August 21, 2011

First called Christians

In the last post, we looked at Peter, a good Jew, who at God’s command went to Caesarea to meet with a Roman centurion, Cornelius. Cornelius and his household were converted to Christianity and were baptized. Turns out this did not sit well with the other believers.

We tend to think that the early church was all of one mind but it was made up, like churches today, of people. People don’t always agree with each other. In Acts 11:2-3 we here that “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” Peter recites his vision and tells what happened at Cornelius’ house.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:15-18)

It must have been a watershed moment in the thinking of the ‘circumcised believers’. From the beginning of Jewish history, God had been the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gentiles were outside the possibility of salvation. A Gentile could be a ‘God-fearer’, but that didn’t make him a Jew or a full member of the Jewish faith. Now, it seems that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

The passage in Acts indicates an immediate understanding of God’s work. I wonder if it was quite that easy. If you have ever sat through any meeting where there are differences of opinion and challenges to the status quo, you know that much discussion goes on before a new idea is accepted.

Peter’s vision and acceptance of Cornelius’ faith, opened the door for further evangelism to the Gentiles. Acts 11:19 tells us, “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.”

We see that the death of Stephen spread the Gospel across Asia. The door was opened by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to more and more people. There were Jewish communities in most cities of the Roman Empire, but it was the non-Jews who welcomed the Gospel in surprising numbers. “The hand of the Lord was with [those preaching to the Hellenists], and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. (A journey of some 400 miles.) When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21-24)

We first hear of Barnabas in Acts 4:36 as one who sold his property and joined the infant church. His name was Joseph bar Nabas. (Nabas is translated alternately ‘encouragement’ or ‘prophecy’ or ‘consolation’) He was a ‘native of Cyprus’ and a Levite. Barnabas was a logical choice for Peter and the other leaders to send to meet with the new converts because of his familiarity with Greek culture. Perhaps he even knew people in Antioch. Cyprus is just off the coast parallel to Antioch. He is delighted with the faith he finds in Antioch and realizes that this is a fertile field for planting seeds of God’s love. Barnabas decides he needs help in the ministry and “went to Tarsus to look for Saul [and]…brought him to Antioch.” (Acts 11:25-26a)

Remember Barnabas knew Saul. In Acts 9:27 he is the one man in Jerusalem who is not afraid of Saul and believes his conversion. He “took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord…and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.” It would appear that the men were acquaintances if not friends at this time.

Saul and Barnabas are a good team. “For an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.” Being called Christian was a new delineation for the early church. Until now, the believers had been a group of Jewish men and women who preached that the promised Messiah had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and rose from the dead. By taking on the name Christian (follower of the Christos or anointed one) they took on a broader identity that was not tied to the old Hebrew tribal lineage. You could be a Christian even if you were not of Hebrew descent.

The new believers, these new ‘Christians’ acted on their belief and reached out to the home church when there was need because of Agubus’ prophecy “that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)

The believers in the early church had to figure out how God wanted them to act. Were they to share the Gospel with just Jews or with just Gentiles or with both? Peter and Saul ultimately found their ministry took them to separate segments of believers. The church still struggles with the Great Commission “Go…make disciples of all nations.”

Each of us is called to share the Gospel with those we come in contact with. Each of us struggles with sharing the Good News with those we label as ‘different’ or ‘wrong’. Shouldn't we ask ourselves, does God make any distinctions between my worth and the worthiness of the one I look down on or ignore? How can I overcome differences instead of making them worse? It was the Gentiles who first accepted the title of Christian, meaning 'little Christs' or 'Christ bearers'. Who are we keeping from faith by our own narrow definition of God's work and of faith?

Next time we will look at the start of more persecution of the early church.

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