Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?
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Do Protestants Have the "Fullness of the Faith"?

What Is a Christian? {Acts 11:19–30}

This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here. 

2,000 years ago, a new religious movement was gaining momentum. But it didn’t yet have a name. Around 40 AD in “an ethnically cosmopolitan city, a crossroads of cultural influence,”[1] the faithful of this movement so closely resembled their leader that the best way to identify them was to simply add a suffix to his name. “In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26)—literally, those who are like Christ.

Why did the massive, bustling city of Antioch notice Jesus’s disciples? They had no distinct dress code. They hadn’t yet built impressive buildings or developed institutions like schools or daycare centers. Early Christians earned their name by their “distinctly countercultural way of life.”[2] Luke’s description in Acts 11:19–30 tells us how to live so that our neighbors will know us as Christians.

Christians Talk about Jesus

The revival in Antioch sprung from the ordinary witness of “those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen” (Acts 11:19), not the disciples (Acts 8:1). Antioch would become a major hub of Christian missionary activity to the Gentiles. But what unleashed the city’s potential was average Christians bringing Jesus to their unbelieving friends, co-workers, neighbors, and acquaintances.

Have we learned the hard lesson that God was teaching convinced believers? Or are we “hesitant” (Acts 10:20) to share what we know about God with people we still view as common and unclean? How do our conversations differ from those of other “good people”? Do we talk about Christ even to other Christians, much less to unbelievers? Faithful witnessing requires more than living well and dropping occasional moral hints. It requires being vocal about Jesus.

Christians Are Encouraging

When the Jerusalem church learned of the growing congregation in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to them. What did the “son of encouragement” do (Acts 4:36)?

Barnabas Rejoiced over God’s Work

When he “saw the grace of God, he was glad” (Acts 11:23). It’s easy to dwell on what’s wrong in the world and in the church. Barnabas wasn’t a flatterer or a wide-eyed optimist. But he knew that believers need patterns of joyfulness in Christ, confirming that God is working among them (see Rom. 14:17; 1:8, etc.).

Barnabas Encouraged Faithfulness

He “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:23 NKJ). He lived out his nickname! Jesus used the same word to describe the Holy Spirit, (e.g. John 14:16). This other encourager comes alongside our spirits and helps us in our weakness, urging us to press on in faithfulness (see Rom. 8:26–30). It will be clear to the hopeless world that encouraged believers have been with Jesus.

Christians Love to Learn

The son of encouragement came to Antioch to teach. And the believers ate up his instruction. When he couldn’t keep up with their appetite, Barnabas found Saul and brought him to Antioch to teach for a full year (Acts 11:26). Throughout Acts, when church leaders instruct there is often standing room only (e.g. Acts 13:42–44); serious believers turn out for teaching and are sent out into the world more like Christ. And people notice the resemblance. Paul and Barnabas, “taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

Do you share with these early Christians an appetite for learning? Do you strive to be present when the church gathers for teaching, believing that God’s plan for spiritual growth is the renewing of our minds? Why do some church people seem, like Felix, only willing to be taught when it’s “a convenient season” (Acts 24:25 KJV). If we care little for Christian teaching, how will we learn to live so that our neighbors see Christ in us?

Christians Are Generous

In the early church, God used prophets to occasionally prepare his people for future events. In Antioch, Agabus “foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world” (Acts 11:28). Luke says, and history confirms, that this happened in the days of Emperor Claudius.

But Luke’s emphasis is on how this new church responded to the news of the famine: “[T]he disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). How Christ-like! Jesus had taught that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). He “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) and offered himself on the cross for his people. Barnabas was just the man to show the church how to follow Jesus in generously caring for others (see Acts 4:36–37). So it’s no surprise that the church took a collection to help Judean Christians face the coming famine. Christians are generous because they have come to believe in the generosity of God in Christ. And the world notices.

A name should mean something. Alexander the Great once told a cowardly soldier, also called Alexander, to either change his name or mend his manners. The name Christian should mean something. The gospel doesn’t depend on us—on our conduct or conversation. Twice Luke tells us that God provided the increase in Antioch (Acts 11:21, 24). But it’s no coincidence that God increased his church among believers who learned and talked about Jesus, and who practiced Christ-like generosity and encouragement.

[1] Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts, 125.

[2] Darrell Bock, Acts, 413.

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William Boekestein

William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.