How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness… (James 3:5-6).
Looting, violence and anarchy can leave a place looking like a war-zone. Polarizing rhetoric, angry words and inflammatory language can leave a place feeling like a war zone. Even church unity can end up coming under strain. Are there helpful lessons we can learn from the Antioch church?
Antioch: A Brief History
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great died prematurely at age 32 without an heir, so his generals divided up the Greek Empire just as Daniel, by God’s inspiration, had predicted over two centuries beforehand (Daniel chapters 8 and 11). Seleucus I Nicator took over the territory that became known as the Seleucid Empire, and founded four “sister cities” in northwestern Syria, one of which, in what is today south central Turkey, was Antioch, named after Seleucus’s father, Antiochus. Antioch was capital of the Seleucid Empire until 63 B.C. when the Romans took over, after which it became the capital city of the Roman province of Syria. At that stage Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman empire with a population of perhaps 500,000 people.
A City Divided: Ethnic Fault Lines
The original settlement was composed of retired soldiers from Seleucus’s Macedonian army, segregated into two primary sections, one for Syrians and one for Greeks. Also present were Cretans, Cypriots, Athenians, Jews and slaves of diverse ethnic origins. Greeks regarded non-Greeks as inferior. Remarked Roman philosopher Cicero: “As the Greeks say, all men are divided into two classes, Greeks and barbarians. The Greeks called any man a barbarian who could not speak Greek; they despised him and put up the barriers against him”.
During Roman rule starting in 64 BC, the city attracted Gauls, Germans and others, the population eventually consisting of 18 different tribes living in ethnic ghettos. Because of ethnic divisions and an influx of newcomers, Antioch (as with most cities of the era) was prone to ethnic riots.
Just as there were sharp divisions between Greeks and barbarians, so too there were even sharper divisions between Jews and Gentiles that went back to Pharaoh’s and Haman’s planned genocides, and Amalek’s attack in the desert. Throughout history, virulent anti-Semitism from governments, intellectuals and mobs was frequently directed at Jewish communities, in the form of ostracism, enslavement, pogroms, brutality and oppression at the hands of Gentiles (including Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome). Anti-Semitic violence over millennia has taken place on such a scale that it is a miracle that any Jews survived. Anti-Semitism was and remains, in various countries, deep-seated and ever ready to burst into violence.
On the other hand, most Jews in the Greco-Roman world regarded Gentiles as religiously unclean pagan worshippers of false gods created for the fires of hell. Apparently some would not even help a Gentile woman in the agony of childbirth for fear of bringing another Gentile into the world. Jewish antagonism against Gentiles was so visceral that when Paul announced to his fellow Jews after his conversion that God was sending him to the Gentiles, they responded with such outrage that they threw off their cloaks, flung dust in the air and yelled: “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (Acts 22:21-23)
The Founding of the Church in Antioch
Amazingly, churches multiplied in this toxic milieu. After His crucifixion, the resurrected Jesus had told his followers “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Initially Jesus’ followers hung back in Jerusalem until a great persecution against the church scattered them throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Some from Cyprus and Cyrene traveled to Antioch, preached Jesus to the Hellenists (Greeks), and a great number turned to the Lord. Upon hearing about these extraordinary developments, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch — “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. Barnabas then went to Tarsus to look for Saul (Paul’s prior name) and brought him to Antioch, and for a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26).
A United, Multi-ethnic Church
The church at Antioch consisted of prophets and teachers including Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1-2). This was a fascinating cross-section of people who, given the ethnic fault lines of the day, would normally have been irreconcilable. Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36), Simeon was from sub-Saharan Africa, Lucius of Cyrene was from Libya, Manaen was a well-connected Palestinian, and Saul was from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Uniting these people in such a divisive culture was inconceivable. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work that former enemies are reconciled and united together as one family. God supernaturally invades our world with peace!
Ethnic Tension and Resolution
However, unity at the Antioch church was briefly tested when Peter visited Antioch. “When Cephas (Peter’s Aramaic name) came to Antioch”, wrote Paul, “I opposed him to his face, because [he had been] eating with the Gentiles; but when [Jewish Christians] came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:11-13).
The Gospel Brings Reconciliation
The gospel, our first priority according to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, is what unites Christians. A key point emphasized in Paul’s teaching is that the truth of the gospel, when correctly understood and practiced, brings reconciliation and unity:
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-29).
In Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…[creating] in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [reconciling] us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of…Christ Jesus…the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:13-21).
Paul’s teaching is entirely consistent with Jesus’ earnest prayer for the church: “[I ask] for those who will believe in me…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… [May they] be one even as we are one…perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me….” (John 17:20-23).
In the Revelation of Jesus Christ, John writes of a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Rev 7:9), united in Christ.
Antioch was a significant city in the history of the early church. The name “Christian” first emerged in Antioch. It was called “the cradle of Christianity” as a result of the pivotal role that it played in the emergence of an unstoppable movement that spread throughout the Roman empire, and from there to the end of the earth in accordance with Acts 1:8. It was in Antioch that the gospel dropped from heaven with explosive transformational dynamism into a world saturated with alienation and division, bringing unity and peace. Without God, people bring chaos out of order. God brings order out of chaos. History shows that every authentic revival (such as the First and Second Great Awakenings) is followed by a sharp drop in crime, and widespread social healing, with more hospitals, orphanages and education, as well as social reform and interpersonal civility.
Political polarization is killing us today. The world does not need the age-old insanity of people with clubs, stones, pitchforks and torches fighting each other — either physically or verbally. More than ever, the world needs the gospel of reconciliation and peace.
Father, in these fractious times, help us, like Nehemiah, rehabilitate burned out ruins and restore faith. In times of cultural crisis, help us listen, understand and learn before casting judgement. Help us apply Your redemptive truth wisely and with humility to the issues of the day: injustice, poverty, bad policy, moral chaos, the devaluation of life, and the disintegration of the family. Equip us as Your ambassadors to bring the transformational message of gospel reconciliation where the truth of Your Word has not been heard or understood. Guide us by Your Spirit so that our words would be a scalpel for healing, and not a hammer of harm.
It is in the Name our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, that we pray,
Written by Warwick Alcock, Director and Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible.
Brooks, C.W. Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel is Good news for the City. Kregel, 2014.
Gray, D.L. The High Definition Leader. Nelson, 2015.