What does it mean to be called “Christians”? (Acts 11:19-26)

What does it mean to be a Christian?  I am sure there are as many answers to that question as there are people in this room.  Some would define being a Christian as accepting to certain beliefs [img], others might say it is going to church [img], and still others might mention something about Jesus [img].  Today we are looking at a passage of Scripture in which the followers of Jesus are first called Christians, and as we look at this passage I hope it will broaden our understanding of what it means to be a Christian [img].As we encounter this story, we learn that a number of people who followed the teaching of Jesus have been scattered by a persecution.  This passage is building upon a story that happened earlier in Acts 6-8 where Stephen, one of the deacons, had been stoned to death [img].  As a result of this death, a great persecution occurred and all who identified with Jesus were the victims of hostility and mistreatment.  A persecution is a difficult experience.  The verbal form of the word, to persecute, means to crush or squeeze or press.  It is a term used for pressing the juice out of olives or grapes, of for making flour from wheat [img].  Visually, this stirs up a great picture of placing something between two solid, unbending plates and watching for the outcome.

 

And that is what is going on here.  These followers of Jesus are finding themselves placed between the crowds with their desire to be faithful to Judaism on the one side, and Satan and his desire to destroy the people of God on the other.  And such a reality feels like a pressing, there is no escape. [img]  There is no way out except by being destroyed.  That is a persecution.  And that leads us to the first lesson about being a Christian.  Christians are persecuted because they are united to Christ. (John 15:20) “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  Do you suffer for your faith because you are a Christian? (lost jobs (story of Christian school teacher fired because started sharing Gospel with students), missed promotions, societal ridicule)

 

And so instead of waiting around to be destroyed, many people flee.  Some flee [img] a 140 miles north to Phoenicia, roughly modern day Lebanon, some run a bit further across the Mediterranean Sea to the island of Cyprus and still others head over 300 miles to Antioch, a major Jewish settlement, but far enough away from Jerusalem that the enemies probably won’t bother them.  And as they go, they share the message of Jesus with other Jews.  That takes guts.  Telling the message is part of what got them in trouble in the first place.  It was their ability to preach Jesus from the Scriptures that caused the persecution to break forth, but they don’t stop.  They keep preaching, telling other Jews about the Messiah.  And some especially brave souls, also declare the message to the Greeks as well.  This leads us to the second lesson about being a Christian.  God anoints Christians with a spirit of boldness in order to preach and make disciples. We are not a fearful people, (2Tim. 1:7) For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. And because he has given us power and love, we can (Mark 16:15) “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation”just as Jesus instructed his disciples to do.

 

And so as these folks are running across the countryside, they are confessing the name of Jesus, and [img] preaching the good news about what Jesus has done.  This is a grand missionary enterprise, orchestrated by God in order to take the good news from Jerusalem to the entire world.  By allowing this opposition, God has thrust his people into the world to minister and speak about Jesus.  What were they declaring? [img] The Book of Acts has a few examples of the message.

 

Peter declares to the crowd at Pentecost that Jesus was a man accredited by God to you by miracles…[he was] handed over to you…[who] with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.  But God raised him from the dead…exalted [him] to the right hand of God (Acts 2:22-24, 33).

 

Stephen recites the history of the Jews from Abraham to the Exodus and then declares the rebellion of the ancient people as being lived out again in the present generation.  Thus he declared their sin to them plainly saying: (Acts 7:52) was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him

 

But my favorite place where the Good News is described in a concise manner is in 1Cor. 15:1-4 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.  This is the core of the gospel.  It is the proclamation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. [img] Jesus is the gospel and there are benefits to this gospel that result in peace for the believer, strength for the believer, hope for the believer and the promise of a good future.  This is the message that was being declared to Jew and Greek.  This is what it means to (Rom. 10:9) confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [and so] you will be saved.

Have you preached the gospel to others?  That is what it means to be a Christian.

 

Christians also confess the name of the Lord wherever they happen to be.  That is the third mark of a Christian.  And when they do, they can be assured of a harvest and a successful missionary enterprise.  Why?  For two reasons, first Jesus has declared (John 4:35b) I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! [img] They are ripe for harvest.  There are plenty of people open to the good news of salvation in Christ.  There are more than 7 billion people alive today, certainly at least 1% of the people alive today are ready to hear the gospel, that is 70 million people.  That’s a lot of folks, if only 1% can be considered a ripe harvest field.

 

But the second reason we are assured of a successful missionary enterprise is that the Lord promises to bless is people and be with their work.  These fleeing Christians find success in preaching the Gospel because The Lord’s hand was with them (Act 11:21a).  It is the hand of the Lord that brings about the fruit of the ministry.  He is the one who changes hearts and opens minds.  He is the one who fulfills his promise and calls his people.  It isn’t human ingenuity or prowess.  It isn’t human effort or creativity that guarantees success; it is the hand of the Lord that guarantees the missionary enterprise.

 

So what does a successful missionary enterprise look like?  First it results in people presenting themselves as a sacrifice to the Lord.  Our passage says, a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21b).  Sure there is mental buy in the process of becoming a Christian, that is part of what belief requires, mental assent.  But there is something more for the Christian, and that is a turning to the Lord.  In the Scriptures there are two words often used about conversion.  The first is repentance, or the turning away from sin and the second is conversion, or turning towards God. We see them both in Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

 

The Christian not only abhors his sin and turns away from it like an Amish man shunning another, but he postures himself in the direction of God, eagerly desiring his presence, his face, his purposes and his plans.  This is what it means to present oneself to God as a living sacrifice.  It means turning towards the Lord and his desires.  As Isa 55:7 reminds us, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.” Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

 

When one understands the message of sin and redemption from sin available in Christ, then overflowing gratitude and thanksgiving wells up in the life of the Christian.   And it produces the fruit of righteousness.  Not only do Christians offer themselves to God, but they also strive against sin and the devil in life.  There is fruit.  Christians are fruitful people in the life of righteousness and holiness.  Verse 23 (Acts 11) tells us, “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all.”  Christians bear evidence of the work [img] of God in their life from the earliest point in their new life.  We aren’t told what the evidence is explicitly in this passage, but there is visible evidence of a change of life and perspective.  As one t-shirt I recently saw declared: Absence of evidence, is evidence of absence.  Is the evidence of Christ apparent in your life?

 

From other places in the scripture, we know that the fruit of salvation [img] is an avoidance of sin (1Tim. 6:11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.), a love for people (1John 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.), the fruit of the spirit (Col. 1:10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God).

 

Being a Christian then, is a whole life experience, not just a Sunday experience or a mental experience.  On the contrary, it is a complete experience involving heart, soul, mind and strength.  It takes effort, which is why Barnabas encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts (Acts 11:23b).  There is a word that doesn’t get translated into English in the NIV.  It is a word that speaks about the decision of the heart, or the purposes of the heart.  Barnabas is urging the new Christians to remain true to God with all the decisions of their heart.  The NRSV translates it this way, (Acts 11:23) …and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion.  The NET says it (Acts 11:23) …he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, and the Message says …got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives.

 

They were being urged to give everything they had to being fruitful land that bears a crop 30, 60, 100 fold, instead of withering in the heat, or falling away in hardship.  Have you turned to God?  Is he your greatest desire, the focus of your thoughts and the burning passion in your heart?  Is there fruit in your life that marks you as one of his?  Does your calendar reflect a usage of time to his glory and in his presence?  Does your pocket book declare, this too is the Lord’s?  Do your interactions with others evidence a life that avoids evil and rejoices in the truth?

 

If these things don’t mark your life: persecution and suffering for the gospel, the preaching of Christ and the confessing of his name, a turning to God in faith and a shunning of all things evil and the fruit of Christ in your life, then there is but one message that you need to hear this morning: Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come [to you] from the Lord (Acts 3:19).  If those 5 realities aren’t a part of your life, then it should give one pause as to whether they are truly a Christian or not.  For we are told very clearly in this passage that these 5 things marked those who first took the name of “Christian”.

 

 

This is what it means to be a Christian.  Daily striving to keep the heart and mind and body focused upon God and in submission to his leading.  And when these things are present, the title Christian adequately describes the person.  For they share in the suffering of Christ, being united to him in body and soul, they confess his name and preach the gospel fearlessly, seeing the success of their labor both in themselves and in others.  They desire the things of God, their prayers are more fully aligned with his will and plans and so fruitful praying occurs, as well as advancement in the life of righteous and holy love of God and humanity.

 

This is what it means to bear the name of Christ in the suffering and the blessing. As Peter reminds us, (1Pet. 4:16) “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” [img]

 

As your response to the message this morning, though I hope it is obvious there must be a continued response to the gospel in all of life, I invite you to two things this morning.  First we are going to recite together the answer to the 32nd Question of the Heidelberg Catechism, which asks, Why are you called a Christian?

 

Because by faith I am a member of Christ, and so I share in his anointing.  I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.

 

Secondly, I invite you to gather in groups of 4 around you and preferably not with anyone you are related to.  So husband, don’t gather with your wife and vice versa.  Scatter a little.  [Wait]

 

Now that you are in your groups, figure out who is the person with the birthdate closest to the number 22.  Raise your hand.  Great.  You are the one who will start your group in a time of prayer.  This is what I want you to do:

 

 

  1. Don’t share before hand, just start praying taking turns as you go around.
  2. One person will start with a simple prayer of confession of how they fail to bear the name of Christian. So maybe Jay will start praying, saying God,
    1. I struggle with confessing your name in all places, Or
    2. I haven’t turned toward you God completely, my pocketbook still belongs to me OR
    3. I haven’t seen the fruit of love in my life in a long time.
  3. The other three are going to then pray for their brother or sister as the Spirit leads them.
  4. Once each person has prayed for their brother or sister, the person on their right will confess and the cycle will start over until all 4 people have prayed and been prayed for.
  5. When the worship team has completed their cycle, they will lead us in a series of closing songs.
  6. Make sense?

 

 

 

Sermon Outline

  1. Member of Christ – Scattered & persecuted (Jn 15:20, Acts 6-8)
  2. Share his anointing – persecuted, preach and make disciples (2Tim 1:7, Mk 16:15)
  3. Confess his name – telling the message
    1. Good News Defined
  4. Success of Enterprise determined by God, not man
  5. Present self as Sacrifice to Lord – believed and turned.  Highlight turn to what
  6. Strive against sin and devil – evidence of the grace, active purposing of heart
    1. Character description of Barnabas tells us something about how to strive against…
    2. Results are always a harvest unto God.  This time in people, other times in righteousness…
  7. Called Christians
    1. Praise to bear the name 1Pt 4:16

 

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About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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