2 Reasons the Disciples were called Christians first in Antioch, rather than in Jerusalem

In today’s message, by drawing a sharp contrast between the Jerusalem church under Peter and the twelve, and the Antioch church under Paul and Barnabas, I intend to show that terrible things happen whenever religious legalism prevails against the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

First, ponder on this interesting puzzle: Why were the disciples called Christians first at Antioch, rather than in Jerusalem?

An interesting puzzle

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
~ Acts 11:25,26

I have always wondered why the believers were called Christians first in Antioch, rather than in Jerusalem. Here’s why:

  1. Jesus Christ ministered severally, controversially, and powerfully to huge multitudes in Jerusalem; He had a massive following there.
  2. It was at the Upper Room in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit first descended upon the Church, and this caused quite a stir in that city.
  3. The Church started first in Jerusalem with great power and display of signs and wonders, and grew to hundreds of thousands within a very short time there.
  4. The Apostles performed mind-boggling signs and wonders in Jerusalem, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

With all this, you would have expected that the disciples would have been called ‘Christians’ first in the city of Jerusalem. Surprisingly, as I’ve already noted, this was not the case; instead, it happened in the non-Jewish city of Antioch – a place Jesus Christ never even visited for once. And I ask: Why weren’t the believers called Christians first in Jerusalem?

I believe there were two primary reasons; the one dependent on the other: Religious legalism, and ignorance of the mystery of Christ.

Deep-rooted religious legalism

When you reflect on the story of Cornelius’ conversion, you should notice how hard it was for the Holy Spirit to move Peter beyond the constraints of his religious traditions.

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

~ Acts 10:9-16

I’d like you to pay close attention to the transaction between Peter and the Holy Spirit in the vision:
Three times the Holy Ghost gave Peter an instruction.
Three times Peter referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘Lord.
And three times, because of his religious tradition and legalism Peter firmly refused to obey the instruction of the Holy Spirit. “Surely not, Lord!” he reiterated, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

On the one hand, he calls Him Lord; on the other, he rebels against Him: “Surely not, Lord!” screaming his rebellion at the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it amazing that you would call someone Lord, yet refuse His instruction?

Even more interesting is the fact that this happened in a vision, as it reveals the depth of the entrenchment of religious legalism in Peter’s consciousness. That he knew the Speaker was none other than the Holy Spirit Himself did not alter his dogmatism. He stuck to his tradition. This is the essence of religious legalism: the inability to yield to fresh and superior revelation.

The initial response of the rest of the Apostles to Peter’s eventual submission to the Holy Spirit goes further to establish the fact that Peter was not alone in his deep-rooted religious dogmatism; entrenched traditional religious legalism had become a definitive feature of the entire leadership of the Jerusalem church.

1 The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
~ Acts 11:1-3

Two of a kind

How hard it must have been for the Holy Spirit during this time! Fortunately for the cause, He found two men – Paul and Barnabas – who were willing to go beyond the confines of the established religious paradigm of the day.

Barnabas, as you may recall, was the one man who welcomed Paul when the other Disciples were too scared to receive him into the fold.

26 When he [Paul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
~ Acts 9:26,27

Barnabas’ attitude reflects one of openness – the capacity to impartially consider new evidence, and move beyond established religious and traditional bias. Here was a man who was willing to move beyond the fears and prejudice of his peers. Barnabas expresses that childlike attitude that is so precious to the Holy Spirit. No wonder at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit conscripted him and Paul for the special mission of reaching the Gentile world.

1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
~Acts 13:1,2

Ignorance of the mystery of Christ

Nevertheless, the religious legalism of the men that walked closely with Jesus Christ in the flesh, limited their capacity to evolve into a higher walk with Him in the spirit. As a result, in spite of all that Jesus and the Holy Spirit did in their midst and through them, they were unable to reproduce Christ in the consciousness of Jerusalemites. In other words, entrenched religious legalism made it difficult for the church at Jerusalem to manifest Christ – otherwise, why weren’t they called ‘Christians’ there?

Religious legalism also blinded them at the most critical time to the mystery of Christ. In fact, it was this ignorance of the mystery of Christ that was responsible for the inability of the Jerusalem Church to project a Christ-consciousness in the minds of the Jerusalemites.

Compare this statement by Paul…

“In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.”
~Ephesians 3:4

…and this one by Peter:

15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
~2 Peter 3:15,16

His humility here notwithstanding, Peter acknowledged what Paul referred to as ‘my insight into the mystery of Christ.’ He also states that Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand! Paul referred to these things as ‘the mystery of Christ.’

“And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.”
~Colossians 4:3

Ponder on this: It was hard for Peter to understand because he refused to allow the Holy Spirit take him beyond Judaism. “Surely not, Lord,” he said each time the Holy Spirit attempted to do so.

A mystery and a ministry

You’ve got to understand the significance of transaction between Peter and the Holy Spirit in this vision:

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

~ Acts 10:9-16

The ‘something like a large sheet being let down to earth’ is symbolic of two things: the revelation of the mystery of Christ, and the resultant ministry to the gentile world. It was offered to Peter thrice; he rejected it thrice; so it went to Paul. We could extend this understanding even further: it was offered to Jerusalem thrice; they rejected it thrice; so it went to the Gentiles – represented by Antioch.

Contrary to what many have said, Peter’s ignorance had nothing to do with his level of academic education; but everything to do with his resistance to the Holy Spirit’s efforts to take him beyond Judaism. I believe that this reluctance not only blinded him to the mystery of Christ, it ultimately cost him the ministry that Paul eventually received. By rejecting the revelation of the mystery, he forfeited the ministry.

Manifesting Christ

The religious legalism of the Jerusalem Apostles led to an initial – and ultimately fatal – subconscious resistance to the Holy Spirit. It blinded them at the time to the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of Christ. At the end of the day, it meant that those listening to them – the Jerusalem church – were not able to so reproduce Christ in the consciousness of Jerusalemites as to be referred to as ‘Christians’ there. What this means is that, in spite of all that happened in Jerusalem, the Jerusalemites could barely distinguish between the disciples and the adherents of Judaism.

The distinction between Judaism and Christianity was first realized in Antioch under the ministry of Paul and Barnabas.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
~ Acts 11:25,26

Paul, probably as a result of not knowing Christ ‘in the flesh’, was more receptive to the Holy Spirit regarding the mystery of Christ, and ministering to the Gentiles. Consequently, he made spiritual and conceptual progress beyond anything the other Apostles had ever known. Ultimately, it meant that those that sat under his teachings – the Antioch church – were able to so reproduce Christ in as to be referred to as ‘Christians’ in Antioch; something that had never happened before then, not even at Jerusalem where the Church was birthed.

What we are seeing here is that Paul, due to his special insight into the mystery of Christ, exposed the Antioch church to a level of teaching that was not available in the Jerusalem church. While the brethren at Judea were caught up in tradition and legalism, Paul and Barnabas took the Antioch church into the depths of the mystery of Christ, and revealed Christ to the Gentile world!

This is the real danger in resisting the Holy Spirit: Spiritual blindness, and ultimately, limited fruitfulness.

Unless you can let go of what you think you know, and fully submit to the leadership of the Holy Spirit – abandoning religious legalism wherever necessary – you would definitely be unable to realize your full Christ potential in this life regardless of your best efforts.

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Mic.
Mic.
July 3, 2018 11:22 pm

Wwooooow. How can I get in touch with the writer of this article?

Ruth
Ruth
August 24, 2018 12:36 pm

This is an exposition of the truth