What does it mean to be called a "Christian"?

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Acts 11:26

Have you ever considered what it means to be called a Christian? What place does being a Christian hold in a person’s life?

Recently while driving I noticed in the lane next to me a vehicle with several bumperstickers that caught my attention. The first was a picture of a cross, with a person next to the cross holding a heart. Less than two feet away on the same vehicle was a cartoon figure peeing on the name Hillary. Is this a snapshot of what Christianity has come to mean for many in America? Does Christianity occupy a space right next to or in many instances below our political affiliation and personal opinions? Is “Christian” a title we claim or a title that lays a claim on us?

Many people believe that they were simply born Christian although the clear testimony of Scripture demonstrates that this is impossible (John 3:3-8, Romans 3:22-24). Some believe that they are Christian because they regularly attend church. Some believe they are Christian because they live in a certain part of the country. Some believe that they are Christian because they hold conservative values and vote Republican. The understanding of what it means to be a Christian makes a significant impact on the value, priority and place Christianity holds in a person’s life.

To fully understand what it means to be a Christian, we must travel back to where the term was first introduced at Antioch. New Testament scholar Craig Keener offers that “The title seems a political nickname (resembling Pompeiians - members of Pompey’s party - and other titles of political parties). Those who believed that Christ was king could be accused of treason, and the title “Christians” became a legal charge (1 Peter 4:16), though it was soon embraced by Jesus’ followers as a welcome title. Here it was probably merely ridicule; Antiochans developed a reputation for mocking people.” It is significant that the title “Christian” was not originally put forth by believers, but neither was it rejected. It was embraced.

The early use of the title “Christian” feels reminiscent of the sign that hung over the crucified Messiah. "Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). This nature of the charge against Jesus is very similar to the indictment leveled against his followers. Fittingly, Jesus called anyone who would come after him to "deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). These early Christ followers were being accused of treason. They were claiming allegiance to a different Kingdom and thereby a different King. They embraced the title and with it the suffering and discomfort it brought. They were walking in the footsteps of their Master.

The original disciples and the early church were not silent about their allegiance to an otherworldly Kingdom. It was not a secret coup. They openly and boldly preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, while honoring and submitting to the appointed authorities. The Gospel of the Kingdom is the original message entrusted to the disciples by Jesus and the message we are called to take to the ends of the earth before Jesus returns in clouds of glory. "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The Gospel of the Kingdom includes the message of salvation, but does not stop at the forgiveness of sins. The early church eagerly looked forward to the return of the King, the consummation of His Kingdom, and our active present and future participation in it. They lived their lives in light of this event and as citizens and ambassadors of the coming Kingdom.

Christianity is more than a system of beliefs. It is also a way of life that causes followers of Jesus to become salt and light. When this way of life is lost and the values of the Kingdom are not present in the hearts of believers, Christianity loses its saltiness (distinct qualities) and gets trampled underfoot. In other words, it is rendered useless. True Christianity is anything but useless. Christianity is the answer for a lost and dying world.

In order for the world to take this claim seriously, we must reclaim what it means to be a Christian and be wary of becoming so diluted by the world that we lose our potency. By asserting that we are followers of Jesus, we are not claiming to be superior people. In fact, Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom” (Matthew 5:3). We recognize that we are helpless sinners completely dependent on the mercy and grace of God. We have nothing within ourselves to boast about. By embracing what it means to be a Christian, we fully identify ourselves with Christ. We identify with his suffering. We identify with his resurrection (this has happened spiritually the moment we were born again and if we have not been born again, we do not belong to him! But we also eagerly wait for a bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus). We identify with his Spirit at work within us (we participate with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit towards sanctification or being made to look like Jesus). We identify with His corporate Body in the earth (we are members of His church). We identify with his mission in the earth (we actively proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom). We identify with His coming Kingdom (we understand that we are living in a great tension, an age of groaning between now and not yet). We recognize Jesus’ rightful place in our lives as King. He is preeminent. He is first in all things. He is before family. He is before any dream or ambition. He is before any opinion. He is before any political party. He is before any nation. He is above all and before all.

Let us be sure to embrace more than just the title. Let us fully embrace Christ our King.

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