During the Apostolic period the followers of Jesus often referred to their movement as, the Way.” For a full discussion of the Way please refer to the previous article, “Jesus, the Jews, and the Way.” But did they ever refer to themselves as Christians? I often hear people quote Acts 11:26 to me with a smile when they say, “… the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” I reply that is true, but they did not call themselves Christians, the pagans called them Christians derogatorily. Then they either look at me with a blank gaze of confusion or they get angry and I never want to stumble a child of God. So let me explain. Let’s reason together from the scriptures and apply the cultural, geographic and historical hermeneutic. Shall we start with the first time the disciples were called Christians.
So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to 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. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived 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. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Acts 11:19-26 NASB
First the Jewish followers of Jesus, these Messianic Jews who were scattered because of the persecution of the Church after Stephen’s martyrdom made their way out of danger to the Jewish communities of the diaspora.
The diaspora, meaning “a scattering, a dispersion,” was used of the Jews who from time to time had been scattered among the Gentiles, John 7:35; later with reference to Jews, so “scattered,” who had professed, or actually embraced, the Christian faith, “the Dispersion,” James 1:1, especially of believers who were converts from Judaism and “scattered” throughout certain districts, “sojourners of the Dispersion,” 1Peter 1:1. Vines Expository Dictionary.
They, “made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.”
Even though through Peter they knew that God had proclaimed that salvation had come to the Gentiles, never the less they followed their traditions and did not associate with or proclaim Christ to the Gentiles.
“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. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.”
These unknown brothers who had grown up outside of Jerusalem in the diaspora began proclaiming Christ to the Greeks and the hand of The Lord was with them. And many believed and turned to The Lord. Soon the news reached Jerusalem and the Elders sent Barnabas to them to check it out. Barnabas was a born encourager and soon many more were added and strengthened.
Now Barnabas remembered Saul whom he had sent to Tarsus some eight years before for his safety. Now Saul has had time to mature in The Lord allowing the Holy Spirit to transform his mind to that of Christ and now the Holy Spirit directed Barnabas to go and bring Saul back to fulfill his missionary calling.
“And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers;…”
First The Lord sent messianic Jews to Antioch to speak to the Jews only, then Jews who would be comfortable preaching Jesus to the Gentiles, then He sent Barnabas a Levite (Who’s name means, Son of exhortation) to encourage the brethren and finally Barnabas is sent to seek out Saul the Pharisee who was taught at the feet of Gamaliel and bring him there to teach the disciples.
This is how God has always worked to grow His Church. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” Acts 10:14 NASB
But they also needed to be encouraged to remain true to the Word of God. And they needed a teacher to teach them the Word of God so that they may remain true to it. For it is so true that, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 NASB
“And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
Now for the first time in the New Testament the disciples of a mixed Jewish and Gentile assembly were called Christians, but who called them Christians? Let’s examine this very interesting Greek word with a Latin suffix. The Greek word Χριστιανός (Christianos), meaning “follower of Christ”, comes from Χριστός (Christos), meaning “anointed one”, with an adjectival ending borrowed from Latin to denote adhering to, or even belonging to, as in slave ownership.
“Christian,” a word formed after the Roman style, signifying an adherent of Jesus, was first applied to such by the Gentiles and is found in Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Peter 4:16.
Though the word rendered “were called” in Act 11:26 might be used of a name adopted by oneself or given by others, the “Christians” do not seem to have adopted it for themselves in the times of the Apostles. As applied by Gentiles there was no doubt an implication of scorn. Nor is it likely that the appellation was given by Jews.
Vines Expository Dictionary.
At Paul’s defense before Festus the Roman Procurator of Judea and King Agrippa of Galilee is the second time the Greek word Χριστιανός (Christianos) Christian is used in the New Testament.
While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do.” Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” Acts 26:24-28 NASB
As applied by Gentiles there was no doubt an implication of scorn, as in Agrippa’s statement in Act 26:28. Tacitus, writing near the end of the first century, says, “The vulgar call them Christians. The author or origin of this denomination, Christus, had, in the reign of Tiberius, been executed by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate” (Annals xv. 44)
The third and last time the word Christian is used in the scriptures is 1 Peter 4:16. First Peter was written after the percussion of Nero had begun. “…To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen.” 1Peter 1:1
“If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 1Peter 4:14-16 NASB
The Apostle is speaking in terms that a prosecutor would use concerning crimes, a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.
There is no blessing or reward for suffering as an evildoer, but great reward for suffering as a true disciple of Christ. The early Church would have many witnesses for Christ who would share in His sufferings. The Greek word for witness is μάρτυς, transliterated Martys, pronounced mä’r-tüs, from which we get our English word martyr. And they were going to be many martyrs for Christ and the Gospel message as Judaism and the sect known as the Way diverged and the moniker Nazarenes gave way to Christian.
From the second century onward the term Christian was accepted by believers as a title of honor. Justin Martyr writing in the mid second century composes his first apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius contending for justice for Christians and that they should not be found guilty for simply being Christians.
For we are accused of being Christians, and to hate what is excellent (Chrestian) is unjust. Again, if any of the accused deny the name, and say that he is not a Christian, you acquit him, as having no evidence against him as a wrong-doer; but if any one acknowledge that he is a Christian, you punish him on account of this acknowledgment. Justin Martyr First Apology Chapter IV.
I pray to God our Father, His only begotten Son our Lord Jesus the Christ and their Holy Spirit that this humble study in the Word will give all those who read it enlightenment in the Truth.