By Brian Shilhavy
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
The name “Christian” carries a wide range of meaning and understanding today, as it has throughout history. It is obviously related to “Christ,” which is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” and refers to the person of Jesus Christ. A general definition of “Christian” then would be someone who follows the teachings or doctrine of Jesus Christ. The teachings of Jesus Christ are contained in the Bible, but how they are understood and what kind of people should bear the name “Christian” is highly debatable, and by no means universally accepted or understood.
It is interesting to note that the followers of Jesus during his lifetime on earth and shortly after did not refer to themselves as “Christians.” In the New Testament writings of the Bible, those who followed Jesus and his teaching referred to themselves as “disciples,” “believers,” “brethren,” and other similar terms. When they were gathered together in one place they referred to themselves as the “church,” which has a very different meaning in the way it was used in the Bible than it does in contemporary culture. It meant a gathering or assembly of people for a specific purpose. The word was used not only in a religious sense, but also in a secular sense such as in Acts 19:39 where the word is translated as a legal “assembly” in relation to the Roman government. The focus is on the people and their gathering together, not on the place or building they gathered in, or in some organization or institution, as the word has come to mean in contemporary culture.
The original disciples and followers of Jesus were all Jews. Therefore in the very early stages of the development of church gatherings in and around Jerusalem, which grew at a rapid rate where sometimes thousands of people were added to the assemblies at one time, the disciples were seen as a sect, or branch, of the Jewish religion which centered around the teachings of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the disciples were referred to as the sect of “the Nazarenes” by those who opposed them, because Jesus and many of the original disciples came from Nazareth. It was believed that no prophet or person of note would ever come from that area of Israel, so it was a negative term used by those who opposed the early believers. But they were still viewed as Jews.
All of that quickly changed, however, when non-Jews began believing in Jesus and joining the assemblies, and even starting their own assemblies. Non-Jews were called “Gentiles.” The first large assembly that quickly grew of mainly non-Jews was the one in Antioch. To refer to these believers as a sect of the Jewish religion or “Nazarenes” was no longer appropriate. Hence, the people living in that area began calling them “Christians.” It does not appear that the believers themselves were using this term: it appears that it was used by those outside the church, to distinguish them from Jewish believers. It is likely that like “Nazarenes,” the name “Christian” was used negatively.
Besides Acts 11:26, the word “Christian” is only used in two other places in the Bible. One is in Acts 26, when Paul is being held prisoner by the Roman Governor Festus before going to trial in Rome, and he appears before the Jewish King Agrippa and eloquently defends his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. King Agrippa then asks Paul: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) Since the term “Christian” seemed to be only used for Gentile believers, the Jewish King’s question could be interpreted as a question of denying his Jewish faith. Paul does not give a direct yes or no answer, but instead replies: “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29) He basically avoids the term “Christian” altogether, since in his defense he mentions how strictly he adhered to the conservative form of the Jewish religion as a member of the Jewish Pharisee party. To “become like Paul” in this context therefore was to be like a strict conservative religious Jew who had accepted Jesus as his Messiah.
The final occurrence of the name “Christian” appears in 1 Peter chapter four. In this chapter the apostle Peter is explaining to believers that those who follow Christ will suffer hardships, and that this is normal. He draws a distinction between those who suffer simply from associating with Christ even though they have done nothing wrong, and those who suffer because they commit offenses against others. He writes:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12-16)
It would appear that within this context, again it is those who are opposing the believers that are using the name “Christian.” But Peter says that in such a situation we should not be ashamed of the name, since it includes the name of Christ. We should praise God in such a situation.
So should believers of Jesus Christ today use the name “Christian” to describe themselves, even though the earliest disciples did not? There is probably no right or wrong answer to that question. The answer really depends on what one wants to communicate by using such a name, and how the people you are communicating with understand the meaning of the name. The name “Christian” is understood in many different ways, especially among various cultures and languages around the world, since there is so much history and politics associated with the name. One should consider carefully how the name is understood within their particular context and culture.
Of much greater importance is the issue of what Jesus himself thinks about the use of names and associations. As I have pointed out in other devotionals, there is a vast difference between knowing about someone and truly knowing that person through personal association. One can say, for example, that they know the President of the United States, because they know the President’s name and know some things about the President and the political party the President is associated with. Such knowledge comes from reading what others have written, or listening to what other people have said about the person. The number of people who “know” the President this way could well number in the hundreds of millions, if not billions of people. But the people who truly know the President through personal association, who have actually met the President and spent time with the President, would be a far smaller number by comparison.
Knowing Jesus is the same way. Jesus strictly warned people that those who only know about him, including religious people, will have no place in his eternal kingdom:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Just as there are very many people who know about the President of the United States but only a few people who truly know the President, so it is with Jesus. Bearing the name of “Christian” or believing in a certain doctrine will not impress Jesus when you meet him in eternity after your physical death, if that is the first time you are meeting him. Even those who live “good” lives and try their best to follow the teachings of Jesus and the Bible will not impress Jesus. Only those who truly know Jesus will enter into his eternal kingdom, and Jesus himself said that the numbers who enter will be few:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Notice in the passage above how Jesus describes those who truly know him: “but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Jesus himself was the perfect example of someone who only did the will of his Father in Heaven, and never did things to serve his own self-interest:
I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does….. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (John 5:19,30)
There is a God who is the Creator of the world, and who also created you. He has a specific will for your life. Everyone is either learning to follow God’s will for their lives, or following their own personal interests while ignoring God. Jesus knew God perfectly and perfectly followed his will. Those who know Jesus and are his disciples are in the process of learning how to deny themselves and their own personal agendas, and how to follow God’s will and plan for their lives.
Do you know Jesus? Are you one of his disciples? This question is far more important than what label you carry, or what other people call you. To know Jesus, we first have to meet him. We do this spiritually, by being born again spiritually. To learn more about the spiritual rebirth, read the foundational article here. Once we meet Jesus, our personal agendas in life need to be given up and laid at the feet of Jesus as a sacrifice, so that as disciples of Jesus we wait for his instructions to accomplish the will of God in our lives. Our will is sacrificed for his. We will find true health and fulfillment the closer we draw to him and follow his plan, as we get to know him better and remain in his presence each day accomplishing his will!
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
This is my command: Love each other. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:4-19)