here is considerable confusion among God’s people about a very important question: does Jesus Christ offer two acceptable standards for living the Christian life—a less demanding one for “ordinary Christians” and an optional, more challenging version for those who commit themselves to be “disciples”? The way we answer this question is vitally important; it shapes our identity, the way we live, our witness to the watching world, and our rewards in the life to come.
Fortunately this is not an abstract theological issue that is beyond our reach. For the most part, the confusion is rooted in a failure to understand the meaning and use of the words Christian and disciple in the New Testament. This is actually good news, because the definition of these words can be readily determined and their use in the Bible easily observed. However, most of us have not delved into this deeply. We have absorbed the ideas of a denomination, congregation, pastor, parachurch group, or individual; then we have read these two words through that lens. I encourage you to approach this subject with a commitment to seek truth, whether or not it conforms to your current views. We should all be like the Jews in Berea, who listened to Paul carefully then searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was true (Acts 17:11).
Origin and Meaning of the Word Christian
Let’s begin by looking at the origin and meaning of the word Christian and observe how it is used in the New Testament. Given the fact that it designates the Christian’s identity, you may be surprised that this word occurs only three times in the New Testament. But those three are sufficient to tell us what we need to know. In Greek, Christian (Christianos, Christianoi) means “adherents or followers of Christ,”1 that is, “those who belong to Him,”2 or “men of Christ.”3 The word emerged in the pagan city of Syrian Antioch, but how is unclear.
It could have been a term devised by the Gentile believers to distinguish themselves from the local Jews. The renowned New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce recognizes the possibility “that it was the disciples who first began to call themselves Christians, meaning thereby ‘servants of Christ’.”4 However, he also suggests, as John Stott and many others do, that the name may have been the natural outgrowth of the believers speaking so much about Christ that Gentiles began to describe them as “the Christ-people, or Christians.”5 Stott sees this as positive, since “it marked out the disciples as being, above all, the people, the followers, the servants of Christ.”6 C.K. Barrett comments, “the new designation was probably needed when it first became apparent that the believers, who had left their old Gentile way of life, were no more Jews than heathens—in fact, a third race, Christians.”7
Others have suggested that Christian was a term of derision bestowed by nonbelievers, that the term stuck and was subsequently embraced with honor, as were the names Puritan and Methodist many centuries later. We can’t know for sure, but certainly Christian was an apt term. And it was probably a welcome development to distinguish the disciples of Jesus (who had recently fled the rampant persecution in Jerusalem8) from the Jewish community in Antioch, which was greatly disliked by the contemporary Greeks. So intensely were the Jews hated that, in AD 40, Gentile mobs killed many of them and destroyed their synagogues.9
What we do know about the word Christian is that sometime about AD 44–47 in Syria it became a term to refer to the growing number of people who were becoming followers of Jesus Christ. This appears to have been providential, inasmuch as it freed the disciples of Jesus from being seen as Jews and allowed them to carry on the Great Commission.
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