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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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