I participated in a recent study of the church in Antioch in the book of Acts. It was awesome! So much so that I wanted to take a break from commenting on current social stuff and blog on six takeaways from studying “one of the great theological centers of the early church.”
- First called Christians
This is the most well-known aspect of the Antioch church: “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26b).
In the context of Scripture, this church was formed in Antioch as a result of persecution that started after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19). This was an amazing work of the Lord as a large number of people joined the Antioch fellowship (Acts 11:21).
Word got back to the Jerusalem church about this thriving body of believers, so they sent Barnabas, the greatly-admired “encourager,” who “saw the grace of God” when he arrived (Acts 11:23). It makes me wonder what exactly Barnabas saw that would be described in such magnificence.
Barnabas, though, knew what to do, as the church continued to grow in “large numbers of people” (Acts 11:24). He got Paul involved, which kicked off the great apostle’s ministry. Barnabas and Paul spent a year teaching this church, and Acts 11:26 caps off this introduction of Antioch by proclaiming the church members were the first ones to be identified as Christians.
Scholars have said this label may have been originally intended to be a mockery, as the Greek noun Christianos could mean “little Christs.” However, it became an honoring title that has been used for centuries around the world.
Also, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the Bible. Obviously Acts 11:26 is the first mentioning, but Acts 26:28 mentions King Agrippa being “almost persuaded” to becoming a Christian. The final passage that has the term is in 1 Peter 4:16, where Peter says if anyone suffers as a Christian, they should not be ashamed.
- Who were the founders?
One interesting aspect I found of the book of Acts is how there are not many specific names mentioned of this great movement among Christians in the early churches. Of course, we read about Paul and Peter and their companions whom God used. But the actual founders of the church in Antioch are not listed by name. Barnabas and Paul are mentioned, but they didn’t come on the scene until after the church was founded.
The founders were said to have come from Cyprus and Cyrene and went to Antioch, sharing the Gospel of Jesus (Acts 11:20). But we don’t know exactly who they are.
The reason I find this interesting is it’s basically counter opposite from the Old Testament history books. There are names, names and more names listed of who begat whom. Even the early chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel narratives gives long lists of people who were in lineage of Christ.
I’m open to discussion on this, but I’m guessing Luke, who wrote Acts, kept the majority of the church members anonymous because of the oppression by the Romans. I also think a reason we don’t know the founders is in order to see the work of the Holy Spirit. That is the main emphasis of the book of Acts – showing the work of God through the Holy Spirit.
- The church helped others in need
“Each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers and sisters who lived in Judea” (Acts 11:29).
One of the Antioch church members was named Agabus who made it known by the Holy Spirit that a famine would happen throughout the Roman Empire. So what does this church body do? They planned ahead and were ready to help other churches when the famine hit. You could say this was a demonstration of the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention, helping other churches as they are jointly involved in sharing the Gospel.
- The church was multiracial
The church in Antioch also was founded after God was made it known to Peter (Acts 10-11) the Gospel is available to Gentiles. Depending on translation, Acts 11:20 says the church founders were preaching to Greeks or Gentiles.
There are other church leaders who come from different ethnic backgrounds. Acts 13:1 gives a diverse list of teachers. One came from Africa, and another was described to be a family friend of King Herod. This needs to be stressed today, how the Gospel does not discriminate, regardless of heritage or reputation. It is open to all people.
- Equipping was important
This church demonstrated the many tools of discipleship. They worshiped, fasted and prayed (Acts 13:2-3). They heard great teaching and preaching from Paul, Barnabas and others. They were accepting and supporting others.
I am curious what the regular meeting schedule for the church was like. Acts 14:28 says Paul and Barnabus “spent a considerable time with the disciples.” And these were great Christian thinkers who sought the wisdom of God through studying the Scriptures.
- Reconciling and rejoicing
Just like many other churches, Antioch was not without controversy. Though the church consisted mostly of Gentiles, some men from Judea came down and taught that circumcision was needed for salvation (Acts 15:1). Considering the time, this was a difficult issue to process, especially since Christianity originated from Jewish culture, which had firm belief in keeping the law of Moses.
Church leaders handled this diplomatically and met with the leaders of Jerusalem. A letter was written as a result of the meeting, letting Antioch church members know they were accepted while also advising them what principles they should follow (Acts 15:22-29).
The letter was received happily, and the church rejoiced (Acts 15:31). They understood the life principles that were important and what traditions or customs were unnecessary or non-essential.
I pray many churches today would learn and follow the example of the church in Antioch.