Luke gives us a picture of a flourishing church in Acts 11:19-30, showing us the church in Antioch. Antioch in Syria (not to be confused with Antioch in Pisidia) was a cosmopolitan city founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. John Stott tells us he named it ‘Antioch’ after his father, Antiochus, and its port, 15 miles west along the navigable river Orontes ‘Seleucia’ after himself. Over the years it became known as ‘Antioch the Beautiful’ because of its fine buildings, and by Luke’s day it was famous for its long, paved boulevard, which ran from north to south and was flanked by a double colonnade with trees and fountains. Although it was a Greek city by foundation, its population (500,000) was extremely cosmopolitan. It had a large colony of Jews, attracted by Seleucus’ offer of equal citizenship, and Orientals too from Persia, India and even China, earning it another of its names, ‘the Queen of the East.’ Since it was absorbed into the Roman Empire by Pompey in 64 B.C. and became the capital of the imperial province of Syria (to which Cilicia was later added), its inhabitants included Latins as well. Thus Greeks, Jews, Orientals and Romans formed the mixed multitude of what Josephus called ‘the third city of the empire’, after Rome and Alexandria.
There can be no doubt that the formation of the church at Antioch was an event of great significance in the expansion of the church and its mission to the Gentiles. We don’t know which of the believers scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom was responsible for its formation, but men from Cyprus (like Barnabas) and Cyrene (like Simon who carried the Lord’s cross or Lucius, mentioned in Acts 13:1) took the word of God to this city and it was from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul, who worked here for a year, were launched as missionaries. (Acts 13:1-4). In this chapter, we see Jerusalem responding to the work of God by sending Barnabas to help, and Barnabas not only encouraged them to serve God whole-heartedly but worked alongside them with Saul, and we then later see Antioch responding to God’s word by sending Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem with a gift to help in times of famine. The influence of this church, which appears to have embraced Gentiles with welcome and sound teaching, cannot be over-estimated. Generosity, faith, teachability and whole-heartedness were characteristics which made the church at Antioch stand out. May these characteristics be ours today.