The word “Christian” appears only three times in the Bible, exclusively in the New Testament. But the concept of those who follow Jesus Christ as Christians appears many more times through expressions like “believers”, “disciples”, “brothers”, “saints”, etc.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The word “Christian” appears only 3 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament.
In this approximately 3000 word article, we will do a deep dive into the use of the word Christian and related terms in the Bible. We will examine the 3 instances where Christian is directly mentioned, look at the Greek origin and meaning of the term, explore other expressions denoting Christ’s followers, analyze some relevant Bible passages, and summarize the significance of how believers in Christ are described in the scriptures.
The 3 Direct Mentions of “Christian”
Acts 11:26 – First Use of “Christian”
The first direct mention of the term “Christian” is found in Acts 11:26: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” This passage records that the term “Christian” was first used in Antioch to refer to the followers of Jesus Christ.
According to author David Limbaugh, some key insights can be gained from this first usage of the term Christian.
So this first Biblical usage of the term “Christian” identified the growing movement of those who professed Jesus as the Messiah. The term marked them out as distinct in beliefs from the Jewish community.
Acts 26:28 – King Agrippa Questions Paul
The second direct mention of the term “Christian” is in Acts 26:28. Here King Agrippa, after hearing Paul’s testimony, responds “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Author David Limbaugh suggests this verse gives insight into what the term “Christian” signified at the time:
- It meant a follower of Christ
- It implied a deep level of personal commitment and conviction
- It was understood to represent an entire belief system or worldview, not just an identity label
So Agrippa’s response indicates he understood the term Christian to imply an absolute devotion to the way of Christ. His reply revealed it represented an entire belief system to which one would fully commit.
1 Peter 4:16 – Suffering as a Christian
The third and final direct mention of the term Christian is 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
This verse associates the title “Christian” with suffering for the name of Christ. Peter urges believers that when facing persecution for the faith, they should not be ashamed to be called “Christian” but glorify God.
Author David Limbaugh suggests this passage implies:
So this mention in Peter’s letter indicates that hostility was increasing towards those identified as Christians. Yet Peter exhorted them to embrace the title despite persecution.
Origin and Meaning of the Term “Christian”
Christos – “Anointed One”
The term “Christian” is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning “Anointed One.” This refers to Jesus Christ being the Messiah or savior that was anointed and sent by God (Isaiah 61:1). The word Christos is a translation of the Hebrew word Mashiach, showing the strong connection between the Old Testament prophecies about the coming savior and Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
Followers of Christ
In the New Testament books of Acts 11:26 and 26:28, the term “Christian” is used to describe those who were followers of Christ. The name was likely first used by outsiders to refer to believers in Jesus, but then became a badge of honor as disciples embraced the designation.
Just as Christ faced persecution, His devoted followers were also willing to suffer for living out their faith according to His example (1 Peter 4:16).
A Name Given by Outsiders
The designation “Christian” as a label for Christ’s followers most likely originated from non-believing outsiders, perhaps the Romans or Jews, rather than the Church itself. However, Acts 26:28 records King Agrippa using the term in a skeptical way to the apostle Paul.
Regardless of the exact source, the name Christian identified the belief system that was radically transforming lives through Jesus Christ. And despite initial persecution for the name Christian, disciples came to wear it proudly as their faith spread across the world.
Other Terms for Followers of Jesus
The word “disciple” refers to a student or follower of a teacher. The New Testament often uses this term to describe those who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Jesus had many disciples, including the 12 apostles who walked closely with him.
Important disciples like Peter, James, John and Mary Magdalene are highlighted in the gospels. Jesus called his disciples to leave everything behind and fully commit to learning from and serving him (Luke 14:25-33). A true disciple models their life after Jesus’ teachings and example.
The terms “believer” or “the believers” appear over 230 times in the New Testament, referring to those who had faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah. The first believers were Jews who accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah.
Later, many Gentiles also became believers. The book of Acts chronicles the remarkable growth of believers in the first century. Believers were exhorted to live out their faith with love and unity (1 John 3).
Brothers and Sisters
Early Christians often referred to each other as brothers and sisters. This familial language reflected the reality that faith in Christ united people as spiritual family across gender, social, economic and ethnic lines that traditionally divided people (Galatians 3:28).
Terms like “brethren” are used over 350 times in the New Testament. Christians still commonly use terms like brothers and sisters today to emphasize their spiritual kinship in Christ.
The word “saints” or “holy ones” appears over 60 times in the New Testament, referring to those set apart by and for God through their faith in Christ. The first references to saints are to Christian converts in Jerusalem (Acts 9:13).
Saints are called to live holy lives worthy of their identity in Christ (Ephesians 5:1-3). While at first this term designated all believers, it came to be associated with exceptional Christians venerated for lives of heroic virtue.
“The Way” was an early term for Christianity used several times in Acts. It implied that Christianity is the way of salvation (Acts 9:2), the way of the Lord (Acts 18:25-26), and the right way to worship and live (Acts 24:14).
It likely came from Jesus’ statement that he is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This indicates early Christians identified themselves and their movement with Jesus’ exclusive claims.
Relevant Bible Passages About Christians
The term “Christian” is used three times in the Bible, exclusively in the New Testament. Here are the relevant passages:
“And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” This verse marks the first time followers of Jesus were called Christians, about 10 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Here, King Agrippa responds to the apostle Paul’s testimony about Jesus.
1 Peter 4:16
“Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” Peter encourages believers to not be ashamed if they suffer for the name of Christ.
So while the word “Christian” is not found often, the concept of followers of Christ is a major theme throughout the New Testament after Jesus’ resurrection. Key aspects of Christian identity described in the Bible include:
- Belief that Jesus is the Son of God and Messiah (John 20:31)
- Repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47)
- Baptism identity with Christ (Romans 6:3-4)
- Living by Jesus’ teachings (John 8:31)
- Loving one another (John 13:34-35)
So while “Christian” is not mentioned often, the Bible has much to say about those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The Significance of How Christ’s Followers are Described
The way Christ’s followers are described in the Bible reveals important truths about their identity and purpose. Throughout the New Testament, believers in Jesus are referred to by various terms that emphasize different aspects of their faith.
The word “disciple” refers to a student or follower. Jesus had many disciples during his earthy ministry who learned from his teaching and followed him. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ followers continued to identify as his disciples as they sought to imitate his life and carry on his mission (Acts 6:1).
Being called a disciple highlights that believers are always learning from Christ and growing in obedience to him.
In many of his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul addresses fellow Christians as “saints” (Romans 1:7). This description has nothing to do with one’s own righteousness or spiritual achievements. Rather, it reminds believers that they have been made holy before God because of Christ’s sacrificial death on their behalf.
Although far from perfect, followers of Jesus are declared saints on the basis of Christ’s work, not their own.
Brothers and Sisters
From the beginning, followers of Jesus bonded together like family, referring to each other as “brothers and sisters” (Acts 1:16). This familial language indicates the depth of love and community that is to exist within the body of Christ.
As brothers and sisters in God’s household, believers are called to honor their spiritual family ties by loving and serving one another selflessly (Romans 12:10).
The term “Christian” first appears in Acts 11:26, where Luke explains that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Bearing the name of their Lord and Savior, Christians identify themselves as belonging to Jesus the Messiah.
Wearing the label “Christian” is a badge of honor as believers live out their allegiance to King Jesus even in the face of persecution and ridicule from the watching world.
In all these descriptive titles for Jesus’ followers, we see their calling to pursue Christlikeness in community under the banner of his supreme authority. The significance of how believers are described in Scripture serves to remind the church of her true identity and mission.
In summary, while the specific word “Christian” appears only 3 times in the Bible, the concept of those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ is a central theme throughout the New Testament. The variety of terms used highlights different aspects of what it means to be a Christian – a disciple, a believer, a brother or sister in Christ, a saint, a follower of the Way.
Examining how Christ’s adherents are described provides insight into the identity and mission of the early Christian community. Their shared faith and devotion to Jesus united them, even from the outside they were recognized as a distinct group and given the label “Christians”.