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TEXT: Acts 11:19-26
SUBJECT: What We Are #5: Christians
Since the call of Abraham, the Lord's People have gone by many names. Back in the day, we were called Hebrews, Children of Israel, and Jews. Later, we went by the disciples of Christ and the sect of the Nazarenes. We have also been called, saints, children of God, brethren, and things less flattering than these.
Of all the names we've gone by, though, one has stuck more than any other. It was given to us by the pagans of Antioch Syria, in the middle of the First Century. Was it meant as a compliment or as an insult? Or something else?
I think 'something else'.
At the time, pagans who had heard of the church took us for Jews, and you understand why: most of the members were of Jewish descent, and much of what we said sounded like Judaism. But the closer they listened, the more it occurred to them that, while there's a lot of overlap between the church and the synagogue, the followers of Jesus worshiped Him as though He were God. Some of the Jews respected Jesus; others hated Him; and others had no opinion one way or the other. But only one group called Him the Christ. And from this distinctive doctrine they got the name that is still with us-
This is what the pagans first called us-and they got it right! We share many core beliefs with other religions-that there is a God and He has a law by which He will judge us some day. We also share much of their morality. We have to live good lives by respecting God, keeping our commitments and loving one another.
As important as these beliefs and practices are, however, they do not identify us. Though we want to be religious and moral and nice people, we're not about religion, morality and niceness. This is why we're not called 'religionists', 'moralistas' or 'niceniks'. We're called Christians because we're all about Christ! We are, that is, when we live up to our name, when we become what we are.
Why 'Christian' and not something else? How did that name distinguish the people in Antioch way back when, and why does it fit us better than any other that has been come up with since?
WE WORSHIP CHRIST
The most obvious reason we're called what we are is because we worship Christ. The Early Church adopted the Old Testament Scriptures as their own. While the Apostles lived, no one in the Church denied the Hebrew Bible or thought of it as a second class book. This might have created quite a problem, for if the Old Testament teaches anything, it teaches:
There is only one God-Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one God. This was called the shema and served as something like the Apostles' Creed in Israel. However much the Israelites differed on other things, they all agreed on this one: There is only one God and He is the Lord.
The second thing it taught is God is not a man. This is a quote from the Bible; it is affirmed in many other places, and assumed everywhere. Man is made in the likeness and image of God, but he is not divine and neither is God human. There is a yawning gap between God and man, and-as far as the Old Testament goes-there is no way to bridge it.
But, while believing every word of the Bible, the Church worshiped Jesus of Nazareth, who is as human as you and I. Were they crazy or stupid? No; they were right to worship Him because, though He is a Man, He is not only a man. He is also and equally God.
The Old Testament offered hints of this. The one you're most likely to hear round Christmas is Isaiah 7:14-
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son and shall call his name, 'Immanuel'.
'Immanuel' means 'God with us'-and this is what Jesus is: Not God's agent or messenger in the world, but God Himself-in all His fullness-living in the world alongside you and me.
Psalm 2 is a second example. It opens to the sound of war-the nations are raging, the peoples are plotting, kings are setting themselves, rulers taking counsel. Who are the armies mobilizing against? The Lord and His anointed (that is, the king). At first, God and His King are plainly separate-one in heaven and the other on earth. But as it moves on, the two are blended together. Using the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, the Psalmist says the same thing in two ways, and then puts them together in such a way you're not sure whom he has in mind. Admonishing the foreign kings, he says in vv.11-12-
Serve the Lord with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
Lest he be angry, and you perish
In the way,
For his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuges in
In the Prophet, God promises to be with us in a special way; in the Psalm, He and His human king merge into one. Good men in the day read the promises with much faith and little understanding. How do you combine the two? How can God be a Man and not a Man at the same time? The Old Testament saints did not know, and neither did the angels, though they looked into it with care.
The mystery was only cleared up by the event. An angel called Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth a small and poor town in the north of Israel. There, he met a girl who was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph; though they were betrothed to each other, they had not been intimate. Gabriel told the girl she would soon have a baby, but the girl couldn't see how-after all, she had never been with Joseph or any other man. How can these things be? she wondered. He told her-
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High will
Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy-
The Son of God.
In Jesus Christ, God joined the human race, without ever ceasing to be God. He let people worship Him because they owed Him their worship-because He is God!
WE FOLLOW CHRIST
A second reason we are called 'Christians' is because we follow Christ. Jesus is God, but as I said before, He is not only God; He is also a man. What kind of Man is He? The kind of man God wants you to be.
What kind of Man was He? No one has a complete answer to this one. John says, if all He did were written down, the world itself could not contain the books. But, if we don't have all He was at our disposal, we have enough to know what we ought to be.
What kind of Man was He to God? Three things occurred to me: He was trusting and obedient and eager. He went into the wilderness without food; this sounds foolish, and it would have been, if God had not told Him to with the implied promise He would take care of Him. This is why, when Satan tempted Him to turn the stones into bread, He flatly refused--
Man shall not live by bread alone,
But by every word that proceeds from the
Mouth of God.
This means, instead of doing what the devil-and His belly-wanted Him to do, He would trust God. If God sent Him into the wilderness without food it is only to sustain Him with something better than food.
It is easy to trust God in the wilderness without food-mostly because we've never been in the wilderness without food! But what about trusting Him in the hard places we are in? What about trusting God in an unhappy marriage? You shouldn't have married the woman you did-people told you not to, but you did anyway. Now, you're unhappy, and it's not because you haven't tried-God knows you have. But to no effect; your love is met with a shrug or a sneer or a curse. Your friends tell you to divorce her, but you won't. They say it's because you're a doormat, but you know better. It's because God joined the two of you together, and He can be trusted to bring something good out of a bad marriage. Maybe your patience will bring her to Christ; maybe it won't do anything for her, but it will do something for you: it will bring you into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings, and this, in turn, will reveal more of Him to you than all the theology books in the world!
Jesus trusted His Father who is also your Father. Let us live up to our name by following Christ in trusting our Father.
He was also an obedient Man. Everything God told Him to do, He did, and some of it was mighty hard. No one can read of our Lord in the Garden without being deeply moved. He and the disciples have just finished the Last Supper; He knows His hour has come, and He resorts to the place Judas expected Him to be. He pulls His three best friends aside to pray with Him. But of course, they're tired and worried and in no mood to pray. While they sleep, Jesus prays with a passion that nearly kills Him.
The capillaries in His face burst and the blood mixes with the sweat on His face. The man is in agony of body and soul. We don't know all He said that night, but one thing He said over and over-
Abba, Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me;
Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.
God's will would be done that night. There would be no escape for Jesus, no delay, no softening of the blow. The fury of man, the malice of Satan, and the wrath of God would come together that night, and the next day, to inflict on Him an unspeakable suffering.
And here's the thing: Had He wanted to, Jesus could have gotten out of it. But how could He want something other than what His Father wanted? How could He know God's Will and not do it? Paul, who knew something about doing hard things, was staggered at our Lord's obedience-
He became obedient unto death,
Even the death of the cross.
The obedience He offered was from the heart. Sometimes we do things we don't want to do--and there's a lot to be said for this. But, if doing things reluctantly is better than not doing them, doing them eagerly is best of all. This is what our Lord did. He said-
I delight to do your will;
Yes, your Law is within my heart.
When David killed the giant, he was acting as a type of Christ-a foreshadowing of the better Man to come. Just before the fatal blow was struck, the writer tells us how the two men came together (And remember, Goliath was more than nine feet tall, fully armored, and been a soldier all his life, and had spent the better part of six weeks Israel and their God a flock of chickens!)-
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.
Have you got the picture? Goliath lumbering out to do his job, but David running full tilt to do God's will!
This is the obedience Jesus offered His Father and we only live up to our names when we do the same.
WE BELIEVE IN HIM
We are called, 'Christians', thirdly, because we believe in Jesus as our Savior. As both God and Man, Jesus is uniquely qualified to save us from the judgment our sins so richly deserve.
This He has done by going to the cross in our place. In one way, the cross was a human invention; the Romans dreamed it up as a way to kill a criminal as slowly and shamefully and publicly as possible. When others saw him hanging on a cross, they would fear the power of Rome and behave themselves.
If the cross was Rome's way of punishing a man, it was not only theirs. When Rome was nothing but a village, Moses laid down a Law that was also a prophecy-
Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.
The enemies of Israel and her false sons would be stoned to death and their bodies hung in a tree till sundown. This symbolized God looking down on them in all His righteous anger. They were cursed by God for their own sins.
This is what happened to Jesus; He too was hung on a tree under the curse of God. But, unlike the others, the curse He bore was not for His sins, but for ours. Peter says He suffered as-
The just for the unjust.
The believers in Antioch were called Christians because they couldn't keep this great good news to themselves! Like you and me, they suffered from guilt and wondered how people as bad as they are could ever be okay with God.
They found out with the message of Christ crucified for them. And us.
We are Christians because we worship Christ as God, because we follow His example, and because we believe He died for us and thus secured our salvation.
THE OTHER SIDE
This is one side of the picture, but only one side. How did we come to worship Him as God? Why do we follow His example when others follow every example but His? Why have we believed in Him when most others have not?
Many factors could be named. How we were brought up matters; I took in the Gospel with my mother's milk, while many others never hear it, or hear it only when they've got other things on their mind. Reading the Bible matters; praying matters; going to church matters.
Ultimately, it is not these things that make us Christians. What does? God. Our Lord was a famous man, of course, and everybody knew He was 'somebody'. Who? Some said He was John the Baptists, other said He was Elijah, still others took Him for Jeremiah, and others weren't sure which prophet He was, but He was definitely, one of them.
Then the Lord turns to His disciple and wants to know what they think. Peter, as ever was the first to speak up: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
What does Jesus say to this? He says, Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.
We are Christians because God has made us Christians. He used means, but He only used them. He did it. This means we have nothing to be proud of but much to be thankful for.
Let the world call us what it will. We are satisfied if the One who knows calls us what we are: Christians.
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