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 Vol. 2, No. 11                                        Page 18                                                November, 2000

The Name "Christian"

By W. Terry Varner

The name Christian is used only three times in the New Testament. It occurs as follows: (1) Luke records that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" (Acts 11:26); (2) Agrippa replied to Paul's powerful, persuasive sermon, "almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28); (3) The apostle Peter states, "Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf" (1 Peter 4:16). Surely it is the name Christian to which James refers when he writes, "Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?" (James 2:7). The Berkley Version translates this verse, "Do they not slander the noble name by which you are distinguished?"

The question is often asked, "How did it happen that the early disciples in Antioch began to use the name Christian?" This is a good question and a variety of answers have been offered. Some, within and without the church, contend that since the disciples were followers of Christ, they assumed the name or took the name Christian upon themselves; i.e. they began calling themselves Christians. Others object to this reasoning and credit the name Christian to non-Christians who spoke in derision of the early disciples. It is the author's belief that neither answer is correct, but that God himself called the name Christian upon the early disciples in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

The name Christian is the new name of Old Testament prophecy promised in the Book of Isaiah when the inspired prophet spoke of things in the Messianic kingdom. Isaiah states: "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my wall as memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." In the context, Isaiah is speaking of the coming Messianic kingdom and shows that "strangers" (foreigners) and "eunuchs" (Isaiah 56:3) will be able, by virtue of his "covenant" (Isaiah 56:4; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:6-13) to worship God in his "house" (the church, cf. Isaiah 56:5; 1 Timothy 3:15).

The second prophecy of Isaiah in reference to the new name of the Old Testament prophecy states: "and the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness and all the kings thy glory: and thou shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord shall name" (62:2). The prophecy states that God is to glorify Zion (the church, spiritual Israel) and it would be seen by the entire world.

It is this writer's belief that the Old Testament prophecy concerning the new name was fulfilled when the early disciples were called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26), and it was the result of God's calling the new name -- Christian -- upon the early disciples.

Acts 11:26 fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of a new name upon God's children. From Pentecost (Acts 2) to Antioch (Acts 11), no new name was given by which his children are called. The statement: "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" (Acts 11:26) certainly fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of a new name given by God as promised in Isaiah 56:5 and 62:2. The new name of Old Testament prophecy -- Christian -- was to be given in "mine [his] house" (Isaiah 56:5). The church in Antioch was indeed the "house of God" (1 Timothy 3:15). The new name of Old Testament prophecy -- Christian -- was given after the Gentiles saw the "righteousness" of God (Isaiah 62:2). The "seeing" of the righteousness of God corresponds to the Gentiles entering the kingdom of God in the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10).

Consider also that the Greek verb chermatizo translated "were called" (Acts 11:26) carries the force of divine command or oracle. The same Greek word also appears in (1) Matthew 2:12 to describe God's divine command in a dream to the wise men not to return to Herod; (2) Matthew 2:22 to describe God's divine command to Joseph to withdraw to Galilee upon his return out of Egypt; (3) Luke 2:26 to describe God's divine oracle revealed by the Holy Spirit to Simeon "that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ"; (4) Acts 10:22 to describe God's divine command by a holy angel to Cornelius "to send for thee [Peter] into his house, and to hear words of thee."

The force of the verb in all of these Scriptures is the force of a divine command and fulfills the Old Testament prophecy of our Lord giving his people a new name and an everlasting name "which the mouth of the Lord shall name" (Isaiah 56:5; 62:2). We regret that some brethren have concluded that "the idea that the new name 'Christian' is fanciful and ignores the context" (John Willis, Isaiah, 458).

One cannot say the word Christian without saying the word Christ. The suffix "ian" means "a sense of belonging to" Christ by virtue of his redeeming us from sin with his blood and our obedience to his Gospel (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 5:9; 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Acts 20:28).

The new name -- Christian -- symbolizes a new relationship with God in which everything is to be new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Since the name Christian is the "everlasting name" of Isaiah 56:5 and the "new name" that the Lord "shall name" [literally, "shall fix upon them"] of Isaiah 62:2, dare we assume the new name came about by the early disciples calling it upon themselves or the enemies of Christianity calling it upon the disciples by derision? Dare we wear any other man's name religiously or wear the new name -- Christian -- with shame?

Copyright 2000 Louis Rushmore. All Rights Reserved.
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