For nearly 2000 years Jesus followers have been known as ‘Christians’. Where did the name come from? An ancient city called Antioch (sited near to modern Antakya in Turkey), where not only that nick-name but also the first local church was born. Here in Acts 11 Luke tells us the tale of the remarkable happenings in old Syria which led to these new arrivals in the world.
In his book, Luke is recounting a big story: how the Lord brought about the rebirth of Israel. This nation chosen of God was started around 2000BC with the calling of Abram and Sarai to Canaan (Ge 12). It then grew through their offspring: Isaac and Jacob (who was renamed ‘Israel’). But though blessed by God, it kicked against him, reaching its lowest point of rebellion in the murder of his Son Jesus, sent to be the king (Ac 2:36). God, however, raised Jesus and he then ascended into heaven to build a new Israel out of the old, by the Holy Spirit. Its citizens would know God from the heart (Je 31:31-34) and be identified not by their parentage but by their repentance (Lk 3:8) and faith (Lk 5:20). The implication of this, as Luke has shown, is that not only Jews but half-Jews (Ac 8) and Gentiles (Ac 10) can also become full, Spirit-filled citizens of the renewed Israel. However, there is a further implication which Stephen began to probe in his final speech (Ac 7): that reborn Israel need not be limited to the old land and its structures; she could burst its borders to stretch across the whole world (Mt 5:5). Our passage shows how this started to happen.
Stephen’s stoning led to the scattering of believers in Judea and Samaria (Ac 8:1). However, Luke now tells us that some went further – out of the land (v19). In these new locations they spoke of Jesus, initially to other Jews. But in Antioch some began to tell the gospel to Gentiles (v20). This was an edgy development: Gentiles had been accepted as believers inside the old land of Israel, but could it happen outside? The Lord’s answer was a resounding ‘yes!’ (v21). How remarkable it must have felt to see folk embracing Christ over 300 miles north of Jerusalem. But that is the supernatural reality of Christ’s kingdom. It travels to places where it should have no effect and transforms lives, not through military nor political intervention, not through advertising nor manipulation, but with a message. How can this be? Because it is the Lord who saves people.
Well, the news gets back to Jerusalem, and Barnabus (Ac 4:36) is sent to investigate (v22). He is thrilled to see the development and encourages them to press on (v23). As a good man full of the Spirit this reaction is more than just human appreciation: it is the Lord himself formally showing his approval of what is happening and, indeed, extending it further through Barnabus’ preaching (v24). However, Barnabus knows more input is required. So he travels west to Tarsus in order to get Saul (v25) to come and teach the fledgling believers, since Saul was called to just that type of work by the Lord (Ac 9:15,27). Thus it is that using a team of ‘outsider’ Jews (Hellenist Stephen, Cypriot believers including Barnabus, Cyrenian believers (see Lk 23:26) and Saul from Tarsus), the Lord breaks his kingdom out of the boundaries of ancient Israel and roots it into Syrian soil.
For a year the two preachers teach the Antioch ‘church’ (v26). But in calling it that, Luke is doing more than we might first see. The word ‘church’ can be translated simply as assembly/gathering. However, in their Greek version of the OT (the Septuagint), the Jews used it of the assembling of their nation (eg De 31:30). So Luke, who is full of the OT, is also linking us back to the idea of a reborn Israel once again. Jesus’ bigger, better Israel now has two locations – the old land and Antioch – and soon many more will spring up around the Mediterranean; Stephen’s words have come true. Today, we live with the result. Jesus’ great church has spread across heaven and earth, and a vast number of local churches are all tiny expressions of it. It is, now, a basic part of following Jesus to join a church and be an active part of it, following the trail which was blased in Antioch. But what did the ordinary citizens of Antioch make of all this? Well, it was a striking development in their midst, so they looked for a name to describe these people obsessed with ‘Christ’. The term they coined was ‘Christian’ and it has been our identity ever since.