“Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews.
“20 However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles[f] about the Lord Jesus. 21 The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.
“22 When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. 24 Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. And many people were brought to the Lord.
“25 Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. 26 When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch. Both of them stayed there with the church for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. (It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.)” (Acts 11:19-26, NLT)
Antioch was the Roman capital of Syria and the third greatest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, at the time of Paul and Barnabas. It was located on the banks of the Orontes River and at the junction of two mountain ranges. Antioch had grown to be a major Roman crossroads of civilization and power.
A metropolis of between 200,000 and 400,000 people at the time of Christ, Antioch was called the Queen of the East, a sophisticated political, commercial, cultural – and religious center. “About five miles distant from the city was the suburb of Daphne, a spot sacred to Apollo and Artemis. This suburb, beautified by groves and fountains, and embellished by the Seleucids and the Romans with temples and baths, was the pleasure resort of the city, and ‘Daphnic morals’ became a by-word.” (BibleHub.com)
This great city was home to many pagan religions and housed many pagan temples. A great deal of money was to be had catering to the frequent traveling worshipers through the area.
At the time of Paul and Barnabas, those religions included Judaism and a new religion initially thought of as an offshoot of Judaism, followers of Jesus Christ – their worshipers enjoying relative peace, being tolerated by the multi-cultural Roman Empire of the day.
The word Christian means “Christ follower, of the household of Christ, or a partisan of Christ.”
But those who called them that didn’t mean it as a compliment, but as an insult. People using that term may never have seen Jesus themselves. They didn’t know him, but obviously they had heard something about him. Things like:
“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38 NIV)
“And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.” (Matthew 4:24 KJV)
So, what did the people of Antioch see? They saw the acts of people who did know Jesus, people like Paul and Barnabas.
- The blind could now see.
- The deaf could now hear.
- The dumb could now speak.
- The crippled were now strong and healthy.
- Liars no longer lied.
- Robbers no longer robbed.
- Cheaters no longer cheated.
- Idol worshipers no longer worshiped idols.
The people of Antioch no doubt asked, “What happened?” The people who had been changed could answer that question. Jesus happened!
When Jesus saves a person, he inhabits them by way of the Holy Spirit, and he changes their behavior and character from the inside out. (John 14:23, II Corinthians 5:17)
Now the disciples in Antioch were doing the same things that Jesus had done – healing the sick, casting out demons, cleansing the lepers and raising the dead. Jesus had taught the disciples how to do those things themselves, empowered them and sent them out to do them.
And so they did, in Antioch and elsewhere. Paul’s own testimony includes, “… by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of His Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” (Romans 15:19 NIV)
When the people of Antioch saw believers doing the same things that Jesus the Christ had done, they mockingly called them Christians. Soon enough that insult became a badge of courage.
Because it became obvious that the lives of these new believers were very different from everyone else’s in Antioch. Wouldn’t you think that was wonderful? Well, not if you made your living off of sin… the worship of idols, for example. And so persecution soon followed.
People today may not recognize a Christian the same way Antioch did. While they may see changed habit patterns and changed character, they may not really expect to see today’s believers doing supernatural things.
But Jesus is the same now as he ever was. (Hebrews 13:8) When he is allowed to, he does the same things through his disciples today that he did then. (Matthew 10:7-8, 28:18-20) And more and more around the world, people are seeing those things.
I truly want to be an “Antioch” Christian.
To read more about this key city of the early Christian faith, click on these links: