Words get their meaning primarily by the way they are used. Sometimes the meaning of words change over time, and that is certainly true in the case of the word “Christian.” This word is found only three times in the Bible–Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and in 1 Peter 4:16. What exactly does the word “Christian” mean?
In Studies in Jewish and Christian History, Elias Joseph Bickerman wrote:“Christians are ‘those of Christ’…they belong to Christ, as his possessions, because Christians are ‘slaves of Jesus Christ’ Of course, this is why Jesus Christ is known as our ‘lord,’ literally ‘master’ (as in slave-master). Therefore the words Christianus (Latin) and Christianos (Greek) imply slavery. For this reason, these words were applied to Christians by non-Christians as a derogatory epithet, for the condition of servitude (slavery) was ignominious. However, believers in Christ cherished the epithet because it was a honor to be slaves of Christ, unlike other masters.”
The meaning of the word “Christian” has changed over time. In the 21st century, the word Christian is used of anyone who affiliates with Jesus Christ in any way. It is not uncommon for a person to identify themselves as a Christian even though they do not attend church, read the Bible regularly, pray (except when in trouble), and they do not know what Jesus’ commandments to His disciples were or study the life of Jesus to follow His example. Therefore they cannot honestly call themselves “followers” of Jesus. Their faith is merely an intellectual one. Self interest is the guiding principle in their lives, so they can hardly identify themselves as “slaves of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus called men and women to follow Him; to follow Him was to become His disciple. Jesus never referred to His followers and Christians; He referred to them as His disciples. The rabbi/disciple relationship was commonplace in the first century, so when rabbi Jesus called someone to follow Him, they understood that He was calling them to become His disciple. The word disciple means “learner,” but not in the sense of sitting in a classroom and receiving information. To be a disciple means to become a learner in the sense of being an apprentice. As a woodworking apprentice learns to do what his teacher does. The goal of the disciple is to do what their rabbi does; to become like their rabbi (Luke 6:40).
In order to understand Jesus’ call to discipleship, a definition of what a disciple is can be very helpful. Here is a definition of what the life of a disciple of Jesus looks like, with Scripture references:
A disciple of Jesus follows Jesus[i] in love by keeping His commandments[ii], learning His ways[iii], and by becoming a disciple maker[iv], in order that all may become like Jesus[v]. A disciple’s life is characterized by abiding in Christ through reading, meditating, and obeying God’s word[vi], and a daily conversation with God through prayer[vii]. A disciple of Jesus recognizes their need for inner transformation by the Holy Spirit and the word of God in order to become more like Jesus. A disciple recognizes their need for fellowship with other believers[viii], and regularly attends church[ix] with the attitude of a servant seeking to love others[x] and use their spiritual gifts to meet the spiritual and physical needs of others[xi]. A disciple cheerfully gives financially to the church to support the needs of the ministry.
[i] Mark 1:17, Mark 6:1, Luke 14:25-33 [ii] John 14:15, 1 John 2:4-5 [iii] Matt. 11:28-30 [iv] Matt. 28:18-20 [v] 1Cor. 11:1 [vi] John 8:31, John 15:7-8 [vii] John 15:7-11 [viii] Acts 20:7 [ix] Heb. 10:25 [x] John 13:34-35, John 13:12-17 [xi] 1 Cor. 13:1-7
Jesus’ strategy for evangelism was never to “get people saved” and then make disciples out of them. He never separated the call to salvation from the call to discipleship. His message was to repent, believe in the gospel, and follow Him as one of His disciples. He told His listeners to count the cost of discipleship; that if any one wished to be His disciple, they would have to “deny themselves, take up your cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” Luke 9:23b-24.
We would do well to use the terminology that Jesus used to describe His followers, and to imitate His method of evangelism. If we did, this may help clear up some of the misconceptions people have of what it means to be a Christian.