“And Barnabas went forth to Tarsus to seek for Saul: and when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that even for a whole year they were gathered together with the church, and taught much people; and that the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”—Acts 11:25, 26
“And Agrippa said unto Paul, With but little persuasion thou would fain make me a Christian.”—Acts 26:28
“But if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.”—1 Pet. 4:16
“THE disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” “With but little persuasion thou would fain make me a Christian.” “If a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.”
These are the only occasions where the word “Christian” occurs in the New Testament. This word, occurring so rarely, and gradually passing into general use, has become almost commonplace. Yet the word in itself has a deep significance and suggestiveness.
Seeing therefore that with the passing of the centuries the word has now come to be so widely used, it is interesting and valuable to go back to the beginnings, and consider what it meant in the early days.
The name by which the followers of Christ were most generally known at that period was that of disciples. They also spoke of themselves as believers, as brethren in Christ, as those who were of “the Way.” But they did not speak of themselves as Christians. The first time the word Christian is used, it is in the way of description. It has been said that these men of Antioch, proverbially witty and clever, created this as a term of opprobrium, a kind of nickname. I am not at all sure of the correctness of that view. It was certainly a name given to these followers of Christ by those who were without. The disciples did not call themselves Christians. They “were called Christians first in Antioch.” The people of Antioch observed these people, took note of them as to their conversation and their habits, and said, They are Christians. Those not themselves Christians were the first to apply the name to the followers of Christ, and it was intended to describe them.
The next occurrence of the word is where a king used it in a tone of supercilious contempt. The Revision has altered the text, and corrected a very popular misconception. Agrippa did not for a moment mean to say that Paul very nearly persuaded him to be a Christian. On the contrary, noticing the earnestness of Paul, and the aggressiveness of his spirit, and having listened to his argument, in disdain for him the king said, “With but little persuasion thou would fain make me a Christian.”
Only once in the New Testament is the word “Christian” used of Christian people by a Christian. Peter made use of it in his Epistle, and yet even here, if the whole context be read, it will be found that in all probability he was quoting from others. Writing of the fact that believers suffer persecution on account of their pure life, he declared that those outside would wonder that they did not run to every “excess of riot,” but he added, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him glorify God in this name”; and thus it is seen that the expression is probably a quotation from the language of those outside. If it was intended that opprobrium should attach to it, then the apostle charged them not to be ashamed of it, but rather to glorify God in it. Let the name be used, and its true significance revealed.
These are the only occurrences in the New Testament, and yet the word has taken hold upon us, and now throughout the world the followers of Christ are spoken of as Christians. Thus the word has come to have a far wider meaning than it had when the men of Antioch used it to describe the disciples, when Agrippa used it in supercilious contempt, or when Peter used it recognizing that it was being made use of as a term of reproach.
G. Campbell Morgan