Text: Acts 11:19-30
The last sentence in verse 26 says, “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Has anybody ever called you a Christian? I know that you call yourself a Christian and I know that those who know of your affiliation with the church call you a Christian, but has anybody on the outside who did not know you, just on the basis of observation and detection, ever called you a Christian? It is interesting to note that this term “Christian” that we use so frequently and familiarly to describe ourselves is found only three times in the Bible and in effect it is never really used by Christians themselves with one exception. It is found here in Acts 11 and found again in Acts 26 where Paul is preaching before Agrippa and Agrippa says “…almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Then the other time it is found is in I Peter 4 and Peter there is speaking from the viewpoint of the world and he says “if any suffer as a Christian, he does well.”
We use that name all the time. It is a common name to us and yet it is found only three times in the Bible. The fact of the matter is that we don’t have any record outside of Peter’s reference and there I would say he is speaking from the viewpoint of the world, talking about persecution. We don’t have any record in the Bible of Christians calling one another Christians.
The name Christian did not originate with Christians. It didn’t even originate with God. It originated with the residents of Antioch. It was not necessarily a complimentary term but rather a label to distinguish these strangers from everybody else. They had migrated down from Jerusalem and were different in many ways and you have to label people. We have to be able to identify folks and so we attach labels to them. So they called them Christians. It was not a name that the Christians themselves took upon themselves. They called themselves “believers”, “disciples” or “followers of the way.” It wasn’t until after the first century that the term Christian came to be commonly used to describe the followers of Jesus Christ.
Now the word translated “called” is extremely interesting because it is not the usual word you find in the New Testament. Again and again you will read the phrases “we are the called of God”, “we need to live up to our calling” and “God has called us”. Well, that word always refers to the effective call of God to salvation but it is not at all the word that is used here. When it says “they were called Christians”, it is a word that originally meant, “I conduct my public business” and it referred to a person’s vocation….the job he worked at….his occupation.
It was a practice in the ancient world that a man’s surname came from his occupation. I stayed with a family in Bradford, England a couple of years ago by the name of Dyson when I was there in a meeting. This man said he had traced his family tree and learned that his ancestors had been “dyers”. Their occupation was to dye hides and fabrics and that was how they acquired the name. They were the sons of a dyer. That was a common practice during that time. I suppose the Bakers used to bake and the Fishers used to fish and the Grahams used to make crackers.
The name originally meant, “I conduct my public business” and referred to a person’s public occupation. Now, that is important. These citizens of Antioch are observing these strangers who have come all the way from Jerusalem and they don’t know what to call them but they seem to be busy about the occupation of having to do with Christ. When you listen to them and when you watch them, it seems that their public business has to do with somebody named “Christ”, so they called them Christians.
A number of years ago when I was a teenager we had a quite famous rodeo clown in our church. He had come to Christ and was a fantastic Christian and preacher. I remember hearing him give his testimony one time and he said that people often asked him what he did for a living. He said he always told them that he was a Christian….that was his business; he just rodeod to pay the bills. Now even as a teenager I knew that was good theology.
I am not making this in form of a motion, but it might not be a bad idea when someone comes to Christ for the very first time that we withhold the name Christian from them. We can call them something else….maybe “believers”, that is a good biblical name, or maybe “disciples”, that is a great biblical name and wait until somebody outside the church calls them a Christian before we call them Christians. Perhaps that term we take so lightly should be taken more seriously. We don’t have a right to call ourselves a Christian until someone on the outside calls us one. Maybe we need to earn that name before we take it for ourselves. It is something to think about. It may be that we call ourselves Christians because nobody else will.
I notice as I read the New Testament that the writers had the idea that you and I would live lives that would be such that people would ask questions. Peter said in that same epistle to “be ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you concerning the hope that is in you.” Has anybody asked you lately about the hope that is in you? When everything went to pieces economically a few years ago and other folks were wringing their hands in despair and you remained steadfast and there were no frowns or creases of anxiety on your face, did anybody ask you where you got the hope that you had? What makes you different from everybody else?
Paul writing to the Colossians said “pray for me that I might be ready always to give an answer to them that ask me.” In those days they didn’t have to wear badges, beads, and bumper stickers to let people know they were Christians. Folks just knew it! Has anybody called you a Christian lately?
Why was it at Antioch they were first called Christians? Why weren’t they first called Christians at Jerusalem or somewhere else? What was so special about these folks at Antioch? What made them worthy of the name Christian? In discovering this, I think we will discover what makes us worthy of the name. Am I worthy of calling myself a Christian? None of us are worthy of being saved and our salvation doesn’t depend on our worthiness but when it comes to the name that we attach to ourselves, that is another matter altogether.
If we are going to call ourselves Christians, it means that there is something of Christ to be seen in our lives….something visible. There is an interesting little note there in verse 22 and 23. There is a great revival going on at Antioch. Now because Stephen has been persecuted, a lot of these believers fled Jerusalem and many of them have gone as far as Antioch. It is important to note that Antioch is 300 miles from Jerusalem and as they have come there, the hand of the Lord is upon them and people are being saved right and left. Verse 22 says, “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem.” I never read that without smiling to myself. I don’t know why Luke couldn’t have just said, “they heard about it.” The church at Jerusalem had big ears. I mean they could hear a sin drop a mile away. You see, Jerusalem was the headquarters….the Nashville of their day….and everybody fled Jerusalem except the apostles who stayed there to set up headquarters. They kept hearing reports of the great things that were happening in Antioch and perhaps got a little concerned and thought they should send someone down there to check those folks out and make sure they are doing everything the way they ought to be doing….you know, they might be ordaining women or they may be using some other literature other than the Sunday School literature and, who knows, they may be raising their hands or clapping. We need to be sure they haven’t gone off the deep end. So, they commissioned Barnabas. The word here means “an authoritative representative”. He was basically a spy to see if they were doing everything right.
Notice it says in verse 3, “who when he came and had seen the grace of God was glad” and you could translate that, “he was surprised!” By that it means there was such a manifestation of the grace of God that he was surprised, he had never seen anything like this. Have you ever seen the grace of God? What color is it? What shape is it? What catches my attention is that you can’t see grace. Grace is an invisible quality, an intangible virtue that is not visible to the human eye. It is no more visible than love, anger, hate or greed. You say, “But I have seen all of those.” No, what you have seen are the manifestations of those things. This means the grace of God, the spirit of Christ, the character of our Lord is so expressing itself that Barnabas immediately recognized it. I have been in a number of churches where I wasn’t certain what to call what I was seeing, but every once in a while I will be in a place and there is no doubt about what I am seeing and I can say, “this is the grace of God.”
I am afraid many times in our Christian living instead of making it clear what we are, we are raising questions marks. “Well, I don’t know if that is the real thing or not, I don’t know if it is real holiness or just false piety.” What a refreshing thing it was to the eyes of Barnabas when he beheld the behavior of those people at Antioch. He saw the grace of God! It was obvious and he had no doubt about it. He didn’t need surveying equipment to check it out. If you and I call ourselves Christians, there ought to be something obviously seen about our lives.
Let me mention two things that are mentioned here that manifest the grace of God:
One, we manifest the grace of God by the way we receive one another in the name of the Lord. There is an interesting little statement down in verse 25. Understand, Barnabas has walked into a revival and he has picked up his part of the load. He started teaching and even more people now are being saved. But suddenly Barnabas, for no good reason, leaves. It says he departed to Tarsus to seek Saul. You know who Saul was, later to become Paul. He had just freshly been saved. He hasn’t been saved long enough to change his name. Barnabas thinks of him and seeks him out. The word “seek” indicates he didn’t know where he was but he finally found him at Tarsus and brought him back and they stayed there for a year teaching the people. What is going on?
You remember that when Saul was first converted he had trouble being accepted by the church. Folks were a little reluctant to take him in. After all, he was a well-known persecutor and they said, “Is this not the man that dragged off our fellow Christians? How do we know that this fellow has really been saved? How do we know that he has not come here under cover and is taking our names down and one night the knock will come on our door and the legions of Rome will drag us off and throw us to the lions?” They sort of held his past against him and they were reluctant to take him in. Saul had rough going for a while. I think when Barnabas got there to Antioch he saw the spirit of Jesus so filling and flowing out of those people, he said to himself, “Here are a bunch of folks who will open their hearts to Saul.” They won’t hold his past against him. They will receive him as being accepted by the Lord Jesus Christ and this will be a good place for Paul to start his ministry.
I remember back in 1970 when the Jesus revolution was at its height and I pastored a very straight and square church there in Dallas. I fit right in. We were all good ole Southern Baptist rednecks….just good folks and blue collar workers; American, apple pie, and 4th of July. We were all a little stunned to see these teenagers walking around with hair down to their waist, barefoot or in sandals. All of a sudden we found ourselves ministering to what we called then, street kids, now the “counter culture”. Most of them had run off to LA to the strip and some of them migrated back east and came as far as Dallas and suddenly we were overrun with street kids. Most of them had been strung out on drugs and a bunch of them had found Jesus and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of these people and began winning them right and left.
Well, I was happy to win them to Christ but they wanted to come to our church! I am just being honest with you….I didn’t know how in the world my church would react. If you win someone to Jesus are you going to say they are good enough to go to Heaven, but not good enough to come to your church? You lock yourself in when you preach grace! I baptized 28 of them one night. It scared everybody to death. Our baptism service was usually very dignified and solemn. No one ever got excited about baptism, but I baptized this guy and he came up out of the water throwing up his arms saying “Praise the Lord!” It shook everybody up. Of course, they didn’t know the language and instead of “amen” and “praise the Lord”, they would say, “Right on, brother!” I nearly forgot my sermon.
We had one young couple and the man looked like Jesus. He had a beautiful beard, a beautiful smile but he always wore old blue-bibbed overalls and never had on any shoes. His wife always wore a dress that looked like it was made out of a Purina feed sack. Remember that? I don’t think she wore a pair of shoes, either. They drove an old red van, came all the way from California and half the time the van wouldn’t start. They had a little baby and they didn’t put the baby in the nursery. This was when the New American Standard Bible had first come out in that big old orange edition and this couple would come in late every Sunday morning. Here we were in a dignified Baptist church for Sunday morning worship and they would march down the aisle to the front late every Sunday morning. He would be in his blue-bib overalls, barefoot, and here she would come with a baby on one hip and a New American Standard on the other.
I didn’t know what that would do to my church but I tell you it was an everlasting monument to the grace of God in the lives of those people. They never batted an eye or flinched. They opened their arms to those people with all their hearts. I knew then my church was real. I held a revival for one of those fellows not long ago. That was sweet. I know not all those kids lasted. You don’t always have 100%. But a great number of them did. One of those fellows is on the mission field today. If just one makes it through, it is worth it. God has drawn a circle that includes us all and we dare not draw a circle that excludes anybody that God has included. Whether I like you or not, if you are good enough for God, you ought to be good enough for me. You manifest the grace of God by the way you receive people.
We manifest the grace of God also by the way we respond to the needs of people. Did you notice verse 27 that says, “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch and there stood up one of them named Agabus and signified by the spirit that there should be great – dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar”. I have to ask myself why these prophets come all the way to Antioch, 300 miles away, to make this announcement that there is going to be famine in the land. Why didn’t they do it up in Jerusalem? Maybe they did but no mention is made of it here.
I think they came to Antioch because these prophets realized that there were folks in Antioch that were so much like Jesus that if you told them there was a need they didn’t have to set up a committee first to study the effects of malnutrition on unborn babies or something like that, but they would do something about it, right away. You notice it says in verse 29, “…then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren in Judea, which also they did.” You will not find a needy person in the New Testament church. Why? Because every time someone was in need, that need was met by a brother because these New Testament believers looked upon their possessions not as their own but as a stewardship from God to be given and shared as God showed them the need.
John said, “How can I say the love of God dwells in me and I see my brother in need?” I was in Athens, Georgia a couple of weeks ago and the pastor and I were driving around and came to an intersection and there was a fellow in the middle of the intersection and a glass-lined water heater still in the carton had fallen off the truck and it was right there in the middle of the intersection and bless his heart, he was trying to lug that thing out and it was too big to get out of the street by himself and he was pushing and pulling that thing. We were sitting right there and the pastor said, “You know somebody ought to help him.” All of a sudden I realized what had happened and I said, “Yes, let’s pray that God will send somebody by to help him.” That’s the way we are. We are too busy, too preoccupied to help with a need. The way you manifest the grace of God is the way you respond to the needs of others.
All right, there is something that must be seen, secondly, there is something that must be shared if I am going to be worthy of the name. Notice in verse 19 it says, “Now, they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.” Remember, Christianity is new to these folks. Some of them still believe that salvation is just for the Jews, but there are others, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch who knew that salvation was for everybody. They spoke to the Grecians, the Gentiles, preaching the Lord Jesus. The interesting word there is “preaching” because it does not refer to a formal sermon such as I am preaching. It says in Acts 5, “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.” You get the idea that they were going around carrying a big Bible under their arm with a portable pulpit. No. The word refers to normal, everyday conversation of an individual. Now, I believe there is a place for the formal, homiletically prepared presentation. I believe there is a place for Evangelism Explosion and CWT and the Four Spiritual Laws. I have always believed in church visitation. But I am here to tell you that that is not the most effective form of witness. The most effective form of witness is that which flows out of the every day conversation of the believer. When you are so full of Jesus and so full of what he has done for you….
I was in a group the other night and this girl kept going around doing her finger like this. She had an engagement ring on and you couldn’t have shut her up no matter what. I can remember when I loved Jesus that much and you couldn’t shut me up. That is what he is talking about. Jesus said “out of the abundance of the heart does the mouth speak.” Whatever your heart is full of, it comes out of your mouth.
If we are ever going to see genuine, real revival in our country, it is not going to come from the pulpit. It is going to come from these folks in the marketplaces just as they open their mouths to talk about weather and politics they will talk about Jesus. It is normal conversation. I was in Texarkana the other day going from Dallas to Little Rock. I was getting hungry, it was late at night. I noticed a billboard advertising one of these fast food hamburger places. I thought that sounded good: a hamburger, covered in onions, pickles and mustard along with some french fries and a chocolate milkshake. I was ready to pull in and I had my CB radio on and about the minute I started to get off the Interstate, somebody came on the radio and said, “Anybody out there want an upset stomach?” He said, “If you do, go to the place I had just seen advertised.” No sooner had he said that until someone else came on the radio and said. “Boy, that is right I got a hamburger there last night and I was up all night so you know what I did? I just kept on heading for Little Rock. You say, “Well, what about all that advertising?” I don’t care about that. I had just heard from two of their customers!
I guarantee you that the average man who walks into this church from off the street and listens to the preacher or the evangelist knows that we are paid advertisers. We all know that the greatest form of advertising is a satisfied customer. When I see Roger Staubach advertising Rolaids, I can’t help it, I think, “Roger, you are paid to say that. You probably use Tums.” But you see, we stand up here and preach and preach and you believe it because you are saved. But I am talking about that man whose heart is broken, his wife has left him and his son is strung out on drugs and we keep talking about how Jesus can make your life full and give you peace that passes understanding. He sits there and thinks, “He’s a preacher and he’s paid to say that.” So when I hear of someone who has really tried that product and says it really works, that’s when I believe. What the gospel needs today is a bunch of satisfied customers that are out there in the market place talking about Jesus. If you are worthy of the name ns there is something to be shared.
The last word is this. If I am going to be worthy of the name, there is something to be sacrificed for Christ. I ask myself what are these folks doing at Antioch anyway. What would posses these people to move from Jerusalem to Antioch? You know it is not easy to move. I don’t know how you feel. I hate to move after I have been in a place for a long time. I was born in Oklahoma, raised in Arkansas, so I call Arkansas home, but we have lived in Dallas/Ft. Worth since 1958. I always thought I would go back home after I finished seminary but I was called to churches in the Dallas area and stayed there and then in 1975 after I left the church and went into the traveling ministry and you can live anywhere you want to. We have been saying we will go back home to Arkansas for 10 years but it is just hard to move. We’ve lived there for so long, we have friends there, our children were born there, and we’ve got credit there. It is hard to move. Imagine how hard it would have been in those days 300 miles away. That was another world. They didn’t go by bus, car or plane. They went by camel or foot.
What in the world would possess people to tear up roots and move to a new world 300 miles away? I will tell you why. Because of the persecution that arose. They were suffering for Jesus. They come to the outskirts of Antioch and talk among themselves saying, “We had to leave Jerusalem because we were talking about Jesus and if we go into Antioch talking about him, we will have to leave Antioch, too. Here is what we ought to do. We have an opportunity to start a whole new life and no one in Antioch knows us. If we will just sort of slide in unobtrusively and maintain a low profile and not call any attention to ourselves and just blend in, we can make a good life for ourselves. Maybe after we have been here for a year or two, we might hand them a track or invite them to church. But if we go in there preaching Jesus like we did in Jerusalem, we will get run out of there, too, and we can make a good life for ourselves here and go in and play it safe.”
I am afraid that one of these days when we find ourselves sitting safe in glory we’ll realize that we allowed the world to intimidate us. But that is exactly what we do. We maintain a low profile. Here I am in West Palm Beach, a big metropolis area, a big church. I don’t want to attract attention to myself, I don’t want to be a fanatic, I can still go to Heaven, I can make a good living and have a lot of friends, so I will just blend in with everybody. But sooner or later, if you and I are going to be worthy of the name Christian, there is going to have to be some sacrifice made. I love that old hymn they have taken out of the Baptist Hymnal, “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken, all to leave and follow Thee, destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be. Perish every fond ambition, everything I’ve ever hoped or known, yet how rich is my condition, God in Heaven, still my own.”
The fact of the matter, the very minute our Christianity starts costing us or becomes inconvenient, that is the minute we start compromising. We don’t know what it means today to suffer for Jesus or to sacrifice for Him. Our greatest sacrifice will be coming to church in the rain….that is about the extent of our sacrifice and we really feel we have done something. I get so under conviction. You mean I so glibly take the name Christian, take the name of the one who was willing to suffer the abuse of all men and to be despised and rejected and die in my place. I take that name and call myself Christian and yet I won’t make the slightest sacrifice for him….I wouldn’t miss a meal for Him, I wouldn’t miss a TV program for Him, I wouldn’t miss a bowling league for Him, I wouldn’t take the chance of being snubbed by a neighbor by knocking on their door for Him….and I call myself Christian?
Has anybody called you a Christian lately? They were called Christians first at Antioch. Sometimes I fanaticize and wonder what it would be like to start all over and not call ourselves anything and scatter us to a new place and see if anybody would know that we were Christians.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2005