The Latinized Greek term Khri·sti·a·nosʹ, found only three times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, designates followers of Christ Jesus, the exponents of Christianity.—Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16.
“It was first in Antioch [Syria] that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.” (Acts 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 58 C.E., in the city of Caesarea, nearly 300 miles (482.7 kilometers) S of Antioch, the term was well known and used even by public officials, for, at that time, King Agrippa II said to Paul: “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian.”—Acts 26:28.
Bible writers in addressing fellow believers or describing followers of Christ used expressions such as “believers in the Lord,” “brothers” and “disciples” (Acts 5:14; 6:3; 15:10), “chosen ones” and “faithful ones” (Col. 3:12; 1 Tim. 4:12), “slaves to God” and “slaves of Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:22; Phil. 1:1), “holy ones,” “congregation of God” and “those who call upon the Lord.” (Acts 9:13; 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:22) These terms with doctrinal meaning were used primarily as internal congregational designations. To outsiders Christianity was referred to as “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4), and opponents called it “the sect of the Nazarenes” or just “this sect.”—Acts 24:5; 28:22.
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.”—Acts 11:26.
The Greek verb khre·ma·tiʹzo in this text is generally rendered simply “were called.” A check of some fifty translations in several modern languages reveals that only the New World Translation and Young’s indicate that God had anything to do with selecting the name “Christian”; Young’s reads: “The disciples also were divinely called first in Antioch Christians.”
This is an example of careful scholarship, for khre·ma·tiʹzo as used in the Christian Greek Scriptures is always associated with something supernatural, oracular or divine. Strong’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “to utter an oracle, . . . i.e. divinely intimate.” Robinson’s Greek Lexicon 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: “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 Commentary on this text 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.” 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.”—See Matthew 2:12, 22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Hebrews 8:5; 11:7; 12:25, where this Greek verb occurs.
The Scriptures speak of Jesus Christ as the bridegroom, the Head and Husband of his anointed followers. (2 Cor. 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 them 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.—Gal. 3:26-28; Col. 3:11.
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.” (Matt. 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 the one who received authority to subdue his enemies and vindicate Jehovah’s name. (Matt. 20:28; Luke 24:46; John 3:16; Gal. 3:16; Phil. 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.—John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21.
More is required of true Christians than mere confession of faith. It is necessary that belief be demonstrated by works. (Rom. 10:10; Jas. 2:17, 26) Born as sinners, those who become Christians repent, turn around, dedicate their lives to Jehovah’s worship and service, and submit to water baptism. (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 3:19) From then on they keep themselves clean from fornication, idolatry and from eating blood. (Acts 15:20, 29) They strip off old personalities with their fits of anger, obscene talk, lying, stealing, drunkenness, and “things like these,” and bring their lives into accord with Bible principles. (Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 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.” (1 Pet. 4:15) Christians are to be kind and considerate, mild-tempered and long-suffering, lovingly exercising self-control. (Gal. 5:22, 23; Col. 3:12-14) They provide and care for their own and love their neighbors as themselves. (1 Tim. 5:8; Gal. 6:10; Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 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.”—John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 13.
True Christians imitate Jesus’ example as the Great Teacher and Faithful Witness of Jehovah. (John 18:37; Rev. 1:5; 3:14) “Go . . . make disciples of people of all the nations,” ‘teaching them to do the same things I taught you to do,’ is their Leader’s command, and in carrying it out Christians urge people everywhere to flee out of Babylon the Great and put their hope and confidence in God’s kingdom. (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8; Rev. 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. (Matt. 10:24, 25; 16:21; 24:9; John 15:20; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 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. (1 Pet. 4:16) Christians render to “Caesar” what belongs to the superior authorities of this world—honor, respect, tax—but at the same time they remain separate from this world’s affairs (John 17:16; Rom. 13:1-7), and for this the world hates them.—John 15:19; 18:36; 1 Pet. 4:3, 4; Jas. 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17.
It is understandable why people with such high Christian 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—Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Perga, on one trip; Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens and Corinth on another—causing people to stop, think and take their stand, either accepting or rejecting the good news of God’s kingdom. (Acts 13:14–14:26; 16:11–18:17) Many thousands abandoned their false religious organizations, wholeheartedly embraced Christianity, and zealously took up the preaching activity in imitation of Christ Jesus and the apostles. This, in turn, made them objects of hatred and persecution, which was instigated chiefly by the false religious leaders and misinformed political rulers. Their leader Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, had been put to death on the charge of sedition; now peace-loving Christians were accused of “disturbing our city,” ‘overturning the inhabited earth,’ and being a people ‘that everywhere is spoken against.’ (Acts 16:20; 17:6; 28:22) By the time Peter wrote his first letter (c. 62-64 C.E.) it seems that the activity of Christians was well known in places such as “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”—1 Pet. 1:1.
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 Nero as responsible for burning Rome (64 C.E.), and then says: “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. . . . Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (The Annals, Book XV, par. 44, translated by Church and Brodribb) Suetonius, another Roman historian, born toward the end of the first century C. E., relates events that occurred during Nero’s reign, saying: “Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”—The Twelve Caesars, Nero, p. 217, par. 16; translated by Robert Graves.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVIII, chap. iii, par. 3; translated by Whiston), mentions certain events in the life of Jesus, adding: “And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day [about 93 C.E.].” 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 asked them whether they were Christians,” wrote Pliny. If they admitted it they were punished. However, others “upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so.” Put to the test, these not only offered up pagan sacrifices, they “even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances.” In answering this letter Trajan commended Pliny on the way he handled the matter: “You have adopted the right course . . . in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you.”—Harvard Classics, Vol. IX, pp. 425-428.
Primitive Christianity had no temples, built no altars, used no crucifixes, sponsored no garbed and betitled ecclesiastics. Early Christians celebrated no state holidays, and refused all military service. In his Apology (chap. 38) Tertullian wrote: “Among us [Christians] nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theatre, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground.” “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.”—The Rise of Christianity, Ernest W. Barnes, 1947, p. 333.
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. (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 John 2:18, 19, 22) Within a period of less than three hundred 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) was able to set up a state religion disguised as “Christianity.”