News of Peter’s visit to Cornelius (cir. 39-40 CE) must have gotten around to those scattered abroad due to the persecution that developed over Stephen’s Gospel. Many of those who fled for their lives were afraid and preached to Jews only, but the implication in Acts 11:19-20 is that upon hearing that Peter preached to the gentiles, those who fled due to the persecution took courage and developed a plan to reach out to the gentile sectors of Antioch.
Surprise! God was with them and the gentiles believed (cir. early to mid 40 CE). This astonished everyone including the church in Jerusalem. They sent Barnabas to encourage them in their new found faith and report back to them of their welfare (Acts 11:21-22). When Barnabas arrived he rejoiced with them in the Lord and encouraged them to remain steadfast in the faith. Immediately he went to Tarsus to recruit Paul for what was to be a mammoth task of educating the new gentile believers who probably knew very little about the God of the Jews. They were used to worshiping in paganism and were filled with all sorts of myths to satisfy questions they had about God. But, Paul was anointed for this task, and he and Barnabas worked for a year (mid 40 CE – throughout 41 CE), establishing the gentile churches in Antioch. It was here and during this time that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Heretofore, the disciples were known simply as “believers” in the Way and were for the most part Jews or gentiles who had converted to Judaism. So, what do you call a pagan who began to trust in Christ? Well, folks began to refer to their former associates as “Christians.” In the beginning it was a derogatory reference, but not so much today.The fact is, it was probably a political reference placed upon us by the Roman authorities. At this time Jerusalem and Rome were on the verge of war, due to Caligula’s desire to place a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Roman governor waited at Ptolemais, just north of Caesarea, with the Roman army for word from the Emperor about the impending war. The Roman authorities were interested to know if the growing Messianic community would be a threat to Rome if a war would break out. They concluded the believers in the Way were innocuous and not a concern for Rome and began to refer to them as “Christ-ian” – a Greek word with a Latin ending, meaning a follower of the Anointed One.
The point is that God was beginning to vindicate Stephen’s Gospel. Jesus had told the woman at the well in Samaria that God is Spirit and desires those who worship him to do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-23). Jesus implied that God doesn’t need temples made with hands, nor the religions associated with them to touch people’s hearts. This is what Stephen preached to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. Everyone he mentioned in Acts 7 that God had blessed was in a foreign land, and his call was not associated with a temple or a religion. Even the Tabernacle in the wilderness was not stationed in a fixed location but dwelt wherever the children of God wandered.
Now, in Antioch Stephen’s Gospel understanding was bearing fruit. People never associated with Judaism in any way were coming to the God of the Jews—Jesus, the Messiah. What a wonderful and powerful God we serve! He is able to touch hearts that never had any knowledge of him and cause them to desire him. It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around that thought—God is able to cause me, though I never heard of him, to desire him! What a blessing it is for you and me that he chooses men who do know him to bring this message to those who do not. We plant the seed, but he causes the seed to take root. Praise God!