May 13, 2014

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe


Lesson: III.E.1: The Church established (11:19-21)                          


Scripture (Acts 11:19-21; KJV)

19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.

20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.

21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.





The genuine mission to the Gentiles begins, and Antioch in Syria becomes the center for the developing church, leaving Jerusalem behind with a narrow view of evangelism. For the first time the church actively proselytized Gentiles. The Samaritans of chapter 8 were partly Jewish. The Ethiopian eunuch on his own was reading Isaiah 53 on his return from Jerusalem, and even Cornelius took the initiative in seeking the gospel from Peter’s lips. But here the church took the first step to take the gospel to the uncircumcised Greeks.





19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.


The narrative now goes back to the time of the persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen. In other words, the events described in this passage took place before the conversion of Cornelius, therefore, we know that many Gentiles were added to the church prior to Cornelius.


Some of the refugee Christians, probably made up largely of Hellenistic{1] Jews (Jews who spoke the Greek language), left Jerusalem during the persecution that followed the death of Stephen. Note the similarity between 8:4 and 11:19: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).


To escape the persecution, Saul of Tarsus being the chief oppressor, they fled to cities as far away as “Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch.” Stephen’s death had incited Saul to persecute the church more vigorously (8:3{6]) and he consequently was converted (9:1-30). At first these disciples witnessed Christ only to the Jews in those areas. Now a third result from Stephen’s martyrdom was the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles in those lands (Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch). One of those who was scattered was Philip (8:4{7]), and he witnessed to the Samaritans, an Ethiopian, and to the seacoast communities as far as Caesarea (8:5-40). Another group of Hellenistic refugees is described as evangelizing the seacoast towns further to the north, in the Phoenician plain, which extended some seventy-five miles along the coast of middle Syria from Mt. Carmel north to the river Eleutheros. Its principle cities were Ptolemais, Tyre, Sidon, and Zarephath. Others began work on the Island of Cyprus, the easternmost island of the Mediterranean and some 100 miles off the Syrian coast. Paul and Barnabas would later continue the witness on Cyprus (13:4-12).


20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.


The refugees who traveled the furthest north were believers from Cyprus and Cyrene who went to the city of Antioch and began proclaiming to the Greeks that Jesus was Lord. These coastal towns were all heavily Hellenized, and the Greek language would have been dominant. It was, therefore, an appropriate area for witnessing by these Greek-speaking Hellenist{1] Christians.


Antioch, the capitol of the province of Syria, with a population of half a million, was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, following Rome and Alexandrea. It was located on the Orontes River, 300 miles north of Jerusalem and 15 miles inland; but we must not confuse this city with Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14{4]). There were at least sixteen Antiochs in the ancient world, but this one was the greatest. Its magnificent buildings helped give it the name “Antioch the Golden, Queen of the East.” The main street was more than four miles long, paved with marble, and lined on both sides with marble colonnades. It was the only city in the ancient world at that time that had its streets lighted at night.


A busy port and a center of luxury and culture, Antioch attracted all kinds of people, including wealthy retired Roman officials who spent their days chatting in the baths or gambling at the races. With its large cosmopolitan population and its great commercial and political power, Antioch presented to the church an exciting opportunity for evangelism.


It was the seat of the old Seleucid Empire and was founded by Seleucius in 301 b.c.  Antioch was the official residence of the Roman legate{2] for the province of Syria. To suppress disturbances in the Roman territory in the East, the legate had a garrison of four legions. A large Jewish population inhabited the city, and many Gentiles were so impressed by the Jewish way of life that they became proselytes to Judaism. The relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the city of Antioch was very peaceful and pleasant. Josephus{3] says that the Jews were granted equal privileges with the Greek citizens.


There were at least two things which made Antioch in Syria the ideal place to launch a great evangelistic movement for the incorporation of the Gentiles.

First, the presence of the legate in the city with four legions made it impossible for the Jews to register any opposition without endangering themselves.

Second, Christians would not be molested by the Jews because of the more liberal attitude manifested by the Antiochene Jews. A new version of Judaism was not likely to excite them as much as the Jews in Jerusalem. In their proselyting efforts, they had probably compromised certain minor details of the Law in order to persuade the Gentiles to take up the Jewish way of life.


Antioch was a wicked city, perhaps second only to Corinth. Though all the Greek, Roman, and Syrian deities were honored, the local shrine was dedicated to Daphne, whose worship included immoral practices, such as ritual prostitution as part of temple worship. “Antioch was to the Roman world what New York City is to ours,” writes James A. Kelso in An Archaeologist Follows the Apostle Paul. The Roman satirist, Juvenal, complained, “The sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharged into the             Tiber.” By this he meant that Antioch was so corrupt it was impacting Rome, more than 1300 miles away. “Here where all the gods of antiquity were worshipped, Christ must be exalted.” Not only was an effective church built in Antioch, but it became the church that sent Paul out to win the Gentile world for Christ. Antioch was destined to become the base of operations for Paul’s missionary journeys.


When the persecuted believers arrived in Antioch, they did not at all feel intimidated by the magnificence of the buildings or the pride of the citizens. The Word of God was on their lips, and the hand of God was on their witness and “a great number” of sinners repented and believed. It was a thrilling work of God’s wonderful grace.


This amazing step forward for the gospel to the Gentiles (Greeks at Antioch) was accomplished by unnamed helpers of the faith—we do not know the name of a single one of those involved in this work. Nevertheless this was a bold and critical move by these believers from Cyprus, the island not too far from Antioch, and Cyrene, a city in North Africa (6:9{5]).


They did not preach Jesus as the Messiah (Christ), but rather as Lord, a title far more familiar to Gentiles, than Jewish Messianic ideas. Messiahship was a Jewish concept that would not have been meaningful to Gentiles who had no Jewish background.



21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.


The mission to the Gentiles in Antioch was very effective. A great number of Gentiles believed in Jesus as “Lord.” Luke said that “the hand of the Lord was with” the disciples in Antioch. The immediate growth of the Christian fellowship confirmed the validity of their preaching mission to the Gentiles. God gave His approval and blessing to what they were doing. The gospel was indeed a universal gospel. At Antioch, believers were called Christians for the first time.


The clause “believed, and turned unto the Lord” does not necessarily refer to two separate actions. The Greek construction often indicates that the two actions are simultaneous. This clause, then, means, “in believing, they turned to the Lord.”



Scripture reference and special notes


{1] Hellenistic—characteristic of or relating to Greek civilization in the Mediterranean world, especially from the death of Alexander the Great (323 b.c.) to the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra (30 b.c.). Hellenist—a non-Greek, especially a Jew, who adopted Greek culture.


{2] legate—official who acted as a deputy general to governors of provinces conquered by ancient Rome in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, during the period of the republic. In the latter part of the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar initiated the practice of appointing legates to command legions in the army. This practice became customary under the emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14). Under the early empire, in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, a province containing one or more legions was governed by a military commander with the title legatus Augusti pro praetore (propraetorian legate of the emperor).


{3] See Wars, VII. 3. 3


{4] (Acts 13:14) But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.


{5] (Acts 6:9) Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.


{6] (Acts 8:3) As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.


{7] (Acts 8:4) Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.