Called Christians

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…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 11:26b NIV)

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 NIV)

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Pet 4:16 NIV)

The word “Christian” is found three times in the Bible (see passages above). Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that “Christian” is “a word formed after the Roman style, signifying an adherent of Jesus.” He also writes that “the ‘Christians’ do not seem to have adopted it for themselves in the times of the apostles” but that “as applied by Gentiles there was no doubt an implication of scorn,” which would be consistent with Peter’s encouragement to suffer “as a Christian” without shame. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the end of the first century, wrote that “The vulgar [low or common people] call them Christians.” Because of Peter’s encouragement, and the persecution associated with the word, from the second century onward the term was accepted by believers as a title of honor.

The “adherents” or followers of Jesus had not always been known as Christians. In the early days of the church they were called disciples (students or followers, as in Acts 11:26 above), believers (or those who believed, Acts 2:44, 4:32), the church (assembly, Acts 5:11, 8:1), the way (or those belonging to the way, Acts 9:2, 24:14), and perhaps other things. The most common designation found in Acts for those who followed Jesus is “disciple.” Indeed, in Acts 11:26 it was “disciples” who were called “Christians,” and this is the word used most often in the gospels and by Jesus himself to describe those who would seek him and obey him (note Jesus’ statements in Luke 14:26, 27, 33, John 8:31, 13:35, 15:8 about being his disciple). Indeed, the “great commission” includes the instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matt 28:19 NIV).

Considering what Jesus instructed his disciples to do, and the order in which he put things, “make disciples,” “baptize them,” “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Matt. 28:20), it might seem possible that some would be made disciples, and yet not be baptized or learn how to obey Jesus. Indeed, there are examples somewhat like this in Acts in the cases of Apollos and the 12 disciples in Ephesus (Acts 18:24-26, Acts 19:1-7). Apollos was one who “taught about Jesus accurately” and yet he didn’t understand the baptism that Jesus had commanded (Acts 18:25). He believed in Jesus, and taught about him, but his own knowledge was deficient in significant ways and he was in need of further explanation of the way of God (18:26).

Then again, the twelve disciples Paul encountered later in Ephesus are identified as disciples, and believers (Acts 19:1-2). Still, they didn’t know anything about the Holy Spirit, and hadn’t received the baptism of Jesus (though they had received John’s baptism). Paul clarified the roles of Jesus the Christ and John the Baptizer for them (19:4) and then they were baptized with Jesus’ baptism, and through Paul’s hands were given gifts of tongues and prophecy. In one sense these men in Ephesus were already followers of Jesus (disciples) but there was something lacking for them both in their knowledge and in their experience to be fully identified with his name. There have been, and are, those who are “believers” and “disciples” of Jesus, students and followers, but still have not followed through with being baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus (whether through lack of knowledge or misunderstanding), or do not understand Jesus’ authority or have not received God’s Spirit, his seal of ownership (Acts 2:38, 2 Cor. 1:21-22). There is a need for such to be honestly approached, as was Apollos by Aqulla and Priscilla, and the twelve by Paul. The proper progression in making disciples, Jesus said, is “baptize them and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” In Acts, Luke identified some as disciples and believers who needed help in these areas. They were given help with respect and concern, acknowledging the progress they’d already made, and supplying information they needed in what seems to be a positive and encouraging way.

There are many today who pursue discipleship with incomplete information or faulty instructions, perhaps similar to the situation of Apollos or those disciples in Ephesus. They need Christians who know to deal with them from a standpoint of knowledge and respect as well.

And what is a Christian? As Luke uses the word in Acts 11:26, a Christian is a disciple. As Agrippa used the word in Acts 26:28, a Christian is one who is persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, having fulfilled the prophecies of Moses and the later prophets concerning the life, suffering, and resurrection of the messiah (Acts 26:22-27). Paul accepted the word as an apt description of what he himself was, and others should be (Acts 26:29). As Peter used the word in 1 Peter 4:16, a Christian is one of “God’s elect… strangers in the world… chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” (1 Peter 1:1-2). Only one who is a disciple of Jesus should be identified as a Christian. But not all disciples are Christians. Only one who is persuaded that Jesus is the Christ who died for our sins and was raised according to the scriptures should be identified as a Christian. But not all who believe in Jesus are Christians. Only one chosen by God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, sprinkled with his blood, and living for obedience to Christ should be identified as a Christian. And all those so described are Christians. What Peter described in those few words of his introduction are the summation of what a Christian is. This is what Apollos was informed of, what the twelve Ephesian disciples accepted and conformed to, and what Agrippa understood was being asked of him, but refused to embrace. This is what Paul was (note how it began, Acts 22:14-16, Acts 9:15-18), and what we should be, and persuade others to become.

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