This is our fifth message in this series. One theme which has come up in each lesson thus far has been “worthiness.” It is not whether or not the lessons are worthwhile, because I am convinced that they are – to me if not to anyone else. Rather than “worthiness” the unintentional theme has been – “Are we worthy of these titles which the Lord has given to us.” By grace they do apply, but by simply looking at our lives, the answer might be quite different. Should we address each other as “saint,” or even “disciple so-and-so.” By our lives, are we worthy of the title “child of God?” And despite often using the designation “brother so-and-so” are we good brothers and sisters to one another?
Moving on, here is a theological question – This isn’t the same as our earlier question – “Are we worthy.” Do we have any Biblical precedent to call ourselves “Christians?” I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using that title to describe ourselves. But do we have any Biblical precedent or example?
Where and how did the term “Christian” begin?
We are clearly told that it first arose in Antioch, Syria. This was well after the days of John the Baptist or even the earthly ministry of Christ. And verse 26 tells us that “the disciples were called Christians.” That suggests that the disciples didn’t call themselves “Christians” – others did so. The redeemed of God called themselves either “brethren” or “disciples” – not “saints” and not “Christians.”
Antioch was a cosmopolitan community where Jew and Gentile, Greek, Roman, and what those two called, “Barbarians” rubbed shoulders on a regular basis. Some ancient records called Antioch the “Queen of the East.” Politically, geographically and economically it was far more important than Jerusalem and other major cities. “Christianity,” a word which isn’t found in the Bible, spread like a blessed virus from Jerusalem throughout the Jewish network around the Mediterranean – Damascus, Antioch, Corinth and Rome. Those Jews who were looking for the Messiah were being taught that Jesus of Nazareth is He. And those believers in Christ didn’t think of themselves as anything more than Jewish followers of Christ. They were His “disciples” – their faith had reached a new level; they were “believers.” But the term “Christian” did not come from them, it was applied to those believers by their Greco-Roman neighbors.
What did the Jews call the believers in Christ? Probably some of the names couldn’t be repeated in gentile society. But some were just silly – as in Acts 24 where the lawyer Tertullus was attacking Paul. Felix, “we have found this man a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” One of the names applied to Christ’s people by the Jews was “Nazarene.” And remember the common question, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Would a Jew call these heretics “Christians?” Absolutely not, because “Messiah” and its Greek equivalent “Christ” were sacred to them. To apply “Christian” to these people who have turned from their “Christ” would have been unthinkable. They might have been more prone to call the disciples “Galileans,” “Jesusians” or perhaps “Jesuits.”
In that foreign city, where the brethren were becoming more and more evangelistic, the heathen found it necessary to call them something. Eventually it became obvious that these people were not ordinary Jews, so something new was needed. And what was the theme of these people’s evangelism? Of Whom were they constantly talking? In the common language of the Mediterranean world, those people were always talking about and praising “Jesus Christ.” The Romans, following the example of the Greeks, called most political and religious groups by the name of their founder or leader. The Herodians were primarily Jews who had become more Greek than Hebrew, thoroughly caught up in Greek society, as King Herod had done. In Acts 17 Luke refers to “certain philosophers of the Epicureans.” These were the disciples of Epicurus, who was an atheist, teaching people to live for the moment. Also, the people who lived in Berea were called “Bereans;” the people of Judah were “Judeans.” The people of Corinth were “Corinthians,” and the citizens of Rome were “Romans.” These people who were constantly saying how Jesus Christ had redeemed them… These people who claimed to be disciples of Christ…. These people who said that they were expecting Christ to return to earth… would naturally be called “Christians” by the Greeks and Romans.
One of the scholarly commentaries that I have on Acts, was written by a Scot named Paton Gloag. On this verse he says, “The bestowal of the name is a proof of the great progress which Christian had made among the Gentiles. So long as Christianity was confined to the Jews and Jewish proselytes the Christian would not be distinguished from them, and would be regarded by the Gentiles as a Jewish sect; but now the fact that numerous Gentiles were received without circumcision into the church was proof that Christianity was different from Judaism; and thus the disciples could no longer be regarded in the same point of view as Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and other Jewish sects. Hence arose the necessity of a distinctive name; and no name could more appropriate than that of their great Founder.”
But what was the attitude of those unbelievers, when they called the disciples “Christians“?
A few of you are aware that Judy and I are no longer attending the meetings of the Inland Empire Philatelic Society – Spokane’s stamp club. I have hesitated to mention this for a multitude of reasons, but it is fitting illustration of this point. The club was forced out of its old meeting place, and a member arranged for us to meet at his lodge. The only time that I was there, I went through the front door – to be confronted by their wet bar. Off to the right was one meeting room, where there was a poker tournament getting underway. I turned left into the building’s second meeting hall. The bar extended right into the room where we were to meet, making alcohol available for a price. That night I told the leadership that Judy and I could not attend meetings which were being held in a tavern.
For years, the membership of our stamp club has known that Judy and I are Christians, and we have had opportunities to witness of the Lord as a result. There is a mixture of Protestants, Catholics, agnostics, atheists and even Hindus in the club. But there doesn’t seem to be a single person – out of nearly a hundred members – who understand our decision not to attend. A few people have tried to talk us into returning, but they don’t grasp the principles involved. One even suggested that if I received proper counseling, I might get over my problem with alcohol. I am sure that many of them think that I am a stubborn old fool. For some of them to call me either a “Christian” or perhaps a “Baptist” is not a compliment. And similarly, it was not a compliment in the days of the New Testament to be called a “Christian.” Many of the opinions against the Christians in both the 1st and 21st centuries are the same. If a “Christian” can’t go into a tavern to talk about postage stamps, then that kind of “Christian” is a fool. And with this, I go back to my earlier theological question – “Do we have any Biblical precedent to call ourselves ‘Christians?’”
The term “Christian” is found three times in the Bible. Our text is the first reference, and it merely states when and where the word was coined. It doesn’t say anything about WHY it came up or what it meant to the people who used it.
The second occurrence is found in Acts 26 where Paul was defending himself before the Romans. Festus was the Roman in charge, but the Herodian King Agrippa was invited to participate. When Paul began to speak, he addressed himself to Agrippa. “I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews: Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.” This wasn’t rhetorical flattery – Agrippa was an expert in the religious politics of the day. Paul then went on to describe how the Lord Jesus saved him and called him into the ministry. I don’t know how thoroughly he presented the gospel, but at one point Paul said, “Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.” With this Festus, the Roman, cried out, “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad.” But Paul turned to Agrippa and urged him to receive and believe the message of the prophets. “Then Aprippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadeth me to be a Christian.”
I have read, taught and preached from Acts 26:28 several times. And I have heard many messages which put the King’s words into a positive light. But over the years, I have become more convinced that Agrippa used the word in a derogatory way. He may or may not have been sincere – that is not the point. But he was saying, “You’ve almost convinced me to become one of those foolish disciples of Christ.” “Paul, thou art beside thyself.”
The third reference to the “Christians” comes from the pen of Peter, so it must be positive, right? When taken out of its context, it sounds like a complimentary reference, but is it really? “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” Peter was encouraging the saints in their struggles against an unbelieving world. ISBE, my Bible encyclopedia says, “First Peter belongs to a time, when the mere profession of Christianity was a crime in the eyes of the state….” That puts “Christianity” on a par with murderers and thieves. The Apostle says, if the persecution against you is because of your faith or stand for the glory of Christ, “happy are ye,” for “on your part (the Saviour) is glorified.” Don’t let any of you be known as murderers, thieves, evildoers or even busybodies. Then in the same breath, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” The world may rank “Christians” with “evildoers,” but, first, don’t give them a reason to do so, and yet when they do don’t let it bother you to be identified with Christ our Saviour.
In the time of the Bible, what was a Christian?
Apparently, he was a person contrary to society enough to identify himself with Christ – the Lord Jesus Christ. A “Christian” was a person who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that Christ is the Saviour. A “Christian” was not afraid to take up his cross and to follow Christ. A “Christian” was someone who lived according to the teachings of Christ Jesus. A “Christian” was a “disciple” in the fullest extent of the term – someone who was a “dyed-in-the wool,” and “die-in-the-flesh” adherent of Christ.
What about this idea – “A Christian is someone who does Christian stuff?” I’m not sure that I particularly like it. Because Biblical Christians were Christ’s people from the inside out – not just superficially. According to Wikipedia (this is a quote) “a Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.” I am not sure that I like that either, because he is not just an intellectual or emotional follower.
Biblically speaking isn’t a “Christian” someone so closely identified with Christ that he will be hated as Christ was hated? “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” Should we claim the title “Christian” if it isn’t in the same context as we find it in God’s word? If there is a church-goer who sees nothing wrong with entering the doors of a tavern, and therefore feels no animosity or persecution from the unbelieving world, does he deserve to be called a “Christian?” Should we identify ourselves as “Christians” if we aren’t like those we find in the Bible?