🔼The name Christian in Biblical times
Nowadays, the word Christian denotes someone who (or something which) has something to do with what two millennia of cultural evolution have made of Jesus the Nazarene, but it may not actually have originated in Jesus the Nazarene. As bizarre as it may seem, Christianity as a movement or trend may have existed before Jesus came to the scene. The key to this gripping hypothesis is that Jesus obviously didn't arrive on earth in an intellectual vacuum, and the intellectual element of His ministry was grafted on existing theological models. Nobody will deny that His general theology was Jewish, and Judaism obviously existed long before Jesus was born.
Judaism at the time of Jesus was highly fractured. Pretty much every center of learning had its own leanings, preferences and take on things and there were such a great many colors to Judaism that modern scholars prefer to speak of "first century Judaisms", in plural rather than singular. Everybody knows about the Pharisees and Sadducees, but there were many more. Some forms of Judaism were militant movements (such as that of the Zealots), but most appear to have emphasized either codes of conduct (for instance the Essenes), certain philosophies (for instance the Synagogue of the Freedmen; Acts 6:9, see our article on the name Pilate) or scientific investigation and speculation (perhaps the Yahwists).
Some of these movements were incompatible with the gospel (the Sadducees, for instance, rejected resurrection and thus the core concept of the gospel; Matthew 22:23) but others were just a few cheers short of it and could be easily completed (Pharisaic theology appears to have been a virtual manger for baby Jesus; Nicodemus, Gamaliel and even Paul came from the Pharisaic school of thought).
This means that the movement around Jesus the Nazarene was not a entirely new thing but was largely grafted upon existing ideas, like a river with one actual source and a great many tributaries. And it also means that this new movement was never actually unified in any practical sense, but formed a fluvial delta as soon as it began forming (see Acts 15).
🔼The gospel and the sects
The gospels the way we have them are not so much realistic impressions of the goings on — realistic impressionism or journalism had not yet been invented — but rather deliberate compositions that ordered the goings on in hugely complex commentaries. And thus, when Jesus' words are conveyed, it's not always clear whether He invented His complicated metaphors as He went along, or perhaps quoted from earlier Scriptures or writings either local or foreign, or favorably or unfavorably referred to existing schools of thought.
The authors of the New Testament are quite obvious about the school of John the Baptist, with its distinct message and disciples (the original Baptists) that were in time absorbed by the movement headed by Jesus (John 1:35-37, Acts 19:3).
When Paul went after the disciples in Damascus, he searched for people "belonging to the Way" (Acts 9:2) which is obviously a designation of a particular sect. Jesus called Himself the Way (John 14:6), but it isn't clear whether He coined this epithet then and there, or whether He addressed the members of an existing sect called such by telling them that He was what they were after (like saying to a group of Methodists: "I am the Method!").
The "town" of Nazareth where Jesus was from was probably not a geographical town (read our article on that name for reasons why not) and was most probably an existing Jewish school of thought (the Nazarenes), which we propose had to do with both the believers being scattered (Acts 8:1-4) and the blessings of the Lord of Life being scattered among pagan nations as much as among the chosen people of Israel (Peter's Great Sheet vision is a clear demonstration of that particular belief, which obviously is one of the main elements of the gospel message; Acts 10:15).
Since the discoveries at Qumran we know that the phrase "Sons of Light" was not a general title for virtuous men, but rather a military nickname for Israel (see the War Scroll). Jesus called these militant Sons of Light shrewd (Luke 16:8), and explained that He was the Light (John 8:12, 9:5) and that His followers are the real Sons of Light (John 12:36, 1 Thessalonians 5:5).
Doubtlessly many more sects, schools of thought and foreign philosophies are referred to in the New Testament (see, for instance, our articles on the names Homer, Stoics and Epicureans) but for now we'll focus on Christianity.
The name Χριστιανος (Christianos) or Christian occurs only three times in the Bible, and was clearly not appreciated much by the Bible's key players:
In Acts 11:26 we learn that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, but it isn't explained why and by whom. It's also not clear whether these disciples dubbed Christians were the twelve, or all of them, or even whether they perhaps included pre-Jesus disciples like those of John the Baptist.
Also unanswered is the question whether the name Christian was coined here and for the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, or was already existing and became applied to the disciples in Antioch. If the latter option is the correct one, the author is stating something highly significant, namely that at Antioch the majestic Gospel of Life became confused with an existing human endeavor.
Three centuries later, during the time of Constantine, the same would happen when the phrases and images of this already tainted Christianity were wholly divorced from their origins and stuck to the structures of the cult of Sol Invictus (read our article on the name Nazarene for more details of this).
In Acts 26:28, Paul is speaking with king Agrippa, Bernice and Porcius Festus. Upon asking the king if he believed the prophets, the king responded that Paul might soon convince him to become a Christian. Paul's answer to Agrippa (Acts 26:29) is characteristically ambiguous, because is he saying that, indeed, he's a Christian and everybody else should be one too, or is he saying no, he's not a Christian and everybody should be what he is in stead?
Agrippa's response to Paul strongly suggests that Agrippa considered becoming a Christian an intellectual exercise, having to do with prophecies, and obviously didn't associate it with the political consequences of following Jesus of Nazareth. He ruled that Paul wasn't doing anything illegal (Acts 26:31), while according to Roman law, Paul was quite blatantly committing multiple counts of high treason.
As we will see below, the name Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means Anointed One and which was a title of Israel's kings, high priests and prophets. Someone called an Anointed One had by definition no human authority over him, but answered to God alone. Paul preached obedience to earthly governments (Titus 3:1) for the mere practical purpose of not getting executed or tortured, but besides the resurrection of Jesus, the sovereignty of the human individual and his responsibility to the Creator alone is the core idea of the gospel. It's therefore the purpose of Christ to put an end to all rule and all authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24), and proclaiming this in the Roman empire constituted a crime punishable by death.
The Romans tried to be respectful to other people's beliefs but could not abide anyone who didn't acknowledge the divinity of the Roman emperor.
🔼1 Peter 4:16
In 1 Peter 4:16 the distinction between following Christ and being called a Christian in the first century is made even clearer. Peter states that if a person was reviled for the name of Christ (if one proclaimed one's own freedom and responsibility), this person was blessed. But not if this person's suffering resulted from degrading the gift of personal freedom into becoming a murderer, a thief or a troublemaker. This same vein of degradation drives Peter's next statement, albeit it a degradation forced upon someone, namely by being called a Christian. A similar confusion of terms may arise in modern times when a scientist who follows Jesus is assumed to be a Christian Scientist, which denotes a member of a particular sect created by Mary Baker Eddy.
🔼Why "Christian" was probably a bad word
There are probably to two main reasons why the early followers of Jesus would have considered the word Christian a bad word. The first one is that since a few centuries, there was a very strong and mostly militant Messianic movement in Jewish circles, which hoped for or worked towards an independent Israel which was ruled by a Jewish king (an Anointed One, or Messiah; Mark 11:10, Luke 18:36, Acts 1:6). In the Greek speaking world, these Messianic enthusiasts would surely have been known as Christians (= Those of the Anointment); a broad group of nationalists ranging from liberation theologians to bands of guerrilla warriors and terrorists, all bent on reinstating the Jewish monarchy. Agrippa probably figured himself to be a Jewish king and had vey little problems with the Christian movement, as long as it didn't try to depose him, which it didn't.
When Jesus responded to this Messianic movement by stating that He was the Anointed One (= the King of Israel) but had no intention to raise up arms against the Romans, the original Christian movement rejected Him, His followers rejected the name Christian, and the Jewish monarchy felt safe enough to let this all this semantic silliness slide. Observers who lacked the insight to perceive the difference, assumed that followers of Jesus were nationalistic Christians, which started a confusion that lasts until today.
The second reason why the followers of Jesus would have rejected the name Christian is quite a bit more subtle, but not less significant and certainly much more relevant for people today. Followers of Jesus, namely, don't follow Jesus the way every member of every sect or school of thought follows a founder or revered manifesto. A follower of Jesus is not someone who studies, promotes or cheers the anointment, but someone who partakes in the anointment (2 Corinthians 1:21, 1 John 2:20).
Followers of Christ — definition
Followers of Christ are Christs, not Christians. They are not followers of the king; they are kings with the king. They are not Those of the Anointment; they are the Anointed Ones.
Following Jesus is not an intellectual thing; it's a rebirth. It has nothing to do with figuring things out, but everything with a person's death and resurrection; the cessation of a person's natural character and role in society, followed by a reboot, and a reassignment and reapplication of this person. Christs don't follow Jesus like sheep do their shepherd. Jesus is incarnate in His people; they are Jesus. That is why Jesus is with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), and the event generally known as the Second Coming is not the return of someone who's now gone, but a newly recognition of someone who never left.
The event generally known as the Ascension of Christ didn't remove Him from the earth; it merely turned Him from being one human person to being many of them. In the past there have been men who profiled themselves as the Vicar of Christ, even His earthly representative, but men like that should be regarded with the same forgiving kindness as one who claims to be the representative of the vitamin.
🔼What constitutes a follower of Jesus
Ask any group of people what it means to be a Christian today — or rather: which defining quality sets a Christian apart from all other people — and you'll get the same answers, which are almost always entirely wrong:
- A Christian is a good person
- Many of mankind's best and brightest (Socrates included) have tried to define virtue and were forced to admit failure. When someone called Jesus good, He responded that no one is good except God (Luke 18:18-19). So no, a Christian is not a "good" person. Many Christians endeavor to be good (whatever that might mean), but so do scores of people of other leanings. In the business world, of all places, observers see a growing trend towards what is termed "ethical decision making," which also demonstrates a desire to be "good".
- A Christian is a nice person
- Most Christians surely try to be nice and kind, but kindness is not restricted to Christianity. It shouldn't be too difficult to find someone who is a professing Christian but deemed not kind by peers, and a nice person who's not a professing Christian.
- A Christian pursues truth
- Nope, that's the job of science. For centuries science was a sub-discipline of theology, and hopefully will one day be again, but today truth is pursued by science and (sadly) most scientists aren't Christians. Few will deny that Richard Dawkins pursues truth, but less will dub him a Christian.
- A Christian studies and follows Jesus' teachings
- No, because that would make Christianity an intellectual endeavor and intellectually challenged people would be excluded. Theologians aren't necessarily Christians and not all Christians are theologians. Jesus said that the secrets of God are withheld from the wise and learned but revealed to children (Matthew 11:25).
- A Christian does the Lord's will via their hearts
- The prophet Jeremiah said that the heart is the most deceitful thing (Jeremiah 17:9). There's not one single person in the Bible, or after it, who followed the Lord's will wholly and all the time (Romans 3:10-12).
- A Christian is obedient to the church
- Jesus said to not follow human leaders (Matthew 23:10), so no, someone who is obedient to any human instructor is per definition not a Christian. It's obviously highly recommended to pay attention to what older and wiser people have to say, but not only Christians do that.
- A Christian calls upon Jesus and does groovy things in His name
- Jesus says that many people who call His name and do things in His name are strangers to Him, whereas some people who never call His name or are religious in any sense, do His will (Matthew 7:21-23).
- A Christian believes all the right things
- The devil believes all the right things. The devil is not a Christian, is he?
- A Christian has the Holy Spirit
- That is true, but it's very difficult to establish which behavior derives from the Holy Spirit and which doesn't. In his brave and much needed (albeit not unchallenged) book Counterfeit Revival (1997), Hank Hanegraaff showed that much behavior that is commonly associated with the Holy Spirit can be found in pagan and natural societies. Paul lists quite a few "fruits of the Spirit" but none of these can be found only in Christian circles (Galatians 5:22-23). It's also by no means certain that the Holy Spirit limits His influence to professing Christians (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17).
- A Christian has all kinds of feelings about and from Jesus
- We should be very careful about directing feelings toward Jesus, because chances are excellent that we're just making the whole thing up, and are simply constructing an idol which we give the name Jesus. The delightful internet meme around Chuck Norris illustrates fans' tendency to ascribe glorious characteristics to their hero, which stem solely from their enthusiasm and not from a genuine care. Or in other words: the four-hundred-fifty sincerely devoted priests whom Elijah dealt with at the brook Kishon (1 Kings 18:40), experienced all kinds of feelings about Baal and genuine love and songs of praise and worship and some deft theology probably too. Note that the name Baal means Lord; a Baal service probably sounded quite similar to a gathering of modern Evangelicals.
- A Christian sticks to his guns no matter what
- That's probably as true for Christians as it is for Muslims, Scientists, Buddhists and Lady Gaga fans. Stubbornness is not a virtue, especially when one's belief is either off kilter or else not complete, which probably covers all of us.
🔼Christians and heathens
The list could be expanded further, but the point is probably made sufficiently. We humans are so desperate to categorize ourselves that we cling to labels that mean nothing at all or else are colossal misnomers. And why? Why are we so eager to be called Christians? Is it so that we can call the others "heathens" and feel better about ourselves (1 Corinthians 4:3)?
Or do we honestly expect the gates of heaven to open or close on account of some vain label that we might be sporting? Or some mailing list we're on? What a disastrous nonsense! It's time we grew up and get right with the gospel.
- A follower of Jesus can walk on water, heal the sick and raise the dead
- That's right, and those are just the things they do at parties. Or as the Lord Himself said: "Anyone who has faith in Me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these" (John 14:12).
When John the Baptist sent people to Jesus to ask Him whether He was the One to Come, Jesus said nothing about theology or feelings or being nice or well informed or being on someone's mailing list. In stead he said, "Report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them" (Matthew 11:2-5). In other words: if you are part of a church that does neither of these things, then you are not part of a church.
🔼The Good News
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a philosophy or opinion that should be debated, or code of conduct that should be followed. It's a naturally occurring phenomenon, like sunrise or evolution; it's going on in real time and real space and it can only be appreciated or denied but not ignored. It can not be provoked or stopped. It can not be claimed or coined. It's nobody's property or asset. It's not limited to a hero's bio but covers everything and all times (John 1:1, Colossians 1:17). And we're all in, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we understand it or not. The birth, death, resurrection, message and wholesale profundity of Jesus Christ is a milestone in human evolution on a par with humanity's very emergence on the earth (1 Corinthians 15:45). We didn't cause it; it happened to us. It wasn't invented; it was discovered. It's not a religious message or some work of art that could be lost forever if it were destroyed. It's written into the very fabric of creation, and if we were to reject it, we would reject our very human nature, and our posterity (if we would have any) would rediscover it and curse us for ever having been so stupid.
For many centuries, powerful people have used the gospel to scare people into submission (Matthew 11:12); the same people who made us believe that cigarettes are healthy, who started every war of the last hundred years, who turned our cities into traffic jams, and who addicted humanity to the hydrocarbons that are now killing our planet. If there's money in it, it's probably getting lied about. The Christian Industrial Complex uses and abuses the key phrases of the Greatest Story ever told and turns it into the Greatest Story ever sold. And we're dumb enough to have bought it for centuries. No more so. Now the Human Rights Revolution and the Planetary Boundaries Revolution must be joined by a Gospel Revolution that will stop the nonsense and start the liberating (Luke 4:18).
The Word we have today as the Bible wears the culture that conceived it like a robe, but the Word itself is among us today wearing a whole wardrobe of guises. The Body of Christ(s) is an active and living being that exists on earth today despite the Christian Industrial Complex. The Good News is not about an exceptional teacher or miracle man who lived in Judea two thousand years ago; it's about the preservation of life. The sole function of the Bible at large is the preservation of life.
As "un-spiritual" as it may seem, modern humans (homo sapiens) are the common ancestor of two kinds of derived humanoid creatures, namely homo fili hominis and homo reges terrae (Revelation 21:23). Homo reges terrae will be much like we are today, but homo fili hominis will be a super-social being, which forms the mental equivalent of a multicellular creature (where the other kind is the mental equivalent of a single cellular creature). This super-social being is what the Bible calls the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). This Body will govern and preserve the earth, and the good news is that there is no other destiny. We will either turn into that, or die off.
Our duty as followers of Jesus is not to adhere to the right rituals, but to preserve life. Evangelizing is not about changing people's religion, but about keeping them alive. It's not us versus them; it's us for them. The Lord Himself will bring about what will be, and all we have to do is keep the people alive.
Churches that do nothing but get together on Sunday morning and sing silly songs, aren't churches, they're self-congratulatory hobby-clubs. Churches should be foreshadows of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. Pastors should motivate people to be inquisitive, to be courageous enough to adhere to sound reasoning and careful review of data. The Bible is not something that has to be believed, it is something that has to be examined. Pastors should teach their people to dive into Scriptures like into an ocean while leaving their beliefs like garb on the shores. Small groups should discuss Scriptures freely, without the convoluting assistance of pamphlets and commentaries of people who aren't there. Simply let God speak!
Teachers should instruct people about practical things, and stress the importance of energy preservation and eating right and the avoidance of pollution. Theologians and Christian authors should stop speculating about things that can't be measured, and concern themselves with things that can. Humanity is inevitably headed towards either complete collapse or liberty for every human being.
🔼Etymology of the name Christian
The name Christian derives from the noun χριστος (christos), meaning anointed, which in turn comes from the Greek verb χριω (chrio), meaning to smear or anoint:
The name Christian means Of The Anointment, which is a deplorable position. In theory it would denote someone who studies or promotes a system that puts someone else on a throne, and thus someone who submits himself voluntarily to human authority. A Christian is someone who subjects himself to oppression and then believes this is virtuous. This word was made popular by oppressive governments and church structures, for obvious reasons.
A follower of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is a Christ, not a Christian. A Christ is someone who partakes in the Anointment, and thus is a king, and thus has no earthly superior, and thus is both wholly free and wholly responsible for his own actions and his own life. A Christian is a willing slave, which is the opposite of a Christ, which in Greek is called Antichrist.