The Name “Christian”
Christendom is conspicuous for the myriad of names worn by individuals and churches—from “Catholic” and “Protestant” to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalian, and an innumerable host of others. Those who employ these terms to identify their religious orientation also would claim to be “Christian”—as if the secondary terms are simply further refinements or clarifications of the broader, more basic designation of Christian.
Whence did these names arise? History answers this question for each name. For example, “Catholic” simply means “comprehensive” or “universal.” The Catholic Church therefore wishes to emphasize that it constitutes the universal church. “Baptist” is connected to the Greek word for immersion, and thus represents the wearer’s conviction that baptism is by immersion. A “Baptist” is an “immersionist.” “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which refers to the form of government by which the church is to be organized. A “presbyter” in the New Testament was one of a plurality of elders who functioned as the leaders or overseers of the local congregation. “Pentecostal” refers to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to speak in tongues. Thus a “Pentecostal” is one who believes in the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. All other names, terms, and designations by which people who claim to be Christian refer to themselves may also be explained on the basis of some doctrine or feature of Christianity that historically came to receive special emphasis among a specific group of people.
What does the New Testament have to say about this state of affairs? Does Christ sanction the use of differing names and terms to identify individuals and churches? Perhaps the place to begin is in the Old Testament when the messianic prophet Isaiah predicted that the day would come when God would implement a “new name:”
For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
Until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns.
The Gentiles shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory.
You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord will name (Isaiah 62:1-2).
This fascinating prophecy contains four points that merit close consideration: (1) Righteousness/salvation would go forth from Jerusalem; (2) the Gentiles would see this righteousness/salvation; (3) a new name would be given; and (4) the Lord Himself would bestow that new name.
One must go to the New Testament to find fulfillment and clarification of these marvelous assertions. A number of names are used to refer to God’s people in the New Testament, including believer, disciple, saint, servant, and brother. But all of these terms were used previously in the Old Testament (Exodus 4:31; Isaiah 8:16; John 9:28; Psalm 106:16; Proverbs 2:8; Leviticus 25:46,55; Nehemiah 1:2). They were not new. Isaiah’s inspired prediction allows us to pinpoint the precise occasion on which a new name was given. His first indicator was that righteousness or salvation would go forth from Jerusalem. Here is an apparent allusion to the commencement of the Christian era on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, described in detail in Acts 2. After His death and resurrection, Jesus instructed His apostles to go to Jerusalem and there await the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4,12). They did so, and the Holy Spirit, as predicted, empowered the apostles to present the Gospel message and to launch Christianity and the church of Christ (Acts 2). Indeed, on that auspicious occasion, just as Isaiah predicted, the means to salvation went forth as brightness, and proceeded to go forth from Jerusalem even as Jesus predicted (Acts 1:8). The first point of Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.
However, the throng gathered on Pentecost was composed entirely of Jews (Acts 2:5). In fact, though about 3,000 were converted to Christianity that day (Acts 2:41), and several thousand thereafter (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:1,7), all the converts were Jewish. Samaritans (half-Jews) were eventually incorporated into the Lord’s church (Acts 8:5ff.). But it was not until perhaps eight to ten years later that the first Gentiles obeyed the Gospel and were added to the church. This momentous event occurred when Peter, at the instigation of a heavenly vision, agreed to go to the home of a Roman centurion to preach the Gospel to him, his family, and close friends (Acts 10:24). They, in turn, became the very first Gentile converts to Christianity as a result of hearing the preached message and submitting themselves to water baptism (Acts 10:47-48; 11:14).
But look back at Isaiah’s prophecy. The second action that Isaiah anticipated would occur, after salvation went forth from Jerusalem, was that the Gentiles themselves would be the recipients of this same righteousness/salvation and likewise bask in the glory of the Lord. The conversion of Cornelius and those with him in Acts 10 constitutes the fulfillment of the second criterion of Isaiah’s prediction. Incredibly, immediately after the conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 10, in the very next chapter, Luke reported that Peter was confronted by hostile Jerusalem Jews who had heard about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Christ’s church. These Jewish Christians insisted that he give account of his actions. He did so in Acts 11:4-18, recounting sequentially the events of Acts 10. Upon hearing of these astounding events orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, the hostile Jews melted, backed off, glorified God, and conceded: “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18). This was an amazing concession that further cleared the way for Gentile missions.
At this point in his inspired narrative, beginning in Acts 11:19, Luke proceeded to clarify the full significance of what had just occurred. The persecution that drove Jewish Christians out of Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4) forced them to travel into predominately Gentile areas. However, these Jewish Christians had refrained from imparting the Gospel message to Gentiles (Acts 11:19). But with the conversion of the household of Cornelius, the Gospel now began to be presented to the predominately Gentile population in the city of Antioch: “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Aside from Cornelius’ own household, Antioch thus became the first Gentile church of Christ in all of human history. The church in Jerusalem immediately sent Barnabas to Antioch to confirm the reports, who in turn (quite logically) went to Tarsus in search of the “apostle to the Gentiles,” Paul, to introduce him into the mix at Antioch. Together, the two men spent an entire year meeting with the church and teaching many people.
In line with the prophecy of Isaiah, the first two preconditions to God imparting a new name had now been met. If the application of Isaiah’s prophecy is correct, one ought naturally next to expect the bestowal of the new name. We are not disappointed. The very next statement by Luke is simply: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). What an earthshaking statement! Astonishing! Isaiah was absolutely accurate—dead on! Consider the following three observations about this astounding moment in human history.
First, observe that from the inception of Christianity (Acts 2), converts were called “disciples.” They were not called Christians on the day of Pentecost! Though thousands had converted to Christianity, and now belonged to Christ and were therefore followers of Christ, they nevertheless were not called Christians. Unlike Judaism, one of the central features of New Testament Christianity is its international application—with absolutely no consideration given to ethnicity. In this sense, the church of Christ reached its full existence only when Gentiles were incorporated into its membership (cf. “also to the Greek” in Romans 1:16; 2:9-10). This circumstance came only with the conversion of Cornelius and the commencement of the Antioch church of Christ. Thus we do not read what we would full well expect to find: that “the disciples were called Christians first in Jerusalem.”
Second, Luke included a grammatical feature worth considering. He said the disciples “were called.” The term he used (chrematidzo) is typically used in the New Testament in relation to those occasions when God is specifically the One Who does the calling: “to appoint, warn, or nominate, by Divine direction” (Clarke, n.d., p. 772; cf. McCord, n.d., 2:311). The term occurs nine times in the New Testament: Matthew 2:12,22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; 11:26; Romans 7:3; Hebrews 8:5; 11:7; 12:25 (Moulton, et al., 1978, p. 1011). In every case, divine calling, warning, or admonition is contextually self-evident (cf. Thayer, 1901, p. 671; Robertson, 1930, 3:160). In fact, several translations indicate this use of the word by inserting “by/from/of God” (KJV, ASV, NASB, RSV), or “divinely” instructed/warned (NKJV) in some or all of the passages.
Third, observe the final feature of Isaiah’s prophecy: “which the mouth of the Lord will name” (Isaiah 62:2). Church historians insist that the name “Christian” arose as the result of persecution wherein the enemies of Christ originated the name as a term of derision. However, they are mistaken. Isaiah predicted that God Himself would be the author of the name. And so He was. The name Christian is, indeed, so special that it occurs only three times in the New Testament and each time flags a critical aspect of the name. In addition to Acts 11:26, where the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy spotlights the magnificent inclusion of the Gentiles in the church of Christ, the word occurs again in Acts 26:28. In that setting, Paul strove ardently to convert King Agrippa. Agrippa indicated his awareness that Paul’s purpose—his mission and goal in life—was to make people Christians. He endeavored to make people followers of Christ—not followers of Moses or any other religion.
The final occurrence of the word Christian in the New Testament is Peter’s use of the term in a context dealing with suffering that is inflicted on God’s people by their enemies: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16). “In this matter” in the NKJV is a rendering of the literal Greek phrase “in this name,” i.e., the name “Christian.” Peter insisted that the suffering that is heaped upon a follower of Christ ought to be borne under the name Christian—not some other religious appellation.
Writing over 200 years ago, Rice Haggard recognized the extreme importance of the name “Christian” in the divine scheme of things, when he wrote: “[I]t is but a due honor to the Lord Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, that they who profess his religion, should wear his name” (1804, p. 14).
Clarke, Adam (no date), Clarke’s Commentary: Matthew-Acts (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury).
Haggard, Rice (1804), An Address to the Different Religious Societies, on the Sacred Import of the Christian Name (Lexington, KY: Joseph Charless).
McCord, Hugo (no date), Fifty Years of Lectures (Atwood, TN: Atwood Church of Christ).
Moulton, W.F., A.S. Geden, and H.K. Moulton (1978), A Concordance to the Greek Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), fifth edition.
Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures in the New Testament (New York, NY: Harper).
Thayer, Joseph H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).