With the conversion of Cornelius the dynamic of first century evangelism changed. No longer was the good news of Jesus directed only to Jews, but Gentiles were also taught. The result was that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19 NET).
The centre of this explosion of new followers of Jesus was in Antioch. Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire at this time, with a population of over 500,000 people. Included in this number was a large number of Jews – it has been estimated by some that around 1/7 of the population was Jewish.
With both Jews and Gentiles interested in learning about Jesus more help was needed in teaching.
“A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:22-24).
What a great problem to have! So many interested in hearing about Jesus that you need extra people to come and help. And when they are taught a “significant number of people” believe in Jesus! Although we don’t have an exact number, because Luke calls it ‘significant’ would indicate that the number of disciples was growing rapidly.
Often as numbers grow, there is even more to do as they are talking to others about their new faith. This was the case in Antioch. Barnabas remembered a young man named Saul he had met in Jerusalem. “Then Barnabas departed for 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 a significant number of people” (Acts 11:25-26).
Saul seems to have been just the man Barnabas needed to help. For an entire year they lived and taught people in Antioch. Notice that we have that phrase again: they “taught a significant number of people”. The implication would be that the number of those following Jesus continued to grow and grow.
The result of all this growth had far reaching consequences: “Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). We often hear those who suggest this was a term given to Christians by their enemies. From the context of Acts 11 there is no indication that there was opposition in Antioch, so this seems quite unlikely. And if it was given in derision, it backfired rather spectacularly! This was a name that those who followed Jesus were willing to die for. Peter later wrote, “But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name” (1 Peter 4:16).
Do we realise how great the name we wear really is? When we call ourselves a ‘Christian’ we are pointing to the one we follow – Jesus the Messiah. Even today those who are known as Christians are expected to follow a certain standard, even though those around us often don’t really know what being a Christian is all about. When we wear the name of the Christ, our lives need to reflect his life.
Let us not be ashamed of the name we wear, but glorify God that we can wear such a wonderful name!
Readings for next week:
20 May – Acts 10
21 May – Acts 11
22 May – Acts 12
23 May – Acts 13
24 May – Acts 14