In Acts 11:19-30 we are introduced to the church in Antioch a bustling metropolis with a glorious history. Established by Seleucus Nicator who named it after his father, Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire with anywhere between 500,000 to 800,000 inhabitants. Noted for its beauty thanks to its location in the fertile plain of the Orontes River and close proximity to the Mediterranean the city also boasted privileged status as a “free city” meaning it had a measure of self-jurisdiction and was exempt from provincial taxes. There was a wide range of religious activity here as well. About five miles from the city a large cult center which blended the worship of the Greek goddess Daphne and her consort Apollo with the Assyrian goddess Astarte. The pagan worship center raked in large profits from cult prostitution which garnered disdain from Rome’s elite but continued to thrive nonetheless. The Jewish community was also strong. Some of the Hellenist Jews (who arrived after Stephen’s martyrdom; Acts 8:1) were active in local government but others seem to have remained a unit unto themselves with a small degree of self-government. With such a large degree of religious freedom and diversity the stage was set and the audience ready for the Gospel to be heard and embraced.
John Polhill in his commentary on Acts wrote, “Cosmopolitan center and port center that it was, it is not surprising that the Christians in Antioch caught the vision of an empire-wide mission”. Looking over the passages where this illustrious congregation is introduced to us reveals some characteristics that empowered the believers in Antioch to be as visionary and successful as Daniel Brodhead and Robert Brown. In 11:19-20 we see that the believers here “spoke to everyone”, both Jews and Gentiles in terms they understood. To the Jews, Jesus was the Messiah. To the Greeks, He was Lord; a term which was much more familiar to them. Their passion to share the Good News was not limited to a select few. As a result their numbers increased rapidly. Verse 21 records that these believers did not attribute their success to their own efforts but “recognized the hand of God was with them”. Why, because the massive increase of those who believed could only have been initiated by God and this was attested to by the work of the Holy Spirit. They were not solely involved with evangelism. They developed leadership (vv.24-26) and encouraged unity by supporting other believers who were in need (vv. 27-30). Of course their most notable contribution to the spread of the Gospel was the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3).
With such a fine example set before us, the passage depicting this congregation who holds the distinction of the first disciples to be called Christians (11:26) challenges us to look at our own congregations and see how we measure up. What kind of reputation does our church have in our community? Do our neighbors see us actively sharing the Gospel in word and deed? Are we developing leaders among us and sending others out from our own congregation? Are we supporting other churches who might be going through a struggle and need our help? Can we see the Holy Spirit working among us? Careful examination of the answers to these questions should both spur us on to do more and bring us to the Lord for direction. When our congregation is excited about accomplishing these tasks, we will join the ranks of those believers in Antioch who saw God at work in their city and beyond.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre