What is the history and significance of the church at Antioch?The church at Antioch was located in Antioch of Syria and was about 7,000 miles travel distance from Jerusalem. It became a haven for Christians fleeing persecution (Acts 11:19). Acts 11:26 tells us that it is the first city where believers were called Christians, making it an important place on the map of the early Church.
As a large city in the first-century Roman era, Syrian Antioch had a sizeable population of well-to-do Jews. It became a strong, early location for the church and is chronicled for us in Acts 11:20–21: "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. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord."
This report made its way back to the persecuted church at Jerusalem. So, they sent Barnabas to learn more. A trusted, godly man, Barnabas loved what he was seeing and so went to get Paul (still referred to as Saul at this point) to come back with him. They stayed a year, teaching and ministering (Acts 11:22–26). From the record of the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was mightily present and many prophets went there.
Besides the exciting move of the Holy Spirit, Antioch is important because several large issues were decided as the church grew and encompassed both Jew and Gentile, as God had always intended.
Acts 15 tells us how Paul and Barnabas represented the Antioch church to a council at Jerusalem. Some had come to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas vehemently disagreed. Paul, Barnabas, and some others from Antioch went to Jerusalem to talk with the apostles and elders about the issue. After debate on the matter, Peter, a recognized leader, shared, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15:7–11).
Paul and Barnabas told more about God's work among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). Then James, the half-brother of Jesus and a leader of the church at Jerusalem, reminded them how Scripture foretold of Gentile inclusion (Acts 15:13–18). "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:19–20). The apostles and elders wrote a letter that Paul and Barnabas, along with men from Jerusalem, delivered to the church at Antioch (Acts 15:22–35).
This would turn out to be a major turning point in the church that helped them resolve further disputes as they figured out how to be a new people of God. The Jews were bringing hundreds of years of history, tradition, and ritual with them and had to figure out how to live as Christians. Likewise, the Gentiles, including those who formerly participated in pagan worship, had to learn to live as Christians, too. It was a new era of grace that they were all learning to understand together and work out. The church at Antioch grew so quickly that it forced many issues that could have laid dormant for years.
The church at Antioch is also known as being the homebase for Paul for his missionary journeys. Acts 13:1–3 describes the church commissioning the first journey. "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off." Paul would continue to return to Antioch and share of the work God had done, and continue to go from there on other missionary journeys (Acts 14:24–28; 15:36–41; 18:18–23).
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