Antioch on the Orontes (there were others) was an ancient city located on the eastern side of the Orontes River, founded near the end of the 4th century BC by Seleucus Nicator, a Macedonian general of Alexander the Great. The privileged location of Antioch benefited its inhabitants, so much as to rival Alexandria as the principal city of the Near East and was the main centre of Hellenistic Judaism during the final period of the second temple of Jerusalem.
General Seleucus gave refuge to many Jews in the city and granted them civil rights equal to those of the Greeks, and, centuries later when we read about it in the Bible, its population consisted primarily of Syrians, Greeks, Jews and Romans. The language used was Greek, so the Jews who lived there were called "Hellenistic", and so are called in the Bible. The Old Testament, translated into Greek during the third and second centuries BC in Alexandria, was used by the Jews in their synagogues in Antioch.
In 64 BC, Antioch was annexed to Rome by Pompey, who gave it considerable privileges and made it the capital of the Roman province called Syria. Its importance and splendour gained it the name of "Queen of the East", the third city in importance of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria.
We give below a brief account of how the Gospel came to Antioch during the persecution which followed the death of Stephen, circa 33 AC (Acts 8:1), and of the remarkable growth of this pioneer church among the gentiles.
Among the believers from Jerusalem that were scattered because of Stephen, there were some who went to Antioch taking the Gospel to the Jews only (Acts 11:19), while others from Cyprus and Cyrene preached to the Greeks, announcing the Lord Jesus in their own language.
Thus, both Jews and gentiles heard the Gospel, and as the hand of the Lord was with them, a great number believed and turned to the Lord. When the Church in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Barnabas there, a "good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith": very good credentials for a missionary.
We recommend reading the excellent article on Barnabas of the late brother Kenneth Jones "Barnabas, the son of consolation" published in the "Boletim dos Obreiros" newsletter years ago and found on the internet HERE.
From that article we take the following comments:
" BARNABAS was chosen for a mission to the church in Antioch (Acts 11:22). The church couldn't have chosen a better person. Even being a Levite and the church in Jerusalem preaching only to Jews, he loved all races. His passion was to unite the brethren and rejoice in the progress of the Gospel and in the development in the ministry. He had three essential qualities for the service of God. "For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord." (Acts 11:24). "He was a good man": goodness is the Christian attitude towards man. Barnabas did not injure anyone, but only did what was good. "Full of the Holy Spirit": means that he was under the control of the Holy Spirit. There was nothing in his life to prevent the Holy Spirit's performance and his attitude towards God. "Full of faith": faith is the attitude towards the Word of God. Luke describes the arrival of Barnabas in the church in Antioch: "When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord." (Acts 11:23). All was better than he expected. He say Greek, Jews and people of other races, all united forming a church, fulfilling Christ's commandment to preach the Gospel to all people. What therefore gladdened Barnabas most was the grace of God manifested in the church. "When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad" (Acts 11:23). He saw the grace of God in action by the transformation of lives through the Gospel, bringing about a reconciliation of the pagan with God and the fellowship not only with God, but also with each other."
It is good when a new church is visited by men with the spiritual qualities of Barnabas. While he remained there, many people were added to the Lord, and the spiritual unity with the Church of Jerusalem was preserved.
The Church of Antioch also began to count with the teaching of Saul, who Barnabas brought over from Tarsus. This was the city of Saul, which gave him Roman citizenship, and it was within the province of Cilicia, where he testified to the Gospel (Galatians 1:21).
Barnabas knew that Saul had been chosen by the Lord Jesus to be His Apostle among the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:1)), and also knew his ability to teach, and strove to find him and bring him to Antioch. The two of them were there for a year, teaching many. It is estimated that the year was 44 AD.
It was there that the disciples were first called Christians, meaning "followers of Christ". The name was used with contempt by King Agrippa years later (Acts 26:28) and as a shameful epithet, subject to persecution by the Roman Government (1 Peter 4:16), only appearing in these three places in the Bible. The name Christ refers to the Messiah expected by the Jews, so the unbelieving Jews did not call them "Christians" or "Messianic", but "Nazarenes", for they did not believe that the Lord Jesus was really the Messiah.
Prophets also came from Jerusalem to Antioch. The were men endowed by the Holy Spirit with the gift of prophecy, to encourage and strengthen the churches before they had the books of the New Testament. As Judas and Silas (Acts 14:4 and 15:32), they helped the Apostles.
One of these prophets, named Agabus, predicted that there would be " a great famine all over the world " -"world" was a colloquial expression to mean the Middle East, where they lived. History records food shortages in that region during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-44 AD), which preceded Nero, thus fulfilling the prophecy made by Agabus.
The brethren of the church of Antioch, here called "disciples", made a collection among themselves, each giving according to his ability, and they sent a contribution to the brethren who were in Judea. The contribution was sent to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
This is a model of how to make contributions in the churches: each giving as he is able, in the hands of two treasurers, for distribution by the elders of the Church (note the plurality in both cases). You never read in the Bible about a contribution by means of "tithing" in Christian churches. The contribution is made by the brethren, voluntarily, according to their means.
This is the first time that the word “elder” is used for the overseers of the church. “Elder” was a title used in the Old Testament to designate elderly persons to whom was given leadership due to their long experience and accepted ability. We see many references to the elders of the Jews in the New Testament, whose traditions guided the people, and who together with the chief priests and scribes were responsible for the capturing, condemnation and death of Jesus Christ.
In a way, the leadership of the first churches resembled that of the synagogues, and the overseers (“presbyters” or “bishops”, transliterations of the Greek presbyteros and episkopos) had authority and functions equivalent to those of the elders in the synagogue. The overseers of the churches were first called “elders” in the Bible on this occasion (Acts 11:30). Paul and Barnabas promoted the election of “elders” in every church in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 14:23) and this is the word most used in the New Testament for the overseers of the churches.
The introduction of the Gospel in Antioch was an important step in its advance in the world, and it was from there that Paul and his companions later left for their missionary journeys, spreading the Gospel and gathering assemblies of believers to form churches, then returning to report their experiences in the journeys and their results.
Because of its long life and the key role it played in both the rise of Hellenistic Judaism and the beginning of Christianity, Antioch has been called the "cradle of Christianity." It came to be a metropolis of half a million people, but during the middle ages it suffered a great decline because of wars, earthquakes and the changes of trade routes, and was reduced to ruins, found near the modern town of Antakya, in Turkey.