to minister to them like Saul, someone that persecuted them and is now one of them to encourage them and help them to grow in God and in Jesus.

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  9. Adam talked about some of Paul’s background, and I believe that his background helped him (and Barnabas) attribute success during their ministry. Paul was previously a Pharisee, and this allowed him to relate to his audience. I believe that even though the religious leaders of that time had utterly hardened their against his message, I wonder if at some pint, they would come to have respect for him over time, even as a converted Christian because Paul is bringing them a message of hope and a new way of life should they choose to accept it. It is also interesting to understand how Barnbas came to see Paul’s potential by recruiting him to come along and preach the Gospel of Truth among the masses.

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  10. In reading this post, one of the biggest, and simplest, reasons why Paul is a great fit for Antioch is his geographical background. Paul is from Tarsus (9:11), which in Saul’s time was closely located to the city of Antioch. After Saul’s conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem, his life was threatened mutiple times. Acts says, “When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (9:30).” After this verse, Saul is not mentioned again until Acts 11, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul (11:25).” It seems that when Barnabas arrived in Antioch he knew just who to go look for. What made it even more convenient is that he only had to go a short distance to find a familiar face. Not only this, but Saul most likely would have been preaching the Gospel as he did when he was first converted in Acts 9. Seeing as Paul was from Tarsus, not only was he from the area, but his previous upbringing as a Pharisee would have given him notoriety in the area as well. It seems that Antioch may not have been just a “good fit”, but it might have been a, “right place, right time,” situation for Paul and Barnabas.

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  11. I think the last few lines sum things up pretty well. It would be my opinion that Saul was brought to Antioch because he was best suited to help lead the ministry there. Being an extremely conservative Hellenistic Jew himself he would have had very much in common with the Hellenistic Jews in Antioch. He spoke their “language” and knew how to best communicate the gospel to them. I believe he would have been the obvious choice for this ministry.

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  12. I think that Paul has a great benefit in coming from so many backgrounds. He has a wide range of people he can easily talk to and feel at home with. This always makes things easier and usually makes it easier to influence someone with a new idea. It is easy to see that God made Paul exactly the way he needed to be to share his testimony with as many people as he did and Paul’s ministry in Antioch was another “building block” as Adam called it.

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  13. I think that the significance of bringing Saul to Antioch can be summed up in who Saul was mean to be. He was called to be the “light to the Gentiles”, even though he is a rather conservative law-abiding Jew. The significance of ministry in Antioch is that, under the assumption that his ministry was to God-fearing Gentiles, he wasn’t dealing with people who were completely separate from God. Saul was ministering to people who already had some understanding of God, and some understanding of what a Godly life looks like. Thus, for Saul, ministering to these people was a good warm-up for ministering to the really “out there” Gentiles. Saul was the perfect man for the job, because this mission in Antioch plays directly to his background, and more significantly to his calling.

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