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Who is a Christian?

With many people the answer is simple: a Christian is one who is honest, has good moral values, and who is compassionate toward those in need. Undeniably, these are qualities that a Christian must possess, but does that define who a Christian is?

Take for instance an atheist who possesses the above qualities. Would he claim to be a Christian or would you describe him as one? Or take a Muslim who also is honest, compassionate, and has good moral qualities. Would you identify him as a Christian? What would be his reaction if you called him one?

Clearly then, a Christian is not just an honest, compassionate, and morally upright person. There is something critically missing if you define a Christian exclusively on moral excellency, compassion, and honesty. What is missing?

The word “Christian” is found in the New Testament only three times. These three instances are Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16. Acts 11:26 — After Barnabas found Saul in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians there. Acts 26:28 — Agrippa said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” First Peter 4:15 — If a man suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed. In each of these verses the word “Christian” is applied to an individual; never is it a reference to a “Christian nation,” “Christian home,” or “Christian college.” The word “Christian” describes a person. Without question, most ills will be resolved in nations, religious institutions, or homes if the principles of Christ were adopted and practiced; but technically no such description is found of nations, colleges, or homes.

Acts 11:26 records that disciples were called “Christians” first at Antioch. A disciple is one who is a learner and follower. But the word “disciple” is not definitive enough. One reads about disciples of Moses (Jn. 9:28) as well as disciples of John (Mk. 2:18). Those who were disciples of Christ were called “Christians” because this specifically identified them as connected with Christ.

In Acts 26:28 Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, awaiting passage to Rome to stand before Caesar. He was allowed to give a defense of himself before Agrippa, a Jewish king whose family had been enemies of Jesus Christ. Paul was not in prison because of wrong doing: he was in prison because he was a Christian. In this he could glory, just as Peter wrote, “For let none of you suffer as a murderer, as a thief, or an evil-doer or as a meddler in other men’s matters, but if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). The Roman governor of the province of Judaea, Festus, interrupted Paul and who briefly answered him. But something, perhaps in Agrippa’s expression seemed to hint that Paul’s defense had made a positive effect on him and Paul asked, “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets?  I know that thou believest” (Acts 26:27). Agrippa’s response was “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”

Whether we take Agrippa’s words to be sarcasm or sincere, who would suppose the king would have denied that one should be honest, compassionate, and morally upright (whether he practiced it or not)? On the other hand, do you think Agrippa regarded those qualities as EXCLUSIVELY attributes of a Christian? Was this what he perceived Paul was attempting to make him become to become a Christian?

Cornelius was a Roman centurion and a man of stellar character. The Holy Spirit recorded these words of his life as a “devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the poor and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). Yet in spite of all this Cornelius was not a Christian. An angel directed him how to make contact with Peter who came and preached to him and ultimately “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” and they were (Acts 10:47). Now, Cornelius was a Christian. He had taken a public stand for Christ, submitting to baptism because Jesus had commanded that he must (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:37-38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Cornelius’ public stand was a yielding to the authority of Christ and from henceforth, if he would remain a Christian, he would have to do anything and everything commanded by Jesus. Only then is one truly a disciple of Christ and a Christian.

Jesus invites men to be His disciples: “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly in heart and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28). He wants us to learn of Him, but being truly His disciple means more than learning of Him; it means acting upon His teaching. Jesus said, “If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them” (Jn. 13:17). He also said, “If ye abide in my word then are ye truly my disciples and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). There are many things universally accepted by all men as proper and right, including Christians. There are some things commanded solely by Christ and the acceptance and practice of these latter things is what makes man a Christian. Are you a Christian?

Jim McDonald

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