Because first-century congregations were composed of humans, they were not flawless. Yet, it can be extremely helpful to us to investigate the early local churches and learn from their actions, attitudes, and circumstances. In this article, our focus will be on the church in Antioch of Syria.

Following the death of Stephen (Acts 7), severe persecution caused the disciples who were living in Jerusalem to scatter to other places. One of the blessings that resulted from that scattering was the spread of the gospel to regions where it had not been proclaimed previously. That is how the church in Antioch was established: dispersed disciples went there to preach the word “and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Hardship in Jerusalem brought redemption to Antioch.

The church in Antioch was blessed to have another congregation assist it. When the brethren in Jerusalem heard that the gospel had gone to Antioch, they sent Barnabas to work with the new disciples there (Acts 11:22). The Jerusalem church did not try to rule over the Antioch congregation, but they voluntarily helped it. Local churches of our generation are blessed when other congregations, whether they are near or far away, come to their aid by providing teachers, other manpower, financial assistance, Bible materials, moral support, or training in specific areas.

The worker/helper whom the Jerusalem church sent to Antioch was Barnabas, who proceeded to encourage the brethren to continue with the Lord (Acts 11:23). Barnabas’ initial work with the Antioch saints had this wonderful result: “And a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:24). No one can force others to work harmoniously and productively. In some cases, the working relationship between a newcomer/outsider and the locals does not go smoothly. In the case of Antioch and Barnabas, they seemed to be “a good fit,” acting as a united team. We should not take that blessing for granted.

Phase one of the work in Antioch was the initial propagation of the gospel. The next phase was when Barnabas joined the work force there. The third stage came when Barnabas went to seek Saul, who returned to Antioch with Barnabas. What good thing came out of that partnership? “So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:26). How blessed the church in Antioch was to have those two faithful men of God working with them at the same time! May we always appreciate and be grateful for those who put forth the effort to teach, edify, and serve us.

Consider this historical fact: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). That was a divine calling, meaning the Lord is the one who labeled them as “Christians.” The Antioch church apparently was comprised of both Gentiles and Jews. “Christian” means “a follower of Christ” [Thayer, word no. 5546 via e-Sword]. If we call ourselves “a Christian,” we need to live up to the lofty expectations that come with such a name. The Christ and His Cause must be the greatest love of our life!

The Antioch church showed generosity. When the prophet Agabus foretold that a famine was coming, the brethren in Antioch went into action. What did they do? “Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29,30). The Antioch church (1) became aware of a need, (2) they decided to render assistance, and then (3) they actually did so. Those who received their aid were blessed, but so were the willing givers!

In addition to Barnabas and Saul, there were other prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). What a blessing to have multiple brethren who were capable of communicating God’s word. The Bible nowhere indicates how many workers a local church is allowed to have (Antioch had at least six, Acts 13:1). Rather than complain about churches that have multiple full-time workers while we have only one or perhaps none at all, let us all be committed to doing what we can with our abilities and not fret over how many workers a different congregation has.

For Paul’s three preaching trips that are recorded in the book of Acts, in each case he departed from Antioch. It is clear that the church there endorsed Paul’s work in other places, as they did the labors of Barnabas. When the Holy Spirit called for Barnabas and Saul to leave Antioch to go work elsewhere, what did the brethren in Antioch do? They fasted, prayed, laid hands on those two men (as a sign of endorsing/ supporting them), and sent them away (Acts 13:4).

Here is a final thought. The Antioch church continued to carry on God’s work, even after it lost two great workers, Barnabas and Saul. Think about it.

— Roger D. Campbell