Luke’s been setting us up.
The larger story, of course, belongs to God. Centuries ago, he chose a people to represent him, to show the world what it meant to follow this one God. The blessings they were given were always with an eye toward their being a blessing to the world in turn. Through the twists and turns of the story of Israel, that part of their identity had been submerged, even lost — so much so that the very idea that the coming of Israel’s Messiah could also be good news to the Gentiles came as a complete and confusing surprise to many.
Jesus, however, had known the plan all along. He had commissioned his disciples as apostles, as those who would be sent out to preach to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. It just took a while for his followers to wake up to the new reality that became the mission to the Gentiles.
But that’s the story Luke has been building. It began with the persecution of Hellenistic Jewish believers in Jerusalem after the murder of Stephen. Fleeing the persecution, they scattered to outlying lands, taking the gospel with them. This set up Philip’s evangelistic harvest in Samaria, as well as his ministry to the first recorded Gentile convert, a lone Ethiopian official. The mission expanded with the story of Peter and Cornelius, in which an entire Gentile household received the gospel and was saved.
And then, the mission exploded in a major city:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, NRSV)
“Now those who were scattered…” The phrase is identical to the one in Acts 8:4; Luke is circling back to pick up the thread of that story. Some believers fled up the Mediterranean coast into Phoenicia. From there, some hopped a boat to the island of Cyprus, while others continued north to Syrian Antioch.
At first, these believers preached only to their fellow Jews. And why not? As suggested above, they had little reason to imagine that the story of a Jewish Messiah would be relevant to Gentiles.
Until someone got the bright idea of giving it a try.
Somehow, Hellenistic Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene (a city in what is now Libya) decided to proclaim Jesus to Hellenistic Gentiles in Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Formerly the capital of the Seleucid Empire, it was now the capital of the Roman province of Syria.
Antioch was a famously cosmopolitan place. In Jerusalem, Jewish believers may have been a bit scandalized by the idea of consorting with Gentiles, let alone the idea that Gentiles could be embraced by the gospel. But in a place like Antioch, where people of all backgrounds lived and worked side by side, such ideas would probably have seemed less strange.
Thus, these men from Cyprus and Cyrene gamely shared the gospel with the Gentiles in Antioch, and the hand of the Lord was with them. The Gentiles received the good news gladly and in numbers.
Strangely, we don’t even know the names of the intrepid evangelists who were responsible.
But that’s what happens sometimes when the story belongs to God.