It’s so natural to refer to ourselves as ‘Christians’ that we don’t think much about how that came to be the name we use. But that wasn’t the first choice of the earliest believers – and it even seems to have been a term first employed by their enemies!
After the events of Pentecost, it was obvious to everyone that the followers of Jesus represented a new thing. But what to call it? The challenge is illustrated in the Acts 24-26 account of the time that the Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea (57-59 AD). When a contingent of Jewish leaders arrived from Jerusalem to make their case against him to the Roman governor Felix, their spokesman calls Paul “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” (Acts 24:5). Of course, Jesus was frequently referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 10:47). But terming His followers ‘Nazarenes’ was a slur intended to discredit the movement, since tiny Nazareth was stereotyped as the Jewish equivalent of a “redneck” place (John 1:45-46).
When Paul responds to those accusations he pointedly corrects both the movement’s name and its characterization: “… according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers.” (Acts 24:14). That name is again used in verse 22 when we are told that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way.” This term is first used in the Bible when Luke (the author of Acts) tells us that the young Saul/Paul got permission to go to Damascus to arrest “any belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2). That occurred about AD 33, and since Paul is still using the term about 25 years later, we can infer that “the Way” was the preferred name used by the early church.
The term “Christian” had first appeared in Acts 11:26 where we are told that “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” That refers to the time that Saul spent in that city about AD 37. It again makes its appearance when Herod Agrippa II, the young Jewish king, later interviews Paul in prison in Caesarea. After Paul delivers an impassioned sermon on Jesus the crucified and resurrected Messiah, Agrippa asks sarcastically: “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28).
So we see that the term the Way seems to have been used by believers as early as 33 AD, and they were called Christians (by others?) as early as 37 AD. But twenty years later, Paul is still talking about The Way and a scoffing unbeliever is calling him a Christian. In his first letter (thought to be written about 62 AD), the Apostle Peter exhorts believers who are being maligned and persecuted: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16) So, the picture that we get is that being called “Christian” was originally a derogatory term used by outsiders, and wasn’t much liked by believers.
Why was that? Wouldn’t those early Christians be delighted to be identified with Christ? But we know from ancient accounts that common public perception of this time saw Christians as fools (or even criminals) who worshipped an obscure “loser” who was crucified for His deluded insistence that He was the promised Jewish messiah (Christ in Greek). So calling someone a ‘Christian’ seems to have been intended as a mockery.
On the other hand, the ‘Way’ was a kind of “code name” that captured the essence of what Jesus claimed to be: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) And in saying that they were followers of the Way, these early believers were witnessing their conviction to the truth about what Jesus Christ means to humanity: the ONLY WAY TO SALVATION!
But just as the symbol of the cross – initially an image of horror and disgrace – became transformed into a symbol of hope and triumph by Jesus’ resurrection, so too the name ‘Christian’ was ultimately embraced and cherished by those who follow Christ.
Today we live in an age where ‘Christian’ is again used as a term of derision by those who think us fools to put our faith in Jesus. But today, as always, we confess the crucified and risen Christ as the only Way to salvation for our fallen world, and so once again, we are called to heed the words of Peter:
“Let [us] glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16)