First Called "Christians" at Antioch
This passage follows the conversion of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. God had opened the door for the Gentiles to come in. It took divine intervention to make it happen. First or all, Peter had to receive a vision from the Lord to direct him to go. Then the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentile believers. This demonstration of power similar to that of Pentecost convinced Peter and those who came with him that the inclusion of the Gentiles was part of God’s divine plan.
The result of the opening of the doors to the Gentiles was a massive paradigm shift. Word got out among the inhabitants of Jerusalem what had happened at Joppa, even before Peter returned. Those who held to the traditional views of Jerusalem were ready to confront Peter when they returned. Peter forcefully recounted what had happened and won the day for the Gentile mission, at least enough to silence the opposition from openly dissenting. This would not be the end of the trouble. It would take the church some time to adjust to the new reality.
The Jews did employ means for Gentiles to enter the congregation of Israel. They were accorded a sort of halfway status. Those men who had concerted had to be circumcised, and it would be generations before their descendants would be accorded full status as Jews. The question would have to be settles whether Cornelius and other Gentiles had to become Jews first and then followers of Jesus.
This week’s text shows that the church had sent missionaries to a major Syrian city called Antioch which was on the coast, across the bay from Tarsus where the Apostle Paul came from. This evangelization had been going on there for some time. The text tells us that the dispersion caused by the stoning of Stephen and the following persecution was the cause and the timing of the Antiochean mission. At first, this mission was limited to evangelizing the Jews or even the Hebrew speaking Jews, only. Some years later, Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene came and started to bring the Gospel to the Greeks. There is considerable debate to whom the Greeks are, which the variations of the Greek manuscripts make even more complicated. Were these Greek speaking Jews who held to both the Greek culture and language and their Jewish religious heritage? Were these Greeks the Gentile hearers and proselytes who came to believe on the God of Israel? Or were they the heathen Gentiles?
Although, the more common Greek word for Greeks in the early manuscripts of Acts is usually treated as a technical term for Greek speaking Jews, the context demands here that these Greeks be either Gentile God fearers or even heathen Gentiles. This passage follows upon the conversion of Cornelius who was a Gentile. Also, Greek speaking Jews had been included in the rolls of the Christians from Pentecost. Although, there had been some friction between the Greek speaking and Aramaic speaking Jews which resulted in the appointment of the first deacons, the question over the acceptance of the Greek speaking Jews had been long settled by this time. Even Stephen, the martyr mentioned in this passage was a Hellenist. This is why the Greeks mentioned here are probably a mix of Gentile God fearers like Cornelius and Pagans from various religious and cultural backgrounds.
Luke mentions that the hand of the Lord was with this mission, and He caused it to grow mightily. As Jewish people made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Antioch was not all that far distant, it was not long before news came back to the Jerusalem church. We know from a little later in Acts that not everyone there was pleased with the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles. So even at this point, some of the news that came to Jerusalem was in the way of complaint. The reaction of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem was reserved. It neither commended nor condemned. Instead they sent Barnabas to investigate the matter. This would help them make a decision whether what was happening in Antioch was from God or not. Barnabas was a good and fair man who could be trusted to give an accurate assessment. He was also a Jew from Cyprus, as were the evangelists of the expanded mission there. Being a Levite also made him trustworthy to the Jewish element
When Barnabas came, he was overwhelmed with what he saw. He saw instantly that the hand of the Lord was with the work. The power of the Spirit was at work. He also saw the challenge of confirming the many new believers, many of them who were unfamiliar with the teaching of what we call the Old Testament. It was not enough for them to be evangelized, they also needed to be discipled.
The Lord must have brought the Apostle Paul to mind as someone who could join him in this work. Barnabas knew that Paul had returned to Tarsus some years before and had almost disappeared from the scene. Even though Paul was expert in the Scripture and was also well educated in Greek philosophy and culture, he still needed to attend the seminary of the Lord. In this, there should be no shortcuts to those who feel the call to the ministry. Even though Paul had many natural gifts, he still needed to be prepared. Paul was one of those people who was as they say here in Tennessee “chompin’ at the bit” to do ministry. He had a life-transforming message to bring to a dying world. Yet the Lord had him wait and learn.
Even though Tarsus was a short boat trip from Antioch, Paul was not easy to find. Some commentators believe he had been disinherited and excommunicated from his family and the synagogue. The Greek text seems to indicate that Barnabas had to hunt him down to find him. Perhaps Paul was in hiding, in fear for his life. The one who had earlier hunted down Christians to haul them off to prison and execution had become the one hunted by his own countrymen. Eventually Barnabas found Saul and invited him to the work in Antioch. Paul was finally prepared for the work of ministry.
Paul, still called Saul worked with the growing church at Antioch alongside Barnabas to evangelize and disciple the church. Thus the church received the doctrinal footing it needed to find its identity.
This morning’s passage ends with what appears to be an explanatory note. It was at Antioch that the believers were first called “Christians”. Even though both Luke and Acts are long books, Luke does not put in details into the text without a reason to do so. This is far more important than a simple bit of trivia of use to historians. Why does Luke mention this?
It would be good to know who called them “Christians”. One thing we can deduce is that it wasn’t the believers who called themselves “Christians”. This is because both “disciples” and “Christians” are used as the direct objects which indicates in the lack of any reflexive pronoun that someone else who is unnamed in the clause did the labeling. So was this outside group hostile or friendly? In many cases, labels are terms of derision. The early Pentecostals were called “Holy Rollers” and followers of John Wesley were sneered as “Methodists”. The similarity of “Christian” to the slave name “Chrestus” might lend some support to this. The Roman historian Suetonius refers to the followers of one Chrestus, a crucified slave in an obviously contemptuous way.
However, I think there is another possibility that needs to be explored. The word translated “called” is not one of the usual Greeks words used for naming or calling. Instead the verb “chrematizo” is used here. This word can be translated with a whole variety of English words which makes it somewhat difficult to translate here. It is often used in a context which indicate either an official act or edict. Luke’s uses of the word lends support to the idea that this is an official act by the hand of God, although it is still possible that a government official in Antioch may have given that group the name of “Christian”’ Even if this was the name given them from an official, Luke is fast to show that even powerful leaders like Herod, Augustus, Pilate, and the High Priest of Israel acting of their own free will in their official capacities could not but do the will of God. Saul before his conversion was doing God’s will just as much as he did as the Apostle Paul. After all, it was his persecution of the church after the death of Stephen which caused the church to scatter from Jerusalem like the seeds of a windblown dandelion to proclaim the Gospel, including the work at Antioch.
If it was by the hand of God that the believers there were first called Christians, then what was God’s rationale for it? I believe it was the means for separating the believers in Jesus from apostate Judaism. The people of God needed a new identity to prevent them from being swallowed up into Judaism. Part of separation is identity as compared to a former identity. If these new Gentiles had to conform to Judaism, they would have to keep the Law of Moses and become circumcised. It is abundantly clear from the Jerusalem Council and from the writings of Paul that this was not to be the case. The Jew’s old identity as a Jew would have to become a new identity as a Christian. Saul had to become Paul. The Gentile had to turn (repent) from their old identity as a pagan to the new identity as a Christian. The Christian identity is a forward looking identity. Old things pass away in this new orientation. It is not what we were, but who and whose we are, and what God is transforming us into. The idea of a hyphenated Christian is an oxymoron. One is no longer a Greek or Jew but a new person in Christ.
The church at Antioch stands as the practical working out of this new identity. Here was a church made up of Jews who called all non-Jews “dogs”, of Greeks who called everyone who did not speak Greek “barbarians”. And a host of others from other religious and cultural backgrounds who took pride in who they were. Many of these groups were violently opposed to each other. Yet these former rivals and enemies were now worshiping together in the same church. What a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit! Did they have it perfectly worked out yet? The answer is no, it would take time to work out the implications of this new identity. A controversy would disrupt the unity of the believers there which would require delegates to be sent to the Jerusalem church to work out. But the Antioch church stands out as one which demonstrate what God is looking for in His church.
Can we today look at the model of the church at Antioch as the blueprint for today’s church? Can we have the same perception as Barnabas did who instantly saw that this is the church that the power of God works in? Are we more interested in our denominational identities than our identity as Christians? Are we more interested in preserving our economic or cultural identity that our Christian one. Is there such a thing as an American church, and African church, a rich church, or a middle class church? We have identities as Baptists, Methodist, Presbyterians or other denominational appellation. Or is there only one church made up of all true believers in Christ. Like the church at Antioch, we must address the issues of identity. However, it must be made clear that Jesus Christ is our common denominator. We must confess the common faith as Christians first, and then discuss the diversity of particulars. We cannot start from diversity and hope to come to unity. It does not matter where we come from. If anyone is indeed in Christ, he or she must come to the realization that the old has passed away and is baptized in death. It is the new identity which matters, the new creation we are in Christ Jesus.