Christianity: The Origin, Purpose, and Destiny of a Christian
Just as the gospels present the account of the life and ministry of Jesus, the book of Acts presents the creation and growth of Christianity. Whereas in the gospels the apostles were consistently clueless about the points Jesus was attempting to make, the ascension of Jesus and the entry of the Holy Spirit transforms these cowardly men into heroes of the faith. The book presents some highs in the church but many more lows as persecution runs as high as the courage of Christian followers.
Imagine being arrested and entering a court of law with the only crime being charged was that of being a Christian. In order to prove their case, the prosecution pulls out the book of Acts with its recounting of the definition of the Christian and its clear definition of what a Christian was and should be today. The prosecutor then proceeds to review the life in question and argues whether this person meets the description of the Christian or is a fraud. Would simply claiming to be a Christian be sufficient to prove faith or are there some acts that must be accomplished. This is the underlying purpose behind the book of Acts.
The book of Acts was written by Luke as a followup to his gospel. Acts is addressed to Theophilus, similar to the gospel of Luke with the intent "To set to order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us."
In his first gospel, he covered the story of Jesus' life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. In this second document he covers Jesus' ascension and the birth of Christianity. Acts covers a very large span of time, so it feels like an action-packed, fast-moving book which is primarily reporting the journey's of Paul, who Luke accompanied all the way to Rome.
Luke was written by a physician who lived in Antioch. It was written in Koine Greek from a Gentile's perspective for a Gentile audience.
The language in the book makes it clear that Luke was very skilled in Greek. Additionally, he was adherent to Paul. This is specifically mentioned in the book of Colossians where Paul refers to Luke as, "The dearly loved physician."
This perspective and closeness to Paul allows for the most accurate recounting of the creation and growth of the early church, all the way to the end of Paul's life.
The First Christians
Christianity, as it is referred to today did not start off as an independent religion. In fact, for years it was a sect within the Jewish faith. The first reference to the early church within the Jewish faith was in the book of Acts, "For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes...But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere."
Thus, initially Christians were referred to and considered Jews within a specific sect known as the Nazarenes. These Nazarenes still practiced all of the Jewish ordinances and participated in temple ceremonies and worship:
Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved...Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer...Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.
As can be understood from the accounts of Luke, the Jews permitted the early church to participate until the church began growing and converting members. At that point the Sadducees within the Jewish religion sought to define the Christian teachings as heresy due to the apostles teachings that Jesus rose from the dead. According to Hans Conzelmann, "The first Christians are Jews without exception. For them this is not simply a fact, but a part of their conscious conviction. For them their faith is not a new religion which leads them away from the Jewish religion"
Thus, at first the Church did not break away from its original Jewish roots, but rather sought to present the gospel first to the Jews.
The term Christianity did not come along until the sect was no longer accepted by the Jews. In fact, the term Christian is only mentioned three times in the entire New Testament:
and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch...Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian...but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.
This early term was also used in external Jewish writings including Josephus, where he writes "the tribe of Christians, so named from him."
Another early term used to refer to the Church was "The Way," as it was used in Acts 24:14: "But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets"
Both of these terms were not meant as favorable descriptions. According to the Annals, the early church "by vulgar appellation [they were] commonly called Christians"
and in fact Nero used the term to make Christians scapegoats for the Great Fire in Rome.
So, during the initial founding of the Church, being called a Christian would not only cause a Jew to become unpopular within the Church, but also lead to persecution and death. Given that Jesus taught the early Church to accept and be thankful for persecution, the early Christians did not object to this term.
Regardless of the term used, the mission and goals of the early Church were clear, both from the book of Acts and the observations of other scholars at the time and the term Christianity seemed to fit these goals. Shortly after being banished from the temple, in Acts it states, "So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name (Christ). And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."
Justin Martyr explained to the Romans, "Since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men put us to death. Death is a debt we must all pay anyway."
Furthermore, the work of an unknown author, written in the 1st century, describes Christians to the Romans as follows:
They dwell in their own countries simply as sojourners.... They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time, they surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men but are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death, but [will be] restored to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They possess few things; yet, they abound in all. They are dishonored, but in their very dishonor are glorified.... And those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.
The more common terms used by the leaders themselves within their text were the terms "Disciples" and "Saints." The word "Disciple" (mathetos in Greek) means one who is trained or taught, and appears 31 times in the book of Acts, starting with Acts 1:15. "At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said" The Hebrew equivalent of this term is "talmid," which means a student who follows a Rabbi. In the case of Christians, they considered Christ their ultimate Rabbi. The word "Saint" (hagios in Greek) means set apart or separated, and appears 62 times in the New Testament, most commonly in the letters of Paul. The Hebrew equivalent is "kadosh" which has the same meaning. The word "Saint" has subsequently been distorted to mean a state of holiness which very few can attain, but in New Testament times it was a regular title for those who believed in Yeshua.
Definition of a Christian According to Acts
The book of Acts does more than provide a history of the early Church. It also offers insight into what distinguishes Christians from regular Jews. According to Acts:…