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.
Beginning with verse 19, the scene turns to the city of Antioch, where the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas. Barnabas sent for Saul (Paul) and formed an evangelistic team to reach Hellenists in the city.
The word “now” transitions from Peter’s ministry to Gentile outreach in Antioch.
those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia [Lebanon], Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.
Persecution during the time of Stephen sent many believers to Antioch, Phoenicia (Lebanon), and the large island in the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus (Acts 7:54-8:4). All these locations were Gentile. The persecuted group preached only to the Jews in those cities.
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman empire, behind only Rome and Alexandria. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Antioch, a city of about 500,000 people, was a city of great temples of sexual perversion. It had a large contingent of Jews. The city sat on the banks of the Orontes River and about 15 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It was the commercial center for all of Asia Minor at the time. Antioch was a cesspool of sin second only to Corinth. A Roman senator in the senate said that Rome had become so degenerate that the Orontes River near Antioch flowed into the Tiber River in Rome. He meant that Antioch was so decadent that her sins reached the culture of the city of Rome.
But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene,
In contrast to those who preached only to the Jews, others from Cyprus and Cyrene evangelized Gentiles, the Hellenists. Both Cypress and Cyrene, a city in North Africa (Libya today), were settled by the Greeks.
who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus.
“Hellenists” were Greek-speaking Gentiles. Hellenists preached the Lord Jesus to the Hellenists of Antioch.
And the hand of the Lord was with them,
As the result of two different teams evangelizing Antioch, a “great number” were converted. The “hand of the Lord was with them.” God’s hand was an idiom for His power, whether in judgment or blessing. Here God blessed the Hellenists.
and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
The Greek indicates that believing and turning to the Lord were simultaneous actions. The idea is they turned to the Lord and believed. As a result of great numbers of Gentiles turning to Christ, the Antioch church became the strategic base to reach Gentiles for Christ. Jerusalem was the base for Jewish Christians.
Conviction is the motivation behind evangelism.
Christian Jews spread the gospel to pagan Gentiles. The Greek Hellinists who fled from persecution during Stephen’s martyrdom became aggressive evangelists. Nothing daunted their enthusiasm for Christ and what He did on the cross. They went to one of the most corrupt cities in the Roman Empire, the city of Antioch. It did not matter whether they had to leave their homes and situation in life. Neither did difficulties make a difference in their attitude toward evangelism. They were people of conviction. It did not matter what method they used; their determination to share the gospel arising from profound certainty about Jesus Christ drove their motivation. People with conviction win the lost. They do not live their lives on the outer edge of priorities.
God used persecution to spread the gospel throughout the world. Acts uses the terminology “scattered by persecution.” It happened in Stephen’s day, and it happens in the twenty-first century.
God established a better center to reach Gentiles for Christ in Antioch. Jerusalem was Jewish and was not a good cultural environment to reach the non-Jew. The port of Antioch reached most of the strategic cities in the Roman Empire; it was a prudent base for reaching Gentiles in the Roman world. Antioch was a natural door to establish the Gentile church and fulfill Christ’s command to go to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Having said Antioch was the launching pad for Gentile ministry, that does not mean that Antioch Christians were separate from the church in Jerusalem. Both were one body in Christ. We see the fellowship between the two groups in verses 27-30, where Antioch believers met the humanitarian needs of the church in Judea and Jerusalem.