Apostle to the Gentiles

By Stephen Terry


Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for September 24 – 30, 2011


“…and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Acts 11:26, NASB

Antioch was a cosmopolitan cauldron into which the Holy Spirit poured the new wine of a fervent, evangelizing faith. Much newer than Jerusalem, Antioch had been founded on the eastern bank of the Orontes River by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals in the mid-4th century BC. Students of Bible prophecy identify Seleucus as one of the four horns of the he goat of Daniel 8:8.

Alexander the Great, identified with the he goat, defeated Darius and the Persian Empire at Gaugamela. Only eight years after that victory he died (the broken horn) and his vast empire was divided among his generals (the four horns). Seleucus built several Antiochs in his portion of the empire but being the capital of the Empire from about 230 BC onward, Antioch on the Orontes became the most influential, rivaling even Alexandria at its peak.

The name of the city was an honored Seleucid family name and was revered to the extent that the name was given to more than a dozen Seleucid rulers whose combined reigns lasted for over two centuries. Antiochus Epiphanes was perhaps the last of those rulers to hold any significant power. Threatened in the west by Rome and in the east by the Parthians, Antioch was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire as a free city in the first century BC.

Many saw Antioch as an Eastern Rome, a place where rule of the Eastern Empire could be consolidated much more easily than at Rome itself. As a result, citizens from all over the empire flocked to Antioch, giving it its cosmopolitan makeup. This important city became the launching pad for the explosive new faith, Christianity.

Almost two decades before at Pentecost, the first explosive expansion of the Christian church occurred when Jerusalem was filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire who had come for the celebration. This opportunity, coupled with a miraculous gift that allowed Peter the Apostle to be heard in every language resulted in an impact that would reverberate throughout the Diaspora as the pilgrims returned home with accounts of their baptisms and what they had learned of the Messiah, Jesus.

While this was the first bursting of the “old wine skins” (See Mark 2:22), a much greater explosion was yet to come. The first one was still limited mostly to those of the Jewish faith and culture. The next one would break forth from those boundaries to reach those people who had been excluded from faith by the wall of Jewish prejudice. As Hosea wrote “…I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23, NIV

Antioch was the perfect place for the explosion with its traffic from all over the empire, and its importance to the Eastern Empire. Anything coming from Antioch would be noticed, just as something coming from any national capital today would carry more weight and receive a greater hearing. The only remaining thing necessary to ignite that explosion was a catalyst. That catalyst was the Apostle Paul.

Being a “Pharisee of the Pharisees” (See Acts 23:6), Paul hardly seemed to be one who would advance the Christian faith to the Jews, much less the Gentiles. Instead, he early persecuted greatly the Christian faith as a heresy arising within the synagogues of Judaism. While traveling to Damascus with authority to imprison any Christians he found there, he was confronted by Jesus Himself. That experience with accompanying miracles led him to re-evaluate his faith.

After a few years of growth and introspection, he traveled to Jerusalem to present himself to the Disciples. Due to his earlier persecution activities, this was more difficult to accomplish than he had expected. Finally obtaining an audience, he was received into fellowship. Following this meeting, Paul continued to share his new faith with others. The letter he wrote to the Galatian church states that this went on for fourteen years after his Damascus road experience. God was preparing him for something greater.

Eventually he was called by Barnabas, from Tarsus, his home town, to Antioch. There with Barnabas and Paul working together, a fire was kindled that would burn across Asia Minor and become the genesis of several churches in important cities along the way. While it was Barnabas who had called Paul to the work in Antioch, not long into their first missionary journey, Paul clearly stepped into a leadership role. With his ministry confirmed by miracles such as the blinding of Elymas on Cyprus, Paul grew ever more independent of the Jerusalem church.

After the first missionary journey, arguments arose within the church at Antioch and elsewhere over circumcision. Jewish Christians felt this must be done for Christian converts as it had been done in the past for Jewish proselytes. Paul, seeing Christianity as a new, dynamic faith that should not be constrained by the old forms and practices, opposed those pushing for circumcision. The arguments over this issue became so acrimonious that Paul finally decided to take the arguments to the seat of the problem. Since those proposing circumcision had come from Jerusalem, he would take the problem to the Disciples at Jerusalem. This time, however, instead of approaching the Disciples as a supplicant, he would be coming before them as an equal. With his ministry confirmed by miracles and the fruit of conversions, he stands confirmed as an Apostle based on this and the personal appearance of Jesus to him on the Damascus road. The Jerusalem Council, as it came to be known, confirmed Paul’s position in spite of opposition from the Judaizers. This added still more to Paul’s authority as he returned to Antioch.

In the book of Acts, we see a gradual transition from the ministry of Peter to that of Paul. Perhaps God had initially intended for Peter to be the apostle to the Gentiles as evidenced by the vision of the sheet with unclean creatures that Peter saw and his understanding of its meaning. (See Acts 10-11) But Peter proved himself as a vacillator when dealing with the Gentiles and the Jews. Paul withstood him at least once over these issues. As Paul became more and more linked with the evangelization of the Gentiles, his star rose higher than Peter’s. With a willingness to be adaptable and teachable in a way unexpected with a Pharisee, Paul’s subsequent missionary journeys went farther and farther into the countries of the Gentiles with the result that his witness set a fire burning along the trade routes of the empire that reached Rome itself.

Paul’s ministry was a mixture of a Christ-like independence answerable only to God with a perspective that supports the church as it works in God’s will, but in opposition when it does not as in the case of Peter’s dissembling. Paul clearly recognized that ultimately his authority comes from God and while the church may recognize that authority if it chooses, it does not confer it. Had Paul’s perspective been different, had he waited for approval from Jerusalem for his missionary trips, they might never have taken place. After his third missionary journey, when Paul returned to Jerusalem, the church there was still struggling over the forms and ceremonies of Judaism, and Paul was advised to perform a ritual at the temple to placate the Judaizers. Not wanting to jeopardize his work in Asia and Macedonia by rising in open rebellion against the Jerusalem faction over this, he complied. This resulted in his betrayal and arrest. Where his work might have gone had this not happened, we can only guess. In any event, like Joseph trafficked as a slave into Egypt, God turned Paul’s captivity to a good purpose by taking the gospel of grace deep into the heart of the Empire, to the capital itself. The Bible reveals that even some of Caesar’s own household gave their hearts to Jesus. (See Philippians 4:22)

That radical message that grace alone as opposed to the old Jewish ceremonies was the key to eternal life reached hearts yearning for peace and hope. That message still resonates today. Unfortunately those who wish only to place ever increasing burdens of ritual and rite on believers have also continued to the present. Paul’s work is not done. We need to continue to pour the wine that burst forth at Antioch almost two thousand years ago. That wine is not and never will be contained in two thousand years of ritual. It can only be contained in human hearts surrendered in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Like Paul, once we come into that relationship, we have all the ordination, all the authority we ever need to continue the work Paul began. Without regard to gender, race, or social standing, we are called to be instruments to carry the good news of peace and salvation to the world. God is calling us to Antioch now. I want to answer that call. Don’t you?


Bible texts marked NASB, are from the New American Standard Bible and used by permission of The Lockman Foundation.


This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry








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