A Christian By Any Other Name...
Acts 11:26 is one of those verses that can easily be read over without giving due consideration to its significance. There we find Luke making the point, almost in passing,Â that it was "at Antioch the disciples were first called Christians." This is the first time the title is used in the Scriptures, and it establishes for us the historical setting in which the nickname was given to Christ's disciples. This occurred some 6-9 years after Christ's ascension. Prior to to the name "Christian" being applied to the disciples of Jesus, a variety of terms were used to denote how the New Covenant people of God were to be viewed. According to F. F. Bruce:
The followers of Jesus seemed to describe themselves by a various names in the early days. Many of these names were redolent of Old Testament phraseology. 'The saints"or "holy people" was a common name, implying that they regarded themselves as the pious remnant or true Israel. 'The poor" another name was not only economically apt (for the Jerusalem church appears to have been afflicted with chronic poverty in the first century) but was reminiscent of the adjectives "poor and needy" applied to the "saints" in the book of Psalms--"the poor in spirit" of the Beatitudes. "Disciples," "brothers," "friends," "believers" were other names in common use within their community. Their movement they referred to as "the Way."1
But, the adaptation of the nickname "Christians" could not have been more fitting. It was probably first used as a derogatory term, invented by the people of Antioch to put down the disciples of a man who was crucified. If this were the case, it is similar to the invention of the title "Puritan," given to the seventeenth century movement in England and America. The term "Puritan" was a pejorative title, meant to deride those who were also called "precisionists." Leornard Trinterud explained the derogatory nature of the term "Puritan" when he wrote: "Throughout the sixteenth century it was used more often as a scornful adjective than a substantive noun, and was rejected as slanderous in whatever quarter it was applied." Whether the term "Christian" was first derogatory or not, the Holy Spirit intended its use for theological significance.
The term "Christian" is only found three times in the New Testament. The first mention is made here in Acts 11:24. The second is found in Acts 26:28, where Agrippa tells Paul, "You almost persuade me to be a Christian." The final reference is found in 1 Peter 4:14-16, where we read "If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other peopleâ€™s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter." In this last example Peter draws thew connection between the "name of Christ" and the term "Christian." Christians are, very simply, those who are identified exclusively with Christ. With regard to Acts 11:26, William Still noted that "everything of crucial importance in the word is unfolded for us in the passage."In the unfolding of the book of Acts, Acts 11:26 comes strategically at the point of the transition, where the Gospel goes out from the Jews to the Gentiles. It is important because it is used in the redefining of the covenant community. How are Jew and Gentile believers in Jesus to be identified? David Gooding, in his marvelous commentary True to the Faith, notes:
This is truly remarkable; and the more one thinks about it, the more remarkable it becomes. What this paragraph is going to describe is something altogether new: not the planting in Antioch of a Christian Jewish synagogue to which Gentiles might be admitted on becoming Jews, but the planting of a community in which Jewish believers and Gentile believers met on equal terms so new that a new name, â€œChristians,â€ was invented to apply to the members of this community (11:26). Whether such a church had already been planted elsewhere Luke does not tell us. As far as Acts is concerned, this is the first church to be planted outside of Jerusalem and Judea (Luke does not say what happened in Samaria, or in Rome as a result of Pentecost, 2:10).2
It is beautiful to think of the new "Israel of God" being denominated by the name of the One who is the center of all of Israel's prophetic revelation. Throughout all the ages, men and women waited for the promised Messiah. Now that He had come, it the fullness of time, the covenant people are identified exclusively by His name. John Calvin made a similar observation when he wrote:
This was no small honor that the holy name of Christians began there for all the whole world. Though the apostles had been long time at Jerusalem, yet God had not vouchsafed to bestow upon his Church, which was there, this excellent title of his Son. Whether it were because at Antioch much people was grown together into one body, as well of Jews as of Gentiles, or whether it were because the Church might be better ordered in time of peace; or because they were more bold to confess their faith, there were in very deed Christians both at Jerusalem and also in Samaria before that time; and we know that Jerusalem was the first fountain from which Christianity did flow. And what is it else to be a disciple of Christ but to be a Christian? But when they began plainly to be called that which they were the use of the name served greatly to set forth the glory of Christ, because by this means they referred all their religion unto Christ alone. This was, therefore, a most excellent worship for the city of Antioch. that Christ brought forth his name thence like a standard, whereby it might be made known to all the world that there was some people whose captain was Christ, and which did glory in his name.3The simplicity, and yet the profundity, of the meaning of the title Christian ought never to be over looked. Peter, in his first epistle, explains that it is a legitimate and God-glorifying reason to suffer. Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:19 writes: "Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: â€œThe Lord knows those who are His,â€ and, â€œLet everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.â€Â The implications are enormous. When people think of you do they first and foremost think of you as a disciples of Christ. Do they see you as a follower of Jesus? Do you gladly carry that name, that is above every name? Does your speech and conduct reflect the honor of the One whose name you carry?
1. F.F. Bruce The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958) pp. 70-71
2. David Gooding, True to the Faith pp. 173-174
3. John Calvin, Commentary on Acts (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom36.xviii.iii.html)