What Does “Christian” Mean?
Christianity has a branding problem. Some Christians are known for being generous, kind and caring people, but some complain that Christians are hypocrites, judgmental and preachy. Part of the problem is terminology. We have different definitions for the term Christian: a religion passed down by parents, a moral framework, a culture or a follower of Jesus Christ. Have you ever wondered, where the term Christian came from? What would happen if Christians actually followed and lived out the teachings of their Lord, Jesus Christ, and showed the world what being a true Christian really means?
Interestingly, the term “Christian” did not come from Jesus or the apostles.
After Christ went back to the Father, the disciples were excited to share the gospel with others, so everywhere they went, they talked about Christ. Soon, they experienced persecution. They remembered that Jesus had commanded them to, “Go out and make disciples of all nations,” so they went to different places to talk about Christ and protect themselves from persecution.
As they traveled, the disciples found that people were hungry for the message of Jesus, and they received it well, and the church grew in great numbers. Word came back to Jerusalem about one location in particular, Antioch. In Acts 11:25. Barnabas, one of the disciples, traveled to Antioch to help the growing church.
“Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul [whom we now know as Paul], and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. 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.”
It’s interesting that this term is used by outsiders watching, trying to define this group of people that was growing in great numbers. They were different. They were generous, kind and forgiving. They were taking care of widows, orphans and the poor. They were Gentiles, Jews and barbarians – no one was excluded. They were annoying, because they were talking about Jesus to everyone, everywhere. But, more importantly, they were infidels because their allegiance was to a different king.
Followers of king Herod were called Herodians. The word Christian in Greek is Christianōs. It comes from the word Christos or Christ. A Christian is an adherent or follower of Christ, one who belongs to Christ. A Christian holds allegiance to Christ, not Herod, and this was seen as a bad thing.
Later in Acts 26, we see that Paul, who had now preached the Word of God all over, got arrested. He testified before King Agrippa about how he was once a zealot against the Christians, even killing them for their faith. Jesus met him along the road to Damascus and changed him forever, and now he too was spreading the message about Jesus.
Here’s what King Agrippa responded with: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
We can read the sarcasm, but what was meant as an insult, Paul turns into beauty. He says, “Short time or long, I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today, may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Now Paul gives Christian a whole new meaning. Now this isn’t just a title for a group of people, there’s a meaning behind this word, and those who are hearing the label “Christian” are starting to hear it in a new way.
In 1 Peter 4, Peter is now encouraging those believers about their faith and about this very term:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you… …However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
Peter is saying that when we are persecuted for labeling ourselves as Christians, praise God. Praise God that if you say you’re a Christian and someone has a bad connotation with that term, like Paul you have an opportunity to show God’s grace to that person. The term itself is an opportunity to praise God as we represent him.
In October of 2010, my husband and I went to South Africa for a Christian conference. While we were there we met a young Iranian man named Farshid. He told us about his church and how it’s growing. It is illegal in Iran to share the gospel, to give out a Bible, to preach openly, to worship openly. Yet Farshid, with this term Christian all over him, talking about Christ, was bold in his faith. We were so impressed by him.
Just a couple of months after met him, Farshid and his network leaders were all arrested. They were interrogated and treated terribly because of their faith. Many of them are now out of jail and escaped from Iran, but Farshid is still in prison. He was sentenced to six years.
Farshid is in prison just because he’s a Christian, but he wears that label proudly.
From prison, he’s ministering to others and writing beautiful letters, showing the hope he holds on to even in the midst of this struggle. You can learn more about Farshid’s story at http://www.freefarshid.org/.
Farshid’s story is a difficult one, because he is suffering so much for following Jesus. It seems hard, but Jesus tells us when we follow him there is an adventure that comes with it. There might be suffering, but there’s also great blessing.
We may not be called will suffer like Farshid, but many of us are affected by the negative press the term Christian holds. We cannot let that branding problem affect our allegiance to Christ. If anything, we ought to live its true meaning out so that the world will know the true beauty of the term Christian. What would be different in your family, in your neighborhood and in our world if you increased your commitment and faithfulness to the teachings and guidance of Jesus Christ?
We live out the word Christian – “follower of Christ”– because it’s a great adventure and we are never alone. Being called a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is both a privilege and a responsibility. Look at how The Message translates Romans 8. May you be encouraged by this beautiful expression of this life of adventure with Jesus.
“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us––an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!”
Read an earlier post by Ines here.