"Why We Had To Be Called 'Christians'”:

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26) 

How to define a “Christian” is actually one of the more interesting debates in a post-Christian culture. Since we’re now on the other side of an overtly Christian culture, that means the word “Christian” has necessarily absorbed some baggage along the way. Clearly, not everyone who identifies as “Christian” is, in fact, a Christian (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 4:20; James 1:26). And if you hope to lead anyone to Christ, in this culture, you should be able to articulate both what “Christian” is and isn’t.

I personally think there are three essential aspects to a Christian witness:

you need to be able to articulate the Bible’s teaching of sin/grace

you need to be able to tell your own personal story in terms of sin/grace

you need to be able to explain what it means that you have now, by grace, been made a “Christian.”

Helpful in the discussion of what it means to be Christian is understanding where the word “Christian” comes from. And fortunately for us, the Bible tells us: a place named Syrian Antioch.

In Book of Acts, which is the story of the Early Christian Church, you have three lengthy case studies of Christian conversion. We find the conversion of an Ethiopian prime minister in chapter eight, the conversion of a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, in chapter nine, and the conversion of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, in chapter ten. And this doesn’t even include the conversion of the Samaritans in chapter eight.

All of this diversification was a little culturally startling to the Early Church in Jerusalem. While you’d think that they’d all be ecstatic about the widespread evangelism, you have to keep in mind that the first-century church consisted mostly of Jewish converts. As the church became “less Jewish” with the conversion of Samaritans and Greeks and Romans and North Africans, some felt a bit of an identity crisis. Up until this point, many believed they had simply added Jesus to their pre-existing Jewish culture, and their conception of culture had been adapted as Christ was adopted, but their culture was not yet transformed. Now they felt like they were losing their personal worldly culture as the predominant culture of their religious lives. And this was somewhat necessary and inevitable.

The eternal, multiethnic, multicultural trajectory of Christianity was seen no more clearly than in the city of Syrian Antioch.

Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It had about ½ million people, making it ten times larger than Jerusalem. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. And it did have a large pre-existing Jewish population. So, although it was 300 miles north of Jerusalem, Antioch was still a natural spot for Christians to flee after the persecution in Jerusalem broke out. Antioch was a gorgeous, wealthy city with a four-mile-long, marble-paved main street lined by marble colonnades. It was the only ancient city with street lights at night. It’s the first truly cosmopolitan city in the empire. And in retrospect, it becomes such an obvious location for Jesus to use as a home base of sorts for his Church to carry out Gentile mission work. The Christian population of the city came about amidst a tremendous pluralism of Roman, Greek, and Syrian gods, as well as Judaism. 

When reading through the names of the leadership at the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1), it becomes clear that amongst the five guys mentioned, just by examining their names, you can tell they come from three different continents and represent at least four nationalities. And it’s at this point that it begins to become clear why the followers of Jesus Christ needed to be called “Christians.”

The Latin suffix -ian means “belonging to the party of.” It seems likely that some of the Jews sort of derisively called the followers of Jesus “Christians.” But why did they have to come up with a name for them at all?

See, the Jews could just be called “Jews.” It was all-encompassing. When someone said “He’s Jewish” – from that name you could understand an individual’s religious beliefs, ethnic lineage, dietary habits, moral standards, and many other details all the way down to his basic weekly schedule.

All of that. The same was true for Samaritans, Romans, Greeks, Africans, etc. But now you have all of these groups converting to follow Jesus. Consequently, you could no longer just say, “He’s a Jew.”

Identifying a nationality was no longer sufficient to summarize the story of his life. And this was the first time in world history that this was the case.

In fact, the city of Antioch was built by a guy named Seleucus, who was one of Alexander the Great’s generals. And when he constructed the city, Seleucus understood that, because of its location, Syrian Antioch was going to be a multiethnic city. Therefore, he not only ended up building a great wall around the city, which most major cities had for protection, but he also built walls within the city. Archeological record tells us there were at least 18 ethnic quarters within the city confines. Seleucus was smart and knew every race and culture believes it is superior to the others, which is why they often try to distance themselves. So the walls of Antioch not only kept the outsiders out, but they were also designed to keep the different ethnic groups separate.

But the Christians in Antioch were blowing this all up. Almost everyone in the world assumes that religion is simply an extension of your culture. And it’s easy to understand why. We tend to think you’re Muslim because you’re Middle Eastern, or Hindu because your Indian, or Roman Catholic because you’re Italian, or Presbyterian because you’re Scottish, or Anglican because you’re English, or Lutheran because your German, or Baptist because you’re Southern. We still hold these assumptions. And much of it is completely fair.

But the Christians in Antioch were busting these categories.

They were metaphorically breaking down the walls of Antioch.

You couldn’t identify their beliefs by their race or skin color or heritage. They needed a new name that apparently represented a higher priority than their culture – and the name given to them was “Christian.”

What does this mean for us today?

The early followers of Jesus had to be given the name “Christian” because they no longer identified primarily with their society’s prevailing priorities.

Jesus had become a higher priority.

Jesus had become to them “God.”

This doesn’t mean they resented every aspect of their culture. But it did mean that they rejected the cultural practices that didn’t glorify the true God. Remember, they were given the name “Christian” from the outside. It was obvious to the surrounding community – by the way they interacted in their relationships, by the way they managed their time and money, by the truth that they taught – that Jesus was their chief priority. They believed their sins were forgiven, their eternity was secure, and their time on earth was principally an opportunity to testify to that.

I’m constantly writing about how culture is ever-changing. But that – the Antioch definition of “Christian” – totally works still today.

We thank Pastor James Hein and https://www.breadforbeggars.com for this week's blog.