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What is a Christian?

Saturday, May 07, 2022

…And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 11:26b

The majority of people in the world today identify as Christians. But what exactly is a ‘Christian’? It is a slippery term in our culture because it means so many different things to different people. There are other words and phrases which correspond to it, such as ‘believer,’ ‘disciple,’ ‘follower of Jesus,’ ‘child of God,’ and so on, but they all share the same nebulous cultural definitions as ‘Christian.’ When pushed to define the meaning of the term some offer the postmodern response, “What the word ‘Christian’ means to me is…” and their subjective definitions run the gamut.

The solution to our problem is, of course, to allow the Bible to define its own terms. So long as we are approaching this question from the vantage point of culture, we are doomed to be tossed about by its ever-changing winds. While the world is in constant flux, and language and ethical fashions fluctuate with it, “the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:23-25; Isa. 40:6-8; Mt. 24:35).

The real question to ask is how the Bible defines a Christian. We may be surprised to learn that the word ‘Christian’ only appears three times in the Bible (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). Each appearance reveals something about its meaning.

“In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Luke records this because ‘Christian’ had become a familiar term in certain areas when he wrote the book of Acts. The suffix of the word (ιανοσ) was attached to proper nouns to give a diminutive form. As ‘Herodians’ (Mt. 22:16) were those loyal to Herod’s family, 'Christians' are loyal to ‘Christ,’ a title meaning “anointed one.” Note also that they were “called Christians.” This implies it wasn’t a title they made up for themselves but a nickname given them by the people of Antioch. Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as ‘disciples,’ ‘saints,’ and ‘brothers.’ Therefore, a Christian is someone who is loyal to Jesus and shows their loyalty by following him in a way that is plain for others to see.

The word ‘Christian' appears next after Paul gives his defense before king Agrippa. Agrippa responds, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) This, in fact, is exactly what Paul was trying to do. But understanding Agrippa’s response is difficult. Was he expressing his amazement that Paul would try to convert him after such a short speech? Or was he expressing his amazement that he was, in fact, almost converted in such a short time? Either way, while he was confident of Paul’s innocence (Acts 26:32), Agrippa was not yet persuaded to become a Christian.

The last time we see the word ‘Christian’ in the New Testament is in the context of suffering innocently. The apostle Peter encourages saints to share in Christ’s sufferings “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). While suffering for doing wrong is just and cause for shame, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:16), that is, in the name of Christ.

Therefore, a Christian, is not merely a title one wears to confess one’s identity. People identify as all sorts of things but saying so doesn’t make it so (Jn. 8:39). Nor is a Christian merely a believer in Christ. Those who were not willing to step out of the shadows and follow Jesus were “believers” but not Christians (Jn. 12:42).

So, what is a Christian? A Christian is a follower of Christ. A Christian’s loyalty to Christ should be plain for all to see (Acts 11:26). This requires a change in life (Acts 26:28) and a willingness to continue following him even if it means suffering for it (1 Pet. 4:16). If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

A Friend of Sinners and No Friend of Sin

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Luke 7:34

A “friend” is someone who loves you at all times (Prov. 17:17), gives good advice (27:9-10), sticks by you (18:24), helps you when you are down (Ecc. 4:9-10), supports you physically and emotionally (Ecc. 4:11), and fights to protect you (Ecc. 4:12). Sometimes a friend has to be tough and call you out when you are wrong (Prov. 27:5-6; cf. 2 Sam. 12), but he is always kind (Job 6:14). A friend is someone who earns your trust by his loyalty (1 Sam. 20; cf. Acts 9:26-27) and helps you mature (Prov. 27:17).

Jesus embodied this teaching on friendship throughout his life and, supremely, in his sacrificial death (Jn. 15:13-15). Though his friendship with sinners earned him scorn from the self-righteous (Lk. 7:34, 39), he never apologized for his associations. After all, what kind of doctor refuses to see sick patients? (Lk. 5:31) Many reviled him because they thought this righteous man would be contaminated by such association with sinners. But they were wrong. Jesus purified those he came in contact with instead. We see this illustrated in Jesus’ healings of the ritually unclean; instead of their uncleanness rubbing off on him, his touch purified them! (Mt. 8:1-4; 9:18-26, etc.)

People reviled Jesus and they will revile us if we follow his example. But to befriend sinners requires us to have more confidence in Christ’s power to cleanse than fear of contamination from the world.

With this being said, we must take seriously the command to keep oneself “unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27) and the warning that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jas. 4:4).

On the surface, this may sound contradictory. How are we to love the world and be separate from it at the same time? In John’s writing, the word “world” is used in two different senses. Viewed as people, the world is to be loved (Jn. 3:16). Viewed as an evil system, organized under the domain of Satan, we must not love the world (1 Jn. 2:15-17) but live distinct from it (Jn. 15:18-19; Rom. 12:2).

What made Jesus so effective and magnetic to sinners was his love on the one hand and his holiness on the other. Jesus, our high priest, is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). And yet he who was “above the angels” took on a status “below” the angels by joining our ranks and suffering with us (Heb. 1:5-14; 2:1-18; Phil. 2:5-11). For this reason, he is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” because he “was tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

Jesus neither condoned sin, left people in their sin, nor showed any disdain for sinners. And his love was not passive. He did not just wait for people to get their act together but called sinners to repentance and held out the free gift of God (Jn. 4:1-26). In short, Jesus was a friend of sinners but no friend of sin.

We must not think of relationships with non-Christians primarily as dangers but as opportunities. Instead of avoiding them for fear of contamination, we are to befriend them and pray for their conversion believing that “he who is in [us] is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

In Matthew 5:13-16, we are called to be salt and light. The very thing that makes salt and light effective is that they are so different from the thing they effect. For Christians to change the world we must be radically distinct from it. At the same time, we must remember that salt can only influence by contact with the world. May God help us befriend sinners and have no friendship with sin!

What is the Leviathan?

Saturday, April 23, 2022

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? 

Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?”

Job 41:1-2

The mysterious Leviathan raises its frightening head(s) a few times in the Old Testament (Psa. 74:12-19; 104:25-26; Isa. 27:1; Job 3:8; 41:1-34) and, perhaps, once in the New Testament as the “beast from the sea” (Rev. 13:1). What is this mysterious, untamable, water-dwelling, fire-breathing, multi-headed monster?

The word “Leviathan” most likely means “the writhing or twisting one,” which suggests a snake-like body. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the word translated “Leviathan” is drakon in Job 41, the serpentine creature from which our English “dragon” is derived. In Job 3, however, the “Leviathan” is ketos or Cetus, a Greek dragon with a pig’s snout. The Bible describes Leviathan as a kind of tannin or “sea monster” (Psa. 74:13-14; Isa. 27:1; cf. Gen. 1:21), which, in ancient Near Eastern mythology, symbolized an aquatic, evil chaos-monster.

In Psalm 74:13-14, Leviathan is depicted as an enemy of the LORD which the LORD conquers and feeds to the creatures of the desert. In the surrounding context, the psalmist describes God defeating chaos and disorder within creation, echoing Genesis 1 when God shaped what was “formless” and filled what was “void.” God’s triumph over Leviathan is another display of his power over darkness and evil which strengthens the faith of the psalmist.

In Psalm 104, the Leviathan is categorized as one of the swarming creatures of the sea (Gen. 1:20f) which God formed for a particular purpose. This is similar to the reference in Job 41 which speaks of the power of Leviathan and another mysterious creature, Behemoth (Job 40:15ff). God created both creatures which no man can tame.

The reference in Isaiah 27:1 is symbolic. There, “Leviathan the fleeing… twisting serpent” becomes a cipher for Israel’s enemies whom God will punish. This apocalyptic description is picked up and made even more grotesque in Revelation 12-13, where the image of a devouring, multi-headed dragon is used to symbolize Satan, “that ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9; cf. Gen. 3:1ff). This iconographic motif of Satan as a defeated serpent continued in early church history through the middle ages.

During the enlightenment, attempts were made to defend the scientific accuracy of Scripture which resulted in Behemoth and Leviathan being identified as the hippo and crocodile. But these animals simply don’t fit the descriptions in Job. A hippo’s tail cannot be described, even poetically, as “a cedar” (Job 40:17) and a crocodile doesn’t seem large enough to fit the description of Leviathan. Both creatures are probably best explained naturally as extinct reptiles; Behemoth could have been a Sauropod and Leviathan something akin to Mosasaurus.

This terrifying creature of immense proportions continues to captivate imaginations today. For example, the second season of Disney’s The Mandalorian features a creature called a krayt dragon that eats bovine animals called banthas (= Behemoths). The dragon is eventually called a Leviathan. After it is conquered, its flesh is divided and eaten as a delicacy by the native Tuskans (Psa. 74:14!).

While Scripture doesn’t give us a clear zoological classification, the Leviathan was both a physical creature formed by God and a symbolic creature. As a symbol of chaos and strength which no mere human could ever tame, Leviathan was used by the biblical writers as a means to speak about the greater power of God. What is untamable by mere humans is easily constrained by our Creator.

Jesus the Master Craftsman

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Jesus’s use of stories in his teaching is well documented in the Gospels, but how much notice do we give to how these stories are constructed? A closer look reveals how Jesus was the master of his craft. Here we take a look at just one story, the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), to see at least three ways in which Jesus’s stories show his skill as a craftsman.

Words which say a lot -- Jesus did not waste words. Consider how much is packed into just one verse: “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores” (Luke 16:20).

The phrase “at his gate” conjures up the Rich Man’s walls and enclosed home. It names the place the Rich Man had to pass every time he entered or left his home, ignoring Lazarus countless times. Meanwhile, the expression “was laid” (just one word in Greek) tells us that Lazarus had limited mobility and needed help to get into position. In just one sentence Jesus gives each character a history. We’re able to visualise their daily movements and the moment in which their lives converge.

Two verses later Jesus tells us that “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Without highlighting it, he records that the Poor Man died first. Of course, poor people generally live shorter lives. We hear that the Poor Man was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, while the Rich Man was buried. Here Jesus leaves a gap in our knowledge concerning whether the Poor Man was buried at all. In being explicitly buried the Rich Man gets better treatment in earthly terms, but not in heavenly terms. This underlines the fundamental contrast of the story: the Rich Man chose earthly recognition over heavenly recognition, much to his own regret.

Skillful use of names -- In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the presence and absence of names are used to powerful effect. The Rich Man, who was surely known to everyone, is unnamed, whereas the Poor Man, whom society ignored, is named. Lazarus is, appropriately enough, a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, meaning “God helps”. By giving a name to Lazarus but not to the Rich Man, Jesus shows that God’s values are the opposite of society’s values.

It’s also worth noting that the Rich Man ignored Lazarus while on earth, but when in torment wanted Lazarus to be his servant. He called out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24). Strikingly, here he reveals he knows the name of the beggar whom he had ignored on earth. This further highlights his guilt.

There is a contrast between the way the storyteller refers to Abraham as “Abraham” (verses 22, 23, 25, 29) and the Rich Man calls him “father Abraham” (verses 24 and 30) or just “father” (verse 27). The Rich Man wants to stress his family relationship with Abraham, but this is precisely where his problem lies. He asks Abraham to send witness to his five brothers, but if the Rich Man had considered the five books of Torah and really accepted Abraham as his father, he would have to accept that he had many more than five brothers, since Abraham had been promised offspring as countless as the stars and the sand. He would have to accept that Lazarus was his brother.

Old Testament references -- Jesus often filled his stories with Old Testament allusions. The opening verse of this story relates that the Rich Man feasted daily in purple and fine linen. There’s only one other text in the Bible where we get linen, purple, and feasting:

“There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones” (Esther 1:6).

This is the description of Ahasuerus’s seven-day feast to which every man in the citadel was invited. This allusion contrasts the Rich Man’s meanness with Ahasuerus’s greater generosity.

Early in the story we are also told that the Poor Man was “covered with sores”. The only other man in the Bible covered with sores was Job, who was rich and yet could claim never to have ignored the needs of the poor (Job 31:17–21). This allusion to the Old Testament again highlights the Rich Man’s guilt.

Finally, when we read “in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:2), we have an echo of a famous Old Testament text: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (Genesis 22:4). These two brief passages have four words or phrases in common: (1) to lift up one’s eyes; (2) far/afar; (3) see; (4) Abraham. Abraham, like Job, was rich, and he entertained strangers. The similar wording in the descriptions of Abraham and the Rich Man serves to highlight their contrast, further emphasising the Rich Man’s lack of hospitality. 

Jesus told stories skilfully, but never merely to entertain. His parables often work at a very simple level, but careful attention reveals a much greater depth. In this very short story we see Jesus’s careful use of language, the words and names he chooses and omits, woven into a rich backdrop of the Old Testament. Each of these three features carry deep moral challenges and show the value of studying Jesus’s words with great care. 

by Peter J Williams


Who Jesus Is

Saturday, April 02, 2022

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

Hebrews 1:3

The practical goal of the book of Hebrews is to encourage the original audience to continue trusting in and following Christ. Some were tempted to escape persecution (Heb. 10:32-34) by renouncing their faith in Christ and reverting to Judaism. The writer challenges them to remain faithful to Jesus with a number of arguments which all make the same basic point: Jesus is superior. Jesus is greater than the angels and Moses, the Mosaic priesthood and sacrifices. Jesus is preeminent. Therefore, serve him with a whole heart.

While we may not be tempted to turn from Jesus to Judaism, we may subtly turn from him by mentally diminishing his exalted status. This is a real temptation in a culture set on “taming” Jesus by speaking of him as a mere human, a prophet, or an ethical teacher on par with others. Dorothy Sayers once wrote of this watering-down of Jesus in her Letters to a Diminished Church

“The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

In this one verse (Hebrews 1:3), the writer makes three astonishing claims about who Jesus is.

He is “the radiance of the glory of God.” Jesus is to God as the rays of light are to the sun. “Glory” refers to the luminous manifestation of God’s presence (Ex. 16:7; 33:18; Isa. 40:5; 60:1-3). “Radiance” is the splendor and intense brightness that his glory brings. Just as the brightness of the light cannot be separated from the light itself, to see Jesus is to see God’s glory (Jn. 1:14; 2:11; 8:12; 17:5).

He is “the exact imprint of his nature.” Jesus is to God as the wax impression is to the signet ring. Though all humans are stamped with the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27), Jesus was the only human in whom that divine image was not obscured and defaced by sin. The “imprint” or the essential nature of God is seen perfectly in the face of Jesus (Jn. 1:2, 18; 14:9; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15).

Finally, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Jesus is both the agent (Heb. 1:2) and sustainer of creation. “All things were created through him and for him… and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17; Jn. 1:3). The universe was created by the word through the Son (Heb. 1:2; 11:3) and continues to be managed and governed by that same powerful word. Just as all creation originated from him in the beginning, all creation will be subjected to him in the end (Heb. 1:13; 2:5, 8; 1 Cor. 15:28).

Let’s put this into perspective. The distance between the earth and the sun is about 92 million miles. Let’s represent that 92-million-mile distance with the thickness of a sheet of paper. If the thickness of a sheet of paper represents 92 million miles then the distance from here to the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high and the width of our galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high. This is just our galaxy, the Milky Way. How vast is our universe? How many galaxies does it contain? Our Lord Jesus knows and is able to hold it all together by the “word of his power.”

Who, then, is Jesus and who are we in relation to him? He is not someone we simply invite into our lives if it pleases us. He is nothing less than the Lord of the universe. God help us to remove all limits of our devotion and love toward our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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