What’s in a Name?

Photo by Jon Tyson

Names are powerful! The revelation, “I know who you are, John Gary McKeel!” was enough to keep me from mischief when I was a little boy. Now the exclamation, “What’s that noise?” forces me out of the warm blankets until I can name it. (It’s the cat.)

Names are powerful. Think about some of the designations for people of faith in the New Testament. “And in Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Gentiles gave us that name. J.S. Howson observed, “The people of Antioch were notorious for inventing names of derision and for turning their wit into channels of ridicule.” [1]

Why would Christian be a name “of derision”? First, Christ and Messiah are the same terms. One is Greek and the other Hebrew. It means “the anointed one.” This was significant to Jews: prophets, priests, and kings were anointed. On the other hand, it was meaningless to Greeks. It would be equivalent to our calling someone a “Greaser.” It also was a term of derision because the common opinion of Christians was bad. They were considered unsophisticated, superstitious, and a bit naïve. 

What did the Christians call themselves? “Brethren, saints, elect, believers, and Nazarene.” Each of those terms is precious. Take a moment to think about what they each mean.

One of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, focuses on these two biblical names:

There are two biblical designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim. Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

Pilgrim (parepidēmos) tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. [2]

Which name will you wear today?

  [1] Butler, J. G. (1995). Paul: The Missionary Apostle (Vol. Number Eleven, p. 107). Clinton, IA: LBC Publications.

[2] Peterson, E. H. (2019). A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Commemorative Edition, p. 11). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.

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