Paul and the Church in Antioch

When they were set apart for a special mission by the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas were leaders in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). The church at Antioch was led by “prophets and teachers” (13:1). As Keener points out, the two roles were closely related as leadership gifts in a local church (Acts, 2:1983). Synagogues had teachers, although the extent to which they were also leaders is unclear. Later in the first century, overseers and deacons were appointed to “carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers” (Didache 15:1). Besides Barnabas and Saul, Luke lists three individuals as leaders in Antioch. Luke calls these men “prophet-teachers” of the church rather than elders. Keener points out Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian who was sent by the apostles to Antioch and became a leader in the church there, but he was not named a deacon in Acts 6 (Acts 2:1833).

St Peter's Church, Antakya, Turkey

St Peter’s Church, Antakya, Turkey

What is the origin of the church in Antioch? 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.

The book of Acts does not mention anything about a similar Christian presence in Alexandria, Egypt even though the city had a large population of Hellenistic Jews. That at least two of the Christians mentioned in Acts 13 are from North Africa is perhaps a hint some Hellenists moved to Antioch rather than Egypt. Schnabel cites Rainer Riesner as suggesting 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 was the first to do 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 (Acts 11:22-26). Schnabel points out Barnabas was not simply an “inspector” from Jerusalem, but a “coordinator, missionary leader, and theological teacher (Early Christian Mission, 1:787).”  Perhaps, but there was some suspicion of the Antioch movement since non-apostles were 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 in Acts 13 is the dramatic turning to the Gentiles.

Barnabas recognizes this as an opportunity for Saul and invites him to participate the ministry at Antioch. This is important: Saul was doing ministry among the Gentiles prior his move to Antioch, although Luke does not describe this ministry. Why bring Saul to Antioch? It may be as simple as Barnabas thinking Saul would fit well into the growing Gentile ministry in Antioch.

While these are Hellenistic Jews, they are not necessarily “liberal” on the Law. In fact, the Hellenists may have been more conservative on with respect to Jewish 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.

How does Paul’s time in Antioch prepare him for the Gentile mission which begins on Acts 13? When he targets the Roman governor in Act 13:4-12, is Paul pushing the Gospel into cultural contexts where it has yet to reach? Based on the rest of Acts 13 and the falling out between Paul and Barnabas, would some Jewish Christians think Paul has gone too far by targeting people who are not already God-Fearing Gentiles?

8 thoughts on “Paul and the Church in Antioch

  1. How does Paul’s time in Antioch prepare him for the Gentile mission beginning in Acts 13?
    Acts 13:1 tells us that Paul was one of the three “prophets and teachers” of the church in Antioch. This gave him a lot of experience in leading and ministering to a church, which would have prepared him for his missionary journey in a few ways. First, as a teacher of the church in Antioch, he would have had a lot of practice in preaching and teaching, and he most likely would have gotten pretty good at it. Secondly, as a leader of the church in Antioch, he would have been familiar with many of the problems that churches faced. This would have prepared him to minister to other churches who deal with the same problems, and he would probably have learned how to come up with solutions to new problems. Both of these reasons would have made Paul very well equipped to teach to the many churches he visited on his first missionary journey.
    Would some Jewish Christians think Paul had gone too far in targeting people who are not already God-fearing Gentiles?
    I think that there probably were Jewish Christians who believed that Paul went too far in trying to minister to non-God-fearing Gentiles. The “God-fearers” were those who already were somewhat integrated into Jewish faith – they followed some or many of the Jewish laws, and they were most likely familiar with Jewish history. However, for Paul to target those who were not God-fearing Gentiles would have meant that he was ministering to those who followed Roman law, who probably worshiped many gods, and most likely did many things that would have opposed Jewish law. There were probably quite a few Jewish Christians who believed that these people were “dirty” and should not be welcomed into the kingdom of God. However, we know that everyone sins, and that God extends his grace to each and every one of us. Jewish Christians and God-fearing Gentiles were no better off than the non-God-fearing Gentiles – they were all in desperate need of God’s grace.

  2. How does Paul’s time in Antioch prepare him for the Gentile mission which begins on Acts 13?
    As Christians, we hear the phrase “I am waiting on the Lord” quite often. Another overused phrase that has lost a lot of intentionality and meaning is “I will pray about it first”. This act of “praying about it” often consists of merely sending a quick prayer to God, posting on your favorite prayer group on Facebook, and crossing your fingers hoping that all goes well. We find Paul and Barnabas in a very different state; “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). What is absolutely amazing is that these people were recognized by the church as “prophets” of God, and yet, they did not believe that they would receive a word from God other than through praying and fasting; as we look at Paul’s ministry after this point, we can see a similar approach to God and His guidance in every aspect of his ministry. Another way that Paul prepared was by serving in the Antioch church with their Gentile ministry. He did not just wait for God to hand him the ultimate ministry. “The church in Antioch had already been proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles nearby, and Paul and Barnabas had participated (11:19-26)” (Acts 13:1-3, ESV Commentary).
    When he targets the Roman governor in Act 13:4-12, is Paul pushing the Gospel into cultural contexts where it has yet to reach?
    I believe that Paul is pushing the Gospel into where it has yet not been preached. Although it is customary for Paul to start his ministries in the synagogues where the people believe in the OT, the Gospel was not yet prevalent among them. A good example is when he encountered Bar-Jesus who was a magician and a false prophet. Paul calls him the “son of the devil” even though Bar-Jesus was a Jew and most likely believed in the OT.
    When God’s work is being done, there will always be opposition. By the end of chapter 13, the Jews became extremely jealous of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were often greater in number, and they came in crowds diminishing, possibly, the space that the Jews had. The Jews did not believe that Gentiles were worthy of the Gospel and eternal life which created great tension resulting in opposition from the Jews, (Acts 13:44-52). Therefore, I would agree that the Jewish Christians definitely believed Paul had gone too far.

  3. From my readings of Acts twelve, there seemed to be something significant happening in the church of Antioch. Due to Stephen’s persecution in Jerusalem people from different ethnic groups fled to Antioch and became followers of Jesus (Acts 11:21). These ethnic groups involved Jews, Hellenist Jews, and the large population of gentiles living in Antioch. As the church in Antioch increased in followers it began to be a safe haven for various of ethnic groups in the region. Giving the background of the development in the Antioch church, one thing I believe Paul gains that prepares him for his gentile mission is cultural intelligence. Paul stayed in Antioch for a year while preaching the gospel in a church filled with diversity (Acts 11:26). I having a feeling Paul had to learn how to effectively deliver the gospel in ways that will interact with the tendencies of the ethnic groups. Paul had to digest all of the cultural norms in the room and tailor his words to uplift the gospel beyond their assumptions. Having gained this experience in the Antioch church, I believe Paul was well prepared to combat the challenges in Roman cities. Challenges related to the cultural and religious beliefs in Roman societies, where no such thing as Monotheism existed.

    • I love the aspects and contributions that you provided with this post! I totally agree with the aspect of being fully prepared to teach and preach the word of God. A lot of times within the church we often take it for granted to be highly prepared in terms of presenting the word of God. Furthermore, God has destined us to go out and teach His word and spread His good works (Ephesians 2:10). We see this through Paul as he was preparing himself at the church in Antioch to be able to effectively preach and teach the Good News of God. However, in times of being prepared there are things in which we may not be able to prepare for when we our on this journey. Such as, there are many obstacles that will come in the way in of one spreading the Good News. Another thing that I believe was vital to Paul success that you explained was that of culture. Understanding culture was a big facet in how Paul was able to preach the Gospel. It allowed him to be able to relate to individuals in ways they may understand. This has modern day significance as we often find ourselves listening or doing things that pertain to our culture. We drift towards what we believe is culturally correct.

  4. Throughout life in numerous instances we often try to prepare ourselves for certain things that we encounter. For example, before we take a test in our math class we might write out and accomplish a couple of practice problems before actually taking the test. Or as a mother to be one might take a couple of pregnancy classes in which knowing what to expect of motherhood before actually becoming one. All in all these different instances have one key element that it presents and that is preparation. Preparation is vital to success know matter the circumstances. The facet of preparation is something that allows one to become equipped for things before the actual test comes. The aspect of preparation is what Paul was experiencing at the church in Antioch. At the church of Antioch Paul was seen as one of the “prophets and teachers” that worked alongside others such as Barnabus (Acts 13:1). By Paul working to spread God’s word throughout the Roman empire Antioch was a vital part of his plan. Antioch really prepared Paul for many things before actually going into his gentile mission. One thing that Antioch prepared Paul for was that of teaching and preaching. Paul taught and preached a lot in Antioch in which was great practice of gathering vital information through scripture before telling God’s word (Acts 15:35). Another thing that the church in Antioch prepared Paul for was actually speaking to a more diversified group of people. As many individuals fled to the city of Antioch due to persecutions of Stephen Antioch became a densely populated city (Acts 11:21). With many people from different ethnic groups residing in the city of Antioch it created an opportunity for Paul to distinctively learn how to talk and spread the word of God to different individuals from different backgrounds.

    By being able to talk to individuals of different background we see this prominently when Paul tries to spread the message of the Gospel to the Roman governor (Acts 13:7). This allows for us to see how Paul was pushing the Gospel into cultural contexts in which it hasn’t reached yet. When Paul and his counterpartsl were on their missionary journey throughout the Roman Empire they didn’t really encounter the spread of the Gospel with Romans until trying to reach the Roman governor. This also was a foreign area that wasn’t quite seen yet because the word of God never really was voluntarily heard by individuals of such heirarchy. However, in this instance where Paul was trying to teach the Roman governor of the Gospel we come to see the Devil in action through a false prophet who was trying to stray the governor away from the Gospel (Acts 13:6). This incident has a lot of modern day value because in numerous occasions we as Christians fight against “false prophets”. Such as, when we try our best to spread the Good News that God has placed for us we come into contact with individuals of other religions who might try to bash that of Christianity. For example, atheists play a big part in this ongoing battle. But just like Paul we must stay steadfast in the Lord and continue His ultimate mission.

    Furthermore, another part in being steadfast in the word of God is not paying attention to what other people may think in terms of fulfilling the mission that God has prepared. This exactly what Paul did in terms of interacting with some Jewish Christians and targeting individuals such as God-Fearing Gentiles. Some of the Jewish Christians felt as if the not already God-Fearing Gentiles were “dirty” or unworthy to hear God’s word and they were very upset at Paul’s intentions (Acts 13:50). Therefore, I would say that some Jewish Christians would think Paul had gone too far by targeting people who are not already God-Fearing Gentiles. However, God commanded and made it clear that it was a necessity for Paul to spread His word to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47).

  5. In both Acts 11 and Acts 13:1-3, Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch for a while. Acts 11:26 specifically states that they stayed there for around a year, and during that time, I would believe that Paul was using this time to recover (specifically from his escape from prison in Acts 12) and as to further the church in Antioch during his time there, perhaps specifically getting ready for the call in Acts 13:1-3 and to his further mission.
    If Antioch was the location as to where Christians were preaching to non-Christians, such as Greeks (Acts 11:20), then Paul and Barnabas being at Antioch explains why the Holy Spirit sent them, as they had the experience (as well as Paul was called by the Lord to preach to the Gentiles) and while it is not written down, it is possible that they both would have had an reputation at this point (Paul with his past, and Barnabas traveling with Paul) that may or may not have travelled ahead of them. Regardless, it is certainly possible that one of the reasons that Paul and Barnabas was called by the Holy Spirit was by the location they were at, Paul being converted on the Damascus Road, and the continuing legacy from this point onwards in Acts.

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