“Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord…Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” –Acts 11:19-21 & 25-26
I recently discovered Airbnb (I know, I know: where have I been) and my dad sent me an issue of the magazine he gets from them. What is pretty cool is this issue had an article that covers Antioch. Mind you, it’s an article mainly geared towards food, but the journalist did a good job in incorporating some cultural references and some history. As I read it I was reminded of how easy it is to read scriptures like the one above and kind of gloss over their location. Sometimes diving into research about a place someone from the Bible once experienced helps us to better see through their eyes.
While the city of Antioch is no more, it’s ruins sit close to Antakya in the province Hatay in Turkey. As Anya von Bremzen, the aforementioned journalist, describes it, it was “the Roman Empire’s third largest city…[where] Anthony and Cleopatra got married…Peter and Paul preached…Alexander the Great defeated Darius of Persia…silk and spice trade routes went through there under the Ottomans…France ran the region as part of post-Ottoman Syria, until Turkey got it back in 1939…and Indiana Jones went there chasing the Holy Grail”. (I need to re-watch Indian Jones; it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. I don’t recall Antioch in his journey for the Holy Grail, but it’s a pretty cool fact, if my nerdy self can say so.)
Returning to Antioch and how it was when Paul — back then, Saul — and Barnabas spent a year there, let’s look at some of the history they would have known. Luke (a physician, author of the Gospel Book of Luke and Acts, and close friend of Paul’s) wrote of some of the situations they were dealing with in the last part of Acts chapter 11:
“During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” –Acts 11:27-30
According to thebiblejournal.org, this famine occurred in 44 AD. Roman Emperor Claudius had taken the throne three years prior from his nephew, Tiberius, who was the grandson of Julius Caesar. (Too bad it’s not March 15th. Otherwise, this post might be a little poetic. Ba dum ba tsh.) Caesar himself grew up in a time when Alexander the Great’s (356 BC – 323 BC) name was used to encourage the people and the rulers of civilizations strived to be like him. In the book “The Great Empires of the Ancient World”, it was Alexander’s conquests that influenced most of the people in Syria and Mesopotamia to adopt the Greek lifestyle and culture as their own (p166).
That is why when those from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch they spoke to the Greeks. Antioch had over 300 years to grow in their knowledge of the Greeks before those of the faith reached them with the Gospel. There were probably many shrines, altars, and temples dedicated to the gods the Greeks worshiped. On top of that, there were Jews who either hadn’t heard or didn’t believe in Jesus. Imagine a small group of people, entrusted with the Gospel, having just witnessed Stephen’s death because Stephen shared the truth of Jesus, in the midst of all of this. Yet, still they had the courage, confidence, and boldness to share the Gospel with those around them. Because of their love for their Lord, those of Antioch called them Christians.
I have to wonder, as I sit here typing this, do we in our personal and spiritual lives live up to that title? Are we as brave as the men who served in Antioch to share the Gospel with those around us? Although my friends of the faith and I live in America where the Bible can be easily found, we have no excuse to slack. We are charged with the same task as our brothers and sisters who serve in countries where the Bible is illegal: to spread the Gospel. The only difference is they take the task seriously while some of us in the States are lax. I pray we rise up and do better; someone is missing out on the gift of eternal life and love because we’d rather be silent than possibly be a bother.
“News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” –Acts 11:22-24