The New Testament Church: Followers of Christ and His Teachings

Kato Mivule | July 5, 2010

Act 11:26 Commentary
One of the characteristics of the early Church was that she was known for her following in the steps of Jesus Christ both in character and word, that those who observed her could not hold back on referring to the followers of Christ as ‘Christians’.

Yet it seems believers today are far from following Christ and His teachings and are rather embracing traditions and commandments of men. Rituals and ‘do and don’t’ rules have taken the place of Sound Bible Teachings and A Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ.

Today, contemporary believers are known by denominations rather than following Christ and His Teachings. Identification by Christian Religious denominations has become part of the Christian culture. It is not surprising to find believers who pride themselves in being referred to as Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Pentecostal, Third Wave, etc rather than a ‘follower of Christ’.

The rituals, ‘do and don’t’ rules, liturgy, and architectural buildings seem to give believers a sense of pride, belonging, and identity rather than the message and character of Jesus Christ. As Paul the apostle stated that these things have an appearance of godliness but are dead works, denying the transforming Power of Jesus Christ…

2Ti 3:5 KJV Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

Col 2:23 KJV Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

The good news is that many Christians today are waking up to the fact that the religious valuables like rituals, Traditions of men, mega Church buildings, Liturgy, infallible clergy, “anointed men of God” etc, that they hold dear have no real spiritual benefit but rather only serve as an impediment in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Frank Viola and George Barna have clearly noted in their landmark book “Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices”; which not surprisingly some Christians find hard to stomach, but understandably so, given the religious experiences of many Christians.[1]

However, taking a critical look at the early Church, we find that their identity as believers centered on following Christ and keeping His teachings. The emphasis was on two issues, Following in the footsteps of Christ – His Character, and Keeping His commandments – Teachings…

(Act 11:22 KJV) Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.

Act 11:23-25 KJV Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. (24) For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. (25) Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:

(Act 11:26 KJV) And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

We notice in the scriptures above that the Church was experiencing growth in terms of the number of those believing in Jesus Christ and news of this growth came attention of the Church leaders in Jerusalem that they acted swiftly by sending Barnabas to go as far as Antioch to not just to check things out but to ensure that believers were taught – taught the Teachings of Jesus Christ certainly.

We see evidence of this when Barnabas goes down to Antioch, he first sought for Paul the apostle, formerly known as Saul. When Barnabas found Paul, he brought him to Antioch and for a whole year they assembled themselves with the Church and taught many people. The emphasis was to teach the people.

Barnabas recognized the grace of God upon Paul the apostle to teach and ground believers in sound bible doctrine and therefore made room for Paul to do so rather than obstruct such gifting. It is no doubt that from that point on, Paul’s ministry of Apostleship and Teaching would never be the same but rather expanded to reach the wider Body of Christ.

It is important to note that Luke the author of the Book of Acts makes uses the term ‘disciples’ in describing how the believers were called Christians in Antioch…”and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch…” Luke’s use of the term ‘disciple’ strongly suggests that the believers were taught just as Jesus Christ spent time teaching His disciples.

It was through the teachings of Jesus Christ to the believers in Antioch and their practicing of such teachings of Jesus Christ that those who observed them noticed the similarities of the believer’s attributes with the character of Jesus Christ.

Therefore these believers who were disciplined in following and obeying the teachings of Jesus Christ could not be called anything other than ‘Christians’ or followers of Christ. Interestingly the Greek term for the word ‘Christian’ used in this text is Khristeeanos, meaning, a follower of Christ.

G5546, Χριστιανός, Christianos, khris-tee-an-os’
From G5547; a Christian, that is, follower of Christ: – Christian. [2]

So, we notice that the observers of that day did not simply call the believers ‘Christians’ or followers of Christ out of a vacuum but that they observed that these fellows not only schooled themselves in the teachings and sayings of Jesus Christ but that they obeyed such teachings and modeled themselves after the behavior and character of Jesus Christ.

It is important to note that these believers in the early Church did not take the initiative to call themselves Christians; they did not at any time refer to themselves as Christians but it was ‘others’ who called them so. Even notable Theologians have debated this issue as to if believers in the early Church did refer to themselves as Christians or perhaps it was none Christians who did so. Take for instance Matthew Henry’s commentary on the subject…

“…There the disciples were first called Christians; it is probable they called themselves so, incorporated themselves by that title, whether by some solemn act of the church or ministers, or whether this name insensibly obtained there by its being frequently used in their praying and preaching, we are not told; ….Hitherto those who gave up their names to Christ were called disciples, learners, scholars, trained up under him, in order to their being employed by him; but henceforward they were called Christians…” [3]

While I might differ with Matthew Henry’s take on the subject that the early Church believers did perhaps refer to themselves as Christians rather than outsiders calling them Christians, Matthew Henry does not forget to note one very important point, that the believers were called disciples, learners, scholars, trained up under Him… in other words, the Teachings and Sayings – The Doctrine of Jesus Christ was very central to the believers in the early Church, the Character of Jesus Christ and His Teachings and Doctrine were inseparable in the lives of believers then.

Yet interestingly in contrast with Matthew Henry’s commentary on the subject, one notable modern day Bible Scholar, Ben Witherington rightly suggests that it was on “the lips of others” who referred to believers as Christians…it was the secular world including Roman Historians who referred to believers as Christians. In those days those who followed Plato and his teachings were referred to as “Platonists” for example…[4]

“…That the term occurs in only two other places in the NT (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16), and in both places it is a term found on the lips of others speaking about Christians, as seems to be the case here as well…”[4]

The question today is, are we following after the character of Jesus Christ? Are we keeping the sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ? Do we keep to the Doctrine of Jesus Christ? Do we take the teachings and sayings of Jesus Christ seriously? Are we giving our selves to be students of His Word? If so, are we allowing ourselves to grow after the Christ-like character? Do those who observe – mainly the none Christians see Christ’s Character in us? These are questions we have to prayerfully ponder on and challenge ourselves to daily.

Yet the early Church believers were not identified after denominations, rituals, liturgy, ‘ do and don’t’ rules, or even “mighty men of God” but rather after the character of Jesus Christ. We must note that these were not a perfect people, these were not holy folks who separated themselves and hid in monasteries, these were ordinary folks, everyday men, women, and children, folks from all ethnic groups that dwelt in Antioch which happened to be a multicultural city,[5] and It ranked third, after Rome and Alexandria, in point of importance.[6] These believers were sinners who responded to the good news of Cross, Repentance, and Forgiveness in Jesus Christ. These believers were not superstars but men, women, and children who recognized that they were sinners and desired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and thus felt no shame in being referred to as Christians.

Religious rituals, liturgy, denominations, materialism, “men of God”, etc, have a resemblance for the fear of God but actually only act as a hindrance to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, no wonder, ‘believers’ are known by their denominations and ‘Christian Religions’ rather than their Christ-like Character and Teachings of Jesus Christ.

Therefore two important interconnected issues are noted, one is about the Character of Jesus Christ and second, The Teaching of Jesus Christ, area we must pray daily for God’s grace to grow in.

For believers of our day to be rightly called ‘Christians’ or ‘followers of Christ’ by outside observers, there must be a return to follow after the character of Jesus Christ and keep and obey His teachings. Christ-like Character and Sound Bible Doctrine go hand in hand. This is a challenge that every ‘Christian’ and follower of Christ today must take.

God Bless You
In Christ Jesus
Kato Mivule

[1]Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices
Frank Viola, George Barna, Tyndale House Publishers, 2008, ISBN: 141431485X, 9781414314853

[2] Strong’s Concordance Number G5547; Greek word for Christian

[3] Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Acts 11.” . Blue Letter Bible. 1 Mar 1996. 2010. 29 Jun 2010.

[4] The Acts of the Apostles: a socio-rhetorical commentary, New Testament Commentary Series
Ben Witherington,Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998, ISBN: 0802845010, 9780802845016, Page 371

[5]Easton, Matthew George. M.A., D.D., “Biblical Meaning for ‘Antioch’ Eastons Bible Dictionary”. – Eastons; 1897.

[6]Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Definition for ‘ANTIOCH, OF PISIDIA'”. “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”. – ISBE; 1915.