Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 8 min. 42 sec.
Did you know that the designation Christian, or its plural form, appears in our Bible only three times?
Today, these words are frequently repeated about those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. Is it not surprising that these words appear so few times in our Bible? As might be expected, they only appear in our New Testament; but they never appear in the gospels. Jesus did not give His followers this name. This naturally raises questions about the meaning and use of these words today. This Digging Deeper searches these questions from the New Testament to come to grips with the origin of these commonly used names.
And the disciples were called Christians…
The first appearance of either word is: “And when he [Barnabas] had found him [Saul-Paul], he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26 KJV throughout). In this section of Acts, Luke describes the beginning of the church in Syrian Antioch, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem, in the 40s AD. Notice that God’s people were first called Christians outside the Holy Land!
The early disciples did not originate the name nor choose it for themselves. Rather, Smith’s Bible Dictionary reports: “They were known to each other as, and were among themselves called, brethren, Acts 15:1; 23; 1 Corinthians 7:12, disciples, Acts 9:26; 11:29, believers, Acts 5:14, saints, Romans 8:27; 15:25″ (e-Sword 13.0). Its origin is explained by The ESV Study Bible: “The fact that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch probably reflects a label applied by the unbelieving public in Antioch and shows that the disciples were beginning to have an identity of their own apart from other Jews. Cf. also 26:28 and 1 Pet. 4:16” (Tecarta Bible App). The name would not have originated with Jews, as the KJV Study Bible asserts: “The Jews would never label them as Christians, because that would be tantamount to saying that these were the people of the Messiah” (Tecarta Bible App).
The Church of God by then was rapidly growing among several ethnic communities. The Word in Life Bible (CEV) provides a probable scenario: “For the most part, people of the Lord’s Way had been Jewish believers. But in Antioch there was an infusion of other ethnic groups, and observers were perplexed as to what to call the multicultural body. The new reality required a new name. Standard ethnic designations – Jew, Greek, Roman, Gentile – no longer fit. So the Antiochians seized on the one factor that united the diverse community – Christ” (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998, p. 1703). This name was probably intended to mean “belonging to Christ” or “followers of Christ.”
The meaning of “Christian”
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains its language derivation: “In its form it was essentially Latin, after the pattern of the Pompeiani, Sullani, and other party-names; and so far it would seem to have grown out of the contact of the new society with the Romans stationed at Antioch, who, learning that its members acknowledged the Christos as their head, gave them the name of Christiani” (e-Sword 13.0). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary answers this question: “How did the name Christian ever become associated with the followers of Jesus?
i. The ending ian meant ‘the party of.’ A Christ-ian was ‘of the party of Jesus.’ Christians is sort of like saying ‘Jesus-ites,’ or ‘Jesus People,’ those of the group associated with Jesus Christ.
ii. Also, soldiers under particular generals in the Roman army would identify themselves by their general’s name by adding ian to the end. A soldier under Caesar would call himself a Caesarian. Soldiers under Jesus Christ could be called Christians.
iii. In Antioch, they probably first used the term Christians to mock the followers of Jesus. ‘Antioch was famous for its readiness to jeer and call names; it was known by its witty epigrams.’ (Gaebelein) But as the people of Antioch called the followers of Jesus the ‘Jesus People,’ the believers appreciated the title so much that it stuck” (e-Sword 13.0).
The NKJ Study Bible provides later historical recognition of these people by this term: “The believers were called Christians because they worshiped Christ, the Messiah. The historian Josephus called them ‘that tribe of Christians.’ Tacitus, the Roman historian, referred to them as ‘Christians, a name derived from Christ'” (Tecarta Bible App). The name continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire. J.R. Dummelow’s A Commentary on the Holy Bible notes: “In 64 a.d. Tacitus mentions that the name was in use among the common people at Rome” (e-Sword 13.0).
Even though its earthly origin may appear to have been pagan, The College Press Bible Study Textbook Series declares this name may unknowingly have had a divine origin: “Isaiah prophesied that God’s people would be called by ‘another name’ and a ‘new name, which the mouth of Jehovah shall name.’ (Isaiah 65:15; 62:1-2.) The name Christian is the only one that is new, for in the Old Testament we have Godly people called saints (Psalm 16:3), brethren (Psalm 133:1), and disciples (Isaiah 8:16). I therefore believe this name was given to us by God, and not by the heathens or Gentiles” (e-Sword 13.0). God may have worked behind the scenes to give His people an appropriate moniker by the unbelieving community of Antioch.
To suffer as a Christian
The second appearance of either word is: “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28 KJV). For the background and explanation of this verse, please read my Digging Deeper article “Almost” from June 23, 2021. The third appearance of either word is: “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16 KJV). To understand this verse better, The College Press Bible Study Textbook Series provides essential context for Peter’s admonition from within this same book: “The phrase ‘suffer as a Christian’ is here equivalent to ‘when ye do well’ (1 Peter 2:20), ‘zealous for that which is good’ (1 Peter 3:13), and ‘for righteousness’ sake’” (1 Peter 3:14)” (e-Sword 13.0). Their suffering from the unbelieving world was evidence they were doing the right things.
Even though the brethren had not chosen this term for themselves, Peter exhorts that brethren who are persecuted by unbelievers are to accept it gracefully. Peter admonishes them to not be ashamed if they suffer for Christ. The culture of the time was based on honor and shame. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible reports: “Greek and Roman male society craved honor, but, as here, many Greek sages noted that it was genuinely honorable to suffer scorn for doing what was right” (Tecarta Bible App).
The price of following Christ
Nonetheless, being called Christian could be a serious charge. Lange’s Commentary of the New Testament explains: “In the opinion of their enemies, the name was infamous, and so we must understand it here, cf. 1 Peter 4:14. With the Jews it was tantamount to sectary, renegade and rebel; with the heathen it was equal to atheist” (e-Sword 13.0). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds this chilling note: “The title seems a political nickname (resembling Pompeiians—members of Pompey’s party—and other titles of political parties). Those who believed that Christ was king could be accused of treason, and the title ‘Christians’ became a legal charge (1 Peter 4:16), though it was soon embraced by Jesus’ followers as a welcome title. Here it was probably merely ridicule; Antiochans developed a reputation for mocking people” (Tecarta Bible App).
Christians were soon being seen as separate from Judaism, which was recognized as a legal religion of the Roman Empire. Jews began to expel Christians from their synagogues. This opened up Christians to life-threatening persecution from the Roman state. James Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels makes this alarming comment: “To ‘suffer as a Christian’ i.e. (for being a Christian) covers a wide range of experience, from molestation to official and even capital punishment. The latter extreme, however, is not prominent in this passage, although the term ἀπολογία certainly suggests it. But the vague outline of 1 Peter 4:14-17 is filled out and vividly coloured by the later evidence of Pliny and of the 2nd cent. martyrs’ literature, which shows how Christianity was treated as a forbidden or illicit religion, hostile to the national cult, and therefore exposing any of its adherents, without further question, to the punishment of death” (e-Sword 13.0).
The word Christian is used so commonly and casually today in all sorts of contexts. In surveys, many profess Christianity but seldom adhere to its tenets. Kingcomments challenges professing Christians: “This name is still used, but unfortunately it no longer only includes true believers. The world no longer knows who is a real and not a real Christian. Unfortunately the world gets a false impression of the Lord Jesus by the wrong behavior of the nominal Christians and even more unfortunately also of true Christians” (BP Bible App). Few understand its significant and potentially dangerous connotation from the first century. To identify oneself as a Christian then could mean death (John 16:2). This is a sobering thought for those who profess to be Christ’s disciples at this end of the age. One way or another, there is a price to pay for following Jesus of Nazareth. Let every Christian count the cost (Luke 14:28).
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.