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Luke’s Names for Christians in the Acts of the Apostles


Acts 11:26

[1] SAINTS   Most people wouldn’t want to be called “saints” since they never think of themselves as saints. They think that the word “saint” refers to a Christian of extraordinary achievement (like the apostle Peter) or to a Christian with an unusually vivid experience of God (like Francis of Assisi) or to a Christian of world-renowned dedication (like Mother Teresa of Calcutta ). Our reluctance notwithstanding, “saint” is one of the commonest names for Christians throughout the New Testament. All who believe in Jesus Christ and aspire to follow him are called “saints”.

The truth is, the word “saint” doesn’t have anything to do with extraordinary achievement or experience or dedication; the word “saint” is a synonym for “holy”; to be a saint is to be holy. “Holy” means “set apart”. To be a saint, then, is simply to be set apart. All Christians are saints in that all Christians are set apart.

Set apart by whom? Set apart by God.

Set apart how? Set apart by God’s call, his ever-renewed invitation, his heart-thawing mercy, his undeflectable patience, his gentle nudging and his sometimes-painful prodding.

Set apart for what purpose? Set apart for two purposes. First, that we might simply find ourselves home again in our Father’s house, beneath our Father’s smile. Isn’t this purpose enough, just as intimacy is purpose enough for marriage? Yet set apart for a second purpose too; namely, to be a witness. Peter maintains that we’ve been set apart “that we may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Luke maintains that Christians are saints. “Saint” means “holy”. To be holy isn’t to be a religious super-achiever; to be holy is to be set apart by God for two purposes: that our darkness might give way to light, our guilt to pardon, our confusion to clarity, our estrangement to intimacy – and also that we might to declare to others all that we have received at the hand of Jesus Christ.

Christians are saints.


[2] BELIEVERS   “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus had asked the twelve one day. “You are God’s anointed one, the Son of the living God!”, Peter had replied on behalf of the others. Christians are identified not by what they believe but by whom they believe; or at least by whom they believe in the first instance and what they believe in the second.

The earliest Christians were crystal-clear on both first and second instances. Their earliest confession was “Jesus is Lord.” It sounds simple, doesn’t it; it is simple — so simple, in fact, that their opponents knew exactly what early-day Christians didn’t mean when they said “Jesus is Lord.” They didn’t mean “Caesar is lord.” “Caesar is lord” was the official oath of loyalty everywhere in the Roman empire . Anyone who wanted to join the armed forces or the civil service had to vow, “Caesar is lord.” In fact, anyone who wanted to remain free of governmental molestation had to vow it. Christians, however, wouldn’t vow this. They wouldn’t because they couldn’t. They didn’t believe that the state, the government, was the one to whom they owed their ultimate loyalty and from whom they expected their ultimate good. They maintained that Jesus Christ was owed their ultimately loyalty and he alone guaranteed them their ultimate good. For their conviction here our Christian foreparents paid dearly.

What about us? We live in an era that believes Caesar to be lord. Our era believes the state to be our greatest good. The state is going to provide womb-to-tomb security. Material security? Our era believes that material security is the only kind there is. Those who regard the state as final saviour and benefactor are shouting “Caesar is lord!” whether they know it or not. Such people believe that the powers the state has can transmute the human heart and render the society the kingdom of God (or the secular equivalent thereof). Does the human heart need to be changed? The state can do it! A few laws enacted here and there, and presto – human savagery has been eradicated forever. A few more laws enacted and presto — the Age of Aquarius is upon us, new heavens and new earth. Is our humanness threatened as the right-to-privacy disappears, thanks to the state’s surveillance? Who cares? After all, if the state is our final saviour and greatest benefactor, shouldn’t the state be allowed any power it wants? And since it is held that social engineering will give us Eden all over again, social engineering (i.e., governmental coercion) is a small price to pay for Eden restored, isn’t it?

Christians, however, know that Eden can’t be restored. (Even it could, humankind would only trash it all over again.) Christians know that the state can’t bring in the Age of Aquarius. Christians know that regardless of what good the state can do, it can’t effect the good, the kingdom of God . Christians know that while the state is supposed to restrain criminality and promote social breathing-space, it is powerless to alter the human heart. Christians know that while the state is supposed to prevent us from being murdered, it can’t bestow eternal life.

“Caesar is lord!”? No. Jesus is Lord! We believe in him. We don’t believe the state to be able to remedy what ails us most profoundly or supply what we long for most ardently or save us from our deepest-down self-contradiction.

Christians, says Luke, are believers. We believe him whom “God has made both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)


[3] DISCIPLES   Luke maintains that all Christians are disciples. “Disciple” means “learner”. But how do we learn? We learn through keeping company with the Master himself.

We people of modernity assume that learning comes chiefly through a book. It does come chiefly through a book if we are learning facts. The facts of geography, the facts of grammar, the facts of geology, the facts of history — all of this can be learned from books.

But if it is wisdom we are learning rather than facts, then more than a book is needed. Learning algebra, learning French irregular verbs, learning the economic geography of western Europe; all of this is quick and easy compared to learning the wisdom we need as disciples. More than a book is needed.

What more is needed? We need the Master himself, the same one whom his followers knew in the days of his flesh; we need the specific wisdom without which we shall only blunder in life, regardless of our expertise in matters of fact; and we need fellow-disciples who will learn with us, warn us, correct us, encourage us, inspire us. More than a book is needed.

And yet, paradoxically, it is by means of a book that we are given so much more than a book. I speak now of the written gospels. There is no substitute for the written gospels. For as we immerse ourselves in them our Lord himself emerges from them. As we immerse ourselves in them we find ourselves with the wisdom that he alone imparts: wisdom concerning anger, impatience, lust, doublemindedness, but also wisdom concerning purity of heart, persistence, resolve, transparency, forgivingness, hope. As we immerse ourselves in the written gospels we find other “immersionists” emerging in our midst and standing with us. Soon there’s no shortage of fellow-disciples who can learn with us, warn us, correct us, encourage us, inspire us.

You must have noticed how often Jesus paired up disciples. When he sent them off here or there he sent them off in twos and expected them to return in twos. Why? It was said in Israel of old, “Wherever there are two Jews, there the whole of Israel is present.” Jesus knew that one disciple all alone will never survive. If, however, there are two, at least two, then all the resources of God’s people will flood those two.

Luke says that Christians are disciples. Immersion in the written gospels yields the Master himself, the wisdom that characterizes disciples, and the fellow-disciples without whom none of us will survive.


[4] BRETHREN   It’s one thing — and a big thing! — to have a fellow-disciple. But it’s something else — and a bigger thing! — to have a brother or a sister in faith. To have a brother or sister in faith is to belong to the family of God.

Discipleship is how we gain the wisdom we must have if we are not to stumble; family-membership, on the other hand, is where we are cherished, loved, treasured, embraced. Early-day Christians often found themselves despised by their blood-family. Someone who exclaimed “Jesus is Lord” when all other relatives were shouting “Caesar is lord” – such a person quickly found himself spun out of his family. Then his new-found family, the family of faith, the household and family of God; this was all the more important, for here he was cherished and held onto and held up — loved.

I’m convinced we make far too little of affection in church life. To be sure, no one wants to reduce Christian love to affection without remainder. At the same time, I simply cannot imagine what the word “love” is supposed to mean if it is utterly devoid of affection. Christians will talk about love at the drop of a hat, and rightly talk about it; after all, if faith in Jesus Christ is our identity, then love for one another advertises our identity. But what is advertised if love, so-called, is colder than a frozen cod? How different Jonathan and David were. “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David”, we are told, “and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1st Samuel 1:18) In the same vein Peter urges the Christians to whom he writes, “…love one another earnestly from the heart.” Paul signs off his letter to the congregation in Thessalonica with the words, “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss.” (1st Thess. 5:26)

Kissing is everywhere a sign — more than a sign, it’s a vehicle – of affection. In the Hebrew bible kissing isn’t customarily kissing only; kissing is accompanied by hugging, by clutching, by weeping, by dancing. In the Hebrew bible kissing is one expression, one expression among the many expressions that accompany it, of the most ardent affection.

Luke insists that Christians are brothers, sisters. He knows that in the household and family of God we are to love one another ardently. He knows too that while Christian love has to be more than affection, it must never be less.


[5] FOLLOWERS OF THE WAY   Again and again the older testament insists that there are two ways. Jeremiah thunders, “Thus says the Lord… `Return, every one, from his evil way…’.” (Jer. 24:15) Psalm 1 concludes, “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Ps.1:6) Joshua exhorts his people, “Choose this day whom you will serve….But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

There are always two ways before us, but there’s only one way that we are meant to travel. Luke maintains that Christians are called “followers of the way”. Both truths need to be emphasized: we are followers, not leaders. (Jesus Christ, says the book of Hebrews, has pioneered the way for us; he — and he alone – has blazed the trail for us. {Heb. 12:2}) At the same time we are followers of the way. It’s the supreme venture. It’s not a stroll or a saunter or a promenade; it’s a venture, the venture.

What’s needed on the way? We need the intuition of the experienced spy; we need the perspicacity of the long-distance runner; we need the sensitivity of the microsurgeon; we need the resilience of the boxer getting up off the canvas; we need the singlemindedness of the student preparing now for a career that will occupy her for life; we need the courage of the soldier who knows that fear is found in every sane person at the battle-front, even as he knows that his fear mustn’t immobilize him; we need the love of the nursing mother for her newest babe if we are ever going to bond to the newest believers among us.

We are venturers on the way.


[6] THOSE BEING SAVED   When we were youngsters we frequently checked to see how much taller we’d grown. We knew that we were growing taller slowly but surely; we knew too that we also grew suddenly in growth-spurts. We were both growing steadily and growing in spurts.

So it is with the Christian life. We are “being saved” inasmuch as we are steadily “growing in Christ”; we are “being saved” inasmuch as little-by-little we are coming to think and act in conformity with Jesus Christ. And then we are also “being saved” in spurts. In my former congregation in Streetsville we frequently used, on the first Sunday of the New Year, John Wesley’s service of “Owning the Covenant”. (In 1755 Wesley prepared a service of covenant re-dedication wherein worshippers pledged themselves anew to God and to each other. Since 1755 Methodists have traditionally used the service on the first Sunday of the year.) A fellow spoke to me several weeks after we had used John Wesley’s service of “Owning the Covenant” wherein I had preached on the difference between a contract and a covenant. “I grew more in that one service than I had in the previous ten years”, the man reported to me. This isn’t to say that he hadn’t grown at all in the previous ten, but it is to say that on that occasion a growth-spurt had occurred and the whole matter of moving ahead in Christ or “being saved” had accelerated for that moment.

The apostle Peter urges us, “Keep on growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) The apostle Paul insists that his ministry aims at “presenting every person mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28) Plainly if we are ever to mature we have to grow. And if we grow we shall find ourselves growing both steadily and in spurts.

Steady growth occurs as we steadily attend to worship, watchfulness, obedience, study, gratitude. Spurt-growth occurs as unforeseen developments startle us and challenge us and invite us to stride ahead in a stride that outpaces our normal pace. Spurt-growth occurs too as our attention to unglamorous steady growth is suddenly blessed in a way that we couldn’t anticipate. A physician-friend of mine was living in Boston for a year while he completed part of the residency-requirements for his qualifications in internal medicine. He was sitting in church one day, listening to a preacher who he said was dull every Sunday, when suddenly, my friend told me, “It was gone, never to return.” What was gone? He gave no details and I asked for none. He simply said that he had struggled for years with a besetting temptation that haunted him and in that moment, on that morning, he knew he was to be harassed no more.

Luke speaks of Christians as “those who are being saved.” He knows that we shall continue being saved until that day, in the words of his friend Paul, “God completes the good work that he has begun in us.” (Philippians 1:6)


[7] CHRISTIANS   Luke reports that it was in Antioch that Christ’s people were first called “Christians”. They were dubbed “Christians” for two reasons. One was simply a readily understood means of referring to unusual people. The second reason disciples were called “Christians” was to visit a term of contempt upon them. The Roman government suspected Christians, after all, and would soon escalate suspicion to persecution. And Christians themselves? They were deemed too stupid to know what was going on! Why, they seemed naive, as vulnerable as a child in a prison full of paedophiles.

But of course the Christians of Luke’s era were anything but clueless. They — and they alone — were kingdom-sighted in a world of the blind; they were entirely “clued in” when all the while it was their detractors who were ultimately clueless.

The term of contempt that was hung on early-day Christians they turned into a badge of honour and then displayed it unashamedly. “Christian?” They knew that what possessed them wasn’t a notion or an idea or a theory; they knew they were seized and secured by their living Lord himself. They could no more be ashamed of “Christian” than they could be ashamed of the Master himself. They knew that his grip on them would always be stronger than their grip on him; and they knew that his grip on them would see them through the horrors ahead. Publicly identified as both silly and subversive? Yes, in the eyes of a treacherous world. Yet they knew they were also secure in the heart and hand of him whose resurrection would eclipse what they couldn’t avoid and whose victory no earthly torment could overturn.

Luke knew that those who were first called “Christians” had already turned a sign of reproach into a badge of honour.


                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 May 2005