Once again in these verses, we see the result of the persecution that forced so many believers to flee Jerusalem; they were dispersed a long way, and they took the gospel with them. Naturally, those who fled Jerusalem only shared the gospel with other Jews, since they all knew how filthy gentiles were, but here we begin to see an interesting thing happen, for when they shared Christ with Jews in faraway places, such as Cyprus, they brought men into the faith who did not share their cultural and social disgust for gentiles, and these new believers shared Jesus with gentiles and thought nothing about it (11:20-21). These new Christians had grown up in gentile lands; they had been accustomed to mixing with gentiles, unlike their brethren back in Judea…
That’s how the city of Antioch comes into the story; these men took the gospel to Antioch. A modern day reader may not see why this is so important at first because Antioch which was in Syria in the first century is actually located in modern day Turkey; tourists visit there today to see, among other things, the ruins of the ancient city. Yet in the first century it was one of the principle cities of the Roman Empire, the third largest, boasting a population of about 500,000. Because of its strategic location, it was the bridge between the Western and Eastern parts of the Empire; only Rome and Alexandria were bigger. It was a very cosmopolitan city, a crossroads, they key to all travel between Jerusalem and Rome. Thus, a strong church in Antioch was critical if the gospel was to spread to the West from Judea in that age, since the ships of the day could not cross directly across the sea, because they had to stay much closer to shore or they couldn’t navigate.
Yep, Antioch was the key point on the map; the most strategic location of all for God’s eternal plan to move forward.
When I talk to people, they often express some frustration because they have a hard time discerning how God operates in the world today, in their lives today. This may sound odd to you, but most often I find that these good folks don’t much care for history, and in fact, most people today haven’t ever really studied history; it’s too boring, too dusty and of course completely irrelevant. The problem with this kind of thinking is this: With an understanding of God’s movements in Scriptural history, like our text here, His movements in the history of the past 2,000 years, particularly as it relates to redemption and spiritual warfare, are fairly easy to see; they almost jump off of those dusty old pages and hit you in the face. Once you see enough of those, there is a pattern that develops, and that pattern begins to jump off the pages of the newspaper, and His workings today are discernible.
Notice I did not suggest that the newspaper or current events help us to discern the meaning of Scripture, but Scripture and history can help us understand the newspaper; this is very important to keep straight.
My point here is simply this: If we look carefully at Acts, if we don’t allow ourselves to get caught up in small details, if we resist the temptation to be looking for little proof texts to support our favorite doctrinal hobby horses, we will actually begin to see the great chessboard, where God makes His moves and where the Deceiver makes his counter-moves, as God’s great eternal plans sweep across the known world and into our everyday lives.
Make no mistake; there really is nothing new under the sun.
So the gospel moves into Antioch and many come to believe as Barnabas comes into the city from Jerusalem. The gentiles there are quite receptive, and Barnabas has this brilliant idea…
“I wonder what old Saul is up to over in Tarsus.” Tarsus isn’t far from Antioch, and Barnabas decides to visit him, and persuades him to go to Antioch with him where they work together for a full year to build the church there, and with that, Saul, who had been called by Jesus Himself to be the Apostle to the Gentiles comes out of seclusion and into the forefront of building the church, largely made up of gentiles, in the city that was the key to the spread of the gospel into the West.
What do you think, dear reader; had God planned it this way, or was it mere happenstance?
By the way I might have forgotten to mention that secular historians often call Antioch “the cradle of Christianity”.