The In-Between Years - Part 55

Series: The In-Between Years

November 21, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 55

 Last week we finished out the account of how God inaugurated phase 3 of his witness projection plan. The saving of the Gentile Cornelius and his household opens the door for the gospel’s spread to the ends of the earth.

As we pick up in verse 19 of chapter 11, the gospel’s spread keeps going.

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. Acts 11:19 (ESV)

Luke reminds us of Stephen’s stoning and the horrible persecution that came with it. The disciples at Jerusalem fled for their lives into the various provinces of Rome as Saul, the zealous and blood-thirsty Pharisee, hunted them down and threw them in prison. God used this evil for incredible good, though, because it was the catalyst leading to the launch of phases 2 and 3 of his gospel spreading plan (forcing the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem out). And not only that, Saul was miraculously converted on the road to Damascus, set apart by God to be a missionary to the Gentiles (we’ll see that tie-in shortly).

The gospel’s spread to the ends of the earth is happening as believers settle in Phoenicia, the region of modern-day Lebanon, north of Israel along the Mediterranean coast;[1] Cyprus, a large Mediterranean island that will be mentioned often in Acts;[2] and

Antioch, the third most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.

One scholar notes Antioch “was the seat of the Roman…“legate” or governor of the province of Syria. Josephus called it “the metropolis of Syria” … it became the site of famous philosophical, rhetorical, and medical schools, the home of a renowned library, and was noted for its architectural monuments, theaters, gymnasia, and baths. Many Jews lived there… Citizens of Antioch were known for their scurrilous wit and invention of nicknames.”[3] Remember that.

At first, these exclusively Jewish Christians shared the gospel with Jews exclusively. But we know that the Gentiles have been grafted in. The gospel is open to all... 

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. Acts 11:20 (ESV)

There’s some confusion here. In Acts 6 the Hellenists are Greek-speaking Jewish believers neglected in the daily distribution. In Acts 8 they are Greek speaking non-Christian Jews attacking Stephen. But here they appear to be Greek-speaking non-Jews, Gentile citizens of Antioch. Regardless, we see Jewish believers sharing their faith with those they would have normally shunned because of their ethnicity (just like Peter). 

Next, we have one of those snapshots Luke peppers throughout his book… 

21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. Acts 11:21 (ESV)

What a sweet observation. Every time I come across these snapshots I tear up. Oh that this could be said of the church today.

There’s a saying in church planting. The three most important factors are location, location, location. The bigger the city or the more densely populated area, the more likely you are to see growth. This was true back in the early church’s day as well. Antioch was a city of half a million or more. When Luke says many believed and turned to the Lord, it must have been quite a movement, one that caught the attention of church headquarters, in a good way…

22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. Acts 11:22 (ESV)

He wasn’t an original disciple (one of the twelve) or an apostle in the strict sense, but he did play a prominent role in the early church. We first met in him in Acts 4 when he sold his property and gave it to the church. Then in Acts 9 he came alongside the newly converted Saul, helping connect with a fellow believers still afraid of him. We’ll see Barnabas many more times from here on out.

His name means “son of encouragement.” The leaders at Jerusalem felt the burgeoning church at Antioch needed guidance and encouragement so Barnabas was the man.

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. Acts 11:23—24 (ESV)

So, believers came to Antioch and did what every believer can do, share the gospel. A great many were added to the kingdom. Now you have this growing church. They need leadership, so Barnabas comes and does what he’s especially gifted to do encourage and lead them and even more are added. But they needed something else. They needed to be taught the Scriptures. They needed to be rooted and grounded in God’s word. Hmm, who do we know that knows the Scripture by heart, who powerfully preaches Christ, who has a calling to reach the Gentiles? Barnabas knows… 

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 11:25-26

Barnabas brings Saul, who will become Paul, back into the picture. He’ll stick around till the book’s very end.

Let’s spend the rest of our time today looking at the last part of verse 26…

“And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

This is where my attention landed in this text. You know how I love to see if what appears insignificant offers more than what we observe at first glance? I think that’s the case here. Why? Mostly because Luke makes sure to include it. He never just throws something in.

“And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

To my knowledge there’s no verse in the NT that says, “Christ-followers were first called disciples in ______.” Or “disciples were first called saints in _______.” There’s something special about this, something Luke’s readers in the 1st century would have picked up on. Something we miss because we are reading it 2,000 years later.

In our day, the term christian is familiar worldwide, which tells you those first christians made quite the impact (we’ll talk more about that at the end of this series). In truth, the term christian might be a little too familiar.

We use it today very loosely not only referring to people with a certain set of beliefs (and those beliefs don’t necessarily have to be biblical) but also to describe how someone acts. We might say to someone who just blessed out the waitress, “That’s not very christian of you.” This really muddies the waters and makes the word mean less that what its supposed to.

CS Lewis alludes to this in the preface to his book, Mere Christianity. In trying to clarify what is meant by the word christian, he compares it to the word gentleman

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not ‘a gentleman’ you were not insulting him, but giving information… But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—‘Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?’ They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man ‘a gentleman’ in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is ‘a gentleman’ becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object… A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word …

Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word… In calling anyone a Christian [people] will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles...[4]

Lewis is right. To keep the word christian first used in Antioch 2,000 years ago intact, we have to go back and examine its origins, and to do that we look at Acts 11:26 more carefully. First we note it appears it wasn’t a name followers of Jesus gave to themselves.

Christian is the Greek word christianos. That’s formed from two Greek words. The first you probably know, Christos, a title for Jesus, not a name. It’s very specific. It means the anointed one and has to do with the long-awaited and much prophesied Jewish Messiah revealed in the OT. In the NT, when you see our savior referred to as Jesus Christ, that’s not his first and last name, that’s his given name and his title. It’s the same as saying Jesus-Messiah, and it means you are clearly identifying Jesus of Nazareth as that long-awaited and much prophesied messiah, the messiah of the Jews.

Now, the ancient civilized world ruled by Rome was very familiar with the Jews for three reasons. (1) They were present in pretty much every city and province having scattered away from their homeland many years before. There was a huge population of Jews in Antioch. (2) They refused to mingle their religion with that of the Romans like everyone else. So Rome gave them kind of a special dispensation. (3) Their faith was so odd in comparison to that of all those around them. They worshipped one God while everybody else worshipped a pantheon of gods and had no problem mingling in others as well. That novelty made people curious. No doubt, many gentiles knew the Jews were waiting for a Messiah.

Now you have this new religious movement with roots in Judaism blowing up and even many gentiles joining in, and it’s all about some guy they call Jesus-Christ. Jesus, the man from the hick town Nazareth born of poor parents crucified on a Roman cross. That’s their Messiah? They worship this guy? The redneck who got himself hung on a cross?

We know for a fact Romans ridiculed Christians and especially fellow Romans who worshipped Jesus Christ. Some time ago archeologists found graffiti on a plaster wall in Rome from around the time of the early church in Acts. It depicts a man on a cross with the head of a donkey. The words etched beneath it read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” 

So that’s the first part of the word explained. Christ - Christos, the anointed one. The second part is ianos. That means of the party of. So Christian means of the party of Christ, the messiah.

Think about this and look back at verse 26… 

“And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

That implies someone outside their group gave them that name. I think Luke would have said “And in Antioch the disciples first called themselves Christians” if that was the case.  Or he wouldn’t have mentioned it at all. Why, if it’s a name they applied to themselves?

Now, remember what Antioch is known for: “philosophical, rhetorical, and medical schools… a renowned library… architectural monuments, theaters, gymnasia, and baths. Many Jews lived there… Citizens of Antioch were known for their scurrilous wit and invention of nicknames.”[5]

Nicknames can be good or bad. Sometimes they are a term of endearment. You know you’ve been accepted in a group when they lovingly give you your nickname. But it can also be a term of derision, a way to make fun of someone or put them down. My nickname in middle school was banana nose, something I was called until I learned to laugh along with everyone (thanks, mom).

If this is a nickname given to disciples of Jesus by the Gentile, non-Jesus followers in Antioch and you had to guess if it was good or bad, what would you guess? I would have to say bad. Here’s what one scholar thinks…

… [Christianos’] Latin origins points to its invention by Gentile residents of Antioch… With this label, members of the messianic sect were singled out from other Israelite factions and Gentile groups by pagan outsiders, perhaps including Roman authorities, and designated “partisans of Christ.” … it meant, not simply “partisans of Christ,” but something like “Christ-lackeys,” shameful [yes-men] of Christ, a criminal put to [humiliating] death by the Romans years earlier.[6]

Okay, if the term Christian is bad then the church must have rejected it, right? I mean when people used that term they were slamming Jesus followers. I don’t go around calling myself banana nose (and don’t you either). Luke must have been letting believers know where their mean-spirited name came from so they wouldn’t use it. Right?

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.  1 Peter 4:16 (ESV)

Early Christians took that slam and wore it like a badge.They totally and completely gave themselves over to Jesus of Nazareth because they believed and knew he was the Messiah crucified on a Roman cross who came back from the dead and will one day rule this world on his throne as king of all kings. What the world meant as an insult they humbly received as a compliment.

The name has stuck to this day.

Conclusion:  As we close, think about how we see this word. Yes, as modern-day believers 2,000 tears later we relate it to Christ-followers, but we use it more as a proud declaration of where we stand on issues or how we see ourselves morally. “I’m a Christian!!!” But in the early church it was very humbly and lovingly, “I am a Christian.” 

I’m not sure it means what it used to. Lewis is right. The term Christian will mean what we make it mean.

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)

[1] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ac 11:19). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fitzmyer, J. A. (2008). The Acts of the Apostles: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 31, p. 475). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

[4] Lewis, C. S. (2001). Mere Christianity (pp. xiii–xv). New York: HarperOne.

[5] Fitzmyer, J. A. (2008). The Acts of the Apostles: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 31, p. 475). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

[6] Himes, P. A. (2017). 1 Peter. (D. Mangum, E. Vince, & A. Salinger, Eds.) (1 Pe 4:16). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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