In the book of Acts, the Apostles chose seven men to serve, and amongst them was “Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5). This is a very interesting passage. The context was making sure the needs of the Hellenistic Jews as well as the Hebraic Jews were met, and of the Jews that were chosen, Nicholas was a proselyte; one who converts from one religion to another. The word here does not mean here that Nicholas was a convert to Christianity but that he converted from paganism to Judaism. At this point, there was no religion called “Christianity”; there was Judaism with its different sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes etc.) and the pagan religions of the Roman Empire.
In the Book of Acts, the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were called “of the way” (Acts 9:2), “the Jews that believed” (Acts 10:45) or “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), and viewed as a sect of Judaism. Jesus was called “the Nazarene” (Matt 26:71) and Paul was accused before the High Priest of being a ring-leader of the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). “Nazarene” was also the term used by the Jewish lawyer Tertullus in Acts 24 who stated the case of the Jews against Paul, in the presence of Felix. A Nazarene at this time was simply a Jew that followed Jesus.
The disciples were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26) where something new was happening. Gentiles were starting to believe, too. To fully understand this statement, one needs to look at the context in which it was said. All of Acts 10 and 11 are about a sovereign act of God where the Gentiles are brought into the kingdom just as had been prophesied from the beginning, and it is into this context that the term “Christian” is used.
Acts 10 is where Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a man described as devout and God-fearing had an angel of the Lord appear to him and tell him to send for Peter and so he did. Independently, Peter has a vision from God and understood that it applied to salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34). This was nothing ‘new’ but God’s plan from the beginning [see Genesis Chapter 12 i.e. “in you all the nations [Gentiles] of the world will be blessed”]. Cornelius’ servants arrive and Peter heads to Cornelius’ house with them with other Jewish believers from Joppa. They walk in and find a huge crowd of Gentiles already there. As Peter is telling Cornelius about Jesus, the Spirit falls on all the Gentiles present (Acts 10:44). This is not about a sect of Judaism deciding whether Gentiles should or should not be included, but God doing what He said He would do from when He first called Abraham. Acts 15 addresses the details of inclusion (which incidentally is no different than the requirements of Gentiles living amongst Jews as outlined in Leviticus 17 & 18).
[Gentile Christians were not required by the Jewish believers to undergo circumcision or keep Kosher, but to “keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled and from sexual immorality”. This was the SAME requirement as Gentiles living among Jews under the Law. So nothing changed. Leviticus 17 & 18 lists these *same* things for “anyone from the house of Israel (Jews) or the foreigners living among you (Gentiles)”.]
The first 25 verses of Acts Chapter 11 is about the Gentiles coming to faith; it starts with Peter being questioned as to his interaction with non-Jews and him talking about them coming to faith. It then goes on to talk about the men of Cyprus and Cyrene who went to Antioch and spoke to the Greek-speaking non-Jews (i.e. Gentiles) and that many came to believe and then it goes on to say that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem heard about it and sent Barnabas, a Jewish believer from Jerusalem to Antioch to check it out. Barnabas went and found that indeed, the Gentiles there had become believers and encouraged them to remain faithful. He went to Tarsus to get Saul, who was also a Jewish believer and brought him to Antioch and they taught together. It’s not that Jews in Antioch didn’t also come to believe but that’s not discussed in this passage. The subject of all of Acts 10 and the preceding verses of Acts 11 is about Gentiles coming to believe and it is into this context that the term “Christian” is first used by Gentiles (Romans) to refer to these new Gentile believers at Antioch. The term “Christian” was also used by King Agrippa (11 BC – 44 AD) when addressing Paul, who after being brought before Felix (Acts 24) for being ”a ringleader of the Nazarenes”, this new Jewish sect, was then brought before him.
[Note: Agrippa was a Herodian king, but not raised a Jew. His grandfather, Antipater the 2nd was an Idumean (Edomite) convert to Judaism and his father, Herod the Great (74/73 BCE – 4 BCE) embraced the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. Herod the Great is also the one that had all baby boys of Bethlehem executed (Matthew 2:16) as he feared that Jesus might supplant his political headship.]
So, if you ask me if I am a Christian, I say ‘no’ because I am a Jew who believes, not unlike the early Nazarenes.
When you ask me when I converted, I say I didn’t, because I didn’t. I am still a Jew; just like the early Nazarenes. We are not proselytes to anything.
Just so I am not misunderstood in any way, Jewish believers and Gentile Christians are full and equal partakers in the kingdom. I am not better for being a Jew who believes nor are Gentile Christians in any way inferior. Jewish believers and Gentile Christians are equal, yet distinct just as men and women are equal in every way before God, yet distinct.
How that distinction is expressed (whether as woman amongst men or a Jew amongst Gentiles); doesn’t set one above others nor is it divisive. It is simply being who we are, who God created us to be.