When The Disciples Were First Called Christians
You would have thought that such horrendous persecution of the new church would have chilled the effect it was able to have in the first century world. Beginning at Jerusalem, threats, beatings and arrests had finally given way to murder as Stephen was stoned to death for his faith in Jesus. It was decided in high places to stamp out the church then and there, but it was also decided in the Highest of High Places not to allow that to happen.
Believers, driven from their homes in Jerusalem, were scattered here and there throughout Palestine. They had lost their homes and property, but not their faith. They went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. What did they do? They spoke the word of the Lord, at first only to their own countrymen, the Jews. Jesus was a Jew, born of the tribe of Judah. All His apostles, the first converts, as well as the first persecutors were Jews as well. Soon this was to change as Greeks heard and obeyed the gospel.
The Gospel Comes To Antioch
"So then, those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Steven made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus." (Acts 11:19,20).
It was at Antioch that there was a change of course, though careful consideration shows that such had been the Lord's plan all along. It was at Antioch that some of the Jewish believers in Christ from Cyprus and Cyrene began to do something that would effect the whole world. Perhaps these were some of those who had been visiting at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the apostles had first proclaimed the risen Lord. At any rate, these disciples began to preach the word not only to other Jews, but also to Greeks as well.
Of course, Jesus had said it would be this way. He had commissioned His apostles to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit..." (Matthew 28:19). He had talked of having "other sheep not of this fold" speaking of the Greeks as opposed to the "lost sheep of Israel" with whom He chiefly dealt during His personal ministry on earth (John 10:16).
The Effect of Preaching Christ
"And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. (Acts 11:21,22).
When men and women teach others the gospel, there is another partner in the effort. The "hand of the Lord" is in the proclamation of the gospel to the lost. Later, Paul would refer to teachers of the gospel as "God's fellow workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9). How can anyone who professes to be a believer not desire such a partnership? To teach the gospel is every Christian's duty and privilege.
It is implied that not everyone who believed turned to the Lord, though a "large number" of them did. It is too bad that it cannot be said that "all who believed turned to the Lord." Also, this means that there must be a difference between "believing" and "turning" to the Lord. Jesus talked of believers who did not confess Him because they desired the approval of men (John 12:42,43). Do you think that some believers at Antioch failed to "turn to the Lord" for the same reason? I highly expect so, given the climate of persecution.
Believers who turn to the Lord are those that obey His gospel. This would be those who are baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38, 8:12). This accomplishes, by the power of the grace of God and the blood of Christ, one's sins being washed away (Acts 22:16).
Encouragement to Remain True to the Lord
"Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch." (Acts 23-26a).
All this, the sacrifice of Christ for our sins, the teaching of the gospel by disciples, and the reception of it by the lost unto salvation from sins and a new eternal hope; is by God's grace. When Barnabas witnessed this, he rejoiced. The goal of the persecution had been to deter or stop the gospel, but it had only succeeded in causing it to be spread further.
Barnabas began at once to encourage these new disciples to remain true to the Lord. Of course, not everyone does. Persecution will drive some away; apathy others. We must encourage one another to remember our destiny if we remain true to the Lord. Salvation to too precious a gift to treat it lightly (Hebrews 10:23-25; 34-39).
Barnabas is known for his ability to encourage others. In fact, "Barnabas" is only a nickname given to him by the apostles. His real name was Joseph. The name "Barnabas" means "Son of Encouragement". It's good for everybody to have a few like Barnabas around. The lost were converted and the converted were encouraged to become strong and remain "true to the Lord."
The New Name
"And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." (Acts 11:23-26).
After having gone to Tarsus to get the new convert Saul, only recently a persecutor of the church himself, Barnabas returns with Saul and they work with the church at Antioch for a year. What an encouragement he must have been to Saul, for most believers were still afraid of him. Later, Barnabas and Saul (soon to be known as Paul) will travel through Asia Minor together establishing many churches in many different cities. Antioch would become their "headquarters" from where they would launch their missions and return after completing them.
It was during this year in which Barnabas and Saul are at Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians". The disciples were followers of Christ. A disciple of Jesus is happy to wear His name. Later, Peter tells disciples to "in that name (that is, in the name "Christian" -J.Q.) let him glorify God." (1 Peter 4:16). Though the enemies of Christ may speak the name with a sneer, disciples wear it joyfully. The Lord has been sanctified in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).
Not every believer becomes a disciple, but every disciple is a Christian. "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12).
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 4.8; August 1997