The book of Acts crescendos with the account of the church of Antioch. Biblically this church was really important for a couple of reasons. First, we know far more about this church than any other in the Bible. Second, it is the church that every other church in the New Testament was patterned after. The way God moved in this church became the paradigm by which every other church would be emulated. That seems significant, doesn’t it?
Here is what Luke says about the founding of the Church in Antioch:
19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11.19-21)
There are a couple of phrases included in this account that can almost be missed if you hadn’t followed Luke up to this point: “…spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them however… went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also… and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
This was a stunning observation for a couple of reasons. The first is a theological reason (see the last post for details on this). Up until this point in human history, a Christian church had never formed across ethnic, racial, cultural divides. Luke has been asking the question all along whether it really could.
The second is a sociological reason. During the first century, Antioch was the third biggest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria). Its population was over 500,000 (significant because we would not have a city of a million people until 1850).
It was the third largest city but by far the most ethnically diverse. To large degree this was due to its location (see map). It had two interstate highways running by it; the north-south route connected it to Egypt and the east-west highway linked it to Rome. Antioch also had a major river that cut through it that was the starting point of the trade route to central Asia. This led to an incredibly cosmopolitan and diverse city. You had large numbers of Africans, Asians, and Europeans.
There was a sociological downside to this though. Because there were so many different races, the atmosphere was always brewing with the potential of tribal warfare. Therefore the city planners of Antioch designed it in a way to keep everyone away from each other. We know from historical records that there was at least 5 different sets of walls that were erected to keep the races away from each other (African, Asian, Latin, Greek, and Jews). But it is estimated that there may have been as many as 18 different ethnic quarters within the city, with each group literally separated from each other by a wall. In some ways it reminds me of my city Chicago – very diverse from a macro-perspective, yet incredible segregrated on the ground.
That is why, when Luke says that the early disciples had only been spreading the Gospel to the Jews, he was not understating the importance of this. Theologically, Luke was unsure up to this point that a multiethnic community could happen. And sociologically, these 18 different racial groups did not interact with each other for any reason.
Yet in Acts 11 Luke reports with great enthusiasm that this has all changed. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has cut through these racial-cultural walls and for the first time in the history of the world it is proven that the God of the Bible is not a tribal God. The energy of Heaven has been set loose in a powerful way that all could see. For the first time people were crossing over racial-cultural walls to hear about Jesus and forming a bond and fellowship around the goods news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The good news of the Resurrection was bringing people into common fellowship under Jesus Christ, and this in turn also became the authentication of the good news.
Now the question became – what to name this phenomenon? Nobody in biblical times would have known how to describe such a thing as a multicultural body (now we have dozens of names for it!) so they had to invent a word. What should the early church call this thing that was bringing people from all different sectors of the city across the interior barriers into a common fellowship in Jesus Christ? They had to invent a name, and what was the name they coined in Acts 11?
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11.26)
Those watching the energy of Heaven being unlcashed in real time did not know what to call it, so they named this group after their leader – Christian! The word Christian was not devised to describe individuals who had jeweled crosses around their necks or ‘Jesus’ bumper stickers on their cars. The word Christian was invented to describe the multicultural church that first developed in Antioch.