At present we are occupied with Antioch in Syria, and the point before us is that particular moment in the Church's history when believers were first called Christians. When intelligence came to Jerusalem that Peter had broken through the restraints of Jewish bigotry (not God's Law), and had even eaten at the table of the Gentiles in Caesarea, there was general surprise and displeasure among "those of the circumcision." But when he explained to them all the transaction, they approved his conduct, and praised God for His mercy to the heathen (Acts 11:18).
News would come, just three years after Cornelius became the first recorded gentile to covert to being a Christian, that even greater unexpected changes were brewing for the church. The epicenter for these changes was Antioch in Syria.
We have seen that the persecution, in which Stephen was killed, resulted in a general dispersion of the Christians. Wherever they went, they spoke to their Jewish brethren of their faith that the promises had been fulfilled in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This dispersion and preaching of the Gospel extended even to the island of Cyprus, and along the Phoenician coast as far as Antioch.
Spreading the gospel
For some time the glad tidings were made known only to the scattered children of Israel. But at length some of the Hellenistic Jews, natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, spoke to the Greeks themselves at Antioch, and the Divine Spirit gave such power to the Word, that a vast number believed and turned to the Lord.
The news of the spreading of the gospel was not long in traveling to Jerusalem. Perhaps some message was sent in haste to the apostles of the church. The Jewish Christians in Antioch might be perplexed how to deal with their new Gentile converts. It is not unnatural to suppose that the presence of Barnabas might be anxiously desired by the fellow missionaries of his native island.
Barnabas asks for help
It must have been an eventful day for Paul when, in Tarsus, he suddenly saw his good friend Barnabas in the streets of the city. The last time the two friends had met was in Jerusalem. All that they then hoped, and probably more than they then thought possible, had occurred when, "God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life" (2Corinthians 11:18). Barnabas had "seen the grace of God" (2Corinthians 11:23) with his own eyes at Antioch, and under his own teaching a great multitude (2Corinthians 11:24) had becomes Christians.
Barnabas, however, needed assistance. He needed the presence of one whose wisdom was higher than his own, whose zeal was an example to all, and whose peculiar mission had been miraculously declared. Paul recognized the voice of God in the words of Barnabas and the two friends traveled in all haste to the Syrian metropolis of Antioch.
In Antioch, they continued a whole year, actively prosecuting the sacred work, teaching and confirming those who joined themselves to the assemblies (Acts 11:26) of the ever-increasing Church. As new converts, in vast numbers, came in from the ranks of the Gentiles, the Church began to lose its ancient appearance of a Jewish sect, and to stand out in relief, as a great self-existent community, in the face both of Jews and Gentiles.
Hitherto it had been possible, and even natural, that the Christians should be considered, as only one among the many theological parties, which prevailed in Jerusalem and in the Dispersion. But when Gentiles began to listen to what was preached concerning Christ, when they were united as brethren on equal terms, and admitted to baptism without the necessity of previous circumcision, then it became evident that these men were something more than just a sect or party among the Jews. Thus Jews and Gentiles, who, under the teaching of Apostle Paul, believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Savior of the world, were first called Christians in Antioch.
A name of derision
It is not likely that the Christians in Antioch received their label from the Jews. The "children of Abraham" (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8, John 8:39) employed a term much more expressive of hatred and contempt. They called them "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5). These disciples of Jesus traced their origin to Nazareth in Galilee, and it was a proverb that nothing good could come from Nazareth (John 1:46, 7:41, 52, Luke 13:2).
There was a further reason why the Antioch Jews would not have called the disciples of Jesus by the name of Christians. The word "Christ" has the same meaning with "Messiah" and the Jews would never have used so sacred a word to point an expression of mockery and derision. Nor is it likely that true believers in Jesus gave this name to themselves.
In the book of Acts, and in their own letters, we find the New Testament writers designating themselves as brethren, disciples, believers and saints (Acts 15:23, 9:26, 5:14, 9:32, Romans 15:25, Colossians 1:2). Only in three places (Acts 11:26, 26:28, 1Peter 4:16), the first of which references Antioch, do we find the term "Christians" and in the first two instances it is implied to be a term used by those who are without.
There is little doubt that the name Christian originated with the Gentiles, who began now to see that this new sect was so far distinct from the Jews, that they might naturally receive a new designation. And the form of the word implies that it came from the Romans, not from the Greeks.
Thus the label "Christian" was the name which naturally found its place in the reproachful language of their enemies. In the first instance, we have every reason to believe that it was a term of ridicule and derision. And it is remarkable that the people of Antioch were notorious for inventing names of derision, and for turning their wit into the channels of ridicule.
In every way there is something very significant in the place where we first received the name "Christian" that true believers bear. It did not happen in Jerusalem, but in the heathen city of Syrian Antioch, the Eastern center of Greek fashion and Roman luxury.