“It was first in Antioch [Syria] that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.” (Ac 11:26) It is possible, then, that this name was used as early as the year 44 C.E. when the events surrounding this text occurred, although the grammatical structure of this phrase does not necessarily make it so; some think it was a little later. At any rate, by about 58 C.E., in the city of Caesarea, the term was well known and used even by public officials, for at that time King Herod Agrippa II said to Paul: “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian.”
Bible writers in addressing fellow believers or describing followers of Christ used expressions such as “believers in the Lord,” “brothers” and “disciples” (Ac 5:14; 6:3; 15:10), “chosen ones” and “faithful ones” (Col 3:12; 1Ti 4:12), “slaves to God” and “slaves of Christ Jesus” (Ro 6:22; Php 1:1), “holy ones,” “congregation of God,” and “those who call upon the Lord.” (Ac 9:13; 20:28; 1Co 1:2; 2Ti 2:22) These terms with doctrinal meaning were used primarily as internal congregational designations. To outsiders Christianity was referred to as “The Way” (Ac 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4), and opponents called it “the sect of the Nazarenes” or just “this sect.”
It was first in Syrian Antioch that Christ’s followers became known as Christians. It is most unlikely that the Jews first styled Jesus’ followers “Christians” (Greek) or “Messianists” (Hebrew), for they would not reject Jesus as being the Messiah, or Christ, and then tacitly recognize him as the Anointed One, or Christ, by stamping his followers “Christians.” Some think the heathen population may have nicknamed them Christians out of jest or scorn, but the Bible shows that it was a God-given name; they “were by divine providence called Christians.”
The Greek verb khre·ma·tiʹzo in this text is generally rendered simply “were called,” and that is what is done at Acts 11:26 in most translations. However, there are translations that indicate that God had something to do with selecting the name ‘Christian.’ Noteworthy in this regard are the New World Translation, Young’s Literal Translation, and The Simple English Bible. Young’s reads: “The disciples also were divinely called first in Antioch Christians.”
The Greek word khre·ma·tiʹzo as used in the Christian Greek Scriptures is always associated with something supernatural, oracular, or divine. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, in its Greek dictionary (1890, p. 78), defines it as “to utter an oracle . . . i.e. divinely intimate.” Edward Robinson’s Greek and English Lexicon (1885, p. 786) gives the meaning: “Spoken in respect to a divine response, oracle, declaration, to give response, to speak as an oracle, to warn from God.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1889, p. 671): “to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven . . . to be divinely commanded, admonished, instructed . . . to be the mouthpiece of divine revelations, to promulge the commands of God.” Thomas Scott in his Explanatory Notes on this text (1832, Vol. III, p. 419) says: “The word implies that this was done by divine revelation: for it has generally this signification in the New Testament, and is rendered ‘warned from God’ or ‘warned of God,’ even when there is no word for GOD in the Greek.” Concerning Acts 11:26, Clarke’s Commentary says: “The word [khre·ma·tiʹsai] in our common text, which we translate were called, signifies in the New Testament, to appoint, warn, or nominate, by Divine direction. In this sense, the word is used, Matt. ii. 12 . . . If, therefore, the name was given by Divine appointment, it is most likely that Saul and Barnabas were directed to give it; and that, therefore, the name Christian is from God.”
The Scriptures speak of Jesus Christ as the Bridegroom, the Head and Husband of his anointed followers. (2Co 11:2; Eph 5:23) Appropriately, then, as a wife is happy to take her husband’s name, so this “bride” class of Christ was pleased to receive a name identifying its members as belonging to him. In this way observers of these first-century Christians readily recognized them not only by their activity but also by their name as altogether different from the practitioners of Judaism; here was a growing association where there was neither Jew nor Greek but all were one under their Head and Leader, Jesus Christ.
What It Means to Be a Christian. Jesus extended the invitation to be his follower, saying: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake and continually follow me.” (Mt 16:24) Those who are true Christians have full faith that Jesus Christ is God’s specially Anointed One and only-begotten Son, the Promised Seed who sacrificed his human life as a ransom, was resurrected and exalted to the right hand of Jehovah, and received authority to subdue his enemies and vindicate Jehovah’s sovereignty. (Mt 20:28; Lu 24:46; Joh 3:16; Ga 3:16; Php 2:9-11; Heb 10:12, 13) Christians view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, absolute truth, beneficial for teaching and disciplining mankind.
More is required of true Christians than a mere confession of faith. It is necessary that belief be demonstrated by works. (Ro 10:10; Jas 2:17, 26) Born as sinners, those who become Christians repent, turn around, dedicate their lives to Jehovah, to worship and serve him, and then submit to water baptism. (Mt 28:19; Ac 2:38; 3:19) They must keep themselves clean from fornication, from idolatry, and from eating blood. (Ac 15:20, 29) They strip off old personalities with their fits of anger, obscene talk, lying, stealing, drunkenness, and “things like these,” and they bring their lives into accord with Bible principles. (Ga 5:19-21; 1Co 6:9-11; Eph 4:17-24; Col 3:5-10) “Let none of you,” wrote Peter to Christians, “suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” (1Pe 4:15) Christians are to be kind and considerate, mild-tempered and long-suffering, lovingly exercising self-control. (Ga 5:22, 23; Col 3:12-14) They provide and care for their own and love their neighbors as themselves. (1Ti 5:8; Ga 6:10; Mt 22:36-40; Ro 13:8-10) The main identifying quality by which true Christians are recognized is the outstanding love they have toward one another. “By this,” Jesus said, “all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”
True Christians imitate Jesus’ example as the Great Teacher and Faithful Witness of Jehovah. (Joh 18:37; Re 1:5; 3:14) “Go . . . make disciples of people of all the nations” is their Leader’s command. (Mt 28:19, 20) In carrying it out, Christians ‘witness publicly and from house to house,’ urging people everywhere to flee out of Babylon the Great and put their hope and confidence in God’s Kingdom. (Ac 5:42; 20:20, 21; Re 18:2-4) This is really good news, but proclaiming such a message brings upon Christians great persecution and suffering, even as was experienced by Jesus Christ. His followers are not above him; it is enough if they are like him. (Mt 10:24, 25; 16:21; 24:9; Joh 15:20; 2Ti 3:12; 1Pe 2:21) If one “suffers as a Christian, let him not feel shame, but let him keep on glorifying God in this name,” counseled Peter. (1Pe 4:16) Christians render to “Caesar” what belongs to the superior authorities of this world
It is understandable why people with such high principles of morality and integrity, accompanied by an electrifying message delivered with fiery zeal and outspokenness, quickly gained attention in the first century. Paul’s missionary travels, for example, were like a spreading prairie fire that set city after city ablaze
Non-Christian Testimony. Secular writers of the first two centuries also acknowledged the presence and influence of early Christians in their pagan world. For example, Tacitus, a Roman historian born about 55 C.E., tells of the rumor charging that Nero was the one responsible for burning Rome (64 C.E.), and then says: “Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices [as the Romans viewed matters], whom the crowd styled Christians. . . . First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.” (The Annals, XV, XLIV) Suetonius, another Roman historian, born toward the end of the first century C.E., relates events that occurred during Nero’s reign, saying: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Flavius Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, 64 [iii, 3]), mentions certain events in the life of Jesus, adding: “And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day [about 93 C.E.] not disappeared.” Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in 111 or 112 C.E., faced with the ‘Christian problem,’ wrote to Emperor Trajan, outlining the methods he was using and asking for advice. “I have asked them in person if they are Christians,” wrote Pliny. If they admitted it, they were punished. However, others “denied that they were or ever had been Christians.” Put to the test, not only did these offer up pagan sacrifices but they even “reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.” In answering this letter, Trajan commended Pliny on the way he had handled the matter: “You have followed the right course of procedure . . . in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians.”
First-century Christianity had no temples, built no altars, used no crucifixes, and sponsored no garbed and betitled ecclesiastics. Early Christians celebrated no state holidays and refused all military service. “A careful review of all the information available goes to show that, until the time of Marcus Aurelius [who ruled 161-180 C.E.], no Christian became a soldier; and no soldier, after becoming a Christian, remained in military service.”
Nevertheless, as indicated in Pliny’s letter, not all who bore the name Christian were uncompromisingly such when put to the test. Just as had been foretold, the spirit of apostasy was already at work before the apostles fell asleep. (Ac 20:29, 30; 2Pe 2:1-3; 1Jo 2:18, 19, 22) Within a period of less than 300 years, the wheat field of Christianity had been overrun with the weeds of apostate antichrists to the point where wicked Constantine the Great (himself incriminated in the murder of no less than seven close friends and relatives) figured in events that led to the development of a state religion disguised as “Christianity.”