Saturday, August 05, 2006

What's in a name?

I live in a religious area where most people would describe themselves as " Christians". Yet, if you went to the mall and took a survey of 100 people to discover what they think the word means, you'd probably get a hundred answers. People use it to say, "I'm not Moslem. I'm not Jewish. Therefore I must be Christian," or "I go to church when I feel like it and I perform a few good deeds now and again " or "My granddaddy was a preacher," or "I believe that Christ is the Son of God, so I'm sure I must be saved, even though I'm not living a righteous life right now ", or "I truly am devoted to Christ, who loved me and saved me through his blood."

Since we know that God is not the author of confusion, it must be Satan who's got us all mixed up. Yet, there are only three to five* references (depending on the translation) to the word Christian in the entire Bible. Thus, it should't be as hard to define as we make it out to be.

When I first discovered how rarely God uses this term, I was shocked. Today, that's the word most of us use most of the time, so I assumed that it must fill the pages of the New Testament. I don't know why I thought that. I had read my Bible enough to know better.

Below are all three times the NIV version translates the word, "Christian". Please note that the KJV also uses the word Christian only in these identical verses.

Acts 26:28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?"

I Peter
4:16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

Acts 11:26
and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

That's it.

From these few mentions, we learn that a Christian is something that Agrippa didn't want to be, that sometimes being a Christian involves suffering, and that the word Christian is simply another name for a disicple of Jesus.

Apparently, the disciples did not choose the name of Christian for themselves. It is a beautiful word, for it means Christ-like or one who follows Christ. However, it was probably first used in a derogatory way. The poeple in Antioch so identified these "Jesus people" with their Lord so much that they started calling them "Christians".

When I was a girl, people labeled those who followed the Reverend Moon as "Moonies", so much so that I don't even know the real name of his religious movement . Moonie was not as a compliment. In the same way, it's likely that the citizens of Antioch did not mean to compliment the disciples there by calling them Christians. No matter what their movties were, the name stuck -- at least in popular terminology. Besides, it doesn't really matter whether the term was used to encourage or to stigmatize. Even if we are sometimes persecuted for wearing the name of Christ, it is the greatest privilege we could ever hope for.

This brings me to another "doh" moment in my spiritual history. We've just seen that the word Christian is used only three times. By contrast, the word "disciple"is used over 260 times, most notably in the gospels and Acts. Somehow, in all of my Bible study, I missed that important fact! In fact, there was a time when I thought there were only twelve disciples, for I confused the term disciples with apostle. It never occured to me that disciple is the predominant word used to describe all followers of Christ. Therefore, it never occured to me that I should be one!

Jesus, Himself, linked being his disciple with the gospel and salvation. In Matthew 28:18-20 NIV, He commanded his apostles to "Go and make disiples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." The KJV renders "make disciples" as teach, but the original Greek word actually means a particular kind of teaching. It means to enroll scholars or disciples in the shcool of a master.

What did Jesus mean when he commissioned the apostles to "make disciples". A disciple is a student, a follower, or someone who adheres to a master's teachings. When someone "becomes a Christian", he becomes Christ's student.

As we grow in Christ, we take on more of his heart and his character. We train others to be like Christ, as well. But, even as we share what we've learned with others, we still remain pupils or disciples. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is always ahead of us. Jesus, the Son of God, is perfect in all of his attributes. He is always ahead of us, always beckoning us to follow Him. We keep growing, learning, repenting, and followig after Christ until the day He takes us home to heaven.

It's easy for us to miss the significance of Christ's call to be his disicples. Our culture has lost the meaning of the word disciple, in general.

Oh, we do occasionally say that someone is a disicple of a certain teacher. For example, I read a book by a woman who studied under ballet teacher who "a disciple of Pavolva". Pavolova was one of the greatest ballerinas in history. Though Pavolova had passed away by the time the author became a student, she was thrilled to dance at the feet of someone who personified Palova's art, methodology, and approach. To her, it was as if she studied with Pavolova herself.

Yet, such references to a disciple learning at the feet of a master are rare. Our primary view of education is that of a teacher lecturing in a classroom setting.

By contrast, both the early Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians easily understood what it meant to become Jesus' disciple. In both Greek and Hebrew cultures, students of religion or philosophy traveled with their teachers. They grew to know their teacher deeply, and he grew to know them. They saw their teacher in action. They not only learned his teachings -- as important as the teachings were -- they also knew the teacher's heart and character, as well. They imitated his life. They wanted to be like him in every way, and they wanted others to become disciples of their master, too.

If you encountered the disciple of a certain teacher, likely you saw a good deal of that teacher reflected in him. Thus, to meet someone's disciple was to have a window through which to view what that teacher was all about.

Having seen multiple examples of discipleship, it was no great leap for the early Christians to understand all that being in a saved relationship with their Lord entailed. They held to and promoted Jesus' teachings. They took on his heart and his character. They imitated Him. They sought to be like Him in every way. Thus, anyone who met a Christian would have some clue to what Jesus was like.

In fact, the Christians' zeal would outshine that of disciples of human teachers, for they had a greater Master and a greater motivation. No human teacher had ever died to save the world from sin. No human master had ever risen from the dead. No human master was God in the flesh, come down to show us his unfathomable love. Most of all, Christians actually had God's Holy Spirit dwelling within them.

So, all of this this brings us right back to the name Christian, doesn't it? A Christian is one so thoroughly identified with his Teacher, Christ, that He is called by Christ's name. In the same way, the disciple is one who acknowledges that He is Jesus student and is easily recognized as such. Thus, the true meaning of "Christian" and the true meaning of "disciple" are essentially one and the same: They both are terms for the person who follows Christ, our Lord and Savior. You can't be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus (or vice versa), any more than you can say to your math teacher, "I will be your student, but I won't be your pupil".

As it says in I John 2:6 "Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did." In other words, we dare not use the word Christian to describe ourselves lightly. We cannot merely call Jesus Lord (see Matthew 7:21-27), we must follow Him. Of course, Christians are not perfect in walking as Jesus did. But, they do wholeheartedly follow in the steps of their Lord and Savior.

Today, we do not physically follow Jesus, as the people of his time did. But, we know him through God's word.. We also learn from godly people, whose Christlike example inspires us.
Just as the early Christians did, we have the Holy Spirit to help us in bearing the fruit of a Christlike character. (See Acts 2:38, Galatians 5:16-28).

We go to Jesus, and we learn from Him. And, Jesus says that it is in coming to Him and being his pupil that we find rest. (See Matthew 11:28-29). Could it be that so many of us suffer spiritual unrest, because we try to follow Christ and follow the world, too? Not only does that not work, this places us in spiritual danger. Christ will not allow us to have two Masters (See Revelation 3:14-21, John Chapters 14-15, Matthew 7:21-27, Matthew 6:24).

Of course, Christian and disciple are not the only terms for one who follows Jesus. The KJV has three references to the term "believer", for example. The NIV translators make freer use of this word, applying it in twenty scriptures. The King James references go back to the Greek word, "pisteou" which means to trust, to commit, assurance, fidelity, to have faith in. It is used, by implication, of the Christian who entrusts his spiritual well-being to Christ.

Another word that is used for Christian is the word "saint", which means someone who is holy or pure. Someone or something that is holy has been set apart for God's purpose. In I Peter 1:16, God commands us, "Be holy, as I am holy." Again, God reminds us that he is the example -- the standard -- for us to follow.

One of the most beloved terms for "Christian" is "saved". We could decide to follow Christ from now until the day we die, but our efforts would not save us from the penalty that our sins deserve. Only the blood of Christ can do that. However, we have to look at why Christ saved us. He saved us so that we can walk with Him. He saved us so that our nature of sin can be crucified, and we can be raised to live a new life in Him and for Him.

Titus 2:11-14 says, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. it teachs us to say "no" to ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wiat for the blessed hope -- the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a peopel that are his very own, eager to do what is good."

In speaking of our freedom in Christ, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18,
"And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

And, that brings us back full circle to "Christian" -- "One who belongs to Christ and is like Christ".

There's a lot in a name, isn't there?


*Some of the newest translations of the Bible use the word Christian more frequently -- up to 33 times.

1 comment:

Mrs Blythe said...

Thanks for this post Elizabeth and thanks for your comment on my site.

There is indeed much in a name, they even called the disciples Nazarenes and this wasn't meant as a compliment! And lol, I vaguley remember the Moonies. You are so right we need to be disciples of Christ and keep our eyes on the Author and Perfecter of our faith. He loves us, so we should love Him.