Bible Question:

Christian — What is a Christian? How does the Bible define a Christian?

Bible Answer:

An urban dictionary will define a Christian as someone who will always be supportive in a crisis. But that is not how the Bible defines a Christian. Therefore, how does the Bible define a Christian? What is a Christian?  What is the meaning of Christian?

What Is A Christian?

What Is A Christian?

The word Christian appears for the first time in history in the Bible. The Greek word for Christian is Christianos. It means one who is a believer in and follower of Christ. Who is a Christian then? The answer is one who believes in and follows Christ. The singular and the plural form of Christianos appear in the Bible a total of three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).

Christians – Acts 11:26

The word Christians occurs for the first time in the Bible in Acts 11:26.

. . . And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Acts 11:26 (NASB)

Some have claimed that the name was assigned to the disciples or followers of Christ as an expression of derision or ridicule.[1] But such a claim is inconsistent with its usage in the New Testament. Here in Act 11:26 the word is an editorial comment of information by the author of Acts which was Luke, a believer and follower of Christ. It was simply a description that indicated they believed and followed Christ. That is who a Christian is.

Christian – Acts 26:28

The single form of the word occurs in two passages. The first time is in Acts 26:28. In this verse, King Agrippa II tells Paul that he may be persuaded to become a Christian after Paul had been sharing the good news to Christ to him.

Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” Acts 26:28 (NASB)

In this passage it is clear that King Agrippa II is not using the term as ridicule. He is simply using Christian to refer to one who believes and follows Christ. In the preceding verse the apostle Paul urged him to believe in Christ.

McClintock and Strong write,

There is no reason to think with some that the name “Christians” was given in absolute derisi0n. When used by Agrippa (Acts xxvi, 28), there is no proof that it was a term of reproach; had he intended derision, he might have employed the term Nazarene, which was in frequent use among the Jews, and has continued current in the East, wherever the Arabic language is spoken, to the present day. The early adoption of it by the Christians themselves, and the manner in which they employed it, are sufficient to dis­pel all ideas of this nature (1 Pet. iv, 16). The only reproach connected with the name would be the inev­itable one arising from the profession of faith implied in it. [2]

Thus we learn that the term Christian was a description of a true Christian or follower of Jesus Christ.

Christian – 1 Peter 4:16

The word Christian appears for the second and last time in 1 Peter 4:16. The apostle Peter writes these words. The apostle wants to encourage those who believe and follow Christ to not be ashamed if they suffer for Christ. Christians were being persecuted by unbelievers.

. . . but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 1 Peter 4:16 (NASB)

History reveals that the persecution of Christians started in Acts. Christians were a persecuted group and they still are today. It is obvious, even today, that unbelievers might use the word Christian as an insulting word. But that is not how the word is used in the New Testament.

Early Church Writers Refer To Christians

Except for the Bible, there are no historical records that would indicate the word Christian was used before the end of the  first century. The writings of the early church fathers refer to Christians and sometimes use the singular form—Christian. The following are quotes from some of the early church fathers. Since there are many examples from each of these authors, we have limited our quotes to just one example from each. The bold text has been added so that the names Christian and Christians can be easily recognized.

Clement of Rome (A.D. 30-100) wrote the following in The First Epistle of Clement in chapter III.

For this reason righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God, and is become blind in His faith, neither walks in the ordinances of His appointment, nor acts a part becoming a Christian, but walks after his own wicked lusts, resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the world.[3]

The author of the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (A.D. 130) refers to Christians, their God and the form of worship they had in chapter 1.

Since I see thee, most excellent Diognetus, exceedingly desirous to learn the mode of worshipping God prevalent among the Christians, and inquiring very carefully and earnestly concerning them, what God they trust in, and what form of religion they observe . . . [4]

Polycarp (A.D. 65-155) wrote a number of epistles. The epistle we have selected is The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna (A.D. 100). The quote is from chapter III.

But upon this the whole multitude, marvelling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout and godly race of Christians, cried out, “Away with the Atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!”[5]

Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson comment that the following was “written by the Church at Smryna to the church at Philomelium.”[6]

While he spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.” This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods.” Speaking thus, they cried out, and besought Philip the Asiarch to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. But Philip answered that it was not lawful for him to do so, seeing the shows of wild beasts were already finished. Then it seemed good to them to cry out with one consent, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. For thus it behooved the vision which was revealed to him in regard to his pillow to be fulfilled, when, seeing it on fire as he was praying, he turned about and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him, “I must be burnt alive.”[7]

Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 30-107) wrote the Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians. In chapter IV he wrote these words.

It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality.[8]

Another select passage from Ignatius was written in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans. In chapter II he wrote these words.

Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will, so that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really found to be one. For if I be truly found [a Christian], I may also be called one, and be then deemed faithful, when I shall no longer appear to the world. Nothing visible is eternal.[9]

Another quote from Ignatius comes from chapter VII of The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp.

The Christian has not power over himself, but is [ever] ready to be subject to God.[10]

Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) wrote The Second Apology of Justin. In chapter XI he wrote this,

And this every sensible person ought to think both of Christians and of the athletes, and of those who did what the poets relate of the so-called gods, concluding as much from our contempt of death, even when it could be escaped.[11]

Secular Writers Refer To Christians

Secular writers also referred to Christians near the end of the first century and in the second century. Here are a few examples,

Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-120), greatest historian on ancient Rome, refers to Christians in his Annals 15.44.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin . . . [12]

Gaius Suetonius (A.D. 117-138) was a Roman historian and secretary to Emperor Hadrian. He wrote these words in his Lives of Casesars, Nero, 16,

“Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous religious belief.”[13]

Our final example comes from Caesar Trajan (A.D. 53 – 117). He was a caesar or an emperor of the Roman Empire. He wrote this in what is called Pliny letters X, 97.

The method you have used, my dear Pliny, in investigating the cases of those who are accused of being Christians is extremely proper.[14]

Conclusion:

Both the Bible and above quotes from early church writers and secular writers reveal that people were called Christians soon after Christ’s death and resurrection in the mid-first century. The title was not given to Christians after A.D. 100 or sometimes later. They were called Christians in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26) which occurred about A.D. 45-47. From there the believers were called Christians. They were called Christians because they believed in Christ and followed Christ even to the point of death. The word Christian describes beliefs and behavior of a Christ-follower. Are you a Christian? Or, are you Searching For God?

John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) in his commentary on the book of Acts in section 25 gives us this definition of a Christian as he comments about Acts 11:26.

Surely they were called Christians because Paul spent such a long time among them. “For a whole year,” it says, “they met with the church and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” This is no small praise for the city, but enough to match it against all cities. For Antioch was the first city, before all the others, to have the benefit of listen­ing to Paul for so long, and because of this the people there were the first to be deemed worthy of the name. Look at the success of Paul, to what heights it raised, like a standard, that name! Else­where, three thousand or five thousand or so great a number believed, but nothing like this. Elsewhere, the believers were called “they of the way”; here, they were given the name Christians.[15]

Christians are those who follow the way—the way of Christ. They follow Christ. They are His disciples. Christians believe in Christ. Therefore, they are Christ-followers.

 

References:

1. Colin Brown. Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Regency Publishers. 1975. vol. 2., p. 343.
2. McClintock and Strong. Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. 1887, vol. C-D. p. 269.
3. Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers. 1995. p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 25.
5. Ibid., p. 40.
6. Ibid., p.41.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid. p.61.
9. Ibid. p.74.
10. Ibid. p.100.
11. Ibid. p.192.
12. Cornelius Tacitus. Annals 15.44.
13. Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. Lives of Casesars, Nero, 16.
14. Caesar Trajan. Pliny letters X, 97.
15. John Chrysostom. Homilies On The Acts of the Apostles. 25.

Suggested Links:

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How long can a person sin and still be a Christian?
Can someone attend church, leave, and become a Christian later?
Should Christians follow Christ to become like Him?
Why Do Christians Suffer? – part 1
Why Do Christians Suffer? – part 2
Why Do Christians Suffer? – part 3
True Christians Count the Cost
Am I a Christian since I struggle with sin?
Searching for God — Insearch of God — Go To Heaven