“…and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”Acts 11.26
Those who belong to another generation will remember this song we use to sing in church:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the LordWords and Music by Peter Scholtes
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
I was thinking about this song this morning while reading the Scripture verse above. It was one of those rabbit trails that I occasionally go on. I started meditating on what it meant to be called by Jesus to be His disciple. That led to what is the difference between being a Christian and a disciple. Then that led to, do people know that I am a Christian? If so, how do they know that I am a Christian? Then, finally, how does that correlate to being a disciple?
I feel like I need to start by defining what it means to be a Christian and then a disciple of Christ. As Justin Gravitt shared on his blog, it’s like trying to figure out the difference between a square and a rectangle. What is the difference? He writes:
The difference between squares and rectangles aren’t as clear as you were taught. In fact, every square is also a rectangle. So what’s the difference? A square is a quadrilateral where all four angles are right angles and all four sides are the same length, but a rectangle is a quadrilateral where all four angles are right angles. So, every square a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.Justin G. Gravitt
So, does that mean every disciple is a Christian, but not every Christian is a disciple? That’s the question I will attempt to answer.
To answer that question we need to see how the Bible defines the terms Christian and disciple.
As you see, the word or title Christian is only used three times in the New Testament. It is difficult to put together a theological belief or defintion based on just three verses. But, one might say that from these references that a Christian is identified as one who follows Christ and His teachings, testifies concerning His gospel, and one who may suffer persecution because of His name.
Another observation concerning the term Christian is that it was a name of derision given by unbelievers. It wasn’t until Peter mentions it in his letter that the name was viewed as a positive, but only for those who were suffering for the sake of Christ under the hands of the Roman Emperor, Nero (1 Peter 4.16).
There are more than 230 references in the New Testament that use the word or title, disciple. The word for disciple in the greek language is “mathetes.” It describes one who is a learner, like a student. The root of this word is used to describe one who learns or understands. So then a disciple can be described as…
These are just a few references concerning what it means to be a disciple of Christ. But, there is one description here that is missing that ultimately identifies one as a disciple of Christ. That is, they are called by Christ, not by the world, to follow Him and fulfill His great mission (Matthew 28.18-20). So then, a disciple is…
This is by no means an exhausted list. I simply pare these down for the sake of space. But from observation we can see that being a Christian and being a disciple of Christ are similar, but different. Just like a square and rectangle.
To be identified as a Christian is how the world see us. To be identified as a disciple is how Jesus sees us. I guess the question then, is how do you see yourself?
In some places around the world, to be identified as a Christian is the same as it was in the New Testament. But, in other places it has become plain and ordinary. For example, in places like China or in the Muslim world, you will suffer much for being identified as a Christian. Thus, people in those regions do not publicly indicate or give evidence they are a Christian unless they are willing to be persecuted or even die for Christ.
In the Islamic 10/40 widow, governments categorize people as either Muslim, Christian, Jew, or sometimes others. To be identified as a Christian in those regions does not necessarily mean that you are a born again believer who understands and believes in the gospel of Christ. It just means you are not a Muslim. Which means you can proselyte and disciple anyone who is a non-Muslim.
In places in the west, especially in America the term or name Christian is ordinary or plain. You can list yourself as a Christian. Certain cults identify themselves as Christians. Many call themselves Christians, list themselves as a Christian, but they themselves may not be a true Christian, much less a disciple of Christ.
How do you know you are a Christian or disciple of Christ? Mike McKinley wrote a short book that ask the question, “Am I Really a Christian?” Each chapter is based on a statement such as…
These are great thought provoking statements to test our faith in Christ. How do you know you are a Christian? Go back to what I wrote above. In short, you are a Christian if you…
The gospel of John states it simply when the Apostle writes…
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”John 1.12-13
I pray that you observe from these verses that no one can declare themselves as a Christian or follower of Christ, only God can through Christ. Only He gives the right to become His child. Not man. It is not by your geneology or parents, nor can you save yourself, or because someone declares you Christian, but only God.
So, the question for you to ask is this, has God given you the right to become His child through His one and only Son, Christ Jesus our Lord? Have you accepted His call and repented from your sins to follow Christ and obey His commands?
Has anyone ever accused you of being a Christian? If so, you may be a Christian. That also may mean you are a disciple of Christ. Why would someone point you out in being a disciple of Christ? It may be because of several reasons…
Does it matter whether you are a square or rectangle? Yes and no. No, because if people identify you as a Christian, then you are on the right path. Yes, because being a disciple means to press in deeper into a personal relationship with Christ. You have been saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, but now you want to worship, walk, and be a witness of Christ all the days of your life. Possibly persuading others to become a Christian who are called by God though Christ. That is why it matters. That is why it is important for others to know you are a Christian.
Grace and Peace! GT