The death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, had a number of ramifications for the early church. Saul was moved to persecute the church in earnest. This persecution led to the dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem, taking this newfound faith with them. This happened in the very early years after the death of Jesus.
The Followers of the Way, as Christians were called, were centred solely within Jerusalem until they were forced to flee. Thus, the faith started to spread outside of the Holy City. These Followers of the Way continued to proclaim the risen Christ as they left Jerusalem, causing Saul to seek permission from the Temple authorities to arrest them. As he travelled to Damascus in search of them, he was struck down by a blinding light, and a voice from heaven called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). After a brief dialogue, he discovered that this voice was none other than Jesus himself.
Saul was led into Damascus, having been blinded by the light, and for three days he remained in that state. Ananias, a Follower of the Way, was sent by God to Saul. Ananias laid hands on him and he was healed. Saul was baptised and received his orders. He would take the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, to kings and to the people of Israel (Acts 9:15).
Saul, who became Paul, preached the faith in Damascus. But soon he ran into trouble with the Jews in that city. After a few days, he escaped and made his way to Jerusalem. Here he was somewhat of an outcast. He could no longer associate with the Jews, and the Followers of the Way did not trust him. It was Barnabas who came to his rescue and brought him to the apostles. Paul’s preaching about Jesus caused him problems with the authorities, and he soon left the Holy City and retreated to his home in Tarsus.
Meanwhile, Barnabas was sent by the apostles to visit Antioch in Syria. Here the faith had been preached by the Followers of the Way, and it was starting to become established with enthusiasm. Barnabas decided that he needed help with this new group. He went to Tarsus and sought out Paul to come and work with him.
Antioch was a major city, the third largest in the Roman Empire at that time, after Rome and Alexandria. It was about 15 miles from the Mediterranean seaport of Seleucia, in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. The Followers of the Way were first called Christians there.
I would be interested in reading about the history of the early church in Antioch; it would be a fascinating read. Paul made it his headquarters for his missionary exploits. It is probable that Matthew wrote his Gospel in that city. Ignatius, the early secondcentury Bishop of Antioch, quoted from Matthew’s Gospel as he wrote to his people on his way to Rome and martyrdom.
It was in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas received orders from the Holy Spirit to venture forth and share the Gospel with the Gentiles. It was the Christians in Antioch who prayed with them, laid hands on them and commissioned them for their missionary work.
The first missionary trip of Paul with Barnabas is usually dated about 46 CE. The faith was still centred with the Jews and it was considered a sect of Judaism. Paul’s usual approach when he arrived in a new centre was to attend the local synagogue. We must remember that Paul was a Jew and, for him, the Christian faith was a natural extension of Judaism. The Jewish faith claimed that a Messiah would come and lead his people back to God. For Paul, Jesus was that Messiah.
The synagogue in the first century was usually made up of believing Jews, proselytes (those who had converted to Judaism) and God-fearers (Gentiles who believed in one God but had not made the commitment to Judaism). Paul tried to convince the Jews to accept their Messiah, but it was the God-fearers who responded to his message. You will find this approach used regularly throughout Paul’s missionary work. In each centre, a small group of believers followed Paul; he would appoint one of their number as the local elder, then move on (usually because he was forced to do so). But he kept in touch with that local congregation by letters and by revisiting them on successive mission trips.
Next month, we will look at these missionary journeys and some of his letters as we continue our dialogue with this Apostle to the Gentiles.