Studies in the Book of Acts

Acts 11:19-30

The Church Expands to Syria
Acts 11:19-30

Preaching expands (11:19)

Regardless of doubts and questions by some of the members, the Jerusalem mother congregation confirms Peter’s action in baptizing the first Gentiles living in Judea. More importantly, God is showing his will that Gentiles should receive salvation and become part of the spiritual community, the church.

The stage is now set for Gentile evangelization. Luke is ready to launch into the main theme of his book, which is to show the expansion of gospel and the church throughout the Roman world. Luke leaves Peter in Jerusalem, to whom he will return in chapter 12 and then again briefly in chapter 15. After that, we won’t hear of him again, and Luke will focus on Paul.

Antioch (11:20)

Luke begins his story of the Gentile mission by recounting the proclamation of the gospel by Hellenistic Jews in Syrian Antioch. This city will soon become the staging area and springboard for missionary activity to other parts of the Roman Empire. It will also serve as kind of second headquarters area for the growing church. Antioch, the largest city of Syria, is on the Orontes River, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and 20 miles inland from the Mediterranean. We should not confuse the ancient province of Syria with modern Syria, though the two overlap. The region of ancient Antioch is now in the southeastern corner of Turkey, and the Turkish city is called Antakya.

Josephus calls Antioch “the third city in the habitable earth that was under the Roman empire.” [Wars 3:29.] Antioch has between 500,000 and 800,000 people. Only Rome and Alexandria are larger. According to Josephus, the city has a particularly large Jewish population. [Ibid., 7:43.] Antioch is the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It is also an important commercial and economic center. The agricultural produce of the hinterland, and of the East, is shipped through Antioch, and then to destinations around the Mediterranean. Culturally, first-century Antioch is a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences. The city is also known for its loose morals.

The city was not only known for its sophistication and culture but also for its vices. The beautiful pleasure park of Daphne was a center for moral depravity of every kind, and the expression Daphnici mores became a proverb for depraved living. The Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 60-140) aimed one of his sharpest gibes at his own decadent Rome when he said the Orontes had flowed into the Tiber (Satirae 3.62), flooding the imperial city with the superstition and immorality of the East. [Longenecker, 399.]

The church in Antioch

When Luke opens his narrative, a flourishing church community in Antioch already exists. It will play a prominent part in his history of the gospel. No other city apart from Jerusalem appears as frequently in Luke’s story. For now, he portrays it as the church where the mission to the Gentiles in general begins (11:19-26). Antioch will soon become a mission-sponsoring church, sending Paul and Barnabas on tours of evangelism (13:1-3). Paul will use Antioch as his home base of operations.

The debate over Gentile religious life-styles will also come to a head in this city (14:26-15:2). A crisis will occur in Antioch over table fellowship when Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles after “certain men came from James” (Galatians 2:12). Luke, more interested in the unity of the church, does not mention this divisive event. It is in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas will separate their missions (15:36-40). The final time we will hear about Antioch is when Paul visits the church before beginning his final evangelistic tour (18:22).

Scattered Jews preach (11:19-21)

Luke introduces his Antioch story by referring back to “those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed” (11:19, referring to 8:1). Earlier, he mentioned these Hellenistic Jews as people who “preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). We’ve already learned that they went throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). Now we discover that they are as far as Phoenicia (north of Caesarea), the island of Cyprus, and Antioch (11:19).

These exiled Jews from Jerusalem living in the areas Luke mentions preached the gospel, but only to other Jews (11:19). These individuals are pushing out beyond the areas where Peter and Philip have done missionary work — but not yet to Gentiles.

But then some Christian Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene come to Antioch and they begin to speak “to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (11:20). Unfortunately, the Greek text is somewhat unclear at this point. Some manuscripts have the word Hellenas (“Greeks”), but others read Hellenistas, which could mean “Grecian Jews.” However, the context indicates that these are Gentile Greeks and not Hellenistic Jews who are being evangelized. It would make little sense for Luke to say that the Antiochian Christians preach at first only to Jews (11:19), but then begin to speak to other “Jews” (11:20). Almost all of the Jews in Cyprus and Antioch are Hellenistic Jews. The Gentiles being reached here are most likely Gentiles who already have an interest in Judaism, for they would be more likely to have social contacts with these traveling Jews.

Cyprus and Cyrene (11:20)

Luke mentions in particular that the Jews preaching to Greeks are from Cyprus and Cyrene. Cyprus is an island in the eastern Mediterranean, near Antioch. Cyrene is in North Africa, in the territory included in Libya today. Jews from Cyrene are among those who had opposed Stephen (6:9). The Cyrenian Christian Jews may have come directly from Cyrene to Antioch. Or they may have been living in Jerusalem, and were converted after Stephen’s death. Perhaps the Lucian of Cyrene that Luke mentions later is one of these missionaries (13:1). Barnabas may also be one of these pioneers, as he came originally from Cyprus (4:36).

We don’t know what causes these individuals at Antioch to begin preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Luke presents the situation casually, as though no controversy occurs over it. It may be a gradual development, since Gentiles often attend synagogues. Or these dispersed Christian Jews may know about the conversion of Cornelius, and take it as a precedent, which it is. They preach a message about Jesus as Lord, rather than announcing him as the Messiah. Or in Luke’s words, they tell “the good news about the Lord Jesus” (11:21). The word “Lord” is more meaningful in Hellenistic culture; the word “Messiah” would appeal less to a Gentile audience.

The apostles are not in the forefront of missionary activity to non-Jews, just as they were not the leaders in Samaria. Although these people were probably leaders in the church at the time, they are nameless and unknown to us. They begin the process of widespread Gentile evangelization. Another decisive moment in the history of the apostolic church is occurring without the presence of the apostles.

He [Luke] emphasizes the part played by anonymous believers in spreading Christianity. Without detracting from the massive contribution of Paul or ignoring the significant roles of Peter and Philip, Luke makes it plain, as he has already done in the case of the [Judean] Christian communities, that so also, farther afield in Phoenicia and Cyprus, the gospel was first proclaimed by men whose names have not been recorded. [Neil, 143.]

Reacting to the urging of the Spirit, these unnamed Christians reap the harvest God provides. Luke tells us “the Lord’s hand was with them” as they preached (11:21). The Holy Spirit validates their testimony, and as a result “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11:21).

Barnabas is sent to Antioch (11:22)

It isn’t long before the church at Jerusalem hears about the large number of Gentile converts in Antioch. They decide to dispatch a delegation to check on the situation, as they did in the case of the Samaritan conversions (8:14). Perhaps some in Jerusalem are fearful that the evangelistic program is out of control. There may be a fear that if Gentiles come into the church in large numbers, they may overwhelm the Jewish cultural heritage. The issue of whether Gentile converts have to become practicing Jews has not yet been solved. This, too, may be a concern.

Jerusalem’s reaction is not necessarily hostile or fearful. Peter and John were sent to the Samaritans to establish a relationship with the Christians in Samaria. What they did was positive, in that the two apostles put a stamp of approval on the evangelization of Samaria, and drew Christian Jews and Samaritans more closely together. Jerusalem is still the residence of the Twelve (8:1). They are looked upon as those who are specially called and empowered to lead the church. Thus, it is natural for Jerusalem to act as overseer.

The man chosen to represent Jerusalem in Antioch is Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus. Earlier, Luke mentioned that he has an outstanding reputation for piety and generosity among the believers at Jerusalem, and that he is respectful of the apostolic leadership (4:36-37). Thus the apostles can have total confidence in his analysis of the situation in Antioch. At the same time, Barnabas is a Jew from the Dispersion in Cyprus. He is a compatriot of people who established the church at Antioch (11:20). He can act as the link between the Hebrew and Hellenistic elements in the church. Thus, on two counts, Barnabas is the right choice to head the delegation.

Preaching is encouraged (11:23-24)

Barnabas has the nickname “Son of Encouragement” (4:36). He certainly lives up to his name in evaluating the progress of the gospel at Antioch. Luke says that when Barnabas sees “what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them” (11:23). How Barnabas knows the grace of God is working is not stated. Presumably the fact that so many Gentiles are accepting Jesus as Savior is considered proof in itself. Perhaps the evidence is in changed lives, or in a display of the gifts of the Spirit. Barnabas doesn’t find any defects in the new converts’ faith or theology. He simply encourages both missionaries and converts “to remain true to the Lord” (11:23).

While Luke doesn’t make an issue of it, the arrival of Barnabas in Antioch could have resulted in a crisis for the church. If he reacted negatively to the Gentile conversions, then the advance of the gospel at Antioch, and Paul’s future work, could have been derailed. But Barnabas is specially equipped to be able to see the hand of God at work in Antioch. He is, as Luke paints him, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24). Thus, he has the spiritual insight to recognize where and how God is working.

Barnabas brings Saul to Antioch (11:25)

Luke has said nothing about Paul’s whereabouts or work since he left Caesarea for his hometown of Tarsus (9:30). Though Luke does not mention it, Paul has probably been preaching the gospel message in his home area of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21), just as he had preached near Damascus (Acts 9:22). During these blank years, which some commentators say is nearly a decade, the Jerusalem church hears a report about his preaching. Paul summarizes their reaction in these words: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23-24).

The Jerusalem church and apostles praise God for the progress of the gospel, but apparently they make no effort to contact Paul. In the same way, there is no indication that Paul has any association with the church at Antioch, though Tarsus is not that far away from Tarsus. What is he doing then, and where is he?

It is certain that in some way Saul continued preaching after leaving Jerusalem and that this was known back in Jerusalem. Perhaps the five lashings he received at the hands of the synagogue authorities (2 Corinthians 11:24), together with some of his other afflictions and hardships enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, occurred during those days in Tarsus, for they find no place in the records of his later missionary endeavors…. It also may have been during this period that he began to experience the loss of all things for Christ’s sake (cf. Philippians 3:8) through being disinherited by his family. [Longenecker, 402.]

During Barnabas’ stay in Tarsus, there are large-scale conversions at Antioch (11:24), just as there were before his arrival (11:21). The extent of Barnabas’ ministry is expanding so rapidly that he needs a co-worker. Barnabas is convinced that Paul will be the perfect choice to help evangelize Antioch. He already acted as Paul’s patron when he encouraged the Jerusalem church to accept him (9:27). Now, Barnabas again becomes Paul’s advocate. He goes to Tarsus looking for Paul, and finds him (11:25). The two of them return to Antioch, and teach large numbers of people for a year.

There’s one small point of interest that we should notice in connection with Paul’s rising star. In Acts 11:25 and in some succeeding passages, Luke mentions Barnabas first and Paul second (12:25; 13:1, 2, 7). But soon, he will shift the order, putting Paul first (13:43). However, Luke will again place Barnabas first (14:14; 15:12, 25), though Paul will be in first position at times (13:46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35). There seems to be no consistency to this except that Luke balances the relationship. Each is listed in first position eight times.

They are called Christians (11:26)

During the time of church expansion at Antioch, outsiders begin to call the disciples by the term “Christian” (11:26). In the Greek noun form it is Cristianoi. This is a way of verbally identifying a follower of a group. For example, those of the party of Herod are Herodianoi. TheCaesariani are those who belong to the party of Caesar. Members of one of the major Jewish religious sects are the Pharisaioi.

“Christian” is not a term the disciples generally use for themselves. They prefer such names as “brothers,” “disciples,” or “saints.” The two other occurrences of the word “Christian” in the Bible are references to the church made by outsiders such as Agrippa (Acts 26:28) and persecutors in general (1 Peter 4:16). “It appears to have originated, therefore, as a somewhat slighting designation given not by the ‘believers’ themselves but by hostile observers (see also Tacitus, Annals 15.44).” [Johnson, 205.]

The use of the name “Christian” by outsiders may indicate that people in Antioch realize that the church is not just another sect of Judaism — it includes Gentiles as well. This realization is risky to the church. As long as it is seen as another variant of Judaism, the church is better able to obtain protection from Rome as a religio licita — a legal religion. Judaism has long enjoyed such protection, and it would be helpful for the church to continue to claim that umbrella for itself.

Of course, there is a continuity between Judaism and the church. Both believe in the one God of Israel; both claim the same Holy Scriptures; both espouse a similar moral code. (Even today we speak of the “Judeo-Christian” ethic.) The decisive difference, of course, is that the church places its faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the author of salvation. Outsiders would see a practical difference, too: Jews tended to keep to themselves, whereas the Christians were eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:12).

Prophets from Jerusalem (11:27)

Luke now breaks off his discussion of the church’s mission in Antioch to tell his readers about some church prophets who come from Jerusalem. However, he mentions only a single prophecy by a man named Agabus.

Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28Ephesians 4:11). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2:20). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14:29-33Ephesians 3:5).

Prophets in the Old Testament had a dual function, to foretell and to forth-tell. In speaking forth, they foretold the future and/or told God’s will. Agabus apparently is known for his foretelling, that is, his predictions. We shall hear from him again later in Acts (21:10).

Agabus tells of famine (11:28)

At Antioch, Agabus prophesies “through the Spirit” that a severe famine will spread over the entire Roman world (11:28). Luke wants his readers to understand that Agabus’ prediction is not a hoax. The Holy Spirit inspires him, and thus his prophecy has important meaning for the church. Agabus apparently doesn’t say exactly when the famine will occur. But Luke, writing many years after the event, inserts the parenthetical statement that, “This happened during the reign of Claudius” (11:28). Emperor Claudius rules from A.D. 41-54.

In speaking of a severe famine that will spread over the entire “Roman world,” Luke uses the Greek word oikoumene. It literally means the “inhabited world,” and is commonly used to refer to the Roman Empire, in Latin the orbis terrarum. We have no record of a single famine ravaging the whole empire in the time of Claudius. However, there is good supporting evidence from secular historians that extensive famines did occur throughout his reign. Agabus may mean that a series of famines in various parts of the empire would strike at different times. Taken together, the Roman Empire as a whole suffers from famine.

A number of Roman historians refer to various crop failures and famine conditions during the reign of Claudius. [Suetonius, Life of Claudius 18.2; Tacitus, Annals 12.43; Dio Cassius, History of Rome 60.11; Orosious, History 7.6.17.] Josephus writes of a severe famine that hits Judea in what is thought to be about A.D. 45-47. [Antiquities 20:49-53, 101; 3:320-321.]

F.F. Bruce says, “We know from other sources that Claudius’s principate was marked by a succession of bad harvests and consequent scarcity in various parts of the empire — in Rome, Greece, and Egypt as well as in Judaea.” [230.] This includes famine conditions in Rome itself at the beginning of Claudius’ rule, in Egypt during his fifth year, throughout Greece in his eighth or ninth year, and in Rome again between his ninth and eleventh year. Suetonius speaks of “a series of droughts” that cause “a scarcity of grain” that hits Rome especially hard. [Claudius 18.2.]

Josephus tells the story of Helena, queen-mother of the territory of Adiabene, and a Jewish proselyte. [Antiquities 20:49-53.] During a severe famine in Judea, she purchases grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus. Helena has these transported to Jerusalem for distribution to the famine-stricken population. Meanwhile, her son King Izates sends a large sum of money to the Jerusalem authorities to be used for famine relief. Josephus said this famine occurs during the rule of Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Julius Alexander. [Ibid., 20:101.] That would be between A.D. 44 and 48.

Disciples help other believers (11:29)

Just as queen Helena and her son Izates helped the Jews in Jerusalem, the disciples at Antioch organize a relief fund for the mother-church. Luke says, “As each one was able, [they] decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea” (11:29). The members apparently contribute money and goods to this special fund. In a later collection, organized by Paul for the churches in Judea, he advises that the Greeks should “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Corinthians 16:2).

Luke’s mention of the relief fund for Judea ends the section on Antioch. It may seem to be an abrupt conclusion, but it is a fitting one. In the words of William Willimon, “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” [108.] Thus, the Gentile and Hellenistic Christians of Antioch prove their faith and love (and their unity with the mother church) by sharing their material possessions with those less fortunate. While less dramatic than the story of the Jerusalem Christians sharing their goods (2:44-45 and 4:32-37), this also illustrates the continuing church practice to aid its poor.

The church, under the encouragement of its leading apostles, will “continue to remember the poor,” something that Paul says he is “eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Paul will call his own future multi-church relief fund a “contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-31, with 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8-9).

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. But the brothers and sisters in Antioch save the day.

Gift is sent to elders (11:30)

Once the relief fund is collected, Barnabas and Paul carry it to the elders in Jerusalem for disposition (11:30). This is the first time “elders” are mentioned in the church at Jerusalem, and they now seem to have charge of the relief fund. Earlier, the apostles delegated this responsibility to people who were known as the “Seven” (6:1-6). Perhaps some of them, as well as others, became known as “elders.” Apparently, elders are leaders appointed to serve in the churches (14:23; 20:17). They seem to function just below the apostles (15:4, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18).

Perhaps more than coincidentally, “elders” is the name given to leaders of Jewish synagogues. With the influence of Judaism strong in the early church, it’s possible that the early church is following the Jewish form of organization, at least to some degree.

Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:30)

Paul brings the relief fund to Jerusalem; this brings up the question of the relationship of this visit to the two visits he mentions in Galatians (1:18; 2:1). Most commentators correlate the first visit of Galatians with the one of Acts 9:26-29, and that is not a problem. The real question revolves around the second visit of Galatians 2:1-10, the one he makes 14 years after his conversion. Often, this is identified with Paul’s trip to attend the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Others, however, feel that this visit correlates better with the famine-relief visit here in Acts 11. In the words of Richard N. Longenecker, “The simplest solution that provides the most satisfactory and convincing reconstruction and leaves the fewest loose ends” is to correlate the visit of Galatians 2:1-10 with this famine visit of Acts 11. [Longenecker, 405.] If that be the case, then Paul’s comment that he goes to Jerusalem “in response to a revelation” (Galatians 2:2) is explained by Acts 11:28. The revelation is Agabus’ prophecy of famines around the Empire. That means that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a third visit to the city, one he doesn’t mention in Galatians. (Perhaps Galatians was written before he went to Jerusalem for the Acts 15 council.)

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012