Those of you who have followed my writings for any length of time will have noticed that I rarely use the term “Christian,” opting rather for “follower after Christ,” or more simply, “Christ-follower.”
The term Christian has become so bastardized in recent history that it is essentially a term devoid of meaning, somewhat like the term Evangelical. If someone asks me, “Are you an evangelical?” I have to get clarification on the term before I can answer them. What is an evangelical? Are evangelicals this year the same thing they were last year? Are we discussing a particular flavor of evangelical, or just a generic evangelical blob.
Similarly, when someone says, “I am a Christian,” I’m often quite uncertain what they mean by that. I need a clarification of terms.
With that as a baseline, neither is “Christian” a term I can simply abandon, because it is a term we find in the New Testament. The word “Christian” appears in the New Testament on three distinct occasions; it is used by the apostle Peter, by Luke as he wrote the Acts account, and it is spoken by Agrippa as he interacted with the apostle Paul.
And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians – Acts 11:26, ESV
The first time we see “Christian” written in the New Testament is when the term is employed, some believe, as a pejorative against the disciples, a ridiculing. They “were called” Christians, rather than assuming that name for themselves. Whether a derision or not, one thing is clear. By being tagged “Christians,” it was clear this this group was not a mere extension of Judaism.
The believers had been scattered abroad as a result of the persecution that broke out against the church,and in that dispersion, some of them ended up in the Syrian capital of Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. They became instant missionaries.
Antioch was a city of roughly a half-million people, making it the third-largest city in the Roman empire. It was a wealthy political and cultural center, and a port city on the Orontes river, known as “Queen of the East.” The city was ornate with a main street paved in marble and lined with carved marble colonnades. Antioch is reputed to be the only city of its time that lighted its streets at night.
Though beautiful and rich with culture, Antioch was also a vile, contemptible city, bulging with immorality, ritual prostitution, and worship of every heathen god and idol in existence. The city was home to the shrine of Daphne, notorious for its immoral practices. So pervasive was the ungodliness of Antioch that Roman satirist Jevenal characterized the city’s impact on Rome itself saying, “The sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharged into the Tiber.” Given the 1,300 miles between the two cities, this is a poor testimony of the conditions in Antioch.
Yet, the persecuted believers fled to this city and having done so, had a profound impact and established a flourishing body of believers there, resulting in the first Jewish-Gentile church. Acts eleven tells us “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). The success of the outreach was profound enough that word of it reached Jerusalem, and the church there sent Barnabus to Antioch to minister to the new believers. Despite its godlessness, the city of Antioch later became the base of operations for the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul.
The Lesson: No one is too far gone for the gospel message. Many of those we might easily write off as too worldly, too sinful, are as hungry for truth as we are.
And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?’ – Acts 26:28, ESV
Some translations, and many commentators believe Agrippa is expressing nearness to a conversion experience, as if to say,”Gosh, Paul, I’m almost there. You’ve almost persuaded me.” Without getting hip-deep in philological and exegetical rules of Greek, let me just say that the concept being expressed by Agrippa is something akin to “I am not as easily made a Christian of as you seem to believe.” The response of Agrippa is dripping with contempt. Festus was not buying it either, objecting strenuously to the absurd idea of a resurrection, and telling Paul that he was out of his mind, driven mad by his extensive learning. (Acts 26:24)
Despite the rebuff from Festus and Agrippa, Paul’s desire for their salvation remained his driving motivation. “And Paul said, ‘I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains'” (Acts 26:29).
The Lesson: As Christ-followers, we have two types of relationships. One relationship is with those we followship as brothers and sisters in Christ – Christians. The other is with those we are trying to draw into relationship One. That’s it.
The third time we see the word “Christian” in the New Testament, it is used by a Christian to speak of a Christian.
If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. – 1 Peter 4:14-16, NASB
As time pressed forward, and the church grew, the body of Christ became afflicted by ever-increasing levels of persecution. Given the quote from Peter, above, it is safe to conclude that the appellation “Christian” was regarded with contempt and reproach. Wearing the name openly was an invitation for trouble.
Peter reminds us that there is no shame in wearing the name of Christ, and doubtless recalled his own shame when he denied Christ at his mock trial. This same Peter who denied Jesus, this same Peter who stood and preached that mighty Acts 2 sermon, this same Peter who now exhorts us to stand unashamed when persecuted for the name of Christ, is the Peter who defied the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter five, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
They took [Gamaliel’s] advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. – Acts 5:40-42, NASB
The Lesson: Even in our suffering, the glory always goes to God. It’s a simple matter to glorify God when we’re sliding easily through life on the blessings of God, but let a man suffer, and our glorifying quickly turns to grumbling. “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1, KJV)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Victoriously in Christ!
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