The name “Christian” consistently ranks among the top 50 names for boys in the Western world. Some years it’s even been in the top ten. Historically, parents have named girls “Christian,” too, yet the trend in the twenty-first century has been to use it as a name for males. Because so many people love the name, many want to know its meaning.
The name “Christian” means “Christ follower,” which refers to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, the founder of Christianity, was a carpenter who lived in Israel during the first century. The term “Christ” isn’t his last name; instead, it’s the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning “Anointed One.”
How does the New Testament use the name “Christian”? When did people first refer to followers of Jesus as Christians? What does the name “Christ” mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? What is the dictionary definition of “Christian”? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
The name “Christian” in the New Testament
The Bible never uses “Christian” as a proper name for males or females, like John, Paul, Peter, Mary, or Martha. However, the New Testament uses the term as a label to describe anyone who follows Jesus, whether male or female. Used in this way, “Christian” is synonymous with terms like “believer” and “disciple.”
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? To “follow Jesus” means to believe in him and live according to the moral standards he taught, which are recorded in the Gospels and explained in the rest of the New Testament. After Jesus called Peter and Andrew, Matthew reports that “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matt. 4:20; Mark 10:28).
When were followers of Jesus first called Christians? People first called followers of Jesus “Christians” in Antioch a few years after the resurrection. Luke records the first reference to the name in the book of Acts. In a description of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry in Antioch, he adds, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:25-26).
|Part of speech||Noun|
Believers didn’t initially call themselves “Christians”; instead, the term is how non-believers referred to them. It wasn’t until the second century that followers of Jesus accepted the term as a positive label.
There are only two other places in the New Testament where the Greek word Christianos appears.
- Acts 26:28, “And Agrippa said to Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?'”
- 1 Peter 4:16, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
Some English translations render Greek words like “brother” (adelphous) with the term “Christian.”
For example, the NET Bible translates 1 John 3:14 as “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death.” For comparison, the NASB translates it, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.”
What does the name “Christ” mean?
Jesus doesn’t have a last name in the usual way that people have them today. “Christ” isn’t a last name like Johnson or Smith; instead, it’s a Greek title equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah. Last names used today didn’t become conventional until the Middle Ages in Europe.
Christ, which is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah,” means “anointed one (e.g. Luke 24:26). In Greek, it often appears with a definite article (“the Christ”), which enhances the identification of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. It became so connected to Jesus of Nazareth that the early church used the combination of “Jesus Christ” as a personal name.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
Jesus once asked the people around him, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15, ESV). Some said he was a blasphemer; others said he was a good person and wise teacher; others, like Peter, said he was much more. In response to Jesus’ question, Peter correctly replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Being a Christian means believing in Jesus and trusting what he did for people.
The person and work of Christ
Being a Christian starts with believing what Jesus said about himself. How can a person be a follower of Christ if they think he was mistaken about himself? How could people trust what he said about other topics if he was wrong about himself? Jesus taught that he was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14), the long-promised Messiah (John 4:26), who came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Because Jesus was perfectly righteous (John 1:29), he was an acceptable sacrifice for sin. For this reason, he died on the cross (John 10:11) as an expression of love. The Gospel of John says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Thus, God became a man to die for sinners and give them eternal life (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).
Christians also believe that Jesus rose from death three days after his crucifixion. All four New Testament Gospels record the resurrection (e.g. John 20-21), which was a foundational belief of the early church (e.g. Acts 1:22; 2:24). After his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days later (Acts 1:9), yet promised he would return at an unknown time in the future (Acts 1:11; Matt. 16:27).
Pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “To be a Christian is not only to believe the teaching of Christ, and to practice it; it is not only to try to follow the pattern and example of Christ; it is to be so vitally related to Christ that His life and His power are working in us. It is to be ‘in Christ,’ it is for Christ to be in us.”
Pastor John MacArthur adds: “A Christian is one who follows Christ, one who is committed unquestionably to Christ as Lord and Savior, one who desires to please God. His basic aim is to be in every way a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Dictionary definitions of the word “Christian”
Popular dictionaries define the term “Christian” according to the faith tradition that Jesus founded.
|Merriam-Webster||one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ|
|Cambridge||of or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ|
|MacMillan||relating to Christianity|
|Britannica||a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ|
|dictionary.com||of, relating to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings|
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