So what does it really mean to BE a Christian?
If “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Acts 11:26) why was that? We note a couple of things in this reference. First, it says “disciples.” These were the folks who had personally encountered Jesus in a significant way. They walked with Jesus, were taught by Jesus and believed in who Jesus said he was. The meaning for the word disciple or to be a disciple or to make a disciple in Greek is a learner; a pupil; trained; instructed.
Now, that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig a bit deeper to see what was happening up until “…in Antioch…” (Acts 11:26)
Here is a summary:
- Throughout the Gospels (first four books of the New Testament in the Bible), we learn about how Jesus traveled from place to place sharing about the Kingdom of God. He invited 12 men to join him in his ministry (the Apostles – also called disciples).
- Eventually, Jesus was hung on a cross and days later could not be found in the tomb where he had been laid after his death. What he had promised had happened – he had risen from the dead. He had also promised not to leave his disciples alone but to send a guide, a comforter – the Holy Spirit.
This is where we pick things up in the book of Acts…
- There we read that there were about 120 “believers” gathered together praying. The Holy Spirit comes upon them as promised and they are emboldened to speak. They began sharing about Jesus and the things he taught and more and more people believed. They continued to gather together to encourage and strengthen one another. They minister to the needs of others in their community as they share about Jesus and about the Kingdom of God.
- As they speak more and more boldly about the things they believe in – about WHO they believe in – some of the original 12 find themselves being persecuted, imprisoned and even put to death.
- As persecution increases, the believers scatter.
- One of the greatest enemies of the believers of Jesus (Saul, later called Paul) has a radical personal encounter with the living God that causes his entire life to change. He becomes not only a believer in Christ, but a follower of Him.
- Peter (the Apostle who Jesus stated that he would “build his church on”) would have the revelation that this message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God was not just for Jews (the descendents of Abraham, the chosen people of God) but for Gentiles (non-Jews) as well.
- Remember the folks who had been scattered during persecution?…well, they traveled as far as Antioch where they shared with not only Jews but with Greeks (also would have been considered Gentiles) as well.
- Barnabas and Saul heard about Antioch, came to join the believers there and stayed for a year teaching about the things of God.
So we arrive at Acts 11:26…
- “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians”
So, let’s recap what was happening between the time of Jesus’ death to the time the disciples were called “Christians.” I’m literally just going to pull out words from the above summary. This is what we learn: believers gather praying (with one another), speak in boldness to others (non-believers), encourage and strengthen one another, minister to the needs of others, share about Jesus and about the Kingdom of God, are persecuted, imprisoned and even put to death for what they believe in and are speaking about. We also learn about one very personal encounter with God that completely changes the direction of someone’s life and learn that the message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God is for ALL people.
Could the totality of this picture (personal encounter + belief + action) be what caused them to be referred to as “Christians?”
There was a time when I would have referred to myself as a Christian simply because, well…I was raised with that kind of religious teaching, I believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (at least, as much as I could understand) and finally, based purely on process of elimination, I wouldn’t have identified with any other religion or faith.
Today, I would say I wasn’t really a Christian then. Today I would say a Christian is not only one who believes IN Jesus but one who strives to actually understand, follow and teach His ways – even the really hard parts. That’s what it seemed the early disciples did. Some of them even risked their lives to do it. Compare that to much of our “comfortable, cultural Christianity” of today. A world of difference.
Will you hang with me for just a moment longer?
We said we would also look at being a “believer” vs being a “follower.” Is there a difference? I say yes, very much so. See if you agree…
According to Merriam-Webster, the simple definition of “believe” is: to accept or regard (something) as true; to accept the truth of what is said by (someone); to have (a specified opinion). I’m not going to get too deep into the Greek, but I will say that according to Strong’s concordance, the word used in the New Testament (pisteuó – pist-yoo’-o) for believe means to be persuaded; affirm, have confidence.
The simple definition of “follow” according to Merriam-Webster is: to engage in as a calling or way of life; to be or act in accordance with; to seek to attain; to copy after. Again, simply in the Greek according to Strong’s, the word is mimētḗs (mim-ay-tace’) – the root of the English term, mimic. The definition: to imitate. We see another Greek word used here: nepakoloutheó, meaning to follow after; imitate, pursue, am studious of.
We’ll close with an example:
I can say I am a believer in (I regard to be true) the benefits of living an organic lifestyle but am not a follower of it (do not imitate, pursue or study). So, I can believe in Jesus (that he was an actual man who existed and walked on the earth, maybe even the virgin birth, deity, death and resurrection) but not necessarily be a follower of Jesus (seeking to be a pursuer and imitator of the way that He lived, spoke, etc.).
Surely there were believers IN Jesus during the time the disciples were followers OF Jesus leading up to Antioch.
What do you think?
P.S. we still need to dig into the “all or nothing” aspects of Christianity, but we’ll leave that for another day.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?