Summary: Why does Luk mention that believers were first called Christians at Antioch?
First Called Christians at Antioch
This passage follows the conversion of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. God had opened the door for the Gentiles to come in. It took divine intervention to make it happen. First or all, Peter had to receive a vision from the Lord to direct him to go. Then the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentile believers. This demonstration of power similar to that of Pentecost convinced Peter and those who came with him that the inclusion of the Gentiles was part of God’s divine plan.
The result of the opening of the doors to the Gentiles was a massive paradigm shift. Word got out among the inhabitants of Jerusalem what had happened at Joppa, even before Peter returned. Those who held to the traditional views of Jerusalem were ready to confront Peter when they returned. Peter forcefully recounted what had happened and won the day for the Gentile mission, at least enough to silence the opposition from openly dissenting. This would not be the end of the trouble. It would take the church some time to adjust to the new reality.
The Jews did employ means for Gentiles to enter the congregation of Israel. They were accorded a sort of halfway status. Those men who had concerted had to be circumcised, and it would be generations before their descendants would be accorded full status as Jews. The question would have to be settles whether Cornelius and other Gentiles had to become Jews first and then followers of Jesus.
This week’s text shows that the church had sent missionaries to a major Syrian city called Antioch which was on the coast, across the bay from Tarsus where the Apostle Paul came from. This evangelization had been going on there for some time. The text tells us that the dispersion caused by the stoning of Stephen and the following persecution was the cause and the timing of the Antiochean mission. At first, this mission was limited to evangelizing the Jews or even the Hebrew speaking Jews, only. Some years later, Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene came and started to bring the Gospel to the Greeks. There is considerable debate to whom the Greeks are, which the variations of the Greek manuscripts make even more complicated. Were these Greek speaking Jews who held to both the Greek culture and language and their Jewish religious heritage? Were these Greeks the Gentile hearers and proselytes who came to believe on the God of Israel? Or were they the heathen Gentiles?
Although, the more common Greek word for Greeks in the early manuscripts of Acts is usually treated as a technical term for Greek speaking Jews, the context demands here that these Greeks be either Gentile God fearers or even heathen Gentiles. This passage follows upon the conversion of Cornelius who was a Gentile. Also, Greek speaking Jews had been included in the rolls of the Christians from Pentecost. Although, there had been some friction between the Greek speaking and Aramaic speaking Jews which resulted in the appointment of the first deacons, the question over the acceptance of the Greek speaking Jews had been long settled by this time. Even Stephen, the martyr mentioned in this passage was a Hellenist. This is why the Greeks mentioned here are probably a mix of Gentile God fearers like Cornelius and Pagans from various religious and cultural backgrounds.
Luke mentions that the hand of the Lord was with this mission, and He caused it to grow mightily. As Jewish people made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Antioch was not all that far distant, it was not long before news came back to the Jerusalem church. We know from a little later in Acts that not everyone there was pleased with the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles. So even at this point, some of the news that came to Jerusalem was in the way of complaint. The reaction of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem was reserved. It neither commended nor condemned. Instead they sent Barnabas to investigate the matter. This would help them make a decision whether what was happening in Antioch was from God or not. Barnabas was a good and fair man who could be trusted to give an accurate assessment. He was also a Jew from Cyprus, as were the evangelists of the expanded mission there. Being a Levite also made him trustworthy to the Jewish element.
When Barnabas came, he was overwhelmed with what he saw. He saw instantly that the hand of the Lord was with the work. The power of the Spirit was at work. He also saw the challenge of confirming the many new believers, many of them who were unfamiliar with the teaching of what we call the Old Testament. It was not enough for them to be evangelized, they also needed to be discipled.