|Vol. 15 No. 6 June 2013||
According to the New Testament account of Paul’s missionary journeys, the people in two cities with the same name, Antioch, had very different reactions to the Gospel. Antioch of Pisidia, the smaller city, was located northeast of Ephesus in what is now modern day Turkey. In the first century, it was part of the Roman Empire and had a population of just over 50,000. Antioch on the Orontes, also known as Antioch of Syria, was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and had a population of more than half a million.
In Acts 13:14, Paul and Barnabas departed from Perga and arrived in Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath they preached to the Jews about Christ (13:6-41), and on the following Sabbath, they preached to the whole city, focusing more on the Gentiles (13:44-47), since many of the Jews had rejected the Gospel. Eventually, these Jews stirred up the chief men of the city, persecuted Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from the city (13:50). The Jewish leaders were not satisfied with forcing the missionaries to leave town, and they pursued Paul and Barnabas to Lystra (Acts 14:6-8) where they stirred up the people, stoned Paul and threw him out of the city, thinking he was dead (14:19). However, Paul lived and continued to preach the next day before departing for Derbe.
Today, we remember the Jewish people at Antioch of Pisidia first “followed Paul and Barnabas” and then became envious and opposed them because they spoke to “multitudes” of Gentiles who “were glad and glorified the word of the Lord” (13:43-49). By contrast, Antioch of Syria had a better response to the Gospel and a greater influence on the development of Christianity than any other first century city except Jerusalem. Nicknamed “Queen of the East,” this Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt. Located on the Orontes River, which flows into the Mediterranean about fifteen miles to the west, it was an important center for trade and learning. In addition, the Roman provincial mint was located there. Today, Antioch shows few signs of its past glory. Located in Syria, it has about 28,000 inhabitants.
After Stephen was stoned, persecution intensified in Jerusalem, and many believers were scattered. Some went as far as Antioch on the Orontes, preaching the Gospel – but only to the Jews (Acts 11:19). Then men came from Cyprus and Cyrene, preaching Jesus to the Gentiles also, and “a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (11:20, 21). Apparently, Jewish and Gentile believers were unable to unite peacefully in their faith in Christ. When the church at Jerusalem heard about these conversions, they sent Barnabas to encourage the young congregation (11:22). Barnabas recruited Saul (later called Paul) and brought him from Tarsus to Antioch. Both men worked with the church for a year. “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (11:25-26).
Other important Christian events are connected with Antioch of Syria. One of the deacons appointed in Acts 6:5 was a proselyte from Antioch. Prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch and warned of persecution that was coming. The Christians at Antioch then sent relief to those that were about to suffer and entrusted Paul and Barnabas to carry it to the elders (11:29-30). It is also in Antioch that Paul confronted Peter regarding Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles when Jewish Christians from Jerusalem visited the church (Galatians 2:11-14).
Antioch became a base of operations for Paul and Barnabas, at first together, and then Paul alone. Directed by the Holy Spirit, the church sent them on their first journey. They departed from Antioch and returned with reports of their work in Acts 14:25-27, 15:30-35 and 18:22-23.
An early dispute in the church arose in Antioch when some Jewish Christians came and argued that in order to be a Christian the Gentiles must be circumcised. They took this dispute to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders there. Peter defended Paul and Barnabas’ position that circumcision was not necessary for salvation.
The two cities called Antioch are both well known among Christians today. The source of their fame, however, is different. One is infamous for persecution; the other is a good example of an active, dedicated church, striving to do God’s will.
[Editor’s Note: Any city today and any contemporary congregation can mirror either the infamous or famous reputations ascribed to either of those two Antiochs. To which character are you personally contributing? ~ Louis Rushmore]