Question:

Can anyone tell me why the church in Antioch sent relief to the brethren in Judea (Acts 11) if the famine was worldwide? Wouldn't they all have suffered? Were the people in Antioch just more wealthy and could afford to help more needy Christians?

Answer:

In regards to your question, we do not know for certain all the details of the famine. I trust the scriptures say it was worldwide and therefore it was. Your question is a good one in light of that understanding.

How could one famine stricken Church give aid to another?
“For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44 ESV).
“For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (II Corinthians 8:2 ESV).
This is a possible understanding of how this was accomplished. A sincere love of God and the brethren will produce this demonstration of love under any circumstance (Philippians 4:10-20).
How do we know the famine was not gradual?
This is a real possible explanation and could even couple with the first. Experience shows that not all disasters affect everyone or every region at the same time; they often have a progression in their effect. Remember the Great Depression? Do all recessions affect all people at all times?
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11 ESV).
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:33-34 ESV).
With these verses and their sincere love for the brethren it is no wonder they were motivated to help.
What was the wealth of Judea compared to other regions?
Wealth will play a real role in degrees of affect (I Corinthians 16:1-3). During the first century many Gentile cities were more affluent and their citizens enjoyed a greater degree of material goods. No different for us today. This will stave off for a time any effects of a famine. And even with a world wide famine not all will be affected. Remember the Great Depression? Even if a wealthy person loses a large sum of his wealth does not mean he will starve. Inherent in this explanation requires some of the brethren to be wealthy. We have examples of wealthy Christians. (Philemon, possibly Lydia of Philippi, and we may argue Apollos of Alexandria) of course they were likely others throughout the world. Even Aquila and Priscilla were able to apply their trade in a foreign city (Acts 18:1-3). And this too works well with either or both explanations.

There may be other explanations but I hope this will be helpful for your understanding.

Chuck Richardson