“And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." (Acts 11:26)
During a recent sermon at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Pastor Brian Brodersen, who recently taught the book of Acts, spoke about the church in Antioch. As the text above mentions, it was “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” The church did not call themselves Christian, the people of Antioch did.
The believers in Antioch were far different from the culture they lived in. Because they lived in an environment without a connection to Judaism like the church in Jerusalem had the Christ-followers in Antioch stuck out like a sore thumb. Antioch was a Roman city, influenced by the Roman and Greek way of life, the third largest city in the empire. So, as people watched those believers do their thing, a new title began to form. They were called Christians because they followed Christ.
In Brian’s teaching, he highlighted eight defining marks that would have set the believer of Antioch apart from their culture. Each mark is telling and beautiful for us to consider (and emulate) today. I will repeat each of the marks Brian mentioned, followed with a little commentary.
1 They spoke of Jesus and what he had done for them.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch to check out the church, he saw the grace of God. Many of the believers there had been radically saved. Their conversion stories were often sharp and distinct, so they loved to tell their community of the love of Christ. They preached him and his gospel message to the world around them.
2 They lived out their devotion to Christ for all to see.
The lives of those believers varied significantly from the rest of the society around them. Their dissimilarity with their culture was a new experience for the church, for the Jerusalem believers practiced a lifestyle somewhat like the society they lived in, one steeped in Judaism. Judaism and Christianity overlap in moral matters often, so the church stood out mostly for its belief in Jesus as the Messiah (Christ). But, in Antioch, the new morality of Christians was far different from the ethics of the city. Still, the believers there were part of the city, rather than isolationists like the Jewish community there. Neither isolationist or idolatrous, the believers became a fascination for many in Antioch.
3 They were a multiethnic, diverse community.
In those days, religion and race were tied together in a tangled knot. Your race determined your religion. As Christianity spread, through missions trips and gospel preaching, true conversions occured. Since they preached anywhere and everywhere, the respondents were of every race and culture, which led to a multiethnic and diverse church. The gospel does not demand people walk and talk like a particular culture; this was evident in Antioch.
4 They had a new sexual ethic.
Our society ran away from a biblical sexual ethic and into a Roman-world-sexual-ethic, but the believers in Antioch ran out of a Roman-world-sexual-ethic and into a biblical one. They learned to respect women, recognizing honor and equality is due to the female gender. They decided to honor marriage, rather than make a mockery out of the institution. They reserved their sexual experiences for inside covenantal union. The society around them took note.
5 Women were given honor and equality.
The attitude the early church had towards women did not exist elsewhere in the ancient world. Marriages were often a sham. Women were considered property. Men ran amock. But the believers in Antioch began to behave differently towards women.
6 Children were honored.
Infanticide was common in those days. If a child displeased or inconvenienced their parents, they could be eliminated. In our abortion-culture, this attitude is not difficult to imagine. But believers began treating children with the dignity they deserve. Christ honored children, and so did his early followers.
7 They had a new work ethic.
Rather than live to acquire wealth, believers began to work with the goal of bringing honor to God. They wanted their work to reflect well on God, and they started to see their work as a way to worship him. Additionally, the lazy among them set aside their laziness and took up a strong work ethic.
8 They loved one another.
The love these believers showed one another stood out most of all. They were known by their love. As they lived with one another day in, day out, the rest of the community took note of the way they treated each other, but also those outside their group. They would not live like the world around them, but they loved the world around them.
As Brian concluded this message, he mentioned that the followers of Christ, like Jesus, were an enigma to their culture. They did not fit into existing categories. The outside community could not label them. They had not disassociated from their world but were also unlike their world. They had not been marred by traditions and practices that have nothing to do with Jesus or biblical Christianity. They had believed Jesus and were beginning their great journey with him.
As I think about these eight marks of the church in Antioch, the first church to be referred to as “Christian,” I am challenged— they represent the church I love. We live in a unique cultural moment, and to me, it is one filled with opportunity. If believers can live like the church in Antioch lived, their faith and walk with Christ will stand out in beautiful ways. Labels are often unhelpful; “evangelical” used to mean something different from what it means today. But perhaps through living out these eight marks the church has a chance to stand out for the unique ways in which we are following our Lord.