19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists  also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:19-26 (ESV)
Barnabas, it’s odd, as many times as I have read Acts, I’ve never before noticed, until doing this running commentary, just what a critical role this man played in the beginning of the church. He is still respected in Jerusalem and he is from Cyprus himself, a Jew raised among the Hellenists with intimate knowledge of their culture, customs and language. In that matter, he had a similar background to Paul who grew up in Tarsus where he is now hanging out on ice as it were. So it is Barnabus that the church in Jerusalem asks to go check out the operations in Antioch, the birthplace of the name Christian.
Quite some time has elapsed since the persecution of Stephen. We are talking a minimum of four years, possibly as many as six. Paul was a part of this persecution, but when he converted he spent three years in Arabia, we know this from Galatians, then he worked in Jerusalem and opened up the old controversy, before being sent off to Tarsus. After Paul is sent off to Tarsus all this other stuff with Peter happens in Joppa and Caesarea. Meanwhile Paul has been off the radar. Barnabus has to go looking for him in Tarsus and it doesn’t seem he has an easy time of it. Indicating that during this time Paul isn’t very active in Evangelizing. On top of this you have this new church sprouting up in Antioch, both among the Jews and the Hellenists.
Hellenists could be just Greek speaking Jews, but the manner in which it is contrasted with Jews here indicates that these men are witnessing directly to pagans in Antioch, the third greatest city of the Roman empire, after Rome and Alexandria in Eygpt.
When Barnabus gets to Antioch to conduct his investigation he is overjoyed to see the gospel at work, and realizes that he needs someone to help with the work load of instructing and caring for all these people who are turning to the Lord. And he does something that will change the shape of Christianity forever, he seeks out Paul, to bring him back into service of the church. This is where Paul is called to shine, to learn from everything that has happened and put it to good use. This is an environment in which he will swim.