Bible Book List
Acts 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » Acts » Chapter 11 » exegesis

The Gentile Mission at Antioch

Ancient Antioch was famous for its humor, especially the coining of jesting nicknames. When an organized brigade of chanting devotees of Nero led crowds in adulation, this band of imperial cheerleaders with their ludicrous homage was quickly dubbed Augustiani. And earlier, when the devotees of the one called Christ came to public attention, they were named Christianoi, partisans of Christ (11:26). What may have been first coined by outsiders as a term of derision (see Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet 4:16, the only two other New Testament occurrences of the term--both on the lips of hostile unbelievers), the followers of the Way embraced it as a fitting label.

Theophilus and his peers had heard the name, though not always distinctly. It was confused by many with Chrestianos, possibly deriving from Chrestos, "useful," a common name for a slave (compare Suetonius Claudius 25.4). What does it mean to be a Christianos, a Christian (Tacitus Annals 15.44; Suetonius Nero 16.2)? Luke clears this up for Theophilus and us by pointing to Antioch.Inclusive Evangelism (11:19-21)

To show the origin of the direct mission to the Gentiles, Luke picks up the thread of the story from Acts 8:4 and notes the geographical progress of Hellenistic Jewish Christians who spread the life-giving seed of the word (Lk 8:11) even as they were scattered by "affliction" (NIV persecution; compare Acts 14:22; 20:23) brought on by Stephen's martyrdom. They evangelized the Jews of Phoenicia--modern Lebanon, the coastal strip seven and a half miles wide and about seventy-five miles long from Cape Carmel north to the river Eleutheros. Congregations in Tyre, Sidon and Ptolemais were the fruit (21:4, 7; 27:3). They extended their mission to Cyprus, the location of a very early and now very large Jewish colony (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 282; compare Acts 4:36) and then on to "Antioch on the Orontes" in Syria. Three hundred miles from Jerusalem and fifteen to twenty miles east of the Mediterranean, it stood at a point where the Orontes River breaks through at the convergence of the Lebanon and Tauros mountain ranges.

Of the sixteen cities built by the Seleucid general Seleucus I Nicator and named for his father Antiochus, Syrian Antioch was the largest and most prosperous. With a population of over 500,000, including a Jewish colony of 70,000, and a thriving economy because of its strategic position at the crossroads of trade routes south to Palestine and Egypt, east to Persia and west to the Asia Minor peninsula, Antioch was justly called "Antioch the Great, Queen of the East." Josephus ranked it as the third greatest city of the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria (Josephus Jewish Wars 3.29).

This free city, capital of the Roman province of Syria, was "a melting pot of Western and Eastern cultures, where Greek and Roman traditions mingled with Semitic, Arab, and Persian influences" (Longenecker 1981:399). Cicero (Pro Archia 3) praised its art and literature. Juvenal referred to its reputation for immorality, writing of "the Orontes pouring pollution into the Tiber" (Satires 3.62)--the invasion of Rome by eastern superstition and profligacy (compare Barclay's [1976:89] description of the cult prostitution associated with the worship of Daphne and Apollo; the temple was near Antioch).

To such a city came Hellenistic Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene (a city on the Mediterranean coast of modern Tunisia) and directly evangelized Gentiles, while continuing the outreach to Jews (note also in v. 20). Luke gives us neither the motive nor the date of this bold new mission thrust. Because Luke sees Peter as the inaugurator of the witness to the Gentiles (15:7, referring to 10:1--11:18), and the church sends Barnabas and not the apostles to investigate the Gentile mission at Antioch, it appears that this witness follows Peter's preaching to Cornelius. Indeed, it may be consciously following Peter's precedent.

Preaching of the good news of the Lord Jesus to Gentiles points them to Christ's sovereignty and deity. "Many were trying to find in various mystery cults a divine lord who could guarantee salvation and immortality to his devotees" (Bruce 1988:225). The good news is that "this can be found in the Lord Jesus" (compare 10:36; 16:31; 20:21; 28:31).

The Lord's hand, an Old Testament metaphor for God's power and favor (Ezra 9:7; Is 66:14; compare Lk 1:66), is with this witness--not in signs and wonders (Acts 4:30; so Krodel 1986:207), for they are not explicitly mentioned here, but in the convicting and convincing work of the Spirit such that significant numbers believed and turned to the Lord (4:4; 6:7; 9:24; 10:27; 14:15; 15:19; compare 9:35; 26:18, 20).

Though Luke uses Lord interchangeably for the Father and the Son, if all the uses in 11:19-26 speak of Jesus, we learn the comprehensive role he plays in bringing salvation to the Gentiles. He is the gospel's content, power and goal. He is the sustainer and the identity of those who receive it.

In a day when a misapplication of church-growth theory's "homogeneous unit principle" can produce monocultural churches, God's blessing on inclusive evangelism across ethnic lines at Antioch is a necessary reminder of where God's heart is. While he may indeed give growth within homogeneous ethnic units, such units are not his ideal, and neither should they be ours.Authentic Growth (11:22-24)

Though Luke does not tell us the Jerusalem church's motive for dispatching Barnabas, the circumstances and the church's disposition are probably not unlike what we find in Acts 11:1-3. The church as a whole is sympathetic, which their choice of Barnabas indicates, but a segment, "those of the circumcision," are not so sure and need to be placated (Marshall 1980:202).

The Jerusalem church's action reflects a concern for continuity and accountability in the advance of the church's mission. Sometimes missionaries today hesitate to tell all that is happening in their work, believing that unorthodox strategies or methods required by crosscultural witness will not be understood by "the folks back home." The early church never manifested such lack of trust, and the resulting churches were the stronger for their willing accountability.

Barnabas authenticates this church growth both in his initial reaction, joy, and in his encouragement to perseverance. Unlike "those of the circumcision" in verse 2, but very much like the hosts of heaven (Lk 15:7, 10), Barnabas rejoices at seeing the evidence of the grace of God (Acts 11:23; NIV introduces the phrase the evidence of). The grace that Barnabas sees is not so much the change in lifestyle or the more manifest spiritual gifts (as Williams 1985:193), though these are undoubtedly present; rather, it is the great numbers of newly and soundly converted Gentiles. "In Acts grace is that power which flows from God or the exalted Christ and accompanies the activity of the apostles giving success to their mission" (Esser 1976:119; Acts 4:33; 15:11; 18:27; 20:24). Do we, with Barnabas, rejoice "at the spectacle of God's free favor, unlimited by racial or religious frontiers, embraced and enjoyed by all without distinction" (Bruce 1990:273)?

Barnabas, true to his name ("Son of Encouragement," 4:36), encourages (note continuous action imperfect parekalei) the Antioch believers to steadfast loyalty to the Lord (compare Josephus Jewish Antiquities 14.20; Wisdom 3:9; Lk 8:15). Note that the "glue" of their perseverance in salvation is a personal relationship with Christ embraced from the inside out, not the external mark of circumcision and Jewish practice. And such must be the case for new converts to Christianity from any culture. If the heart is first abiding in Christ as Lord and Savior, the new ways of living will necessarily follow as the person learns to walk according to God's will as revealed in his Word.

Luke now authenticates Barnabas, showing approval of this "bridge person's" authentication of the Gentile witness at Antioch. He attests his character as a good man (Lk 8:8, 15; compare 6:45). He presents that character's source: full of the Holy Spirit and faith (see comment at Acts 6:3; compare 6:5; 7:55). Instead of operating by sight, insisting that Gentiles show outwardly, through circumcision and ritual observance, what they claim to have happened inwardly, Barnabas chooses by faith to apply God's promise of a universal offer of salvation to the Antioch situation (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:21, 39). Finally, Luke tells us of the fruit of such character: numerical growth of the church (compare 2:41, 47; 5:14; 6:7; 8:6). In any age those full of the Spirit and good character, "faith" vision and fruitfulness will be on the cutting edge of the church's advance.Doctrinally Sound Nurture (11:25-26)

Though Luke does not give the motive, the explosion in numbers and the need to conserve the harvest through careful grounding in the faith may have moved Barnabas to recruit Paul, still called Saul (E. F. Harrison 1986:194). He travels northwest to Tarsus in Cilicia, east Asia Minor, to look for Saul in his hometown (the term implies a thorough search; compare Lk 2:44-45; Acts 9:30; 21:39; 22:3). For a whole year Barnabas and Saul work together in the church, teaching great numbers of people. As Luke uses the concept and as Paul articulates his calling (2 Tim 1:11), teaching (Christian nurture) and evangelism are not necessarily mutually exclusive activities (compare 4:2; 5:42). When the gospel and the Christian way of life are correctly understood, teaching and evangelism are distinct but must be seen as inseparable.

The believers are first called Christians at Antioch. Literally the verb means "to transact business." Hence to transact business under a particular name is to be known by that name (Bruce 1988:228).Holistic Liberality (11:27-30)

For Antioch to model fully what it means to be Christians, it must demonstrate orthopraxy by meeting physical needs (compare 2:42-47).

Antioch learns of a need through the word of prophets, Agabus in particular. Itinerant prophets ministered in the first-century church. They were evidence that the last days, the time of salvation, has dawned (2:17-18; Longenecker 1981:403). They "spoke revelation from the Spirit (1 Cor 14:29-30), usually in terms of edification and encouragement (1 Cor 14:3, 31) and even fundamental doctrine (Eph 3:4-5). But occasionally their ministry included prediction" (E. F. Harrison 1986:197). Prompted by the Spirit, Agabus "makes a prediction" (in extrabiblical usage this action points to enigmatic speech [Lake and Cadbury 1979:131], but not here, according to Haenchen [1971:374]): a great famine will spread over the entire Roman world. Luke tells us this prediction was fulfilled during Claudius's reign (see note). The entire Roman world, literally, is the inhabited world politically, not geographically. At this time it was often viewed as coterminous with the Roman Empire (Lake and Cadbury 1979:131; Marshall 1980:204). This prediction was probably made before Claudius's reign (A.D. 41-54; Bruce 1990:277).

Since we too live in the last days, should we in the church expect to find prophets foretelling the future? Christians are divided on this issue, based on beliefs regarding how the closing of the canon of Scripture relates to the presence of revelation today. That factor must certainly be taken into account. Any claims to divinely inspired prophecy must be tested and must meet the criteria in Scripture for true prophecy (Deut 18:20-22). Alleged divinely inspired prophecy must be completely fulfilled. Anything less is not biblical.

The church responds in holistic liberality. Each member as he or she is financially able--that is, from discretionary income (compare Lev 25:49; Acts 19:25)--decides what to give and contributes it to a fund for famine relief. Their liberality is holistic in two ways. First, it extends beyond spiritual concern--"we will pray that God provides for you in your affliction"--to practical physical aid. Hence the collection is labeled a "service" (diakonia; Acts 6:1; 12:25; Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 8:4). Second, this interchurch relief involves the receiving church serving the sending church--a mixed Jewish and Gentile congregation serving a Jewish assembly. Such unity is based on the conviction that the church is a body greater than any single congregation within any culture. This unity carries with it a responsibility for the well-being of all disciples, wherever they are (note the use of the terms disciples and brothers). Barnabas and Saul take this collection to the elders (see comment at Acts 15:2), who have emerged as the administrators of physical aid in the Jerusalem church after the evident dispersal of the "Seven" at Stephen's martyrdom.

In our time, in the Western world and increasingly elsewhere, decades of social legislation have made the state responsible for meeting the physical needs of our neighbors, including fellow Christians. Antioch's example, then, raises the hard question: How much personal responsibility do I feel for the physical needs of others, especially the church in the Two-Thirds World? Though we cannot meet every need that global news brings to our attention, we can still do something to live out the holistic liberality that is an essential mark of being Christians.

Previous commentary:
The Mission Continues and Faces Opposition

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.