Despite their ubiquity in today’s world, the words “Christian” or “Christians” appear only three times in the entire Bible: Acts 26:28; I Peter 4:16 and Acts 11:26. The last listed verse tells us that it was not until Paul’s day that the term was attached to those who followed Christ: “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch,” (Acts 11:26).
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was situated about 300 miles north of Jerusalem in the Roman province of Syria. The time was around 46 AD, more than a decade after Yeshua (Jesus) had been resurrected. I. Howard Marshall, writing in his commentary on Acts, tells us this: “The verb were called implies in all probability that ‘Christian’ was a nickname given by the populace of Antioch, and thus ‘Christ’ could well have been understood as a proper name by them, even if at this stage the Christians themselves still used it as a title…It is likely that the name contained an element of ridicule.” Marshall then cites the other two NT instances of use (see above) as examples of this.
Of course “Christ” was not Jesus’ “last name.” “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew Mashiach meaning “Anointed One.” He was Yeshua meaning “Y-H-V-H saves” (cf. Matthew 1:21). Jesus was the Anointed One through whom God would save mankind. It is also the masculine form of yeshu’ah meaning “salvation” (David H. Stern).
Peter writes, “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,” (I Peter 4:15-16). Of this reference, and the other in Acts, commentator Alan M. Stibbs writes, “The name Christian was first given to believers in Jesus as a nickname by Gentile onlookers…The name was used by Agrippa in scorn (see Acts 26:28). It is its unfriendly use that is clearly here in mind. Obviously, in some circumstances, the very fact of thus being known as a Christian was enough to bring upon the bearer of such a name social obloquy or ostracism or possibly official persecution.”
In the days of the apostles, the term “Christian” was anything but complimentary. It was not the name by which believers referred to themselves, except for the way Peter does it in I Peter 4:16. Nonetheless, the name stuck and it has become the name most commonly used for followers of Christ.
It must be remembered that in its beginnings, what we now call “Christian” was a wholly Jewish movement. The teaching language of Jesus was Hebrew. His “disciples” were his talmidim – students. Jesus taught them as a Jewish rabbi, not as a San Francisco-style hippie with an English accent (typical Hollywierd depiction). As David Stern writes, “The relationship between a talmid and his rabbi was very close: not only did the talmid learn facts, reasoning processes and how to perform religious practices from his rabbi, but he regarded him as an example to be imitated in conduct and character,” (The Jewish New Testament, Glossary, p. 374). Stern then offers Matthew 10:24-25; Luke 6:40, John 13:13-15 and I Corinthians 11:1 as evidence of this relationship between Jesus and his rabbinic students.
Jesus also viewed his talmidim as his havarim – his friends (John 15:13-14).
As a group, Jesus’ followers had a number of names. It must be remembered that they were a wholly Jewish movement operating within mainstream Judaism. In the New Testament we see references to the “sect of the Sadducees” (Acts 5:17); the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5) and the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). A “sect” is a religious party. Jesus’ party was the sect of the Nazarenes. Like the other sects, it involved a well-known rabbi, his teachings and his example. More than anything, what Jesus raised up was a movement within first century Judaism. During his lifetime, Jesus and his followers participated in local synagogues and in Temple services. In his early life, Jesus had studied with the sages of his day (Luke 2:42).
Some times Jesus’ followers were referred to as “The Way” movement (Acts 19:23). But there is a broader, bigger, more powerful way to think of the Way, or the Sect of the Nazarenes: the Kingdom movement. This picture most accurately projects who and what Jesus actually was – and is. As Dwight Pryor writes, “The importance of the Kingdom message for Jesus…can scarcely be overestimated. In his preaching, he proclaimedthe Kingdom; in his teaching, he explained the Kingdom; in his parables, he illustrated the Kingdom; and in his healings and deliverances Jesus demonstrated the present, powerful and inbreaking Kingdom of Heaven.
“In short, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and he personified it. Surely the disciples that bear his name and share his mission can do no less?
“Regrettably, a survey of church history past and present reveals a significant discrepancy in this regard. The Church has always proclaimed Christ – but Christ continually proclaimed the Kingdom!” Unveiling the Kingdom of Heaven by Dwight A. Pryor, p. ix.
It is commonly taught in some circles that a kingdom must have four prerequisites: king, territory, laws and subjects. This is incorrect – it does not require territory.
Secondly, it is commonly taught that the Kingdom of God is futuristic, not present. This notion is also incorrect; it is both present and future.
The subject of the Kingdom of God (or Heaven – a euphemism for God) deserves a larger treatment than this brief article allows. God willing, we will address it more fully, from a Hebraic perspective, in a separate article.
Once the community of believers had grown under its Jewish leadership to the point where it could organize, the synagogue provided the model for the early congregations. Modern Catholic and Protestant churches bear little resemblance to the original first-century congregations of believers. Once gentile leaders took over the Church, all things Jewish began to disappear. Church architecture changed dramatically. Church government and organization emerged along authoritarian Roman lines. The liturgy changed. Ministers became “priests.” Sunday worship replaced Sabbath meetings. Just about every aspect of life was brought under the purview of the Church.
Before we get too far afield, let’s return to our original question: what is a Christian? Being in, or going to, a church building or service, doesn’t make one a Christian any more than being in a garage makes one an automobile. The use of “Christian” was originally an outsider’s term – something unbelievers called believers. Today, it should mean those who seek to understand and follow the example and teachings of Yeshua the Anointed One. What makes one a part of the body of Christ – the Church – is not what one believes, or one’s denominational affiliation. It is the possession of the Holy Spirit which God gives to those who obey him (Acts 5:32).
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized [immersed] by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were given one Spirit to drink,” (I Corinthians 12:12-13). It is the Spirit of God that makes us a part of the Body of Christ – Christians.
It is not our nationality, ethnicity, religious affiliation, doctrine and dogma, economic or social status, occupation or denomination that makes us truly Christian. It is the possession of the Spirit of God and our willingness to submit to its influence that makes us authentic Christians. We are how we live, not what we believe. We are Christians if we live as Christians.
“Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness,” (II Timothy 2: 19). That’s an authentic Christian.