The Christians of Antioch
November 20th, 1977 @ 7:30 PM
THE CHRISTIANS OF ANTIOCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-20-77 7:30 p.m.
On the radio of the great Southwest, KRLD, and on the radio of our Bible Institute, KCBI, you are praising God with us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled, The Christians of Antioch. It is going to be something that doubtless I have not done in this pulpit before. When we think of a church such as Antioch, we have the persuasion, and it is reasonably so, that it was back there in the Bible. It is here on the pages of the New Testament. But then, after the Bible closes, why, it drops out of sight, and we suppose that it has hardly any history thereafter. So what I thought I would do tonight is, we are going to follow this church at Antioch, through the centuries beyond the Bible until the church and the city were destroyed in a vast earthquake in 526 AD.
Now as the beginning, would you read with me out loud in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts. This is the passage of this morning; and it will be the beginning of our message this evening; Acts chapter 11. Now let’s read down to where they were called Christians at Antioch in verse 26; Acts 11, verses 19 through 26. Now, out loud together, Acts 11:19- 26:
Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.
And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.
And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.
Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.
Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.
For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.
Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:
And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
Antioch becomes the center of the worldwide missionary enterprise of the church. In this eleventh chapter, the center, the heart of the Christian faith; its propagation, its world evangelization, is changed from Jerusalem to Antioch. And out of Antioch, the Word of God spread in circumference to the entire civilized world; and of course, ultimately around the globe. Now we are going to follow this church in Antioch after the days of the New Testament. What of its history and what became of it? Truly one of the most illustrious and interesting and dynamic stories that you could ever read in history is to follow the progress and the growth of this vast congregation in Antioch.
I remember one time I was speaking at an evangelistic conference, and I was saying that our First Baptist Church in Dallas, which at that time had about fifteen thousand members; I was saying that according to the standard of these churches in the New Testament, our First Baptist Church in Dallas is very small. For example, I said, the First Baptist Church in Antioch had at least fifty thousand members. And one of the ministers came up to me after that was over, and he said, “Where did you get that—fifty thousand members in the church?”
“Well,” I said, “Just reading history; just reading it, I came across that.”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”
Well, that kind of shook me up; you know, for a fellow to tell you when you are supposed to be an authority or something. So I went to my home and to my library, and I got down my books and reread them. And you know what? John Chrysostom, who we are going to come across in a minute, John Chrysostom said that he had one hundred thousand members in that First Baptist Church in Antioch. Man, talk about a fellow understating the truth. That is what I was doing, this church in Antioch. Now after the Bible, after the New Testament, the Book of Acts closes. And the Book of Acts closes in just about, say, 64 AD. After the New Testament in the Book of Acts closes, and before the Apocalypse of John was written, they had a tremendous pastor in the church at Antioch. Almost certainly, Matthew wrote his Gospel there. But we will not follow tradition. We will just follow historical reality.
In the church at Antioch, in about 70 AD, they had a marvelous pastor by the name of Ignatius. Ignatius was a dynamic and Spirit-filled and godly, powerful preacher. And there proclaiming the gospel in that Greek heathen city in about 70 AD, and in the years thereafter, he was turning the whole populace to the Lord. So Trajan, the emperor, the Caesar of the Roman Empire, came to visit Antioch to see what was happening there concerning emperor worship—idolatry, heathenism. And he listened to that preacher, Ignatius, and saw the throngs who were turning to the Lord. So he commanded that Ignatius should be brought before him. And he sentenced him to be exposed to the wild beasts in Rome.
Now the Roman Coliseum was built about five years after the martyrdom of Paul. So that would mean that the Roman Coliseum was built in about say, 72 AD. Now the historian says that the first Christian martyr to be exposed to the lions in the Coliseum was this pastor of the church in Antioch, Ignatius. And in the long journey of Ignatius from Antioch to Rome and to the Coliseum, he wrote beautiful, inspired letters. They are the treasures of Christendom to this day. Finally coming to Rome, he was sent—have you ever been to the Coliseum?—he was placed, sent out, and stood on the sand in the middle of that great amphitheater with those tiers with the thousands on either side. And those cages were opened and the lions were let loose. And when the leading lion ran omnivorously, carnivorously, viciously, fiercely, ferociously toward God’s preacher, Ignatius held out his hand to the leading lion, and above the crunching sound of bone and tendon, he was heard to say, “Now I begin to be a Christian.” What faith. What consecration. What triumph! What victory. No wonder the historian says the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. “Now I begin to be a Christian.”
Well, as the time went by, there was born in Antioch an unusual man by the name of Simeon the Elder. And this man sought to withdraw himself from the world. So he put himself in a cage, and he locked himself up behind walls, and he became known as a very holy man. So people began to come to see him. And finally, to separate himself from the world, he built himself a little pole and it was about, to begin with, six feet high. And he sat on that pole. And he lived on that pole. And as the days passed, and the days passed, and the years passed, why, people began to come from the ends of the earth to see this Simeon Stylite, Pole-Sitter, Agorite. So, in order to separate himself from the world, why, he got his pole up ten feet high, and twelve, and then fifteen feet high, and thirty; thirty feet high, and forty; forty feet high, and sixty; sixty feet high, and seventy; seventy feet high, and eighty. And one of those historians I read said he got that pole one hundred twenty feet up there in the air. And from the ends of the earth, people would come up to that dizzy height, and climb up and ask him all about political questions, economic questions, prognosis and prognostications and all kinds of things just from the ends of the earth. And he became the most famous Christian that lived in that day. Out there on the other side of Antioch, sitting on a pole, all day and all night; and he sat up there and never came down. He sat up there for thirty-seven years; a-sitting on that pole. Well, did you know, for a thousand years thereafter, for a thousand years, all over Christendom were that Order of Stylites, Agorites, Pole-Sitters. They were everywhere. Wherever you went, there you would see a fellow sitting on a pole for a thousand years thereafter. That is the most amazing development in the Christian religion I ever heard about; sitting on a pole, thousands through the generations, sitting on poles.
You know there is something about religion that beats anything you could ever look at in your life, and that is this. There are more fanatical screwball frenzies connected with religion than any one thing in the earth! I don’t know what it is. But if you are religious, why, you got to lose your mind. That just kind of goes along with it.
For example, if a man wants to present himself as being holy or pious, why, he has to separate himself from somebody else. He has to change his clothing. All of these other people just walk around just like this. Well, if he is a holy and a pious man, he can’t walk around like this. He has to do something funny. So if you have your collar turned front, why, if you are a holy man; why, you have got to do something different, so you turn your collar around to the back. That shows you are a holy man. Or, you have to have a funny dress, or a funny habit, or you have to eat funny, or whatever it is. You got religion; therefore you’ve got to be funny. And it is the same way about all of the habits of life. However life is, why, if you have religion, why, you have to be kind of different; you have to be kind of touched or the other; but just to be normal and to live a ordinary life, why, you do not have any religion then. You have to do something funny and strange in order to show yourself holy and pious.
But that is so different from these men of God in the Bible. The Lord Jesus was somebody who dressed like everybody else. Peter, Paul, all of the apostles dressed like other people; they talked like other people; they lived the life of other people; and their holiness and their piety came not in their eating or not in their dressing, but their holiness and piety came in the godliness of their lives; the chastity of their words, the beauty of their souls. Ah dear, well anyway, when he died—finally after thirty-seven years up there on that pole—why, they brought him down. And the whole empire represented itself officially in the procession that buried him in Antioch. There were seven thousand Roman legionaries who followed that train. Oh, it was something! And by the way, I forgot to say that when Ignatius died in the Roman Coliseum, they gathered up what few bones were left and buried them with great lamentation and gratitude for his life in Antioch. So they bury this Simeon Stylite, the Agorite, the Pole-Sitter; they bury him with great pomp and ceremony in Antioch.
Now there developed in the empire two tremendous Bible schools. They represented schools of thought, of interpretation. One was the school in Alexandria and the other was the school in Antioch. And they were as different as night and day. The school in Alexandria, was a “spiritualizing” school. That is, they would take the Word of God and “spiritualize” it—make it just mean anything that they pleased that it would mean. Philo lived there. Philo was a contemporary of the Lord Jesus, and Philo was a spiritualizer. Philo, a tremendous intellect and a great Jewish philosopher, Philo took the Old Testament, and in order to make it conform to Greek philosophy, he spiritualized the Old Testament.
For example, this would be very typical of Philo; when Philo would be expounding say, the story of Adam and Eve [Genesis 2:8-18, 21-25] in the garden of Eden, why, Philo would say there is no such thing as Adam and Eve. They never did live. There was nobody ever like Adam and Eve. But, now this is spiritualization; But Adam and Eve represent you and me; they represent the human race. Now the trees in the garden of Eden; there was no such thing as the garden of Eden, but the garden of Eden represents your mind, your head, your brain, your thoughts. And the trees in the garden of Eden represent your mental processes; they represent thought; good thoughts, good trees; bad thoughts, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And those four rivers that watered the garden of Eden represent the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy. And it just goes on and on. Now that is spiritualization.
And Origen, who was the most tremendous intellectual exponent and expounder of the Christian faith, followed. Origen lived in Alexandria; he followed that way of interpretation. That is spiritualization. And in my humble opinion, the sorriest way for a man to preach is to spiritualize, and the sorriest interpretation of the Word of God is spiritualization. That is, taking the Bible and instead of letting it say what it says, and mean what it means; well, you take it and then you just spiritualize it. You make it mean anything you want it to mean, just whatever comes to your mind. Now that school developed in Alexandria.
Contrariwise, in Antioch there developed a tremendous Bible school and a tremendous way of interpretation. And the school in Alexandria was what you would call a—an historical, grammatical interpretation of the Bible. They took the Bible in Alexandria, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and they studied its language, and they studied what God meant—its grammar, its historical background, its setting, where it came from. And they expounded the Word of God according to what God said and what God means by what He says. Now that to me is a greatest way for a school to be founded. And it is the one way I think a preacher ought to preach. He ought to take the Bible. He ought to see what it is that God says. And then he ought to expound that meaning what God says to our lives. That is the great school of interpretation in Antioch.
Now their most brilliant and marvelous and incomparable preacher and expounder and pastor of the church in Antioch was named John, John. And so brilliant and magnificent and fluent and oratorical was John that they called him John Chrysostom, “John the Golden-mouth”; “chrysostom in Greek is “golden-mouth”; John the golden-mouth. He was born into a noble family in Antioch. And he had a—a profession before him, an outline of study before him that would make him a great orator and rhetorician and lawyer. And that was how he was to be brought up. But he had a godly mother, a pious Christian mother, by the name of Anthusa. And Libanius, who headed that oratorical, rhetorical, philosophical school to which John was sent, Libanius wrote, “This is the young man whom we are preparing to take my place.” He was to be the great orator and rhetorician and lawyer and philosopher of Antioch and that whole Eastern world. But his mother has prayed him into a life of piety. John, later on called Chrysostom, John left the school, embraced the Christian faith, was baptized, and went into the deserts to expose his soul naked before the Lord; and when he came back, he was a flame of fire, a man of great intellectual and theological perceptions.
And I tell you what, when you read these great commentaries today, such as Matthew Henry, or Ellicott, or Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, any of them; when you read these commentaries; when you trace back and back and back, and unravel that scheme, where those great interpretations came from, you will find their fountainhead and their source in John Chrysostom. Oh! What a mighty preacher and what a mighty interpreter of the Word of God was this rhetorician and orator, John.
Now there was in Antioch in his days, in his youth, when he was a young preacher beginning—having come out of the desert; there was a riot in Antioch. Theodosius the emperor had laid a heavy levy upon the city to support his Roman army, his legionaries. And against that tax, the city rebelled and the city was turned into a riot and an uproar, and they destroyed the images of the emperor. Well, that was not only a sacrilege, but that was treason. So, when the city came to its senses and had realized what they had done, they cowered and trembled for fear of a visit with the Roman legions from the Roman Caesar. They sent a committee to Theodosius in Rome to beg forgiveness and apology that their city might be spared and not razed and burned to the ground.
Well, while those emissaries were in Rome, pleading with the Roman Caesar to forgive them their sacrilege and their treason, John, this preacher, John seized the opportunity and announced what we would call a revival! And every day and night, he preached the gospel of the Son of God, and he did it with tremendous power. And when the Roman Caesar came to the city, and saw what was happening, they were in the midst of a tremendous, mighty revival. People were turning to the Lord, and Emperor Theodosius forgave them. And out of that vast outpouring of the Spirit of God, and the tremendous revival in Antioch, came that marvelous church. That tremendous church, as he says, with more than a hundred thousand members.
Constantine began the building, and Constantius finished it. It was a vast edifice with a vast, vast dome—even more marvelous than the church at St. Sophia in Istanbul. Have you ever seen the church of St. Sophia in Istanbul? It is a miracle. Today, you build these great buildings because you have steel. And you have great open places, because you have steel beams. But they never had any steel. Those buildings had to be built out of masonry. And when you see the St. Sophia church in Istanbul, it will be an arch, and then an arch on top of that arch, and an arch on top of that arch, and the great dome arch is bigger than a baseball diamond—and made out of stone; not a piece of steel in it. It is a miracle. And you have a feeling of being outside, so vast are those open spaces; well, it was a greater church than that that Constantine and Constantius built—in Antioch, in which John Chrysostom preached. Oh what a day!
Now you say, “How in the world could a man have a hundred thousand members in his church and the people come?” Well, it is a modern thing that you have a pew in a church, that you have a chair in the church. When the people came to church, they all stood, and in a vast area like that, when they stood side by side, crowding right up to the pulpit, there were thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands that could crowd into a great church like the church that Constantine built in Antioch, in which John Chrysostom preached.
Now his life ended in a tragedy. He was called to be pastor of the church in Constantinople. And there was an empress by the name of Eudoxia. And right across the street in front of John Chrysostom’s church, she built a silver statue of herself, and a shrine, and a place of godless orgy, immorality, and worship. And John Chrysostom stood in his pulpit and denounced Eudoxia, calling her Jezebel. And when Eudoxia replied in kind, of course, that she was going to get that preacher and going to burn him at the stake, why, John Chrysostom stood in his pulpit and said again, “Herodias is reaching; again Herodias is dancing; again, Herodias is reaching out her hand for the head of John” [Mark 6:22-25]. That is what he preached. And brother, she did. And there is not anything like the fury of a vile and vicious tigress, female woman, oh! So she suborned men, and they cast him out of the pulpit, and cast him out of the church, and cast him out of the city, and cast him out of civilized life, and tried to assassinate him. But instead, John Chrysostom, that great man of God, died of exposure, starvation. Oh, dear!
Sweet people, you are listening so good. Stay with me just a while, I want to speak about that. I want to talk about that. Any true man of God—I don’t care in what generation—any true man of God is a man who preaches the gospel fearlessly, honestly, spiritually; just according to the Word of the Lord. Now I want to take—have you ever been to Oxford? There at the beginning at Bailey College—right in front of Bailey College in Oxford, there you will find a shrine where Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake—great preachers and mighty men of God. Well, Hugh Latimer had preached a sermon in the presence of Henry VIII, who greatly displeased His Majesty. Thereupon, he commanded Hugh Latimer to come back to the same place, in the same church, in the same pulpit, and apologize for what he had preached in the presence of the king, namely, Henry VIII. So the following Sunday, in the same pulpit, in the same place, in the same spot, at the same time, Hugh Latimer stands up to preach, and now here he begins, I quote:
Hugh Latimer, dost thou not know before whom thou art this day to speak, to the high and mighty monarch, the king’s most excellent majesty who can take away thy life if thou offendest? Therefore, take heed that thou speaketh not a word that may displease. But then consider, well, Hugh, dost thou not know from whence thou comest, upon whose message thou art sent? Even by thy great and mighty God Who is all-present and Who beholdeth all of thy ways and Who is able to cast thy soul into hell. Therefore, take care that thou deliverest thy message faithfully.
Now let me read the sentence from the history book. “He then proceeded with the same sermon he had preached the preceding Sunday, only with a great deal more energy.” Man, I like that! Oh, I would have loved to have been there! God bless the preacher of God who was sent from heaven with a message from the Lord. Well, as you know, when Bloody Mary ascended the throne, the first thing she did was she burned Cranmer; and then, together, burned Latimer and Ridley.
I have to conclude, my brethren and my sisters; just to two things. Number one: we stand in a great train. We stand in a great tradition. Think of it: John the Baptist, and the Lord Jesus, and Simon Peter, and Saul, Paul of Tarsus; Ignatius, John Chrysostom, Hugh Latimer, John Hus, John Wycliffe, the martyrs of the Reformation, the martyrs of our mission fields, and the men of God who this moment represent the Lord at the cost of their lives behind Iron Curtains in an oppressive and communist land. Oh, we stand in a great tradition!
And number two: God hath assigned us a great work. And the purpose of my sermon is this; not just to stand here and recount things of history, but to remind us that as they had a mandate from heaven in their day, we have a mandate from heaven in our day. We carry that torch under God’s hands until He says, “It is enough”; and calls us up high. We are to be true to our commitment in our day, as they were in theirs. Following through, fellow pilgrims with our faces toward God, doing God’s work in the earth. Lord, grant that it that we might be as true and as faithful in our generation as these were in theirs.
So we press the invitation of our Lord Christ to your heart tonight. To give yourself to Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]; to join heart and house and love and prayers and work with us; to be baptized [Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:35-38]; to come by letter; to come by statement; to come on a confession of faith, a family, all of you; a couple, two of you; or just one somebody you; while we sing the song, if the Lord speaks to your heart, would you answer with your life? “I’m on the way, pastor, here I am. I have decided for God and I’m coming.” Out of the balcony, down a stairway, the throng on this lower floor, here to the front, “Here I am, preacher, I have decided for God and I am here [Ephesians 2:8-9]. Standing before you, before men and angels, God has spoken and I am answering with my life.” Do it now. May angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
THE CHRISTIANS OF ANTIOCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
– pastor of the church at Antioch
A. About 70 AD and years thereafter, turning whole populace to the
B. Emperor Trajan sentences him to be exposed to lions in Coliseum
C. Ignatius writes letters during his journey to Rome
D. As lions charged, “Now I begin to be a Christian.”
A. Withdrawing from the world, lived on top of a pole
B. Became most famous Christian in that day
C. Holiness and piety in godliness of lives, chastity of words, beauty
A. School of Alexandria a “spiritualizing school”
1. Philo and Origen
B. School of Antioch developed historical, grammatical interpretation
A. Was to be greatest orator, rhetorician, lawyer, and philosopher
1. His mother prayed him into a life of piety; he embraced
B. Mighty preacher and interpreter of the Word of God
C. Led tremendous revival out of which came vast church
D. Denouncing Eudoxia, he was cast out; died of exposure
E. True man of God preaches gospel fearlessly, according to the Word
1. Hugh Latimer before Henry VIII
A. We stand in a noble line, a great heritage
B. God has assigned us a great work