The Birth of the Term Christian


Acts 11:25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (NKJV)


The time is about A. D. 42 or 43. It is now about 10-12 years since Christ was crucified and His church started. Jerusalem was established from the beginning as the church for the Jews. However, when Stephen was stoned to death many of the new believers fled Jerusalem for other parts of Judea and lands beyond. 

Several groups of believers came together to organize a second major center for the new movement, called “The Way”. This second major center would be in Antioch, Syria, located 480 miles north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast. Present day, the ruins of Antioch lie near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. These believers came from Antioch, as well as from the south in Phoenicia, from the west on the Island of Cyprus, and from as far away as Cyrene, Libya on the African coast, some 1500 miles by land and about 1,000 miles by sea. 

It seems that Antioch was chosen because of its demographics. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, with some 200,000 inhabitants. The city, in its day, has been compared to Paris, France. Antioch was also a resort city since the Mediterranean Sea was only fifteen miles to the west. 

It is not known how long it took for this church in Antioch to flourish, but it could have been as long as 10-12 years. Gentiles seemed to be predominant in Antioch, but there was also a large Jewish population. The Jews in Antioch were referred to as Hellenists because they were Greek speaking. Hellenists consisted of Jews from birth along with Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. 

Now, in A. D. 42-43, the church in Antioch is flourishing. It is considered to be the first Gentile church. It is the major church to the Gentiles, just as the church in Jerusalem is the major church to the Jews. 

Recognizing its emergence, the church in Jerusalem had sent Barnabas to help, and he was instrumental in its growth. Now Barnabas is thinking of the one he had sponsored to the church in Jerusalem, Saul. 

Saul, the Hellenist Jew who had once persecuted “The Way”, had been sent back home to Tarsus some two to three years ago when the Jews in Jerusalem tried to kill him. Tarsus is only about 150 miles by land north of Antioch. After converting Saul on the road to Damascus. the Lord had called Saul to minister to the Gentiles. He would be the perfect fit. 

So Barnabas went to Tarsus and brought Saul back to the church in Antioch (vv. 25-26a). Barnabas and Saul worked with the church for a whole year and “taught a great many people” (v. 26b). Saul, later named Paul, would, in 3-4 years, be sent out as a missionary by this very same church in Antioch. 

It was here, in Antioch, that the believers in Christ were first called Christians (v. 26c). The word “Christian” in the Greek is “Christianos”, which means “Christ follower”. The term was likely introduced as a derogatory term by the Romans. 

The words “Christian” or “Christians” are only found three times in the Bible; here, in Acts 26:28, and in 1 Peter 4:16. It has come to be the best term to identify those of us who have decided to be Christ followers. 

Art Toombs Ministries 

Online Bible Commentary