In our last essay we studied Acts 11:1-18 in which we saw the controversy that Peter’s actions with the household of Cornelius caused among the believers. In this essay we are studying Acts 11:19-30, in which will see the expansion of the church to Syrian Antioch by anonymous Christian evangelists.
Verses 19-21 are what I would call a summary statement. Notice in verse 19 that Luke reminds us of the larger context. He reminds us that the Jewish believers who scattered from Jerusalem because of the persecution (8:4) carried the gospel as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, Antioch, and Cyrene. Phoenicia was the coastal area north of Galilee. Today it is the country of Lebanon. Its major cities were Tyre and Sidon. Cyprus is the large island in the middle of the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. The mention of Cyrene is the surprise, because it was on the North African coast, across from Greece, quite a long way from Palestine. That indicates that the gospel was spreading far and wide rather quickly.
Antioch was a very important city, the third largest in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. It had a large Jewish population and was the Roman seat of government for the province of Syria. It obviously was only a matter of time until the gospel was taken there.
As you see in verse 19 most of these unnamed evangelists preached the gospel to Jews only. Verse 20 causes confusion because the Greek manuscripts all do not read the same way. Some read that the evangelists spoke to the Hellenistes also, and others read, Hellenas also. As we have learned before, Hellenistes, that is Hellenists, means Greek-speaking Jews. Hellenas on the other hand means Greeks. And of course the Greeks were Gentiles. If Luke used the former term, the evangelists still were evangelizing Jews. If he wrote the latter term, they had begun to evangelize Gentiles. It is no problem for my mind either way. Peter already had broken the Gentile barrier, and it is not surprising that others would begin to evangelize Gentiles. In either case, verse 21 tells us that many were converted.
You will recall that in chapter eight the mother church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria to check out what was happening there under the ministry of Philip (8:14). Now here in 11:22-24 we see the mother church doing the same thing in respect to the evangelization that was occurring in Antioch. Only this time they did not send a member of the Twelve. They sent Barnabas, a Jewish native of Cyprus (Acts 4:36) who had emerged as a leader among the believers. When Barnabas arrived at Antioch, he was delighted with what he found. And he exhorted (NIV, encouraged) them to remain faithful to the Lord. This may have been an intentional play on words by Luke, since Barnabas’ name means “son of encouragement.” Then in verse 24 Luke describes Barnabas as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” And once again Luke declares that many people were saved.
Notice that Luke characterized Barnabas in three ways. First, he was a “good man.” One would hope that every Christian would be a good man, or woman, but the fact that Luke especially pointed out that Barnabas was a “good man” is significant. He undoubtedly wanted to communicate that Barnabas was an extraordinarily good man.
Second, Luke declares that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit.” Of course this was the factor that made Barnabas extraordinary. Christian leaders who are filled and motivated by the Spirit are the ones who make a huge difference in the kingdom of God. Some leaders who rise to seemingly high positions by their own strength, and seem to have a great deal of influence, generally have little ultimate impact on God’s kingdom.
Third, Luke says that Barnabas was full of “faith.” Faith is a bit more complicated than most of us realize. When we are saved, we are saved by faith. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we are filled with the Spirit. Therefore most of us exercise faith again in order to be filled with the Spirit. Once we are filled with the Spirit, we are capable of exercising faith in bolder ways, especially in ministry. And some Spirit-filled believers are given a gift of faith that seems to be qualitatively different than the faith that most of us have. For example, George Mueller, who founded several orphanages believed for great sums of money to support them. And the money came in.
Apparently because of the many converts, the work at Antioch was heavy. Therefore we see in verses 25-26 that something (perhaps the Holy Spirit) caused Barnabas to remember Saul, who for many years had been in his home city of Tarsus. It could have been as much as ten years since Saul fled Jerusalem under cover of darkness. Perhaps Barnabas knew of Saul’s call as an apostle to Gentiles (9:15, 27). We don’t know. At any rate, Barnabas found Saul and convinced him to come to Antioch to work with him there. And they worked together teaching the Antioch church for a year. As an aside Luke informs us that it was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians, or “little Christs.” Previous names that we have seen in Acts are “brethren” (1:16; 9:30), “those being saved” (2:47), “disciples” (6:1), the people of the Way” (9:2), “saints” (9:13), and “believers” (10:45). But now in Antioch they are called Christians, and that is the name that stuck.
As you see in verses 27-30, there were prophets as well as apostles, preachers, and teachers circulating among the first-century churches. A prophet named Agabus came from Jerusalem and predicted a famine over the entire world. By “the entire world” he would have meant the Roman world. Luke then tells us that it occurred during the reign of the emperor Claudius (vv. 27-28). Claudius reigned from AD 41-54. Some argue that there was no empire-wide famine during those years. But according to F. F. Bruce, evidence exists that Claudius’ reign, “was indeed marked by a succession of bad harvests and serious famines in various parts of the empire.” Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, tells us that a hard famine came upon Palestine during the proconsulship of a man named Alexander, who held that office during the years AD 46-48. For that reason I date this visit of Saul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, the one “after 14 years” mentioned in Gal. 2:1, in AD 47.
Notice that the Antiochene Christians decided to raise a freewill offering to help the disciples in Judea. That was quite a different attitude from the mystery religions of the day. For instance, a mystery region cult in Antioch that worshipped Cybele, would feel no connection to, or sense of responsibility towards, a mystery cult that worshipped Cybele in Tarsus. But the Christians understood that they all were one in Christ, that they were brothers and sisters in him. Therefore they did feel a connection to, and a responsibility towards one another, And that is why they raised the free-will offering, which they sent to the elders, presumably in Jerusalem, by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.