Meaning of the name
"Christian", a homily on Acts 11:26

by Fr Anthony Coniaris
"...and in Antioch the disciples
were for the first time called
Christians" (Acts 11:26).

The name "Christian" was first given to the followers of Jesus in Antioch. Antioch was notorious for its ability to produce nicknames. They had one even for the emperor whom they once called "the Goat." Thus the name "Christian" was given to the followers of Jesus neither by themselves nor by the Jews, but by the Greek speaking pagans in Antioch. It was a nickname, a by- word, given in derision and contempt. The Christians took this name given in mockery and turned it into one of the most revered names in history. The name tells us something very important about the Christian: that there is a resemblance between Christ and the Christian. The Christian is first and foremost a CHRIST person.

A New Name For a New People The people in Antioch had many names in their resourceful language but they had no name to cover this type of character. These followers of Jesus did things, said things, lived things hitherto unheard of in the history of the world. They lived purity -- purity of a new order, purity of thought and feeling. They lived forgiveness -- forgiveness of a new kind, forgiveness for friend and foe alike. They lived love -- love of a new order, love for those who least deserved it. They lived humility -- a new kind of humility the world had not seen before except in Jesus! So they made a new name for these people in whom they saw the purity, the forgiveness, the love, and the humility of Jesus. They called them CHRISTIANOI, Christ people! There was something so new about these people, something so refreshingly different, that they coined a new name for them. "...and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians" (Acts 1 I:26).

The early Christians

In 248 A.D. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, wrote the following to his friend Donatus about Christians: "This seems to be a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climb some great mountain and look out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see -- brigands on the road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheaters men murdering each other to please the applauding crowds, and under all roofs I see misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it, I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted but they care not, These people, Donatus, are Christians and I am one of them."

They were a different people, those early Christians, conformed not to the world but to Christ. Christ people! The Athenian orator Aristides, writing to the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), described the early Christians as follows: "The Christians know and trust God... They do good to their enemies. They love one another... They rescue the orphan from him who does him violence... If anyone among them is poor and needy, and they do not have food to spare, they fast for two or three days, that they may supply him with necessary food, They scrupulously obey the commands of their Messiah. Every morning and every hour they thank and praise God for His loving-kindness toward them.... Because of them there flows forth all the beauty that there is in the world. But the good deeds they do, they do not proclaim in the ears of the multitude, but they take care that no one shall perceive them... Truly, this is a new people and there is something divine in them." A new name had to be found for those new people -- a name that expressed the Christ Who lived in them and made them "the salt of the earth and the light of the world.": CHRISTIANS! CHRIST PEOPLE!

"... and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians" (Acts 11:26).

What's in a name?

What's in a name? The first thing that should exist in a name is a resemblance of the one named to the one after whom one is named. Alexander the Great once found a soldier in his ranks who was accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy. When asked his name, the soldier replied, "Alexander." Whereupon Alexander the Great replied, "Either change your name or change your behaviour." Some of us, who bear the name "Christian" lightly, need to heed Alexander's advice.

What is a Christian?

Sometimes people ask, "What is a Christian? How do I know if I am a Christian?" If someone were to ask you, "Why are you a Christian?" what would you reply? Would you say, "I am a Christian because...." Because of what? Because you were born in a Christian family? Because you were baptised? Because you try to do good? Because you try to practice the golden rule? To be a Christian means far more than that. To see exactly what it means let us go back to the very first Christians, the twelve apostles. How did they become Christians? One day Jesus said to them, "Follow me!" "And they forsook their nets and followed Him."

Here we have our answer. A Christian is someone who follows Christ consciously and by personal choice, who responds to His call, who says "Yes" to Him. First and always it is a relationship to a Person -- not to a code or philosophy.

To be a Christian is to be committed to God in Christ. It is to be a living member of His Body, the Church. It is to be under compulsion to live a certain kind of life -- the life of Christ.

When a famous person was asked why he was a Christian, he replied, "The world is full of fantasy; there must be some reality somewhere, and the only reality that I've found is the reality of the Christian faith." To be a Christian is to have found reality in Christ. If I can say, "My name is Christian," it is a truth far greater in value than any human being can possibly conceive. To be a son or daughter of God, loved by God the Father, redeemed by God the Son, indwelt by God the Holy Spirit, guaranteed His eternal and abundant riches -- all this is beyond one's wildest dreams. Yet all this is mine, for my name is Christian! The privilege of being a Christian bears a responsibility -- the responsibility of knowing that I am here not to blow my own horn but to glorify Christ, to be His servant in today's world, to work for Him, and speak for Him, and bear a cross for Him, to deny self, to minister to the sick, the weak, the hungry, the oppressed in His Name.

"Have I ever seen a Christian?"

A little boy once asked his father, "What is a Christian?" The father, who knew the Bible well, described to his son what being a Christian really is according to the New Testament. So thoroughly did he explain the matter that when he was through, the little fellow said, "Father, have I ever seen a Christian?" The early pagans in Antioch saw Christians. In fact, they saw Christ in His followers -- so much so that they called them by the very name of Christ. Does the world today see something of Christ's love, His forgiveness, His humility in us? Is or life-style, our words and deeds, a witness of our faith in Christ? When asked for the definition of a Christian, a person pointed to a friend he knew and said, "There goes a Christian!" He was a person whose life could not be explained apart from Christ.

Can anyone point to you or me and say the same? Why not? If my faith is real, if my commitment is true, if Jesus comes first in my life, if He is my ALL, if "for me to live is Christ," why not? Why shouldn't Christ show in my everyday life as He did in the lives of the early Christians?

They just shine

Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Christians are people who shine for Christ. As William Sangster said once, "They don't try to shine: they just shine. It is an event to meet them. When they come into a room it is like the light being turned on. They seem to have some secret of inner happiness, of poise, of patience, and an inexhaustible capacity for love. They never speak ill of anyone else; they praise people who surpass them and do it with complete sincerity; they seldom talk of themselves and they listen when you are talking to them as though your thoughts were the most interesting thoughts they had ever heard. They are quietly strong. They leave an impression of utter goodness. Without knowing it, they put an ache in you to have this quality of life as well"*. It was because of such a Christ-like life-style that the early followers of Jesus came to be called Christians. "...and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians" (Acts 11:26). Would anyone be able to look at me today and guess that I am a Christian?


Lord Jesus, I bear Your holy name. Send Your Holy Spirit to abide in me to help me bear also Your holy life: Your love, Your forgiveness, Your humility. Amen.

* "Holiness" (Pharos Paper) by William E. Sangster.

from Treasures from St Paul's letters, v. 2
published by Light and Life Publishing.

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