We often hear the call to return “Back to the Basics.” Whatever their particular vocation in life – whether they be surgeons, cricketers, pastors, or parents – all people seem to have their favourite “basics” that they tend to fall back upon. As Christian believers we too have our set of basics, but what do we usually mean when we call ourselves “Christians?” Is it our name that tells people whether we are Christians? Not really, you would say, for you could come across a Peter who is an atheist, a Richard who is a Hindu, or meet a Kamala who is a Christian. In fact, there are many in India who have chosen to follow the Master Jesus without explicitly calling themselves “Christians,” especially because of the negative (and sometimes colonial) baggage that is associated with that term.
I suggest that one way to address this basic question, “Who is a Christian?” would be to consider the three occurrences of the word “Christian” (Christianos) in the New Testament. By studying the word, in their original contexts, we could draw up a helpful sketch of ourselves – of people who desire to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The first place we turn to is Acts 11:26. This text narrates how Barnabas goes to Tarsus to bring Paul to Antioch so that they together could teach the growing number of Jesus-believers (Jews & Gentiles) there. In that context we read: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Christianos means someone belonging to or associated with Christ – just like someone belonging to India is called an Indian. Who then belongs to Christ? Luke, the writer of Acts, narrates that the disciples were called Christians. The English word ‘disciple’ (from the Latin discipulus) is a translation of the Greek mathētēs, which refers to “a learner, a student, a shishya.”
COMMITMENT: So what could we conclude from this text? A Christian is someone who belongs to Jesus and has made a lifelong commitment to be a disciple or a student. As Christians we are called to be on constant “learning mode,” as we learn from our Guru, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus says to us: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29). How do we learn from our Jesus? The Lord teaches us as we study the Bible, consistently and regularly, and the Holy Spirit rewards those who diligently seek to learn from the Master. The Lord also teaches us through those he has chosen to be teachers in the church (Eph 4:11). He also teaches us through other fellow disciples (Col 3:16). Dear Lord, teach us!
The second instance of the word Christian is in Acts 26:28. The prisoner Paul is publicly narrating his story before an august audience, especially before King Agrippa and governor Festus. On hearing his impassioned testimony Agrippa exclaims to Paul: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul immediately responds and affirms that his objective was precisely what Agrippa sensed. Yes, Paul did seek to persuade Agrippa and all his hearers – just as much as he seeks to persuade, in his letters, the puffed-up Corinthians or the “foolish Galatians.”
CONVICTION: Agrippa got it right: A Christian is one by persuasion. In other words, what makes someone a Christian is not his or her Western sounding or “biblical” name. You could find Christians named Rajasekar or Amir, because they have Christian convictions; on the contrary you could find those named Helen or Jacob who are not Christians. Rather, a Christian is one by CONVICTION. I mean convictions, not opinions – for, you see, an opinion is what you carry around but convictions carry you! Or to put it another way, Christians are defined by their theology their views about God and everything else in relation to God? not their “biology” what they are by birth?.
Paul challenges the Christians at Rome to have “transformed minds” rather than having their minds molded by worldly, often non-biblical views and values (Rom 12:1-2). Thus we are called to develop Christian convictions about everything – from the preciousness of human life to the care of God’s earth; from what we believe Christ accomplished on the cross to how we need to respond to issues of poverty and injustice in our societies; from how we view the money God has put in our hands to what should be unique in a Christian husband-wife relationship. The challenge is to become more Christian in our thinking, in our convictions – and then living it out! That’s basic Christianity!
The third and final time the word Christian occurs is in 1 Peter 4:16: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” As followers of Christ, we are called to “carry our cross, daily” (Luke 9:23). Paul boldly points out to the believers in Philippi, that they are also called to suffer on Christ’s behalf (Phil 1:29). He reminds the suffering church in Thessalonica that they are destined to persecution and trials (1 Thess 2:14; 3:3).
COST: For Jesus, the path to glorification led through the suffering of the cross. This is equally true for those who follow Jesus! (Luke 9:23) There is a cost to discipleship! Christians in many lands, including ours, are paying a heavy price to be followers of Christ. We have grieved with many of our sisters and brothers in Orissa who recently underwent horrific persecution – where scores were brutally killed, innumerable homes and churches were razed to the ground. The Beast is viciously attacking the Church! However, we are reminded that the end is not yet. God will have the last word! The victorious promise proclaims: “They triumphed over Satan? by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev 12:11). Dear friend, are you prepared to pay the cost of discipleship?
The Christian life is characterized by Commitment to the Master, biblical Convictions that compel us into action in Christ’s name, and a willingness to bear the Cost of following the Crucified One! May the Holy Spirit help us to be worthy bearers of the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Jacob Cherian, serves on the Faculty of Southern Asia Bible College.