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They Were Called Christians

George Hutto

After Luke’s record of the conversion of the first Gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10), students of the remainder of the New Testament are regularly presented with the struggle of the apostles to affix the identity of God’s people as Christians rather than Jews.

The first half of the next chapter shows Peter returning to Jerusalem with the news that "God has granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life." The Holy Spirit then explains that those who had been scattered by the Jewish persecution had preached to the "Jews only" as they were dispersed, but some had taken the gospel to the "Greecians" ("Jews born in foreign lands and speaking Greek") in Antioch. (Acts 11:19ff)

"And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord." (Acts 11:21). When news of this turn of events came to the church at Jerusalem they sent Barnabas, who preached, and who also brought Paul, who came and preached, too. It is at this crucial point that the Spirit tells us "And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch."

The remainder of Acts (as at the first) portrays the apostles’ work under the shadow of Jewish persecution. In Romans, writing to Christians in the heart of that mighty kingdom foretold by Daniel where the everlasting kingdom would be established (Dan 2:44); and in Galatians, written just after the Jerusalem meeting on the subject of Gentile acceptance; Paul labours to show that "If you are Christ’s, then are you Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Gal 3:29) Not Jews; not Romans; not Greeks; not even a sect of the Jews - but Christians have inherited the promise! The promise was that through Abraham’s seed all nations of the earth would be blessed. (Gen. 12:3)

In Acts 11:26, the key term is chrematizo - "the disciples were called Christians...." The word is used nine times in the Greek New Testament, each time involving God in a pronouncement or a warning.

For instance, chrematizo is used of God’s warning to Noah concerning the flood (Heb 11:7), of God’s ruling concerning adultery - "she shall be called an adulterous" - (Romans 7:3), and when God spoke to the Israelites on Sinai. (Heb 12:25) When Luke says, "The disciples were called Christians," the idea is that the designation was by God’s pronouncement, not by mere colloquial usage.

"The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" ­ this pronouncement came at the very time the gospel was spreading to the Gentiles. Here is that "new name" foretold by Isaiah: "And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name." (Isa 62:2). The ramifications of this new identity for God’s people are profound.

Now, for those who are looking for some kind of special place for the Jews in the future, perhaps at the Second Coming of Christ, they are "barking up the wrong tree." The nation of Israel had its place in God’s scheme of redemption, but after Christ the faithful are identified as Christians. The church, not the Jews, brings both Jew and Gentile into the same spiritual house whereby spiritual worship is acceptable to God. (Eph 2) The prophecies were realised in the church: "And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." (Dan 2:44) At the First Advent God established the order of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. (Mark 1:15) At the Second Coming there will be only judgement. (II Peter 3)

The events surrounding modern-day Israel and Islam occupy much of the news, diplomacy, and even military action in recent years. However, there is no scripture to justify such a place in the country’s business for national Israel, and even less for Israel’s place in the future of spiritual matters. God’s business from henceforth is with Christians, not Jews.

Being a Christian is enough for those who would be a particular kind of Christian. There is a great controversy in America these days about illegal aliens and how to make them legal, keep them out, deport them, help them, assimilate them? They are not helping their cause by parading their native flags and making demands. Likewise, many who claim to be Christians are hindering the cause of truth by their insistence on holding to the things which show their divided allegiance. Neither the denominations nor the doctrines which make them distinct are spoken of in the Bible.

As the Scripture repeatedly says, "Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all," (Col 3:11) must our generation learn anew that the divisions and movements of men have no place in the kingdom of God? (Matt 15:13)

Further, many are busy trying to paint up Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhusim, and other world religions as acceptable to God through some trickery of broad-mindedness. If there had been a good time for God to establish two churches or many religions, certainly the first century would have been that time. But, we see Jesus saying, "... I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comet unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6) And to the Jews and the Gentiles the scripture says, "And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby ..." (Eph 2:16) In the unity of God’s Word there is no place for the names or creeds of men.

With the new identity of God’s people in the church, there was also a new law. Of the Old Testament Paul wrote this: "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;" (Col 2:14. See also Heb. 8.) Now, if we are under law to Christ (I Cor 9:21), we should not justify the way we worship ­ or our marriage arrangements (Matt 19), or "tithing," or a priesthood - by the Old Law. The New Testament is that by which we should be governed. (John 12:48) It gives Christians their identity, and it is the "perfect law of liberty." (James 2:7-12)

After Paul had preached the gospel among the Gentiles and the Jews for decades, he was arrested by the Jews on false charges, narrowly escaped lynching more than once, and was given opportunity to speak before Agrippa, to whom he said, "... I know the to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech the to hear me patiently." (Acts 26:3) After Paul had told of Christ’s appearing to him and his obedience to the Lord, Agrippa said, "Almost thou persuades me to be a Christian." (Vs 28) This expert on all the questions, customs, and prophets of the Jews knew the significance and direction of Paul’s appeal.

That appeal was to become a Christian ­ and becoming a Christian was enough.

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