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Antioch

Date: Mar. 9, 2014

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Acts 11:19-30

Key Verse: Acts 11:20

“Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”

This past week, we had a very special birthday. On Tuesday, March 4, we celebrated the 177th birthday of the city of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States. On March 4, 1837, the city of Chicago was incorporated and 177 years later, the city has a population of nearly 3 million people, up from 4400 at the first census. This city has had a colorful history from originally being a swamp to the Great Chicago Fire to the notorious gangsters of the 1930s to the skyscraper capital of the world to the home of the sitting US President. The city has 20 miles of lakefront and the second most beautiful road in the nation, Lake Shore Drive. Chicago is a hub for transportation where 1.14 million planes have operated from both airports just last year and countless trains have passed through. Chicago is the home to numerous cultural attractions like the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and the Art Institute of Chicago. We have an orchestra and an opera house, plus numerous theatres for plays and musicals. Chicago has sports teams like the White Sox, Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks, and top universities call Chicago home. The city is diverse and filled with colorful neighborhoods. The city still has its corruption, but it is also ripe for the gospel. A couple of thousand years ago, there was another city that was in a number of ways, like Chicago. The city was called Antioch and we learn about God’s work in this city in our passage today.

In last week’s passage, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household heard and accepted the gospel message and were saved. This was God’s sign that salvation was not for the Jews alone, but for all people of all backgrounds. God does not show favoritism to any person or group of people. God was prepping his church to expand in ways that people did not expect. This passage is part two of that expansion. The passage starts out, “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews.” (19) Back in chapter 7, Stephen was killed for his belief in Jesus. He was stoned to death. After Stephen’s death, a man named Saul started to persecute the church by rounding up believers and having them imprisoned. When this persecution broke out, many in the church scattered everywhere. We knew that some believers went to Samaria and Caesarea, which were not too far away from Jerusalem. We even knew that some believers went to Damascus, which was about 135 miles north of Jerusalem, but in this passage we find that some of the believers went even farther north to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, where this passage takes place. Antioch was about 450 miles from Jerusalem, which is about twice the distance from Chicago to Detroit.

That’s a long way to run. Why did the believers go all they way to Antioch? Well, Antioch is an interesting city. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria with 500,000 to 800,000 inhabitants at this time. It was the seat of power in the eastern portion of the empire, a title that it would retain until centuries later when Constantinople grew to prominence. This city was founded in 293 BC, about 350 years prior to this passage. It was a very young city at the time especially when compared to Jerusalem which was founded around 3000 BC. Seleucus I founded Antioch and named it after his father. Seleucus I was one of Alexander the Great’s generals. When Alexander died, the empire that stretched from Greece and Macedonia to Persia fell apart and eventually solidified into four different kingdoms, one of which Seleucus I ruled. Antioch is located on the Orontes River, 15 miles upriver from the Mediterranean Sea. Antioch’s location made the city extremely important. It was a commercial, economic, cultural, and militaristic hub. The spice trade, the Silk Road and the Persian Royal Road all passed by Antioch. Even though Alexandria was a larger city, because of political reasons, Antioch became the primary power in the Middle East for the Romans.

Religiously, Antioch was a mixture of faiths. There was worship of the Greek goddess Daphne and Apollo. There was worship of the ancient Assyrian goddess Astarte with ritual prostitution. Antioch was the center of worship for Hellenistic Jews and there were around 25,000 to 50,000 Jews living in the city. For all its prominence, Antioch was notorious throughout the Roman Empire for its immorality. It was like Vegas in that sense. What happens in Antioch stays in Antioch, except the venereal diseases, which you can never get rid of. At any rate, there was a large flourishing Jewish society in Antioch. It was the perfect place for Christians to flee to. There would be no persecution there because of all the mixture of faiths and it was far removed from Jerusalem.

As the passage says, when the refugee Christians came to Antioch they began to spread the gospel among the Jews. Christianity began as a cult of the Jewish religion, an offshoot or rather the fulfillment of Judaism. It made sense to only share the message with other Jews, but we have seen twice in the Bible already, that the gospel is even for Gentiles or non-Jews. We saw the gospel accepted by the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius and his family. With a city so large as Antioch, it mustn’t have been a stretch that some of the Gentile population would come to believe too. As the passage says, “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” (20) It’s not certain if sharing the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch began before or after Peter spoke to Cornelius, but looking at how it is arranged in the Bible, I believe that the author Luke wanted for us to come to that conclusion. The Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene may have heard what had happened with Peter and Cornelius and decided to share the gospel with other people besides Jews. It is interesting to note that when these Jews were teaching the Greeks about Jesus, they did not make a connection to Jesus the Messiah, but to Lord Jesus. The Gentiles would have little to no knowledge of the Messiah and its implication. To them, that was some abstract concept, but the concept of Lord was familiar to them.

The result of this preaching was astounding. “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” (21) Many people believed and turned to the Lord. Remember, this is a hotbed of immorality, this is Vegas and they believed. These people were generally considered to be the most immoral people, but they were the ones who believed. It sounds a little like what Jesus did. Jesus befriended public sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, but those were the people that were most receptive to God’s word. That’s the truth, isn’t it? Jesus said that he hadn’t come for the righteous but for sinners. Everybody needs Jesus, but the righteous are too blind to see their sins and their need for a savior. However, many of those who are publicly identified as immoral sinners know that the need to be rescued from their life. They know that there is no way for them to get out of their situation. They know that they need salvation and are elated when they hear about Jesus who saves us from our sins and the punishment that comes with them.

With what these men were doing in Antioch, the groundwork was being laid for a larger movement that could only start there. As has been mentioned before, it was a part of God’s plan for the Gentiles to come to believe in Jesus and turn to God, and the main place where that would begin was Antioch. Antioch was a prime place for the expansion of God’s church to begin, much better than in Jerusalem. The large population of Hellenistic Jews would be more receptive to reaching out to Gentiles because they had already adopted Greek culture in their lives and they were surrounded by a variety of people from the surrounding world. The people in Jerusalem didn’t have much care for the outside world. It was mostly seen as unclean, while Jerusalem was the Holy City. Jerusalem was also quite small with around 80,000 inhabitants. Actually Antioch and Jerusalem may have had roughly the same number of Jews in them, as Antioch had up to 50,000 Jews living in its limits. Compared to the metropolitan Antioch, Jerusalem was a little backwater. It’s easier to reach a large number of people from a hub of transportation, than it is from an isolated city.

When word reached Jerusalem about what was happening in Antioch, the sent Barnabas to Antioch. “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” (23) When we last saw Barnabas, he had taken the recent convert Saul under his wings and vouched for him. Barnabas was from Cyprus, an island that is about 100 miles off the Syrian coast, so it is possible that Barnabas had some familiarity with Antioch. It wasn’t too far away from his home. Plus, Barnabas was known to be man who knew who to encourage. Barnabas wasn’t his original name, it was something he earned while being a Christian, and it means Son of Encouragement. Also, this passage reminds us that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit and faith”. He was the perfect man to determine whether it was the Holy Spirit that was working or other forces.

When Barnabas arrived, he immediately knew that God’s grace was at work in Antioch. It was so apparent to him and he encouraged the people to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. There are churches where you can walk through its doors and immediately know that God is working there, and there are also churches that you can immediately know that God’s spirit has been squeezed out. What do you think? If a person were to walk through those doors, would it been readily apparent that God was at work here or would they think that God was dead? Is the Holy Spirit active in our hearts and minds or are we running on the fumes of our own strength? What do you think? It’s amazing to know that that is what it was like in Antioch. The Spirit was overflowing and large numbers of people were turning to God.

When Barnabas realized what was going on, he knew that he would need some help in Antioch. He didn’t choose anyone from Antioch to help him or even send word back to Jerusalem requesting additional help. Instead, Barnabas headed to Tarsus to look for Saul. Tarsus wasn’t that far away from Antioch and Barnabas must have remembered the power Saul had. By this point in time, however, Saul had been a Christian for around seven years and he had been in Tarsus for about four years. I don’t think that there was much of a church in Tarsus, so Paul would have been nearly alone in his faith for four years. I say this because when Barnabas went to go get Saul, the passage says that he had to look for him, like it was an extensive search. When he found Saul, Barnabas brought him back to Antioch and they worked together for a year teaching great numbers of people about Jesus.

This was the beginning of the dynamic duo, which would become the very first missionaries, as we will see in a couple of weeks. In this passage, we see the foundation for those journeys taking place. We see the pieces of the puzzle coming together, as God is moving his agents into place. Again, Antioch was the perfect place for this to come together. Antioch had the social, economic and geographic prominence to stand as the base of operations for three of Paul’s missionary journeys. He was sent out from Antioch and would always return there after his journeys. It was only for his fourth journey, which isn’t recorded in the Bible, that Paul moved his base of operations from Antioch to Rome because he was heading as far as Spain.

Having a base of operations in a large urban center is essential to the spreading of the gospel. If you look in the Bible, most of the time, it is preached in the cities not the countryside. This is because cities are the source of culture and influence for a region. As an example, most of Indiana is on the eastern time zone, but a number of counties that are close to Chicago actually follow central time because the people work in and do business with Chicago. These counties associate themselves more with Chicago, the large urban center closest to them, than to the culture of the rest of their state. You can see this with sports teams too. Which teams people like are heavily influenced by what city is closest. My parents live in a city downstate called Quincy. It is roughly 300 miles or a four and a half hour drive from here. It is also about two hours north of St. Louis and because of their proximity to both urban centers, there are people in Quincy who are Cubs fans and there are people who are Cardinals fans. Interestingly, I think that there are more Cardinals fans than Cubs fans simply because Quincy is closer to St. Louis than it is to Chicago.

Big things, like ideas, start in cities and spread to the surrounding areas. One reason that this happens is quite simply because cities are where the majority of the people are. Antioch had up to 800,000 people within its walls, so it was easier to reach those people in the city than to travel over the countryside looking for them. Urban centers are easy places to reach people because that is where the people are. People can be raised up in cities to be sent out to the surrounding region, and in this passage you see the pieces coming together for that to happen. Barnabas comes to Antioch and he goes and gets Saul from Tarsus. Also, the church begins to spread to the Gentiles. These are all pieces to God’s plan of spreading his gospel to the ends of the earth. Honestly, I don’t think that there was any human plan for this to happen, but it was God moving the pieces into place. Paul and Barnabas use this idea during their missionary journeys to have maximum impact, but at this point in time, from a human standpoint, it is all passively being done. God is doing all the work.

Like I said at the beginning, Chicago has a number of similarities to Antioch. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, while Chicago is the third largest city in the United States. Both cities are transportation hubs that have significant geopolitical and economic importance. Both cites are strongholds of culture. Both cities are relatively young with Antioch at around 350 years and Chicago at 177 years. Both cities are laid out in a grid system and were founded on rivers. Both cities have a variety of people in them. Antioch had probably the second largest Jewish population and Chicago has the second largest Polish population. I know that I am stretching now, but the similarities are interesting. Antioch was known as a hotbed of immorality and Chicago is known as a hotbed of corruption. We’re not that different here.

Let’s extend the comparison further. Because of what Antioch was, it was able to serve as a hub for Christianity, so much so that Antioch was the first place believers were called Christian. In the same light, Chicago has the potential to spread the gospel throughout the Midwest and all the central United States and Canada. This city can be a center of influence for God’s work. We can serve as an example for the rest of the region and the whole world. We can reach the ends of the earth because of all the foreign people. From this church alone, we have former members in Uganda, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, and China. We had this reach because they came to Chicago to study. We can reach the world. In the same way, we reach the rest of this country. We also have former members in Seattle, California, Minnesota, and New York. The sphere of influence that we have is not small and it extends nationally and globally. Sometimes we might wonder what difference we might be making. We are a small church on the near south side of Chicago. We don’t see droves of people coming to worship with us. It feels like we stare at the same faces week after week, but our influence is greater than we realize and there is great hope of what God can do through us and through this city. We just need to be willing to be used by God.

In Antioch, God’s hand was very strong. Our passage concludes, “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” (27-30) A prophet in Antioch named Agabus predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. God’s Holy Spirit was at work to warn his people about the famine and the church responded in a very positive way. They didn’t think to hoard food for themselves. Instead, they wanted to give to those in Judea. I thought that this was a little weird. There would be famine everywhere, including in Antioch and Judea, but those in Antioch were more concerned about those in Judea than their own welfare. It is a beautiful thing that may have to do with the fact the Antioch was more prosperous than Judea, but their selflessness is commendable particularly because it was entirely voluntary. No one was coerced into giving. Each person gave as they were able. Billionaires gave millions, millionaires gave thousands and the poor gave pennies. Every little bit helped and they sent the funds with Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem.

God was working mightily in Antioch and it was all preparation for what was to come. God was developing the city to become the center of Christianity, especially as the church became more Gentile and less Jewish. This passage mentions a great number of people three times, two of those times refer to great numbers of people coming to believe and the third time is when Barnabas and Saul are teaching there for a year. The city had a great environment for the church to grow. Because of all the religions, there wasn’t much persecution because who really cared for one more religion? It wasn’t something to get worked up about. That same pluralism also made it ripe for people to accept Jesus. They would have known how empty the faith was and could have tried many faiths only to find that they were the same. Then they could hear about Jesus and they could find true hope and purpose. It was great.

Our modern society is becoming increasingly pluralistic. Many Christians see this as a problem that needs to be attacked, but what it provides is an excellent opportunity. People have to be broken to come to Jesus and a pluralistic society provides a great way for people to quickly see how empty religion is. Religion gives us nothing but pain. But the gospel, the pure gospel unencumbered by additional attachments or biases, is a breath of fresh air. A pluralistic society can see how different the gospel really is and embrace it in droves. The Millennial generation, those born from around 1980 to 2000, is the largest generation to have ever existed. Millennials dwarf even the Baby Boomers. They have been coming of age now and are ready to hear the gospel message. We are quite possibly on the precipice of a new awakening and the conditions are ripe for it to begin here in our city, in Chicago.

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