Question: "What is the history and significance of the church at Antioch?"
Answer: The church at Antioch of Syria plays a crucial role in the book of Acts. Here believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). With its mixture of Jews and Gentiles, the church at Antioch became fertile ground for the growth and spread of Christianity and a model congregation in the early days of the new Christian church.
Antioch of Syria was one of the largest cities in the first-century Roman world, accommodating a population between 100,000 and 300,000. The city was home to a wealthy and thriving Jewish community. The first mention of Antioch in the New Testament is in reference to Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Christianity who was one of seven Greek-speaking (Hellenist) leaders chosen to serve as deacons at the church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1–7).
The city’s location at a chief trade intersection between Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Mesopotamia made the church at Antioch a strategic hub for spreading the gospel to cities around the Mediterranean and beyond.
After the stoning death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, believers faced intense persecution in Jerusalem. Seeking refuge in other cities, many Christians traveled to Antioch and preached the gospel among the Jews there (Acts 11:19). Likewise, believers from Cyprus and Cyrene shared the good news of Jesus Christ’s salvation to the Greek-speaking Gentiles in Antioch (Acts. 11:20). Luke reports, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21).
When news reached Jerusalem about the exploding number of converts in Antioch, leaders sent Barnabas to investigate, and “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 11:23–24).
Barnabas recognized the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of both Jews and Gentiles in the church at Antioch, so he joined in the ministry there. After a time, Barnabas set out to find Paul in Tarsus, and the two returned to teach and minister for a full year to the mixed assembly of believers at the church in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26). It was during this time that the believers started being called Christians.
In Antioch, the Christian prophet Agabus predicted a severe famine that would strike the entire Roman world. The church at Antioch responded swiftly and eagerly to the prophecy by preparing a generous offering to aid the Jerusalem church whenever the famine hit. They entrusted their gift to Barnabas and Paul, who carried it back to the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27–30).
Besides Paul and Barnabas, other key leaders in the early church at Antioch included Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, all identified as prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1).
A controversy sprang up in the church at Antioch as certain Judean Christians of a Pharisaic background began teaching the believers that circumcision was required of Gentiles for salvation. Paul disagreed. He and Barnabas were appointed by the church at Antioch to represent the Gentile Christians to a council of leaders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas testified about all that God was doing among the Gentiles in Antioch. After much debate, Peter stood up and declared, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:7–11).
James, a ruling elder in Jerusalem, reinforced Peter’s arguments, citing scriptural proof that God had accepted the Gentiles, and, therefore, they should not have to live by Jewish laws to be saved. In Jesus Christ, salvation is by grace alone, for Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 15:13–21). James also laid out some practical guidelines and solutions for fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. A letter of encouragement and four instructions were drawn up by the council, and Judas and Silas were appointed as official delegates to deliver the correspondence to the church at Antioch (Acts 15:22–35).
The church at Antioch was the launching site for several missionary journeys (Acts 13:1–3; 14:26,;15:32–33, 36–40; 18:22–23). In many cases, the church at Antioch commissioned the missionaries for a specific task.
Antioch is also significant in early church history as the place where the apostle Paul disputed with Peter over his segregation of Gentile believers during mealtimes. Paul wrote of the disagreement in Galatians 2:11–12: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision” (NLT). Paul called Peter’s actions “hypocrisy,” and blamed him for leading other Jewish believers astray (Galatians 2:13–14).