I have recently been captivated by the way the church formed in Antioch. It was quite different from the way we assume churches typically form and develop. It is a great example of how a church can form organically, without structure, leadership, or institution.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:19-30)
This is a very significant scripture in connection with the New Testament church. There is so much depth and encouragement in these words, and yet it is so easy to overlook the significance of it. Take a second read over this passage, and really consider everything that is happening in Antioch. Look at who is involved, and how the church developed and functioned there.
One important thing to note is that the church in Antioch was not established by any of the Apostles. Because of the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, many Christians were scattered to various cities. These Christians went to cities where there was no established churches, and these new believers started sharing Christ with people in their new cities, and the revelation of Christ caused churches to spring up. This is how the church in Antioch formed. A few Christians (possibly new-believers) went to Antioch and started to share Christ with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone who would listen. These everyday Christians started a Jesus movement in the city of Antioch without the aid of an Apostle. The church formed organically as a grassroots movement among the people.
It is also important to note that this is the first time disciples were called “Christians”. It is interesting because the term “Christian” essentially means “little Christ”, and from what we have gathered, it was originally meant as a derogatory term, but was embraced by the followers of Jesus. It eventually became the common term used to describe a Christ follower. A Christian is someone who has been transformed by Christ so much that their life is a reflection of Christ himself. A Christian is a “little Christ” in the world. As Paul said, “To live is Christ…”
Well, eventually news about the church in Antioch spread back to Jerusalem (where the original 12 disciples were), and the church in Jerusalem decided to send a representative to look in on the church to see what was going on. Barnabas was dispatched, and was pleased by what he found there. Apparently Barnabas decided that this was a good opportunity for Paul to get involved and participate in the Apostolic ministry. Paul had been in Tarsus since his conversion, and this would be his first traveling opportunity. Paul would learn a lot from Barnabas about being an Apostle, and would eventually train up other Apostles.
A final thing to notice in this passage is that when a prophecy is given about a famine that was going to spread over the entire Roman world, the church in Antioch decided to send aid to other churches in Judea. They did not decide to store up for themselves in preparation for the coming catastrophe, but rather thought of others ahead of themselves.
I am both inspired and amazed by the church in Antioch. They are a wonderful example of what it means to be the church. The organic nature of the church in Antioch gives me hope for such a grassroots movement to take place once again. I hope that you are also inspired and encouraged by the church in Antioch.