The Church In Antioch
Acts 11:18-30 (NRSV)
19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen [had] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20 But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
27 At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29 The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30 this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen [had] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19)
It is important to realize that the early Jewish church was scattered rather quickly after it’s formation. This is also clear in James’ epistle when he addresses “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”. The direction of the migration was mostly north into gentile territory but some did head off to Egypt also, where some prominent Jewish communities already existed.
For those who remained in Jerusalem it was a terrifying time. The Roman government had started to increase the amount of control they exerted over the once semi-autonomous city. Just a few years after Jesus had been crucified, Herod Agrippa accused Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, of planning a rebellion against Roman rule. Antipas’ territories were awarded by Rome to Agrippa. The relationship between Judea and Rome only further deteriorated between Agrippa’s reign over Judea, in 39 CE and the start of the Jewish rebellions in 66 CE. In this time, many Jews sought safety outside of Judea and the early Jewish/Christian church dwindled and struggled to survive.
The formation of Jewish communities outside Judea was inevitable but it also forced them to consider the relationship of the Jewish laws and their practices while living among the gentiles. This is why we see Luke make the comment “they spoke the word to no one except Jews“. However, the growth of Christians among the gentiles in Antioch was hard to ignore and the early Jewish Christians knew they needed to support those churches which were now mixing both Jews and gentiles. This is why they wisely chose to send Barnabas to Antioch, despite their reluctance to commune with the uncircumcised. This decision was not only the right thing to do but it resulted in the gentile churches being made aware of the suffering of the church back in Judea and they were able to organize an aid package.
The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30 this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:29-10)
The aid sent to the churches in Judea, was well documented by Paul’s letters to various churches.
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. 3 And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor[b] of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. (Romans 15:25-27)
Despite the growing relationship between the Jews and gentiles in Antioch, there were still some divisions. In fact, even among the 12 disciples and Paul, there was an argument that broke out over the Jews not welcoming the uncircumcised at Antioch.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13)
There is still much work left to be done in the early church before they were able to achieve some form of unity.