Antioch, with its harbor of Seleucia, was in communication with all the trade of the Mediterranean, and, through the open country behind the Lebanon, it was conveniently approached by the caravans from Mesopotamia and Arabia. It united the inland advantages of Aleppo with the maritime opportunities of Smyrna. It was almost an oriental Rome, in which all the forms of the civilized life of the Empire found some representative. Through the first two centuries of the Christian era, it was what Constantinople became afterwards "the Gate of the East." And, indeed, the glory of the city of Ignatius was only gradually eclipsed by that of the city of Chrysostom. That great preacher and commentator himself, who knew them both by familiar residence, always speaks of Antioch with peculiar reverence, as the patriarchal city of the Christian name.
There is something curiously prophetic in the stories which are told of the first founding of Antioch. Like Romulus on the Palatine, Seleucus is said to have watched the flight of birds from the summit of Mount Casius. An eagle took a fragment of the flesh of his sacrifice, and carried it to a point on the seashore, a little to the north of the mouth of the Orontes. There he founded a city and called it Seleucia (Acts 13:4) after his own name. An eagle again decided that this was not to be his own metropolis, and carried the flesh to the hill Silpius, which is on the south side of the river. Five or six thousand Athenians and Macedonians were ordered to convey the stones and timber of Antigonia down the river, and Antioch was founded by Seleucus, and called after his father’s name.
This fable of Antioch, invented perhaps to give a mythological sanction to what was really an act of sagacious prudence and princely ambition, is well worth remembering. Seleucus was not slow to recognize the wisdom of Antigonus in choosing a site for his capital, which should place it in ready communication both with the shores of Greece and with his eastern territories on the Tigris and Euphrates, and he followed the example promptly. Few princes have ever lived with so great a passion for the building of cities, and this is a feature of his character which ought not to be unnoticed in this narrative. He is said to have built in all nine Seleucias, sixteen Antiochs, and six Laodicaeas. This love of commemorating the members of his family was conspicuous in his works by the Orontes. Besides Seleucia and Antioch, he built, in the immediate neighborhood, a Laodicea in honor of his mother.
We find that Antioch had memorials of all the great Romans. When Pompey was defeated by Caesar, the conqueror’s name was perpetuated in this Eastern city by an aqueduct and by baths, and by a basilica called Caesarium. In the reign of Augustus, Agrippa built in all cities of the Empire, and Herod of Judea followed the example to the utmost of his power. Both found employment for their munificence at Antioch. The reign of Tiberius was less remarkable for great architectural works, but the Syrians by the Orontes had to thank him for many improvements and restorations in their city. Even the four years of his successor left behind them the aqueduct and the baths of Caligula.
Thus, if any city, in the first century, was worthy to be called the Heathen Queen and Metropolis of the East, that city was Antioch. She was represented, in a famous allegorical statue, as a female figure, sented on a rock and crowned, with the river Orontes at her feet. With this image, which art has made perpetual, we conclude our description.
While Barnabas and Paul were evangelizing the Syrian capital, and gathering in the harvest, the first seeds of which had been sown by "men of Cyprus and Cyrene," certain prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one of them named Agabus announced that a time of famine was at hand (Acts 11:28). The Gentile disciples felt that they were bound by the closest link to those Jewish brethren whom though they had never seen they loved. No time was lost in preparing for the coming distress. All the members of the Christian community, according to their means, determined to send relief, Paul and Barnabas being chosen to take the contribution to the elders at Jerusalem (Acts 11:29, 30).
When Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch, they were attended by John, whose surname was Mark. With the affection of Abraham towards Lot, his kinsman Barnabas withdrew him from the scene of persecution. We need not doubt that higher motives were added, that at the first, as at the last, (2Timothy 4:11) Apostle Paul regarded him as "profitable to him for the ministry." Thus attended, the Apostle willingly retraced his steps towards the city. A field of noble enterprise was before him. He could not doubt that God, who had so prepared him, would work by his means great conversions among the Heathen.
We are told that there were, in the Church at Antioch, (Acts 13:1) "prophets and teachers," and among the rest "Barnabas," with whom we are already familiar. The others were "Simeon, who was surnamed Niger," and "Lucius of Cyrene" and "Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod the Tetrarch," and Paul who still appears under his Hebrew name (Saul).
These were the most conspicuous persons in the Church of Antioch, when a revelation was received of the utmost importance. The occasion on which the revelation was made seems to have been a fit preparation for it. The Christians were engaged in religious services of peculiar solemnity. The Holy Spirit spoke to them "as they ministered unto the Lord and fasted." These religious services might have had a special reference to the means which were to be adopted for the spread of the Gospel now evidently intended for all, and the words "separate me now Barnabas and Paul for the work whereunto I have called them," may have been an answer to specific prayers. How this revelation was made, whether by the mouth of some of the prophets who were present, or by the impulse of a simultaneous and general inspiration, it is useless to inquire. A definite work was pointed out, as now about to be begun under the counsel of God with the sanction of the church in Antioch.