Proper names in Scripture (certainly the significant ones) were never bestowed casually or carelessly. Whether a person (e.g., Peter, “stone”), a nation (e.g., Israel, “having power with God,” or “God’s fighter”), or a place (e.g., Bethlehem, “house of bread”), a name bore spiritual significance. In similar fashion, the names and designations attributed to the New Testament church are meant to be more than verbal identifiers: each brings out some aspect of character, nature, or relationship enjoyed by the body as a whole or its individual members. Over the next several weeks, we will glance at some of the more significant names associated with the church, the first being “Christian.”
Meaning and Origins. The meaning of the term Christian is simple and obvious, “of Christ,” or “an adherent of Christ.” Perhaps, surprisingly, the term appears only three times in the New Testament in Acts 11:26; 26:28, and I Pet. 4:16. And perhaps equally surprisingly, the term apparently was not self-designated but was coined probably by Gentile outsiders for members of the church in Antioch: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26)—the verb “were called” suggesting that it was bestowed on the church by others. Furthermore, there is a good probability that the name was not intended to be complimentary, but indicative of the sectarian nature and insignificant status with which Christians were viewed. The second citing of the name also comes in a dismissive context when the Gentile King Agrippa rejected Paul’s message of the gospel, saying, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts. 26:28). The third citation may be found in the midst of Peter’s encouragement to stand against persecution by the Roman (Gentile) government: “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (I Pet. 4:16). And once again, the term is associated with a negative connotation (“ashamed”).
Significance. What a marvelous designation the term Christian is then.
(1) Having originated with Gentiles and being used in each of its three citations in relation to Gentiles, the term reminds us of the distinction between Israel and the church. It suggests, however indirectly, that God’s dealings ceased to be exclusively to and through Israel. It reminds us that the church is made up of Gentiles as well as of Jews.
(2) Having originated as a dismissive, if not derisive, term, the name Christian reminds us that the world will never embrace true Christianity. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” and, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” Christ said (John 16:33; 15:18). “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” (I Cor. 1:18). Though bestowed in derision and still often used in scorn, the term Christian should be borne with honor. As Christ was misunderstood, derided, and persecuted, so has been the true church throughout its history, and believers must expect to be so treated.
(3) Finally, we should not miss the fact that the name is a name preeminently of relationship. Only by implication does it suggest issues of doctrine or practice. The name points directly to the Son of God, the Savior and Head of the church. Those who would speak only in scorn of Christianity must nevertheless breathe the name of the One who died to deliver them from sin and hell when they hiss out that name, Christian. The word they choose for swearing, the word they otherwise spit out through clenched teeth, they speak when they identify poor sinners just like themselves who have been saved by the blood of Christ. They must use that name despite their hatred for Him and those who follow Him in truth. Yet, the believer gladly “nameth the name of Christ” and rejoices to share the name of his Lord and His Savior and to think that Christ Himself “is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb. 2:11).
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