Disciples Become Christians

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 13:1-3

Where did the first Christians come from? Well, we don’t know a great deal about the people, but I can tell you all about the name.

On a beautiful, well-watered site in ancient Syria (present-day Turkey), stood the great city of Antioch. Originally the capital of part of Alexander the Great’s empire, Antioch had come under Roman rule when Syria became a Roman province in the first century before Christ. By the time of the New Testament, it was a leading commercial and political center. Together with Alexandria in Egypt and Rome itself, Antioch was one of the three greatest cities in the Roman Empire. And it was the place where, during a critical period early in the life of the young Christian movement, a church was formed that shaped the entire history of the gospel and the world.


As we have seen in this series of studies in the book of Acts,The Story of the First Christians, the church up to this point in its history was almost completely Jewish-Christian, and was largely limited to Palestine. As the book of Acts unfolds, Luke reports the first symbolic expansions of the Christian faith across racial, cultural and geographic lines, in obedience to Christ’s instructions that his followers should witness to him first in Jerusalem and Judea, then in Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). So Acts 8 describes the outreach in Samaria and the conversion of an Ethiopian official as he traveled home from worshiping in Jerusalem. Then there was the pivotal event of the conversion of the gentile God-fearer Cornelius and his household (ch. 10). Now in the city of Antioch we will see the dam of Jewish ethnocentrism break wide open, and the trickle of gentile converts will become a flood.

Jerusalem was the birthplace of the Christian church. But it was the growth of the church in Antioch that really established Christianity as a world faith. In this city, large numbers of gentiles first – at least as far as we know they were the first – came to Christ. And the missionary careers of Paul and his companions were launched from this church. These events together are what ensured that Christianity would not simply be another sect within Judaism, but would become a truly universal, world-wide movement.


It all started with what seemed like a disastrous setback to the fledgling Christian community back in Jerusalem. Stephen, one of the young church’s ablest leaders, had been murdered. In the aftermath of his martyrdom, persecution broke out against all the followers of Jesus in Judea. This was a clear example of what is known in our day as the law of unintended consequences. The Jerusalem authorities had killed Stephen in order to silence a powerful Christian spokesman, which they thought would cripple the fledgling movement. But their action had just the opposite effect. Their persecution scattered believers up and down the eastern end of the Mediterranean (Acts 11:19). As they traveled, ordinary Christians were sharing their faith in the new regions they passed through, and the church began to expand. The Christian movement was growing geographically and, more significantly, culturally, after some anonymous believers made the strategic decision to speak with non-Jews about the Lord Jesus (v. 20).

This outreach to gentiles became centered in the city of Antioch, one of the major metropolises of the ancient world. As a result of this evangelistic activity a church came into existence in Antioch – which all started, remember, when God used adverse circumstances to thrust people out of their comfortable routine. It still happens that way today. God can use many things to move Christians out with the gospel; not only persecution, but a new job, an overseas assignment, even a holiday trip. When the apostles back in Jerusalem heard there was this new church in Antioch, they decided to investigate. The man they tapped for their fact-finding mission proved to be a superb choice. He was Barnabas, Paul’s old friend. Actually, “Barnabas” was his nickname. His real name was Joseph, and he was a Jewish convert to Christ from the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). But he was such a positive person that everyone called him “the Son of Encouragement,” or “Barnabas,” in Hebrew. When Barnabas got to Antioch, he was thrilled by what he found there: a new fellowship of Jesus’ followers. He immediately launched into his characteristic activity; “he . . . encouraged them all,” Luke reports (11:23). We owe a tremendous debt to this relatively obscure servant of the Lord. Imagine if Barnabas had been skeptical or negative by temperament, instead of positive and encouraging. Think of the consequences. Or what if he had sent back a very critical report to Jerusalem about what was happening in Antioch? But Barnabas was not like that, and as a result, a new mission base was established that would eventually help to spread the Christian faith throughout the entire Roman empire.


This was not the only contribution Barnabas made to the Christian movement. As the Lord blessed the work in Antioch with great growth, Barnabas began to look around for help. He thought of his old friend Paul, and went over to Tarsus where Paul had been living for the past several years to get him. The team ministry they launched in Antioch was to prove a blessing not only there, but in many places far beyond that were as yet unreached by the gospel.

This church Paul and Barnabas led in Antioch was a significant model of what a Christian community ought to be. From Luke’s brief descriptions in Acts, we can identify at least four characteristics.

First, the church in Antioch was active in witness. We know this from an interesting bit of information Luke offers. It was in Antioch that the disciples became Christians, that is, this was the place where the followers of Jesus were first given the name “Christians.” This was where the term which became the common name for Jesus’ followers originated.

Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Acts 11:25-26

What intrigues me is the nickname – “Christians.” Obviously it’s become so familiar to us it doesn’t strike us any longer as unusual. But behind this name lies a story. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. As these early believers in Jesus moved out into a gentile environment they kept talking about Jesus, their Lord and Savior, their Messiah (or Christ). But Greeks and other gentiles who were unfamiliar with the Hebrew term Messiah misunderstood it as a proper name. So Jesus the Messiah became simply Jesus Christ. And it seems that Christ was such a watchword among these followers of Jesus that soon people began to call them that. They became known as the Christianoi in Greek – the Christians. No wonder great numbers of people were attracted to this new movement. With everybody sharing the good news about Christ with friends and neighbors, the excitement was infectious. They talked about him so much that his name became their name.

A second characteristic of the church in Antioch was its intimate and diverse fellowship. Luke gives us a hint of the rich social and ethnic diversity of this community of faith when he names its leaders in the opening verses of Acts 13:

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.

Joining Barnabas, the well-to-do Cypriot land-owner, and Saul, the Jerusalem trained rabbi-turned-apostle in the leadership team of this church were such people as Simeon Niger, who apparently was a black man, and another African named Lucius from the city of Cyrene in Libya, and Manaen, who had been raised in the royal court as a foster brother of Herod, the ruler of the territory of Galilee. Now we don’t know anything else about any of these other people but what a variety they represent! Here are men from different races, nationalities, social classes, educational and religious backgrounds. Yet they all come together in this Christian fellowship as brothers in faith. In Antioch Christ’s prayer for the church was truly being fulfilled: “That they may all be one, Father, even as you and I are one” (John 17:21). Unity in the midst of diversity, acceptance of other people across the alienating differences of birth or upbringing, love that is genuine and warm and welcoming – those are the qualities that people desperately want in our impersonal world. Those are the qualities the church was intended to display.

I was shoveling snow from my walk late one frigid winter afternoon. As I paused for a moment, I noticed a large flock of birds flying in perfect formation. They swooped down, then up, then circled around in unison, each matching the movements of the others exactly. Then, as if guided by radar, the whole flock flew over the roof of the church next door and landed together on top of the chimney. There they sat, crowded in a ring around the opening. “Why did they do that?” I wondered to myself. Then it dawned on me; that was where the heat was escaping. They came for the warmth. That’s why many still come to church today. They come because the world is cold and lonely. They come for the warmth. “Look how these Christians love one another,” was a common remark made by pagan observers in the Roman world. Whenever and wherever people can still say that truthfully about us, you can be sure there will be many seeking to become part of our fellowships.

The other outstanding characteristics of the church in Antioch were its generosity and its sense of mission. Luke reports that when a severe famine spread over the Roman empire, hitting Judea especially hard, the believers in Antioch took up a special collection to assist the Christians back in Jerusalem. They had a sense of solidarity with the whole church throughout the world.

But they gave more to other people than just money. During one memorable time of worship, the church in Antioch received a special message.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Acts 13:2-3

Try to imagine how that message would have struck these believers. Here they were, fasting and praying as they sought the Lord’s direction for the future of their church. While they are praying, it becomes clear what God’s will for them is. Paul and Barnabas, their pastors and teachers, are to be released so they can go out as missionaries to the wider world in fulfilment of Christ’s great commission to make disciples of every nation. Think about this. The church had only been established in Antioch for a few years at most. There was still an enormous need in the city. And yet God asked this congregation for the greatest part of its leadership team to become missionaries. What’s even more surprising, they readily gave them up and sent them out! Half a million people still to be reached at home and this church is sending out its best to reach the world. Now there’s a group of people who know the mind and heart of the Lord!

We must never be deterred by the size of local needs from sending the gospel to the ends of the earth. The argument that we have too much to do at home to support missionaries abroad does not come from the Lord. Christians who are tuned in to God’s Spirit hear him calling them to take the gospel to as yet-unreached peoples. Are you listening?