The two important historical factors
Two important historical factors affect the proper interpretation of Acts 11:
The Gentile Expansion of the Church
- The book of Acts begins in earnest by Jesus promising that His disciples would be His witnesses to the ends of the earth (1:8). This promise certainly indicates that the Gospel’s expansion would extend beyond the walls of Jerusalem and past any ethnic barriers. However, for the first five chapters of Acts, the setting of the narrative and thus the Gospel activity was localized in Jerusalem almost exclusively. The Holy Spirit had arrived as promised and powerful teaching and ministry occurred as a result (2:1-41), yet in some ways the story did not change. The followers of Christ still seemed marred by disobedience. In some ways, the first five chapters of Acts is not a picture of a church faithfully accomplishing its mission. It instead is a picture of disobedience and failure to grasp fully the implications of Jesus’s command.
- The first impact of the Gospel and the church’s teaching beyond Jerusalem, even if only in neighboring Jewish villages, is reported in Acts 5. Not by the disciples’ strategic planning or intentional action, but as a result of the powerful hand of God first in the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) and then through the “signs and wonders” done through the apostles (5:12), many who were physically and spiritually sick came to the church for healing (5:16). Nonetheless, the ministry of the church had broken out. The expansion of the Gospel happened in a more substantial way a few chapters later when those who were scattered as a result of the persecution of the Jerusalem Church after the martyrdom of Stephen proclaimed the Gospel in Samaria (8:4). Finally, despite the reluctance of Peter to preach, the Gentile side of the church’s mission occurred in the most concentrated way in the Roman-influenced city of Caesarea by the Sea. A “mini Pentecost” occurred among Cornelius’s (who was a Roman Centurion) household (10:44-48). This happened to show that in the Gospel the Gentiles received the same salvation as the Jews and thus were equally a part of the church.
The Use of “tian” in Roman Society
- Evidence suggests that originally Christ followers referred to themselves as followers of Christ and what became known as “Christianity” or “the Way.” The Latin ending ianus was used in Roman society to designate one who followed or was like another. The usage of such a designation may have been quite common. “The term (Chritianoi) consists of the Greek word for Christ/Messiah (Christos) with the Latin ending ianus, meaning belonging to, identified by.” Therefore, the designation “Christians” became common in Roman territories to refer to disciples or followers of Christ.
- The designation “Christian” only occurs twice in the New Testament other than the passage under consideration – Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. In all three locations, scholars believe the occurrence was not a self-identification. In other words, outsiders called the followers of Christ “Christians.” “In all three instances, it is a term used by outsiders to designate Christians. Evidently, the term was not used originally by Christians referring to themselves.” As a result, apparently the term signaled something observable concerning those who were given the label.
To sum up the historical context of Acts 11, Luke wrote this account as a portion of the promise-command of Jesus that the disciples would carry his message outside the walls of Jerusalem and beyond the Jews only. More specifically, perhaps this particular section of narrative is the summation of the first major wave of the Gentile mission and is the culmination of the church’s evangelistic mission, occurring as a result of the persecution of Acts 8 (11:19). Furthermore, the disciples in the church at Antioch had become outwardly and recognizably “like Christ.” As the setting indicates and if scholarship is correct, the Antiochian Church did not give themselves the label “Christians.” Thus the usage of the term shows they were publicly identified as followers of and displaying the attitude of Christ. And, much of this identification occurred as a result of the public teaching ministry of Barnabas and Saul among the gathered church (Acts 11:26).
 John B. Pohill, Acts, The New American Commentary, vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 273.