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At the request of the Gentile converts, Peter remained some days in Caesarea, and then returned to Jerusalem. Here he set the rigid Jewish Christians at rest respecting his conduct, by giving them a full account of the whole wonderful transaction, so that they also praised God, that he had given repentance and the Holy Ghost to the Gentiles (11:18). And now that God himself had so plainly broken down the partition wall between Jews and Gentiles, and had glorified his grace in the latter, the narrow Judaism, which made circumcision the condition of salvation, became henceforth a formal heresy.
Yet, we could not but expect, that the deeply rooted prejudices, especially of those churchmembers, who had formerly been Pharisees (comp. 15:5), would long continue to work and destroy the peace of the church. Of this testify the transactions of the apostolic council, (Acts 15), and almost all Paul’s epistles. Even Peter himself, on a subsequent occasion, acted against his own better conviction, from fear of some narrow-minded Jewish Christians; for which he had to be sharply rebuked by Paul (Gal. 2:11 sqq.).1
The Church at Antioch. Origin of the Christian Name
About the same time,2 or at least soon after, a step preparatory to the conversion of the Gentiles was taken in another quarter. Though most of the members of the church at Jerusalem, who fled after the martyrdom of Stephen, preached the gospel only to the Jews in Phenicia and Syria (11:19); yet there were some Hellenistic converts among them, from Cyprus and Cyrene, men of kindred spirit with Stephen, who addressed themselves also to the Gentiles at Antioch (v. 20),1 and with great success. Antioch, the former residence of the Seleucidian kings, was then the seat of the Roman proconsul, the capital of Syria and of all the Roman provinces in the East, and at the same time a renowned center of eloquence and general culture. The church at Jerusalem now sent Barnabas to Antioch, as formerly it had sent Peter and John to Samaria, to inspect and to water this new plantation. Joses, surnamed Barnabas, (son of exhortation, of consolation), the subsequent companion of the apostle Paul, had already distinguished himself, in the earliest days of the church, by his self-denying benevolence, and was also a Grecian Jew, a native of the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36, 37). Thus, being a mean between Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian views, he was peculiarly fitted for this mission. By his preaching, and especially by bringing the converted Saul from Tarsus, he did much to strengthen and enlarge the infant church (11:23–26).
Thus, this important city came to be a second center of Christianity; the church there holding the same relation to the Gentile mission, that the church at Jerusalem held to the Jewish. It was from Antioch, and with the coöperation of its church, that Paul undertook his great missionary tours into Asia Minor and Greece.
But Antioch was important also in another respect. It was there, and probably soon after the formation of the church there, that the name, Christians, originated (Acts 11:26). This appellation was not assumed by the Christians themselves. They rather called themselves “disciples,” “believers,” (in reference to their relation to the Lord), “saints,” (with respect to their character and the great problem of their lives), “brethren,” (referring to their mutual fellowship). Still less was it given them by the Jews, who would have been far from applying to the hated heretics the hallowed name of Christ, Messiah, and who contemptuously called them rather “Galileans,” “Nazarenes.” The name came from the heathen, who applied it to the followers of Jesus Christ,1 either in mockery, or from a mere misunderstanding, taking the term, Christ, for a proper name, instead of an official title. In the New Testament the name occurs in but two places besides the above, viz., Acts 26:28, in the mouth of Agrippa; and 1 Pet. 4:16, as an honorable nickname. It was soon, however, universally adopted by the believers; and we may hence suppose, that, notwithstanding its heathen origin, it arose not without a divine purpose, as a kind of unconscious prophecy, like the words of Caiaphas. The name, Christians, expresses most briefly and clearly the divine destiny of man, and always holds before the believer the high idea, after which he should strive; that is, to have his own life a copy and a continuation of the life of Christ and of his threefold office.2 Man, indeed, in virtue of his inherent likeness to God, is already by nature, in some sense, the prophet, priest, and king of the whole creation. Sin has obscured this original quality of his nature and checked its development. But regeneration and vital union with Christ deliver it from the power of sin and death, and gradually unfold it in all its glorious proportions.
Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version., Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).
David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992).
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; With a General Introduction to Church History, trans. Edward D. Yeomans (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859).
Christopher M. Leighton and Charles Arian, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003).
Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context: 1. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
1 But when such critics as Gfrörer (Die heil. Sage, I part. p. 444 sq.), and Baur (l. c.), make this circumstance evidence against the credibility of the whole narrative respecting Cornelius, they run counter to the clear representation of Paul himself, who describes the conduct of Peter at Antioch as a fault, not of his views, but of his character, as a practical inconsistency, as hypocrisy (Gal. 2:12, 13, 14), and thus presupposes what is related in Acts. Baur acknowledges (p. 80), that the history of Cornelius cannot be a myth. But he makes it what is still worse, a fiction, purposely invented by the author of the Acts, to justify Paul’s position towards the Gentiles, (p. 78 sqq.). The author of the book of Acts was, therefore, in plain terms, a pious (?) impostor, consciously palming his own fictions upon his readers as objective history!! This manifestly savors too much of the obsolete standpoint of Bahrdt, Venturini, and the Wolfenbüttel Fragmentists, and is too unworthy of a theologian, to merit a serious refutation.
2 Perhaps about A.D. 40; at all events, two years before the famine, predicted by Agabus, which occurred in 44 or 45. For Luke mentions this afterwards (11:28) and in the portion, too, respecting the Antiochian church, where he evidently follows the course of events; as, in fact, he is generally very careful to preserve the chronological order. Wieseler (l. c. p. 152) admits this in reference to the first part of the Acts of the Apostles, c. 1–8:3 and the whole section about Paul, c. 13:1–28:31; but thinks that, from c. 8:4 to 12:25, the synchronistic method prevails. For this supposition, however, there seems to me no sufficient ground. I place the events from the martyrdom of Stephen to the bringing of Paul from Tarsus, (11:25), in the years 37–43, and essentially in the same order, in which Luke relates them.
1 I here suppose, with most modern critics, that, according to cod. A.D., the Vulgate, and other authorities, Ἓλληνας is the true reading in the passage in question. For the lect. rec, Ἑλληνιστάς, forms no antithesis whatever to Ἰουδαίοις, v. 19., since the Hellenists were likewise Jews.
1 According to the analogy of the names of other parties, as Pompejani, Cæsariani, Herodiani, &c.
2 So the Heidelberg Catechism explains the name in the 32nd question: “Why art thou called a Christian? Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of his anointing, that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thanksgiving to him; and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life, and afterwards reign with him eternally over all creatures.”.