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).
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?