Acts 11:19-26 reads:
"Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he 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."
If you had to guess, how many times do you think the word Christian is used in the New Testament? One hundred times? Fifty? Twenty? Well, in actuality it is only used 3 times! It is used here in Acts 11:26 (as we've just read) as well as Acts 26:28 ("Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'You almost persuade me to become a Christian'"), and finally in I Peter 4:16 ("Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter"). Now, just because the word Christian is only used three times in the Scriptures doesn't mean that it isn't an important term. If the Bible only teaches a particular truth one time in its pages, that is enough to establish it. Even if the word Christian were only used once, that would be enough to justify our use of it today.
So, what is a Christian? If you conducted a worldwide poll of thousands of people regarding that question, I suspect you'd get a wide variance in answers. There is a wide range of ideas as to what constitutes a Christian. Of course, our interest should not be in how men define the term but how God defines it. We must let God, through His word, define religious terms and concepts for us if we want to have an accurate understanding of them.
In the passage we just read from Acts 11, I believe that the inspired writer Luke gives us a good, practical definition of what a Christian is. There are a dozen points that I'd like to emphasize from this context regarding what constitutes a Christian. As we reflect upon these points one at a time, ask yourself: Am I really a Christian (as the Bible uses the term)?
1. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO HEARS THE GOSPEL AND BELIEVES IT.
The ones who were scattered from Jerusalem (Acts 11:19-21) both heard and believed the gospel (cf. Acts 2). After some of these disciples came to Antioch, others were converted - "a great number believed and turned to the Lord." One who hasn't heard the pure gospel message cannot be a Christian. One who has heard it and not believed is also not a Christian. Additionally, those who claim to believe it mentally but fail to demonstrate faith in their lives are also not Christians. Mental belief only is not true faith (cf. John 12:42,43; James 2:14ff).
2. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO IS INDEBTED TO OTHERS SPIRITUALLY.
Those who were scattered brought the gospel message with them to Antioch. They "spoke...preaching the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:20). Had they instead remained in Jerusalem, there would have been no church in Antioch. If those who came to Antioch had remained silent and kept to themselves as individuals, there would have been no church in Antioch. In every place where there is a congregation, the people that constitute that body are indebted to someone for bringing the gospel to that community. The people in Antioch should have been, and no doubt were, grateful to those who brought the saving message to them. We should never forget those who have made it possible for us to have the gospel. The church here in Clinton, Illinois, for which I labor as an evangelist, has a debt to those who helped establish a congregation here back in the late 1950s and to those who have helped keep the Lord's name alive in this community over the past fifty years.
3. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO WANTS TO TEACH THE GOSPEL TO OTHERS.
Why do you think these disciples came to Antioch and taught others? I believe the answer is simple: they wanted to! They wanted to share the redemption they had found in Christ. The book of Acts is not just a book of history concerning the early church. It is not just a book of conversions. It is a glimpse into the lives of some early Christians who loved the gospel truth and wanted to share its redeeming message with others! Friends, one who is not interested in teaching the gospel to others is not really a Christian as defined by God.
4. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO TALKS THE BIBLE.
Those who were scattered came "speaking the word" (Acts 11:19, ESV). Admittedly, this point is similar to the prior one, but there is a subtle difference I want to note. The idea here is not so much about formal preaching (as we see in 11:20) but about simply talking about God's word in their conversations. Today, we talk about each other, about our families, about hobbies, about politics, about the weather, about sports, about our jobs, etc., but how often do we talk about the Bible? How often do we talk about God with our neighbors, co-workers, friends, family, and even other Christians outside the assembly?
5. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO IS NOT CONCERNED ABOUT WHO GETS CREDIT FOR GOOD THAT IS DONE.
There is only one person named explicitly in Acts 11:19-21, and he had nothing directly to do with getting the church established in Antioch. Well, who started the church in that city? We simply do not know! No name is given. However, this congregation in Antioch turned out to be an outstanding one. Is not the very silence of the Bible regarding the names of those who started the church in Antioch a rebuke to those who love preeminence today in God's church? What the church needs more of today is people who will work diligently and not care who gets the credit for it. In actuality, God got the credit for beginning the church in Antioch, and He is the only One we should be concerned about getting credit anyway (cf. Matt. 5:16)! Those who helped establish the church in Antioch don't have their names recorded in the books of history, but their names are certainly written in the Book of Life!
6. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO IS NOT A QUITTER.
Persecution no doubt caused some to become quitters (cf. Acts 11:19). Some who learned of Stephen's brutal death probably abandoned the faith. However, those who came to Antioch who were fleeing for their own safety did not muzzle the divine message. Even though the going got tough, they did not quit! Compare this mentality with those today who quit the church over almost anything.
7. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WITH A SUPREME PURPOSE.
Acts 11:22,23 mentions that Barnabas came and encouraged the disciples in Antioch. That is certainly one purpose for Christians--to be encouragers. However, what did he encourage them to do specifically? "That with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord." Isn't this the meaning of Matthew 6:33? When Jesus says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness", that encompasses a lot more than just attending the worship services and Bible studies of the local church! It includes everything that one does in life. Everything we say and do should be directing our lives toward seeking God's kingdom and His will first. Our lives need to be ruled by this supreme purpose as the life of Barnabas was.
8. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO HAS THE GRACE OF GOD SHOWING VISIBLY IN HIS LIFE.
Barnabas saw the grace of God in the lives of the disciples at Antioch (Acts 11:23). What does that mean? Did they have a miraculous aura around them? No. He could see the grace of God in their lives by means of their actions! They were evidently living dedicated, godly lives. That's what Christians do.
9. A CHRISTIAN IS A GOOD PERSON.
Luke describes Barnabas as a good man (Acts 11:24). Although no one is truly good in an absolute sense except God (Matt. 19:17), nevertheless, even today there are people we know that we consider to be good. Barnabas was full of faith and kindness. Have you ever known any mean or unkind Christians? Is this not a contradiction of terms?
10. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO ASSEMBLES WITH OTHER FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST.
According to Acts 11:26, Barnabas and Saul assembled with the church there for a year (and then they went on to other work elsewhere). Hebrews 10:25 also underscores the importance of assembling together - "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." This is one way we can grow in grace and knowledge (cf. Acts 2:42; II Pet. 3:18). The Christians at Antioch assembled. There are some who choose not to assemble when they can--are they really Christians?
11. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE WHO ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY.
If we read a little further in the context, we see "the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea" (Acts 11:29) in response to a widespread famine. Every disciple gave according to his ability. They did not seek to do as little as they could but as much as they could. Many today seem to think that a Christian is one who does as little as he can and does not take responsibility when he is able to do so. That's not what the Christians believed or practiced in Antioch.
12. A CHRISTIAN IS ONE IN THE LORD'S CHURCH.
There were no Christians in Antioch that were not members of the church--the Lord's church (Acts 11:26). There were no other churches at that time. The only church in existence was the one, true church that Jesus built. That is God's will for His world today also (that there be one church united on His word, John 17:20-23).
So, dear listeners, are you a Christian? Let's review the twelve above points briefly in a personal way. Have you heard the saving gospel message and believed it? Have you repented of your sins and been immersed into Christ for forgiveness (Acts 2:38)? If not, you are not a Christian. If so, do you realize the spiritual debt you owe to those who helped you obey the gospel? Do you want to teach the gospel to others and are you speaking about Jesus and His church in your daily conversations? If not, then you are not a Christian. Are you one who is concerned that you get recognized or honored for all the righteous deeds you perform? If so, then you are not a Christian. Are you one who forsakes the Lord when problems arise? If so, then you are not a Christian. Are you one who has a supreme purpose in life for God and are laboring to show His grace in your every word and deed? If not, then you are not a Christian. Are you trying to live a righteous life and gather with the saints as often as you can? If not, then you are not a Christian. Are you one who accepts responsibility and embraces opportunities that arise to do good? If not, then you are not a Christian. Are you a member of the church that Jesus built--the church that does not add to or take away from His word? If not, then you are not a Christian but likely a member of a man-made church.
Those disciples who went to Antioch, as well as those who resided there, are wonderful examples of what it means to be a Christian. How are you living up to the standard that has been set? Are you a Christian like those in Antioch were? If not, make changes today! Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.