Sunday, 14 July 2013

What we owe the church at Antioch

What we owe to the first Church at Antioch (Acts 11 and Acts 12)
This blog follows an earlier blog on Paul of Tarsus. The next in my series on St Paul is St Paul at Paphos.

When deacon St Stephen was stoned to death for ‘blasphemy’ by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem in 34 AD, four years after the Crucifixion, the young church was scattered wide, due to fierce persecution by the Jews to islands and cities in the Eastern Empire, including to Cyprus, Damascus and Antioch. Of course, this persecution resulted in the eventual expansion of the Church. These 'refugee' cities, though part of the Roman world, were in self-governing provinces.  See this archeological recreation of ancient Antioch

 Antioch was the third city of the Roman Empire, a elegant city of half a million people on the Orontes River, south of Tarsus. Today, this 'church of St Peter' below and many superb Roman mosaics still survive there.

Meanwhile Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, though trained in Jerusalem, followed some Christian believers to Damascus to crush this ‘anti-Jewish heresy’. On the road to Damascus, the risen Jesus appeared in a blinding white light and spoke to Saul, in Hebrew, which Paul could understand (being highly trained in theology). He asked him why he was persecuting Him and telling him not to 'kick against the goads'. Timing was perfect as Saul was having an inner crisis which he wrote about later. It was over his inability to keep all the Ten of the Commandments, part of the the Law of Moses which Jews are instructed to keep to be acceptable to God, along with the food laws and circumcision. Saul could not manage to keep the one law of the secret mind: “Thou shalt not covet”.

This Commandment prohibits greed and putting material things, or those belonging to others, before God. Covetousness fights against thankfulness and contentment which are key Christian virtues. As a Jew, Saul knew that those who do not do everything written in the Law of God are cursed by God. The NT states “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God”. As a man of inner honesty, Saul also knew that, according to the faith of his fathers, he could not stop himself coveting - hence he was 'cursed by God'. Therefore he could not please God, ergo, he was lost. The appearance of Jesus spoke to Saul's theological understanding, effectively saying: ”Open your eyes, you cannot do it yourself. Complying to the whole Law is impossible for fallen mankind because of his sinful nature. You need a Saviour who is perfect, who met the requirements and has taken the penalty due to sin for you, who is Jesus.   

Saul, as a result of seeing the risen Jesus, converted to belief in Christianity and went into Arabia to meditate for a couple of years before going to meet the other witnesses of Jesus who had remained in Jerusalem. He was told to go home to Tarsus by the Apostles. 

Meanwhile, the earliest believers, some of whom had also seen Jesus, had fled to Antioch. They had been sharing the Gospel with Jews and with God-fearing Greek proselytes in the synagogue - resulting in great success with the Greeks. Possibly, the key agents were the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the Cross for Jesus, namely, Alexander and Rufus. Simon of Cyrene may have fled there with his whole family, due to persecution. 

Peter and others in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to collect Saul from Tarsus. Saul had been evangelising in and around Tarsus as a transcultural, multilingual preacher. Barnabas took Saul to Antioch as a church leader with a special brief: evangelise the Greeks. He joined the team leadership of the Antioch Church who were four men of varied backgrounds, typical of the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic world -

Barnabas, a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus but also a Levite, whose Jewish name was 'Joseph'
Manaen who, astonishingly, was the syntrophos (foster brother) of Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptist at the request of Salome and met Jesus. Manaen may even have witnessed some of these NT events. We could presume that Manaen had a house large enough for meetings of the fast-expanding church. He, like Saul, was well versed in Jewish and Greek cultures being highly educated.
Simeon the Black, Simeon Niger, who may have been Simon of Cyrene, where 100,000 Judean Jews lived. We can assume that like St Augustine, Simeon was a black African.
Lucius of Cyrene who definitely came from Cyrene, though this might just possibly have been Luke, who wrote Acts.

To this church, now led by five men including Saul, we still owe so much. The Church of Antioch was the first place to try converting Gentiles to Christ and with such effect that the Council of Jerusalem said that Gentiles could become Christians and join the converted Jews as the new 'people of God' without following the foods laws and without being circumcised.
Second, it was the church in Antioch that selflessly commissioned two of their own leaders, Barnabas and Saul to become missionaries, first to Cyprus, with startling success (as the Roman Governor, Sergius Paulus was converted) and then to the wider Roman region of 'Asia'. This seemingly small first step would result in the wide historic advance of the Church, strengthened  by the profound teaching letters of St Paul (which other parts of the church e.g. in India did not receive).

Today, Antioch is the southern Turkish city of Antakya. It is Syrian in culture rather than Turkish, probably filled with suffering Syrian refugees. We should remember it in our prayers as this city’s earlier inhabitants influenced our Western history, faith and values.
  • See other Balage Balogh illustrations based on the archeology of the ancient world
  • Bibliography : The Message of Acts by John R W Stott, The Bible Speaks Today

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