The word ‘Christian’ has become a word so broad in usage that it has lost much of its meaning. What does the word ‘Christian’ really mean? The first usage of a word is usually our best place to rediscover the original meaning and intent of a word. Luke writes in the book of Acts concerning Barnabas, saying that, “He found Saul and brought him to Antioch, where they met with the church for a whole year and taught many of its people. There in Antioch the Lord’s followers were first called Christians” (Acts 11: 26). This is the first mention in history of the word ‘Christian.’
Put simply the word here means “a follower of Christ.” But what exactly is a ‘follower of Christ?’ There is a clue in the name ‘Christ.’ Christ is not the surname of Jesus; it is his title. Christ means anointed one, or its Jewish equivalent, ‘Messiah.’ For a contemporary Roman the equivalent would be Caesar, and in English the word King would be the correct translation. So, a Christian is somebody who acknowledges and gives their allegiance to and follows Jesus as the King.
Yet even here we can run into a problem as we have little concept of what it means to follow a king. We are used to political parties voted in or out at our discretion. This is not how kingdoms work—especially in the ancient world. To give your allegiance to a king was to throw your lot in with the king and to share in every demand and benefit of that Kingdom—for life.
To give your allegiance to Jesus as King means more than merely believing certain facts about Jesus and it is more than adding a spiritual facet to your life. It demands that we lay down our self-made aspirations for life. But here we meet the counter-intuitive principle of the kingdom—life out of death. Like a seed that is planted: the seed dies, but then life is multiplied. Hang on to the life you have, and you eventually lose it, “But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal” (John 12: 25 The Message).
To follow Jesus then is to follow him into his death. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it: “When Jesus bids a man ‘come and follow’ he bids him ‘come and die’.” But this is the key to real life. All the measures we give to life—wealth, status, power: these are not true indicators. Real life is found as we join with Christ in knowing and serving the Father.
This is the reversal of the rebellion of Adam and Eve when they attempted to live their lives as if life belonged to them; to live independent of God. In the attempt to be more than we are we lose our selves, but in dying to ourselves by submitting to the Father in Christ we find life—the very same life that Jesus has always known. As we submit to Christ and know the Father’s love our life gains whole new dimensions and depth. Rather than being diminished by submission we are enlarged by it.