A recent message came into my office asking, “Define ‘Christian’ for me. That word gets thrown around, with no clear definition. If possible, use the Bible to define it.” I’ve gotten many similar questions over the years and the writer of that message makes a good underlying point. Authors and speakers keep using this word on a regular basis and assume that the reader or listener fully understands what it means when, in fact, many times they don’t.
I’ll get to the Bible in a moment, but first let us understand what the dictionary says, because that is where most people go first, to learn what something means. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,1 this is what Christian means.
1 Chris•tian \’kris-chən, ‘krish-\ noun
[Latin christianus, adjective & noun, from Greek christianos, from Christos] 1526
1 a: one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ
b (1): DISCIPLE 2
(2): a member of one of the Churches of Christ separating from the Disciples of Christ in 1906
(3): a member of the Christian denomination having part in the union of the United Church of Christ concluded in 1961
2: the hero in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
It’s kind of confusing, isn’t it? That is just the definition for ‘Christian’ being used as a noun; an adjective or adverb is a bit different. No wonder the writer of the email specifically asked that the Bible be used to define the word, because the dictionary just doesn’t suffice. If I was a new Christian convert and I went to a standard dictionary for an explanation, I would be even more befuddled after I read what it said. Don’t get me wrong, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is correct and gives a wealth of information, but it is just not fully describing the word as it applies to the overall Christian population. It does describe the cold, hard facts, but not what it means to a person professing to be a Christian.
There are plenty of internet web sites that attempt to explain what a Christian is, but many just tell you, at length, what a Christian is not. Some sites try to explain it from the writer’s own personal perspective or from that of their own denomination’s fact sheet. Some go on to explain why you can’t be a Christian if you are a member of the “X” or “Y” denominations. All this being the case, let us go to the Bible and see if we can discern the proper meaning of this word.
In the Old Testament, the prophesied deliverer of the Jewish people was known as the Messiah (anointed one). In the New Testament age, Jesus was regarded by many early Jewish believers as that savior and the Greek word used (language spoken at that time) was Christos,2 which is translated into English as Christ. So let us get this straight — they believed that Jesus was that promised deliverer of the Jews and Christ is an English word for the Greek word for ‘Messiah’ and then add ‘-ian’3 (which means ‘relating to’) and you come up with Christian (Christ + ian = relating to Christ).
There are three places in the Bible where you can find the word Christian. Of course, all references must have something to do with Jesus Christ, so these references are all found in the New Testament. “In the early days of the church, the believers did not have a distinctive name. They called each other ‘brothers’ (Acts 6:3), ‘disciples’ (Acts 6:1), ‘believers’ (1 Tim. 4:12), followers of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2), or ‘saints’ (1 Cor. 1:2). The Jews who denied that Jesus was Christ, the Messiah, would never call believers ‘Christians,’ so they called them ‘the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24:5).”4
When Did the Word ‘Christian’ First Appear?
“When the Christian movement reached Antioch in Syria, the gospel was preached to Gentiles as well as Jews. Such evangelism marked the sect as more than a new type of Judaism; it was a new religion. The Gentiles in Antioch invented a name for the new group. Since members of the group constantly talked about Christ, they were called Christians.”5
So, it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus Christ were first given the name of Christians. Acts 11:25–26 says, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’”6
The second use of the word Christian is Acts 26:28–29, “Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’”
Then, the last use is 1 Peter 4:16–17. “Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
The definition has changed, since that first century AD. In the beginning, calling someone a Christian was not so much a name that they chose, but one that was sometimes used as a derogatory term placed upon them by hostile critics.7 Of course, over time it has become a common term as an identifier for people that are a disciple or follower of Christ; those who believe in, speak of, and teach about the Gospel (good news) of Jesus and therefore model their lives and service after him.
Are You a Christian?
If you truly live your life as a Christian and believe Jesus died for your sins, then you are a Christian, for the Bible says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) After this beginning step, the Bible warns that you must move on into maturity in your Christian lives, by learning and doing more and, if not, you are in danger of reverting back to your pre-Christian beliefs and lose the salvation and possibility of everlasting life you have gained. So be careful and not get stuck in the adolescent stage of Christian spirituality. Truly living as a Christian means growing and learning. Those that stay ignorant and lazy may voluntarily reject all that Christ has done for them.8
Our life on earth is a journey with our Lord and we need him to forgive us repeatedly, as we continue to sin. It is necessary for us to remember that salvation is conditional and that the entire Bible is laced with warnings about the way we should live, so we must understand what we need to do, in order to stay saved. It is imperative that we not sink into a false sense of security. Some people try to escape the work needed by repeating the popular phrase “once saved, always saved,” but that is a great oversimplification of the process.9
Copyright © 2018, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Wester, Inc., 2003).
- Strong’s Greek word #5547. Χριστός Christos, khris-tos´; from 5548; anointed, i.e. the Messiah, an epithet of Jesus:— Christ.
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
- (see reference #1 above), -an or -ian also -ean noun suffix; 1: one that is of or relating to; 2: one skilled in or specializing in.
- Carpenter, Eugene E. and Comfort, Philip W., Holman, Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), p. 251.
- Elwell, Walter A. and Beitzel, Barry J., “Christians, Names For,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 1, p. 432.
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Mattison, Mark M., “What is a Christian?” (Auburn.edu, retrieved 23 August 2018), http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/christian.html
- Hermann, Ray, “Hebrews 6:4 — Can We Lose Our Salvation?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 20 August 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/hebrews-64-can-we-lose-our-salvation/
- Dockery, David S., et al., Holman Bible Handbook, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), p. 753.