We are likely familiar with the effort to keep Christ in Christmas, but the more pressing need of the day is to keep Christ in “Christian.”
Have you ever watched the game show Family Feud? The host of the show will ask one of the contestants a question. That contestant wants to guess the most popular answer. But the host always prefaces the question with something like: “We asked 100 men, and the top 6 answers are on the board.” Sometimes it will be “100 women.” Sometimes just “100 people.” That context makes a big difference in the answers the contestant will guess.
If we ask 100 people what a “Christian” is, it would make a huge difference if we asked it at a meeting of Atheists for America, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or the local synagogue.
But for us, we don’t want the answer of 100. We want the answer of One. What does God want us to understand by the term “Christian” and by calling ourselves “Christians”?
One place we can get an idea is at Antioch in the book of Acts (11:19-26). Acts is about the expansion of the gospel, through the witness of the church. Antioch was a large city of at least half a million people. Only Rome and Alexandria were larger at the time. We are told that it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
Already we find the short answer to what a Christian is. A Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to be a disciple? We find three characteristics of a disciple of Christ in our text.
A disciple is one who has believed and turned to Jesus Christ as Lord.
Like the paper towel of God’s saving work placed on the spilled blood of Jesus, the news that Jesus was the Messiah of God that had begun in Jerusalem had now reached Antioch through the witness of believers. Those who had been appointed to eternal (cf. Acts 13:48-49) were believing upon the Lord Jesus and being saved.
We are told at Antioch of those “preaching the Lord Jesus” that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). God’s grace had hit its mark. Eyes were opened, hearts changed and wills brought to bow before Jesus Christ as Lord.
To receive Christ as Savior without receiving Him as Lord is to receive a Christ different from that of the Bible. The repeated emphasis of the book of Acts is on Christ as “Lord.” By virtue of His Messianic work, the Lord of all creation had become the Lord of all salvation.
A disciple is one whom the grace of God has reached. By that grace they have repented and believed upon the Lord Jesus.
A disciple is one who is to remain faithful to Jesus Christ as Lord.
A great number in Antioch had professed faith in Christ. When the church at Jerusalem heard about it, they dispatched Barnabas to check it out. His reaction? “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23).
Seeing that many had become disciples of the Lord Jesus, Barnabas urged them to remain faithful to the Lord before whom they had bowed the knee.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul lays out the way such faithfulness works. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6–7). Discipleship has Christ at its center and bring every dimension, every role, every ambition under His lordship at every point. There are no part-time disciples.
A disciple is one in relationship with Jesus Christ and seeks to be faithful to Him in heart and action. If we call Him “Lord,” we will follow His path, denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily to follow Him. If we love Him, we will do what He commands, following His example of obedience to the Father. A disciple exhibits allegiance to Christ.
A disciple is one who is instructed in the lordship of Jesus Christ.
In His Great Commission, Jesus asserted His authority and issued the command to “make disciples of the nations,” who were to be taught to obey all that He had commanded. The curriculum for instruction would be the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. Acts 2:42), in dependence upon grace (Titus 2:11-14).
But where would disciples be taught? The Great Commission itself gives us our answer—the covenant community, the church. To be baptized is to be enfolded into the covenant community. We see that in Antioch: “So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:25–26).
The church was not a building in which to gather. The church was the community of God’s people.
A disciple would learn and grow from the organization of the church established by Christ through His apostles. For each church he planted, Paul would appoint elders. The job of the elder is explained in passages like Acts 20:28, Ephesians 4:11-16, and the Pastoral Epistles, a key feature of which was teaching, both publicly and privately (cf. Acts 20:20).
One of the greatest abuses of the name “Christian” in our day comes not from society or atheists or other religions, but from the contemporary church itself. People don’t present themselves as disciples but as consumers—and the church caters to them. They don’t embrace their Lord’s agenda for them to be made disciples, being taught, equipped and deployed.
To be a Christian is not just a name. It is a calling, a calling to Christ. As disciples, we are to walk in a manner worthy of the name by which we have been called (Eph. 4:1). Let us keep Christ in “Christian.”