In today’s dwell our focus is in Acts 11:19-30.
THIS PASSAGE RECORDS THE FINAL STEP of the gospel's beginning to be proclaimed to Gentiles—specifically, the formation of a Gentile church in the city of Antioch in Syria. Apparently so many people came to Christ in Antioch that the locals coined a new name for Christ’s followers: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (v. 26). This nickname probably came from the (Gentile) townspeople because believers would have been confident to describe themselves with a term built on the name of Christ. Besides, they already had several long-used self-designations such as “the disciples,” “the saints,” “the believers,” and “the brethren.” Also, the Jews would never have named them “Christians” because Christ is the Greek word for Messiah; to call them Christians, followers of the Messiah, would have been unthinkable. The people of Antioch observed this vibrant spiritual movement (though to them it appeared narrow-minded and suspicious). Seeking a new term to describe it, they took the Greek name for Messiah and added a Latin suffix, producing a hybrid word we pronounce today in English as “Christian.” The name was wonderfully true, though also derogatory, and costly.
We live in a time when the term Christian has become one of the vaguest names in the English language. During the British colonial era it became synonymous with “Englishmen” in India—it did not make any difference how godly or perverted the man was. Some people think that everyone who isn’t a Jew or a Muslim is a Christian. Dr. Harry Ironside once handed a gospel booklet to a man on a train, and the man turned to him and asked, “What did you give me that book for?” Dr. Ironside replied, “I thought you might be interested; and, may I ask, are you a Christian?” “Well,” he replied indignantly, “take a good look at me—do I look like a Jew or a Chinaman?” “You look like an American.” “Then,” he responded, “that is your answer.” Even today many people are willing to say, “I am a Christian” but would shy away from saying they’re “believers” or “disciples.” Basically, they are cultural Christians who have not experienced a true saving commitment to Jesus.
Antioch was situated on the Orontees River, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and twenty miles east of the Mediterranean. During the first century it was the third-largest city in the world, behind Rome and Alexandria. It was the melting pot for at least five cultures—the Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arab, and Persian. The Jews made up one-seventh of the city’s population and had legal sanction to follow their own laws in their own neighborhoods. Antioch was famous for its chariot racing and for its deliberate pursuit of pleasure—basically, Las Vegas on the Orontees. Antioch was most famous for its worship of Daphne, whose temple stood five miles outside town. Apollo’s famous pursuit of Daphne there was reenacted night and day by the men of the city and by the priestesses, who were in fact ritual prostitutes. Throughout the world “the morals of Daphne” was a euphemism for depravity. Amazingly, it was in this city, with all its sensuality and immorality, that “the disciples were first called Christians.” Antioch was also the birthplace of foreign missions (see 13:2) and had the greatest preachers—in the first century alone we see Barnabas, Paul, and Peter. What we can see here is, God’s light can shine in the darkest places.
The city of Antioch could not fit this new people into any of its categories, so a new name was born. Perhaps there was a joking and mocking edge to the nickname, maybe even a bit of rage, because these people were such a contradiction to the culture of Antioch. The new term was a mongrel name (part Greek and part Latin), but it said it all: Christ-ians—followers of Christ! Christ was so much on these believers’ lips, they lived so much like Christ, that no other name would do. Christian is a wonderful name—a name of which we should seek to live up to.
Alexander the Great once learned that in his army was a namesake, another Alexander, who was a notorious coward. “Alexander the Great, who conquered the world when he was just twenty-three, called the soldier before him and said, ‘Is your name Alexander and are you named for me?’ The trembling coward said, ‘Yes, sir. My name is Alexander and I was named for you.’ The great general said, ‘Then either be brave or change your name!’” Fortunately, Jesus does not say that to us, but he does exhort us to be who we are—to live out our calling in faithful, obedient service.
Our prayer today is Lord, help us to be loyal, brave, committed followers. Help us to be a people who refuse to turn back—who dare to stand firm and to make your name known to everyone around us—who desire, with your enabling, to shine the light of the gospel into a dark world, winning others to you.