As the result of the persecution in which Saul had taken so active a part, we were told that “Therefore they [the converts] that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.” Note: Act_8:4. The sacred historian having now concluded his account of Saul’s conversion and of Peter’s proceedings, goes back to this point, and proceeds to inform us that some of those who were thus scattered abroad, proceeded even so far as Cyrene in one direction, and Cyprus and Antioch in another, but that they nowhere preached the gospel to any but Jews, that is to say, to the Jews speaking Greek, or Hellenists, as such are called in Scripture. So this went on, as we conceive is to be understood, until after the conversion of Cornelius; and having just related that great event, Luke proceeds to state that this great fact being noised abroad, gave a mighty impulse to the work of conversion in these same parts; for some of the Hellenists, converted by those Jerusalem fugitives, no longer hesitated to offer the Gospel to the Greeks or Gentiles. And they met with extraordinary success, “for a great number of them believed, and turned to the Lord.”
This seems to us the correct interpretation of the passage before us. But it may be right to explain the presence of a difficulty. Those to whom the Gospel was preached in the first instance must have been Hellenists, or Jews living in Greek cities and speaking the Greek language, as distinguished from Hellenes or Gentile Greeks. But in the current texts those to whom the gospel is preached in the second instance are described as Hellenists not Hellenes. Yet, if this were the case, the second preaching could not have differed from the first, and the Cyrenian and Cyprian brethren would have done no more than had already been done by the brethren from Jerusalem. It is hence the opinion of the best critics and commentators that the word Hellenes, not Hellenists, is here the right reading, especially as it is to be found in some very ancient manuscripts, versions, and Fathers; and has accordingly been adopted in most of the recent critical editions of the Greek text. But this being the case, it necessarily follows that some more considerable interval of time than the immediate connection might indicate, occurred between the first preaching and the second, because the second preaching being to the Gentiles, it must have been subsequent to the conversion of Cornelius, who was, as we know, the first fruits of the Gentiles.
Indeed, we may conceive that the tidings of this movement at Antioch might not have been received at Jerusalem with much favor, had not the church there been already satisfied on this point, by the explanations which Peter had given in connection with the centurion’s conversion.
Antioch being the metropolis of Syria, and one of the three Note: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch. greatest cities in the civilized world, the intelligence that the Gospel had there been preached with signal success to the Gentiles, could not fail to awaken much attention at Jerusalem; and it was felt desirable that the interests of the cause of Christ, in a station so eminent, should be carefully watched, guarded, and reported on by some persons in whom entire confidence could be placed. It does not seem that the Cyrenian and Cyprian brethren who had here taken the initiative were well known, if at all known to the church at Jerusalem; and such entire confidence as would leave room for no misgiving as to their proceedings, may not at so great a distance have been entertained. To send an accredited apostolical agent to observe and aid the great task going on at that place, was therefore the wisest course that could be taken. Nor was the choice of the man for this important mission less wise. It was no other than Barnabas—himself a Hellenist, a Cyprian, and in all probability well acquainted with Antioch—and who, more than all that, was “a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” Such a man was exactly fitted for the highly responsible mission confided to him.
Barnabas on his arrival found much cause to approve of what the Hellenist brethren had done in preaching to the Gentiles, and he was well satisfied with the manner and spirit in which they had done it, and the results which had flowed from it. It was a good work that had been done; and he rejoiced in it, and labored diligently to advance it, exhorting them all “that with purpose of heart they should cleave to the Lord.”
The work here was so great and important that Barnabas soon became anxious to secure the co-operation of his friend Saul, whom he supposed to be at his native city of Tarsus. He accordingly proceeded thither in search of him, and having at length found him, whether there or not, is not stated, he brought him back with him to Antioch, and there they continued laboring together in the Gospel cause for a whole year.
It was first, during this year, and at this place, that the believers in Christ came to be distinguished by the name of “Christians.”
It has been much questioned by whom and with what view this name was given or assumed.
It does not seem that the name was spontaneously assumed by the disciples themselves. If that had been the case, we should probably have met with it frequently in the remainder of the history, as well as in the writings of the apostles. But we find that after, as before, they continued to be styled among themselves “believers,” “brethren,” “saints,” “disciples.” In the Acts the term “Christian” only again occurs once (Act_26:28), where king Agrippa says “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” And in the Epistles it is found only in 1 Peter 4, and, as in the instance just cited, seems to be described as used or applied by persons not themselves professing the religion. “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye,” etc. (1Pe_4:14), and, “yet if any man sufferas a Christian, let him not be ashamed,” (1Pe_4:16). This scanty use of the name hardly consists with the notion that it was assumed by the disciples, or even that was very readily adopted by them. Neither was it likely that it was given them by the Jews. “Christ” means the same as “Messiah;” and the main point at issue between the believers and the Jews was that the latter did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and were, therefore, less likely to call his followers by that name than almost by any other. Any name they could give would assuredly be one of contempt; and we know that their despiteful terms for the disciples were “Galileans,” (Act_2:7) and “Nazarenes,” (Act_24:5). The probability, therefore, remains that the name of “Christian” was first given to the disciples by the Gentiles of Antioch. This becomes the more likely when we consider that through the labors of the two apostles with those of the Hellenist converts, the new religion was brought much under the notice of the Gentiles at Antioch, who would soon feel the want of a name by which to indicate its adherents without circumlocution. They would scarcely be able to appreciate the terms used among the believers themselves, being rather appellations than names; and the reproachful terms employed by the Jews, they were still less likely to know or understand. It was hence natural that they should devise a new name, and what designation would more easily occur to them than one formed from the name which was so often heard from the lips of the disciples—the name too of one who was understood to be the founder of the sect, and even the object of its worship.
It seems by no means clear that, as some have conceived, the name was in its origin despiteful, like the names of Lollard, Puritan, Quaker, Methodist, in modern times. But there is no doubt that it eventually became so in the mouths of the Gentiles, when, by becoming widely spread, it attracted more attention, and caused more alarm, from the manifest hostility of its principles to the prevalent ideas, usages, and systems of heathendom.
The name was, however, a good name, and there was nothing in it to prevent the believers from effectually accepting it as a proper designation of their body.