The word Christian means many things to many people. Not only do most believers refer to themselves as Christians, but the term is also used to describe cultures, political movements, kinds of education, and entertainment, and so on. Over a million children attend Christian schools; countless more listen to Christian gospel, rock, or rap music; others watch Christian soap operas. Some people consider themselves Christians because they grew up going to church in a “Christian nation” whose culture is “Judeo-Christian.” In such places as Lebanon, a Christian is a member of a political party.
Bill Clinton and George Bush call themselves Christians although their economic and political philosophies differ greatly. Jerry Falwell and Pope John Paul II call themselves Christians, but they embrace widely conflicting doctrines. Some Christians groups denounce homosexuality while others ordain militant homosexuals as ministers. As you can see, the term Christian is so broadly applied that it no longer has a distinct, unmistakable meaning.
Originally, however, it was not this way. Although used only three times in the New Testament (believers referred to themselves as disciples or brethren), the word Christian always carries with it the same significance. Acts 11:26 says, “ ...the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” According to an older version of Smith’s Bible Dictionary,
The name ‘Christian,’ then, which ... is used contemptuously, could not have been applied by the early disciples to themselves, nor could it have come to them from their own nation the Jews. It must ... have been imposed upon them by the Gentile world, and no place could have so appropriately given rise to it as Antioch, where the first Church was planted among the heathen. Its inhabitants were celebrated for their wit and a propensity for conferring nicknames.
So to these jokesters in Antioch, a Christian was the follower of some loser who claimed to be something but wasn’t, and who died but of course did not resurrect, as the ridiculous people who followed him claimed. Thus in 1 Peter 4:16 the Amplified Bible says:
But if one is ill-treated and suffers as a Christian (which he is contemptuously called), let him not be ashamed...
Peter was encouraging the disciples to rejoice when they were reviled, the term Christian being listed along with other expressions of scorn in the verse before, such as “murderer ... thief ... evildoer ... meddler.”
And in Acts 26:28, King Agrippa responded to Paul’s passionate testimony by exclaiming, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian!” It is highly doubtful that the king was seriously considering becoming a disciple, but he was certainly amazed at the boldness of Paul to suggest that he should join a hated and despised sect that was spoken against everywhere.1
So to be called a Christian was to be an object of scorn, which was no surprise to those familiar with His words:
...because you are not of this world, but I chose you out of this world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you,’ A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you... (John 15:19-20)
If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul (prince of the demons), how much more the members of the household! (Matthew 10:25)
But what did it mean to be one of these disciples that the scoffers sometimes called Christians? And especially, what were they as a corporate body of people that would single them out for such misunderstanding and even ridicule? 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are ... a holy nation.” What was this holy nation of the New Covenant like?
Paul, in his speech to Agrippa referred to “... our twelve tribes ... as they earnestly serve God night and day.” He could not have been referring to the fallen Jews, because he goes on to say that the Jews were the ones persecuting him and his people!2 Was it his persecutors who were earnestly serving God night and day? No, for the Master had already prophesied to the Jews that “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”3 A new nation had to take the place of the old. And this is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote to the Gentile Ephesians:
You were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ ... So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets... (Ephesians 2:12-13,19-20)
It was through apostles like Paul that this new nation was being formed, the commonwealth of Israel, or the Israel of God as Paul called it.4 This new nation was not one formed by physical descendants, but of those born of the Spirit. It was a nation of an entirely different order, composed only of disciples, because only they had given up their old life to be born again into a new one. Only they were the ones who had taken the Master seriously enough to put aside their own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and yes, even their own life, in order to follow Him as He had commanded. And they certainly respected His word enough to forsake their own possessions, which was the only way in which they could even begin to qualify as disciples.5
The whole emphasis of the Master’s preaching was the kingdom of God and how to enter it. In relative importance, the topic of the kingdom is mentioned three times as often as salvation in the New Testament. So it was absolutely essential that a nation be prepared that could inherit that kingdom. It had to be a nation bonded together with a deeper commitment than mere family ties or blood relations. And being part of that new nation was what being a disciple was all about — and to this day still is.
Many Christians today are puzzled about this notion of a holy nation, for they do not see themselves as part of a nation, which is understandable. Some even regard these passages as merely symbolic, a mystical ideal, while others fancy that they must somehow refer to the Jews in Palestine, or perhaps Jewish Christians. But do you believe in Biblical prophecy?
Paul the Apostle certainly did, so much so that in fact he applied it directly to himself and Barnabas when he said “For thus the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have placed you as a light for the gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth.’ ”6 But is it so unreasonable to think that the apostles were raising up a twelve-tribed nation, a New Covenant Israel, composed of both Jews and gentiles, united together by the Holy Spirit? No, not at all, because the Scripture from which Paul quoted said first, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob ...”7 Here’s a little Bible quiz: Jacob’s sons each became the head of a tribe, and all the tribes together were called Israel. How many sons did Jacob have? How many tribes were there?
Surely James knew when he wrote “... to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad, greetings.”8 But Old Covenant Israel had not been a twelve-tribed nation since the days of King Solomon! Ten of the tribes vanished from history in the Assyrian captivity, some 700 years before James wrote his letter. Had James gone off the deep end? Who was James writing to, anyway?
The apostle Peter knew exactly who, when he wrote:
For you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9)
Clearly there was a newly-formed people who Peter was writing to. Something had changed in their life to warrant them being called a people, for if they had remained in their same old houses, worked their same old jobs, and only believed in Jesus, they would still be not a people. In short, they would still remain integrated into society in the same way as Christianity is today.
Maybe this is very unfamiliar, or even somewhat strange-sounding to you, but really it’s only because of the traditions that have been handed down through Christianity that we would be suspicious when we think of the early church as a twelve-tribed Israel of the New Covenant. For instance, when we read in Acts 2 & 4 about the behavior of the disciples, it really doesn’t resemble anything in Christianity today, unless you get mystical and stretch reality some. Today we hear such phrases as unity in diversity describing how the modern church is still of the same Spirit as the early church, that the roots of Christianity go all the way back to the day of Pentecost; but when we read about what really happened back then, it becomes clear that such phrases are really more like mental gymnastics, lacking the ring of truth. How the early church responded to the gospel fresh from the apostles’ mouths can be read in the two-thousand-year-old account of Acts 2:42-46 & 4:32-35.
This community is what Christian theologians and preachers would like us to think is the root beginning of Christianity. But from the description of the life of the first followers of Messiah, it should be evident that Christianity is not rooted there, but is an altogether different religion from the one that the Savior died to establish. But it’s not at all evident. Far from it.
Because rather than promoting the exact same kind of life that caused such abundant grace to be upon them all, the preachers of Christianity today explain away the powerful phenomena of the early church by saying that it was only a temporary measure for their times, as if the church had to progress beyond community so we could be salt and light in our high-paying jobs at IBM. Some say that it was the first mistake that the church ever made. But Oh! if we could only make such foolish mistakes again today!
Some of these voices in Christianity have even gone so far as to say that the close community life in Jerusalem was far from God’s intentions, so far in fact that He allowed persecution to come upon them so that they would integrate into society and get back on the right track!9 Could this be true?
Consider what is commonly called the Great Commission:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20)
The Master spent three and a half years diligently training these men to respect and obey His words, and after His resurrection an additional forty days preparing them for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, soon to come.
Does it make any sense to you that after all the training and suffering that these godly chosen men went through, that they would find themselves on the day of Pentecost without any idea how these multitudes of new believers could live together and thrive, obeying all that the Son of God had commanded? Is it possible that Peter preached another gospel on the day of Pentecost, different from the one he learned from the Master? Was the community life which the apostles immediately established just a hasty action, a temporary measure to take the pressure off until they could establish the life of what is now Christianity today? Was Christianity their long-range goal, the ultimate practical way to make disciples of all the nations? Or is something drastically wrong with this sort of thinking?
How can someone know that he has passed out of death and into life? John 5:24 says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
Many people today use such Scriptures as evidence of their salvation, because they believe them to be true and put their trust in them. They know that eternal life can only be found in the Son of God, and they are not looking elsewhere. Yet even though they believe in the Scriptures, is their faith valid? Can they be deceived? After all, the Pharisees earnestly held to the Scriptures, but it didn’t do them any good. Their belief was empty.
Fortunately, we can hear the gospels echoed in the epistles, which can help us to judge our true condition with greater clarity. What John heard the Master say, the words which he faithfully recorded, he also explained in his letters, the epistles. Thus we read in 1 John 3:14 “We know that we have passed out of death and into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” So from these two Scriptures just quoted, the Gospel of John and the epistle of 1 John, it becomes very clear — he who believes has passed out of death and into life, and he who loves has passed out of death into life. So believe and love are synonymous, two words representing the same reality.
Unless, of course, you have a doctrine that makes you think that you can pass out of death and into life through a belief that does not produce a life of loving your brothers. In that case, you have a different opinion from the apostle John. He could see the time coming when there would be such a great falling away from true faith, the faith that he was so familiar with. This great falling away is called apostasy, when men would say that they loved the Master but not His words, that they loved the Master but not the brethren. So he defined love in case there was any doubt: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to [must] lay down our lives for the brethren.”10
After all, it was this man John who heard right from the mouth of the only begotten Son of God, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”11 But just to make sure, in his epistle John spelled out in no uncertain terms what it meant to love in the same way as Messiah loved:
But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him. (1 John 3:17-19)
So how do we assure our heart before Him? By loving Him? “The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”12 Only disciples love as He loved, because they have forsaken everything in order to become like Him. “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”13 If we think that we are loving God when we are not living to benefit our brother, we are not loving with a love that John knew was proof that we have passed out of death and into eternal life. John knew that a mystical love, the kind without practical expression, was the work of a deluding spirit.
No one really knows exactly what a Christian is or what one is supposed to do. No one can say what Jesus a Christian should follow. There are a thousand messages, each with its own Jesus, calling one in a thousand different directions. There are no absolutes in the teachings that a Christian receives except the basic doctrines of the virgin birth, Christ’s death on the cross, and the resurrection. One Jesus says one thing, another says something else. Which is the right one? Do you pick and choose? Do you go shopping? Among so many false ones is there any hope of finding the True One?
Do Christians, who claim to belong to Him, have as their highest goal the love of the brethren, and therefore prove that they are saved? Perhaps you may not think it necessary for Christians to prove that they are saved, because most have been taught that they don’t have to do anything, or prove anything. This might well be called apathy masquerading as maturity, because the Savior said “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”14 But maybe you’ve been taught that it is not really so important to glorify the Father. We might say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but when it comes down to making His Name hallowed, there are really more pressing concerns, like making house payments. But such things are what the world eagerly runs after, not disciples.
Isn’t the world waiting to see a fervent and sincere love of the brethren so that they might come away from the darkness of their unbelief, and from their bondage to the evil prince of this present world system? Yet what do they see as they view Christianity today with its many bitter divisions, sects, rivalries, even wars? Just where is the undeniable proof that the Father has sent the Son, so that the world can believe? Or are doctrine, traditions, and spiritual principles enough? “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”15 “Not everyone who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.”16
What does it mean to be a Christian? Perhaps you know by experience. But we would like you to know what it means to be a disciple.