19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:19-30 ESV
In this section, Luke begins to introduce yet another phase of the church’s continuing spread and growth. Back in chapter eight, he had described one of the ramifications of Stephen’s martyrdom. It was the increased persecution of the church, in part, because of the efforts of Saul. Yet, in spite of the intensification of the persecution, he said, “the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4 NLT). Then, by way of example, he chronicled Philip’s trip to the region of Samaria and all that happened as a result. Here in chapter 11, Luke picks up where he left off, letting us know that the persecution of the church had resulted in a dispersion of the Christians well beyond Samaria. The believers who fled Jerusalem “traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch” (Acts 10:19 ESV). But then Luke adds a telling detail, revealing that these Jewish believers kept their efforts to share the gospel restricted to their own people: The Jews. He says that they spoke the word to no one but Jews. This is significant because he shares it immediately after detailing the dramatic outcome of Peter’s journey to Caesarea, where Gentiles came to faith and received the anointing of the Spirit of God just as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. This provides us with an important insight into the early days of the church. As the church continued to grow and the gospel made its way outside the confines of Jerusalem and Judea, the effort developed multiple fronts, each seemingly with its own emphasis and distinct motivation. Those Jewish believers who escaped and made their way to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria, were still under the impression that this new religion was little more than a new branch of reformed Judaism. It was a religion of Jews and for Jews. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and had claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. So, it made sense that they would concentrate their efforts to share the gospel by focusing on fellow Jews. And, as Jews, the thought of sharing their new-found faith with a Gentile would never have crossed their minds. Remember, it had taken a vision and a word from God to get Peter to go to the home of Cornelius.
Cyprus, Phoenicia and Antioch were located hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and illustrate the ever-expanding reach of the gospel. Antioch, located in the region of Syria, was 300 miles from the city of Jerusalem and, at that time, would have been the third-largest city in the entire Roman empire. It was a bustling metropolis, made up of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. It is estimated that Antioch had a population of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people, with a seventh of them being Jews. As a city, it had a reputation for decadence and its citizens’ love of pleasure. And yet, Antioch would become a major hub for Christianity in the coming years.
As the believing Jews made their ways to these various destinations, they faithfully shared the good news regarding Jesus Christ. Luke tells us that, in Antioch, they included Hellenistic Jews in their target audience. And he records that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21 ESV). Even though they were restricting their outreach to Jews, God was blessing their efforts. And when news of what was happening in Antioch got back to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to check it out. When he arrived, Barnabas was greatly encouraged by what he saw and spent time exhorting those in the church there “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23 ESV). He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. It was not going to be easy to live out their new faith in the midst of a culture like that in Antioch. These people, as Jews, were already in the minority. Now, as believers, they were going to face further rejection by their own people. So, Barnabas felt compelled to strengthen the fledgling church by remaining with them for a prolonged period of time. And knowing he would need help, he traveled to Tarsus to enlist Saul in his efforts. This would begin an important new phase in the God-ordained ministry of Saul. And it is essential that we recognize God’s sovereign hand at work in all these details. Stephen’s martyrdom had resulted in persecution and the dispersion of the church. It had also resulted in Saul’s intensified efforts in that persecution, after he approvingly watched the stoning of Stephen. And yet, the resurrected Jesus had confronted Saul as he made his way to Damascus to arrest and round up Christians and, as a result, Saul had undergone a dramatic conversion. And some three years later, when Saul had traveled to Jerusalem, it had been Barnabas who acted as his host and sponsor, introducing him to the apostles and explaining the dramatic details behind Saul’s conversion. Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem felt compelled to send a representative to Antioch to investigate all that was going on, they just so happened to choose Barnabas. This was anything but a case of happenstance or blind fate. It was the hand of God. Barnabas was chosen because God had ordained it. And his arrival in one of the largest, predominantly Gentile cities in the Roman empire was something God orchestrated. Now, he would have Saul working by his side, a man whom Jesus had chosen to be His witness to the Gentiles. It’s important that we recall the words spoken by Jesus to Ananias, commanding him to go lay hands on Saul immediately after his Damascus road experience:
“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” – Romans 9:15 ESV
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.