One of the problems with the word “Christian” is despite its wide use in our culture it is not a real popular term in the Bible. In fact, it only occurs three times in the entire New Testament. It never crossed Jesus’ lips. Paul never used it. In fact, on every occasion when it does occur the biblical author is quoting a non-Christian who used it to describe followers of Jesus. Acts 11:26 tells us, “…the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” By whom? The unbelievers in Antioch. “Christian” comes from the Greek word “Christianos” which means “little Christ.” Not a bad word. But it was a nickname non-believers gave us, and for some reason it unfortunately stuck.
From now on, I want to challenge you to use the word “disciple” every time you are about to use the word “Christian.” Say both of them out loud. “I’m glad I’m a Christian.” Now try, “I’m glad I am a disciple.” At first it is going to seem a little awkward. Your neighbors might think you’ve joined some strange chicken sacrificing cult. But that’s precisely the point. Jim Jones and Charles Manson stole this word from us. We’re stealing it back.
“Disciple” occurs not three times, but over two hundred and sixty times throughout the pages of the New Testament. As philosopher Dallas Willard says, “The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus.” Derived from the original Greek word “mathetes,” which simply means a “learner or student,” a disciple is simply one that learns from a teacher. But according to Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, our mission on earth is not just to create Christ followers that learn his teachings, but ones that obey his teachings.
So why use the word disciple instead of the word Christian?
When we use the word “Christian,” we mistakenly give the impression that obeying Jesus’ teachings is something that can be put off until later, like dieting or changing the oil in the car. We tend to communicate, “First you become a Christian, and after that you can work at becoming a disciple.” Discipleship is treated sort of like honors courses in high school. They’re not essential for graduation but a good thing to do if you so choose. According to Jesus, discipleship begins at conversion. Trusting Christ to forgive your sins and getting baptized are simply the first steps of a lifetime of “discipleship.” With the word disciple, life change is expected. Transformation is an assumed part of the journey of a disciple from the beginning.
But by far the most important reason we need to dust off and re-engage this word “disciple” is the positive Christ-like behavioral change it will create in us for our skeptical friends to notice.
A few years ago I was driving in center city Philadelphia and got lost, which is a common occurrence for me. Without knowing it, I pulled onto a narrow one way road. Cars started barreling towards me. Horns were blaring. Cars were pulling out of my way. People motioned for me to go back the other way and said things I can’t repeat. It reminded me of that bumper sticker, “If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk.” Say what you want about my navigational ability, there wasn’t a person on that street that (A) didn’t know I was there and (B) which direction I was headed. That’s what happens when Christians become disciples.
People notice disciples. Disciples do not blend in very easily. Disciples do not just believe differently, they behave differently. They stick out. They provoke. They cause people to think. They jar people to evaluate their lives, even without uttering a word. Disciples point people to the kingdom of God simply by their behavior alone. The result is a faith that becomes irresistible. People want what we have.
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