For the second time in Acts we are reminded of Stephen’s death – a death so instrumental in the growth of the Church. Stephen had taught that God was not limited to the temple or Jerusalem instead God was present wherever his Word was being spoken which now was wherever Jesus was proclaimed. Luke has told us previously that the persecution following Stephens’ death caused the gospel expansion from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria now we will learn how the same event also resulted in the first stage of the gospel’s expansion to the ends of the earth.
When Stephen was killed, those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Luke tells us that they spoke only to Greek-speaking Jews. But some men from Stephen’s synagogue – men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had learned Stephen’s theology – went to Antioch and began to speak to Gentiles as well! Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire. Wonderfully the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. We are told that the followers of the Way were first called Christians at Antioch. This was the name given to them by unbelieving Gentiles meaning followers of Christ – not a bad name!
This passage also introduces us again to Barnabas. In Acts 4 we were told that a Levite called Joseph, a native of Cyprus, had sold a field which belonged to him and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. This man, Joseph, was renamed by the Apostles as Barnabas meaning ‘son of encouragement’. Barnabas is a Greek-speaking Jew like Stephen and presumably knew Stephen. When the conversion of Gentiles in Antioch reaches the ears of the church at Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to Antioch – appropriate as the mission in Antioch had been led by Barnabas’ fellow-countrymen from Cyprus and Cyrene. Barnabas saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. We are told he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. The encouraging character of Barnabas is also evident in his going to Tarsus to find the murderer of his friend Stephen to bring Saul to Antioch. Why did he do this? Because he felt that Saul would be good for teaching and proclaiming Jesus among the Greek-speaking Church in Antioch.
We can thank God for these men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had learned Stephen’s theology that God was not limited to the Jerusalem temple and who took the gospel to the Gentiles in Antioch. Their actions resulted in us being called Christians – followers of Christ.