“The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
We have always called ourselves Christians because of our identification with the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore we consider that we are worthy to bear His name. Unfortunately the word ‘Christian’ has little meaning today, for people of all denominations, the nominal churchgoer and the irreligious apply it to themselves. Many think they are Christians because they were sprinkled by a priest or born in a so-called Christian nation. So many people are happy to call themselves Christian but will not accept or apply the teachings of The Lord Jesus Christ.
Our text tells us that “the disciples were called Christians”, that is, they did not call themselves this, but it was a nickname given to them by the people in Antioch. It may have been an offensive term to ridicule those who were committed to Christ. Whatever the people of Antioch intended by the word, it is certain that the believers there continued to proclaim their faith in the Lord.
We also note that there was no such thing as a ‘Christian church’ in the first century, for it was not the church but individual believers that were called Christian. The Antiochians specifically called “the disciples” this name rather than it being a label to cover everyone who tagged themselves to the early church. Therefore only true followers of Christ have the right to be called Christians. We see in Scripture, and it is evident in our churches today, that many profess faith in Christ but have none of the commitment needed to be His disciples. They have simply joined a church organisation without giving any serious thought of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Do they have the qualifications to be Christians?
“Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2). Here is the true Christian calling, for Jesus not only calls us but also sends us out to serve Him. As in tennis, you will lose if your service is rubbish. It is this obedience to Christ that separated the disciples from the nominal followers in Antioch. Luke tells us that the twelve disciples had great success in their ministries, but on their return Jesus “took them, and went aside privately into a desert place” (Luke 9:10), and asked them, “Whom say ye that I am?”, to which Peter replied, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). That confession is considered to be the hallmark of a Christian today, but is it? Is simply confessing to know who Jesus is the singular evidence that a person is a disciple of Christ? Jesus made it clear that it would take more than that to be His follower, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
We see then that to be a Christian is more than being called by the name or simply confessing to know the Lord. It has to include self-denial and obedience too. A committed Christian is someone who has made a deliberate choice and is resolved to follow Christ wherever He may lead. This is not an emotional response to a fiery sermon, but a heartfelt desire to be true to the Lord in every aspect of our lives. To follow Him also means to love Him so much that our love for others would look like hate compared with our commitment to Him. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This is part of that cross-bearing we read of earlier. “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
To take up the cross is to commit to the life of true discipleship and be willing to give ourselves wholly to the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:5). Taking up the cross is a one-time commitment that is to be kept for a lifetime, but we are called to daily examine our lives and eliminate everything that could hinder our devotion to Christ. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). In Colossians 3:5 Paul tells us that we have to put to death all that rises up to severe our relationship with the Lord, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Also in Romans 8:13-14 he implies the daily need for doing this, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
Do we call ourselves Christians just because we confessed faith in Christ sometime in the past? Some may object to this statement and quote Romans 10:9, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”, but Paul’s point here is that true faith must be in the heart of the one confessing Christ to be saved. “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:10). Confessing with the mouth is meaningless if faith is not in the heart. Let us not forget what Jesus taught on this subject, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). A committed Christian continuously looks at his or her spiritual condition and rectifies anything that is offensive to Christ. “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). So where are the Christians today?