Online Bible Commentary
The First Gentile Church
Acts 11:19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. (NKJV)
In this passage we read of the establishment of what has been called the first Gentile church. The church was located in Antioch, the capital of Syria, some 480 miles north of Jerusalem.
Antioch, during this time of the early A.D. 40’s was the third largest city in the Roman Empire with over 200,000 inhabitants. It had a large Jewish population and was famous for a large suburban resort area fifteen miles east on the Mediterranean.
Some have dated this passage prior to Peter evangelizing Cornelius and his household, the first of the Gentile believers. However, I have found no evidence to require that this passage is out of chronological order.
After Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem many Jewish believers fled Jerusalem and dispersed outside of Judea (v. 19a). It is now about ten years after Stephen’s death. The dispersed believers have “traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” preaching the gospel to “the Jews only” (v. 19b).
Phoenicia was a narrow strip of land between present day Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Antioch was located north of Phoenicia, further up the coast. Cyprus is the large island in the Mediterranean Sea located to the west between Phoenicia and Antioch. The three places formed a triangle.
At some point, some of the dispersed believers “from Cyprus and Cyrene”, a port city in present day Libya, came to Antioch and began preaching to the Hellenists (v. 20). Cyrene was located some 1,500 miles overland from Antioch, or about 1,000 miles via the Mediterranean. Either way, it was quite a long journey.
The Hellenists were Greek speaking “Jews”, both those born Jewish and Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. “The hand of the Lord” was with the dispersed believers, and “a great number” of the Hellenists became believers in Christ (v. 21).
When news of these successes got back to the church in Jerusalem they sent Barnabas to offer his gift of encouragement to the new believers in Antioch (v. 22). When Barnabas arrived he saw that the grace of God had been poured out upon this new church, and “he was glad” (v. 23a).
He then “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” because Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (vv. 23b-24a). Because of this God blessed Barnabas’ efforts and “a great many people were added to the Lord” (v. 24b).
So we see that over, perhaps, a ten year period these believers, some travelling long distances and, no doubt, encountering great hardship, made the first Gentile church a success. This passage represents a summary of events, and does not give enough credit to the extensive sacrifice of these believers. They persevered in their faith and the Lord blessed their efforts by pouring out His grace upon them.