What is a Christian?

Author: Jim Cole-Rous

There are many definitions of “Christian,” but the Bible is the authority on the topic and here is where the name originated…

Christians came to be known as such, by the people in Antioch, Syria who used it as a derisive epithet, describing members of the early church in Antioch, Syria. It all began when someone cared for an outcast.

Joe had a heart for those in trouble.

He was sympathetic to the core. He even reached out to those, from whom other Christians stood aloof. When a new Believer arrived in town, stories circulated, suggesting that man was a troublemaker, wanted by the authorities in the city he had just come from. Someone whispered that he eluded the police, guarding that city’s exits. The Church Leadership heard these rumors, and felt it better to keep their distance from this zealot.

Joe, hearing his fellow Christians were shunning this refugee; reached out to the man, listened to his story, and persuaded the Church Leadership to meet with him. Joe shared with them that this new Christian had seen a vision of Jesus, and was telling anyone who would listen, how his life had changed since meeting with the Lord. Joe was a godly man, who vouched for this new convert, so the Church tentatively accepted him.

Within weeks, this new Christian was engaged in a heated dispute with some non-Christians in the city. Word on the street said opponents were planning an assassination attempt on the life of this zealot. Hurriedly the Church leaders escorted him out of town, and encouraged him to go back to the land of his birth. Again, he was on his own.

Shortly after this, Joe traveled abroad, to check out a new fast growing church, in Antioch, Syria. This Church was not far from the country where his former protégé was now living. After meeting with the church, Joe went to find the lonely ‘zealot’. His heart reached out in compassion to this man, who had embarrassed the former Church. Against all odds, Joe found him, and brought him down to this new church. The Believer was accepted; he even made some life-long friends. The congregation, recognizing his leadership potential, later ordained him to the ministry. Joe’s compassion resulted in this man becoming part of the ministry team there.

Joseph Barnabas

Sometimes God will lay someone on your heart, and urge you to reach out to that one. Was Joe foolish, and misguided? Look at the outcome! The citizens of Antioch called them Christians. The man Joe brought into ministry was Saul of Tarsus, better known as Paul the apostle. Joe, a Levite of Cyprus, we know more familiarly as Joseph Barnabas, the Son of Consolation.

Is God prompting you follow up on someone near you? Is God urging you to move out of your comfort zone? If you listen to God, you may help a person, whose life will one day, outshine yours!

Look with me at how this Church planted in the city of Antioch, Syria become the launching point for bringing the good news of Jesus, to people in other cultures.

We begin by asking what do we know about Antioch?

“Seleucus the Victor” won the territory of Syria, about 300 B.C. He founded Antioch, naming it in memory of his father, Antiochus, it became the capital of his far-flung empire.

It stood 15 miles inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, built partly on an island, partly on a levee and partly on the steep, craggy ascent of Mount Silpius, which rose abruptly on the south. Called “Antioch on the Orontes” or “Antioch of Syria” to distinguish it from 15 other Antiochs, the city soon became the western terminus of the Silk Road, which recently opened up trade with China. Camels arrived bearing spices, silk and other exotic goods from beyond the Himalayas. Antioch’s command of north-south and east-west roads contributed greatly to its growth and prosperity”.[i] Before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great adorned Antioch with a street two and a half miles (twenty stadia) in length, and paved it with marble. It became the seat of empire . . . afterward of the Roman governors of the eastern provinces.

“The mixture of Roman, Greek, and Jewish elements, admirably adapted Antioch for the great part it played in the early history of Christianity. The city was the cradle of the church”.[ii]

“It was also the main center of Greek speaking Jews around AD 70. Most of the urban development of Antioch was done during the time of the Roman empire, when the city was one of the most important in the eastern Mediterranean area of Rome’s dominions.”[iii]

The city had a large population of Jews in a quarter called the Kerateion. There were at least two Jewish Synagogues in the city. The unique combination of ethno-cultural traits inherited from the fusion of a Greek-Macedonian cultural base, Hellenistic Judaism, and Roman civilization, gave birth to the distinctly Antiochian “Middle Eastern-Roman” culture. The population in AD 42 was when Paul arrived there, was 200,000 and it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire.

To find the Biblical Origins of these People, first called Christians in Antioch, we must look at the broad brushstrokes of the narrative in Acts, beginning in Chapter 6, and reaching all the way to Chapter 13. The story of the Antioch Church begins 300 miles away in Jerusalem. It begins with a complaint that the Greek-speaking women were neglected, when food supplies were distributed.

Here is the Story List in Seven Parts.

A Culture Complaint – Acts 6.

In some Bibles, Acts has a Sub-title above the text naming them Deacons; this is an Editor’s note, no scripture gives them this title. The verb diaconos is used of the acts of service done by the Spirit filled men who worked to feed the ladies.
The complaint was that Jews were discriminating against Greek speaking believers.
The Church appointed seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the Greek-speaking, women, neglected by the Hebrews.
This ‘Gang of Seven’ all had connections to non-Jewish cultures, and were Greek speakers.
“. . . and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5).
This list begins with Stephen, and significantly, ends with Nicolaus a proselyte of Antioch.
Stephen and Nicolaus attended the ‘Synagogue of Freedmen’, a chief meeting place for expatriate-Jews in Jerusalem.
Controversy –

Stephen practiced a Miracle ministry (vs. 8-ff.).

Stephen preached Jesus was the Messiah the Jews were promised by God as their Savior.
Men from the Synagogue of Freedmen, disputed with Stephen, and lost the debate.
They hired false witnesses to lie about what Stephen said.
The Jewish Sanhedrin met to adjudicate the trial.

Calling on God – Acts 7

Stephen, is the first of the ‘Seven’.
The High Priest allows Stephen to speak.
His defense before the Council, takes us to the end of Chapter 7.
They stoned him to death, even as he is praying for them (7:60).
Saul is the organizer of this stoning.
He is a member of the Synagogue of the Freedman, and an expatriate from Tarsus, capitol city of Cilicia (Acts 6:9).

Chaos – Acts 8

Saul becomes the leader of the persecution of the Christian Church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1, 3).
Believers fled from Jerusalem to escape this onslaught (Acts 8:4).
Philip preaches in Samaria, to a Gentile people-group (5).
Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch, led him to Jesus and baptized him (26).
Philip is #2, of the gang of seven (Acts 21:8 names him the “Evangelist”, to avoid confusion with Philip an apostle).

Conversion – Chapter 9

Saul asks the High Priest, for authority to travel to Damascus. Saul “Went unto the high priest” Acts 9:1, – Not to the Sanhedrin!
The high priest at that time was Theophilus, son of Ananus (Albert Barnes’ Notes, Acts 9:1).
Purpose, to destroy the congregation of Christians there.
Jesus appears to Saul, just before reaching Damacus, and he bows to Jesus, as his Lord.

Confusion – Acts 9 (contd.)

Three weeks later the High Priest, Theophilus, hears from the returning soldiers, that Saul has become a Christian!
Theophilus’ father, Ananias, and Caiaphas, his brother-in-law crucified Jesus (Jhn 18:13-14).
Theophilus has questions about this Jesus (Luke 1:3-4).
The Christians were confused about Saul/Paul, claiming to believe on Jesus (Acts 9:21).
The Jerusalem Church did not believe Saul/Paul was a believer at the first (Acts 9:26-27)

The Centurion Cornelius – Acts 10

God gives the Gentile Centurion Cornelius one vision, to which he responded.
His messengers go to Joppa to find Peter.
It is lunchtime and Peter is hungrily waiting for his dinner.
God has to give Peter three visions, before he obeys (Acts 10:16).
God filled the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit, in order to persuade Peter they had received Jesus.
The speaking in tongues persuaded Peter (Acts 10:46).
Jesus commanded them to ‘Go into all the earth’.
God loves everybody, not just the Jews.

Cypriots – Cyrenians – Acts 11:18-21

Jerusalem Church: vs. 18, “When they heard these things, they held their peace . . .”
Cypriots and Cyrenians: vs. 19-21 “Now the people who were scattered by the persecution that started because of Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch. . .” [Emphasis mine].
Notice how the narrative now returns to mention the persecution that began with Stephen.
These persecuted people came to Antioch, Syria,
They began to share the gospel with Gentiles, and a revival broke out.
Simon, a Cyrenian was part of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:20; 13:1).

A Missionary-Sending Church is Born

This entire narrative section, from Acts 6 to 11, revolves around six men. Steven, Philip, Nicolas of Antioch, Barnabas of Cyprus, Simon of Cyrene, and Saul of Tarsus. “When the church in Jerusalem heard this news, they sent Barnabas all the way to Antioch.” (11:22) A journey of 300 miles; but why Barnabas? He was a Cypriot from Cyprus!

Barnabas was in Jerusalem when Paul returned from Damascus to Jerusalem in A.D. 40 or early 41. After Paul created the uproar in his former Synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem (Acts 9:29), he went to his home town of Tarsus, in Cilicia, where he stayed about a year.

It was therefore late in AD 41–42 when Barnabas visited the Church in Antioch, at the request of the Jerusalem Church. Barnabas recognized the influx of Gentile believers into the congregation as significant. Remembering what Paul had said about his conversion, how God said, “For he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15-16), Barnabas went to find Paul to bring him to Antioch.

“Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26). Saul, now called Paul by Gentiles, arrived in Antioch (c. AD 41-42). He needed a place to stay, right? How do you do this in a strange place? You probably start by going to the Church, and asking if they know of an available place.

Among the many refugees from Jerusalem, was a family who opened their home to Paul. They were originally from Cyrene, a city of Libya in Africa. The father, Simon, carried Jesus’ cross on the way to Calvary. This African family, Simon, with his wife and two sons, left Jerusalem, due to the persecution of Saul, and moved to Antioch (Acts 13:1 Simon called Niger=black). Simon began to tell Gentile people about Jesus. Paul became life-long friends with their sons, Alexander and Rufus. In the background, this dear black mother ministered to Paul, likely cooking up a storm, bringing counsel, comfort, and healing from his isolation. Paul never forgot her. Years later he sent her and Rufus fond greetings, recollecting she was like ‘a mother to him’ (Romans 16:13).

Paul, the man who led the first Judean persecution of Christians, later became part of the Antioch Church, which sprang up because of his violence in Jerusalem. Now he was a leader of this first Gentile-oriented Church, ministering to the very people he persecuted before his conversion!

Four Characteristics of Christians in Antioch:

It was Paul’s privilege to cast vision, and purpose to reach the then known world for Jesus, from the Church in Antioch.

Bible Teaching Emphasis: Acts 11:26 relates that discipleship teaching by Paul and Barnabas continued for a whole year. This verse concludes by telling us, “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Christianity thrives on the teachings of Jesus. Salvation from sin comes only by believing in the substitutional work of Christ on the Cross.

Gathering in one place: The Church in Antioch gathered regularly. This required a venue where they could meet safely. A wealthy member of the church, owned land, on the edge of the city, which included a large cave on the side of the hill. This cave is still in existence, and the Eastern Church conducts services there (The ancient writings of the Church fathers believe it was Dr. Luke of Antioch, who gave his property to this church).

Compassion in Action: The Antioch Christians were socially conscious, meeting the needs of others. Acts 11:28-30 “Agabus got up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine all over the world. This happened during the reign of Claudius. And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea: which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” This was at the time of the Jewish Passover in A.D. 44 when the Antioch congregation showed care for the brethren who were suffering due to famine.

Missionary Outreach: Chapter 13 begins with mentioning the presence of Prophets and Teachers in the Church. Verses 2-3 reveal the continued presence of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in operation, calling the Church to ordain Barnabas and Paul to be Missionaries. The Pentecostal phenomena were still manifest in those days. Missions work is primarily outreach to new people. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to draw men and women to Christ, through the agency of Christians called to ‘go into all the world’, and preach the gospel.
Luke shows us in Acts, how God used unlikely people to further His Kingdom. This is the heart of Christ’s message, that all men everywhere hear the message of God’s loving redemption. This is the amazing story of the people first called Christians in Antioch. They showed their faith by their works: teaching, gathering, showing compassion, and reaching out to the lost and hurting in their generation. The people of Antioch called them Christians, because they acted like the Jesus they proclaimed.

© 2016 J. Cole-Rous



[ii] "Antioch," Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. I, p. 186 (p. 125 of 612 in online .pdf file.


[iv] Cave of St. Luke: (Comment: ‘Booming, 9:04 pm on November 17, 2008 ‘St Peters church (called St Pierre’s locally because of the former French colonial masters) is a short, well signposted walk from the centre. It is in a beautiful; spot below a cliff. It was the site of the first Christian Cathedral (supposed to have been owned by St Luke who gave it). St Peter and St Paul preached here’.

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