Word Study: Christian
What is a “Christian”? What does the word mean in Scripture? It is used quite often in a variety of settings, but does the Word of God use it the way people today do?
The word is only used three times in the New Testament: Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16. Each time it means the same thing. It is a noun, basically a title that defines a person. Since it is only used three times, its first usage is important so that the definition can be applied properly.
Uses of the word “Christian”
I. Acts 11:26, : “…For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” ESV
The background is very important to the meaning of the word “Christian” here, so please be sure to read the entire passage, Acts 11:19-30. Essentially, Saul (Paul) and Barnabas are ministering at the church in Antioch for a full year, teaching people the Word of God. Paul is the main teacher.
The result of their ministry, and the Word of God, is that the people become known as “Christians” first in Antioch.
There are three things to notice here:
1. Christian comes from the word “Christ”, and simply means one who is following and imitating Christ. This gives it an especially exclusive and high designation.
2. Being “called” Christians does not come from the followers of Christ, but from the people outside of the church. In other words, it is not a self-designation, but one that is given to the Believers in Antioch who could see the way the church people were living. It may or may not have been a complimentary title. Jesus warned his followers that they would not be loved by the world in John 15,16.
3. Antioch was where this title was coined “first”, but it spread around the Roman world. Antioch eventually became an important center of missionary work and spread of the Church.
Q: Knowing that this is the first way the word “Christian” was used, what does that mean for people today who call themselves “Christians”?
II. Acts 26:28, : “And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” ESV
In this passage the Apostle Paul is giving an answer for himself regarding some accusations by Jewish leaders. He is standing before King Agrippa, who is a non-believer and considered wicked by many. He listens to Pauls defense, and then proclaims, “You are trying to persuade me to be a Christian, too?” This is the force of the grammar here. It was Pauls intention and hope that all people would become true Christians (see verse 29).
King Agrippa knew of Christ and the Church (verses 26,27). However, he was not planning to be converted. Why? For one reason because of what the word “Christian” really means. It is not a word describing someone who attends a church and gives a little money now and then; As in Antioch, it is the title of a person who has given their all in following Christ.
Q: What would people do today if they knew what the word “Christian” really meant?
III. 1 Peter 4:16, : “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” ESV
Peter writes a great deal about suffering as a follower of Christ. Suffering for Peter is not merely the things that happen to all people, such as illness, injury, etc. He speaks of suffering BECAUSE of following Christ.
Here, he says that if anyone suffers as a “Christian…”. According to the real meaning of this word, what is Peter talking about? Read the passage and see that he misspeaking of suffering because of being a follower, one who has given their all to be an imitator of the Lord Jesus Christ. This passage in particular highlights the suffering experienced as a follower of Christ.
Q: When people suffer today, what is the source of most of their problems and suffering? Is it from simply being a human and in the world, or is directly attributable to being a follower of Jesus Christ?
You see, the word “Christian” has a great, deep, distinctive meaning. It is not to be used easily or lightly. Hopefully those of us who follow Christ are being “called” Christians according to the biblical definition.
It is a high-calling, a privilege to be called such a name. May it cease to be something less.