Names of Christ Followers in the New Testament
Names of Christ Followers in the New Testament

We continue our monthly series of excerpts from Christian Standard, circa 1909, a year the magazine devoted an issue monthly to articles of particular interest to our movement. And again this month, as we did in January, we feature an essay by J.W. McGarvey.

McGarvey was born in 1829 and died in 1911. Upon the 100th anniversary of McGarvey’s death, Andrew Paris wrote of him in Christian Standard:

Although McGarvey enjoyed great success in the located ministry as the preacher of several Lexington churches (including Main Street and Broadway), the great work for which he is best known and esteemed began in 1865 when he became professor of sacred history at the College of the Bible, the first full-fledged seminary of the Restoration Movement. McGarvey would spend the final 46 years of his life teaching the Bible at that school, also serving as president his last 16 years.

 . . . McGarvey was a man of only one book—the Bible. He was firmly convinced it was the inerrant Word of God, and so he devoted his life to loving it, teaching it, defending it, and living it. In his day, McGarvey held the respect of all groups emerging from the Restoration Movement, and was recognized as the movement’s greatest scholar and writer. He has been a beacon light of orthodoxy for many believers who have read his books for the past 150 years.

And so, here is what the “great Christian preacher, teacher, author, educator, and Scripture scholar” had to say about the name Christian.

_ _ _

The Significance of Names

By J.W. McGarvey
July 10, 1909; p. 8
(Excerpted from McGarvey’s Commentary on Acts)

Religious names are significant. They not only distinguish the bodies to which they belong, as do modern names of individuals, but they distinguish them by a condensed description of their peculiarities. All the peculiarities of a religious denomination are expressed by the denominational name in its current import. Hence, to call a Baptist by the name Methodist would be worse than to call Smith by the name of Jones; for, besides miscalling him, it would be misrepresenting his religious principles. It is true that in thus miscalling the Baptist you have not changed him into a Methodist, for he remains the same by whatever name you call him. Still, you have miscalled him and done him injustice. Truth and justice, therefore, require us to use religious names with reference to their significance.

If denominational names are significant, those originally applied to the body of Christ are not less so. They distinguish the people of God by designating some of their peculiarities. These peculiarities were found either in the relations which they sustained, or in the character which they exhibited to the world. The first relation which attracted the attention of the world, as they followed Jesus from place to place, was that of teacher and pupils. This suggested the name disciples, or learners, by which they were first designated, and which is the most common designation in the gospel narratives. From the fact that there were disciples of John, with whom they might be confounded, they were, at first styled “disciples of Jesus.” But when John had decreased and Jesus had increased, the limiting words were dispensed with, and the term “disciple” was appropriated, so that, standing alone, it always meant a disciple of Jesus. In the four Gospels the limiting words are commonly employed; but in Acts, where Luke is giving some of their history as a great people spreading through the earth, after once calling them “disciples of the Lord”—at the time Saul starts after them to Damascus—he drops the limiting words, and thence throughout the whole narrative he calls them simply the “disciples.”

When the disciples assumed a new relation to their teacher, it necessarily brought them into a new relation to one another. From the nature of the moral lessons which they were learning, and which they were required to put into immediate practice, this relation became very intimate and very affectionate. It gave rise to their designation as “the brethren.” They were so styled first by Jesus, saying to them: “Be not called Rabbi; for one is your teacher, and all you are brethren.” This term, however, as a distinctive appellation of the whole body, is used only once in the gospel narratives, where John says of the report that he would not die: “This saying went abroad among the brethren.” In Acts it frequently occurs in this sense; but still more frequently in the Epistles. The latter being addressed to the brethren, and treating of their mutual obligations, this term most naturally takes precedence in them, and the term “disciple,” which is used in speaking of a brother rather than to him, is as naturally omitted. This accounts for the fact that the latter term is not once found in the Epistles.

This increasing currency of the term “brethren” in the later apostolic age is intimately associated with the introduction of another name which came into use in the same period. Jesus frequently called the disciples his own brethren, and taught them, in praying, to say “Our Father, who art in heaven;” but the title, “children of God,” which grew out of the relation thus indicated, was not applied to them during this early period. It is not so applied in any of the Gospels but John’s, and in this only in two instances, where it is evident that he is using the phraseology of the time in which he writes, rather than of the period of which he writes. This appellation, as a current and contemporaneous title, is found only in the Epistles, being brought into use after the disciples had obtained more exalted conceptions of the blessed privileges which God had conferred upon them. It extorted an admiring comment from John in his old age: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God!”

By this time the disciples exhibited a well-defined character. It was such as identified them with those who, in the Old Testament, were called saints, and this suggested the use of this term as one of their appellations. The persecutions which they were enduring still further identified them with the holy “prophets who were before them.” This name occurs first on the lips of Ananias when he objects to approaching Saul of Tarsus. He says to the Lord, “I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he has done to the saints at Jerusalem.” In the Epistle this name is used more frequently than any other.

All of the names we have now considered are well adapted to their specific purposes; but all of them presuppose some knowledge of the people whom they are intended to distinguish. An entire stranger would not at first know who was meant by the disciples, or the brethren; but would ask, “Disciples of whom? Brethren of whom?” Nor would he know who were the children of God, or the saints, until you had informed him to what certain characters these terms apply. There was need, therefore, of a name less ambiguous to those who had the least information on the subject—one better adapted to the great world. This, like all the others, originated from circumstances which demanded it for immediate use. When a church was established in Antioch, it became an object of inquiry to strangers, brought thither by the pursuits of commerce, from all parts of the world. They were strangers to the cause of Christ in reference to all but the wonderful career of its founder. The whole world had heard something of Christ, as the remarkable personage who was put to death under Pontius Pilate, though many had heard nothing of the early history of his church. From this fact, when strangers came to Antioch, and heard the new party who were attracting so much attention there called Christians, they at once recognized them as followers of that Christ of whom they had already heard. This explains the fact stated in the text, that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” The fact that Luke here adopts it, and that both Paul and Peter afterward recognized it, gives it all the validity of inspired usage, and, therefore, all the weight of divine authority. That it is a New Testament name is undisputed, and this renders its divine authority indisputable.

This name, whether given by divine or by human authority, was not designed as an exclusive appellation, seeing that the others were continued in use after its introduction. It merely took its proper place among the other names, to answer its own special purpose.

To sum up the facts now adduced, the New Testament usage in reference to names is this: When the followers of Jesus were contemplated with reference to their relation to him as their great teacher, they were called disciples. When the mind of the speaker was fixed more particularly on their relation to one another, they were styled brethren. When their relation to God was in the foreground, they were called children of God. When they were designated with special reference to character, they were called saints. But when they were spoken of with the most general reference to their great leader, they were called Christians. A practical observance of the exact force of each of these names would soon conform our speech to the primitive model, and would check a tendency to exalt any one name above another, by giving to each its proper place.

The name “Christian” embodies within itself, in a more generic form, all the obligations specifically expressed by the other names. Being derived from the name of Him who is “head over all things for the church,” whose name is above every name, it is a title of peculiar honor and glory. It calls upon the man who wears it to act a part in consonance with the historic memories which cluster around it, and encourages him with the reflection that he wears a high dignity even when despised and spit upon by the powers of earth. So thought Peter, when this name was most despised. He says, “If any suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this account.” “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are you; for the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

When the servant of Christ remembers that all these names belong to him; that, because he is supposed to be learning of Christ, he is called a disciple; because he is one of the happy and loving family of equals, they call him brother; because of the Father of that family, whose character he strives to imitate, is God himself, he is called a child of God; that, because he is presumed to be holy, he is called a saint; and that, for all these reasons, he wears the name of him who by his mediation and intercession enables him to be all that he is, how powerful the incentive to every virtue, constantly yet silently pressing upon his conscience, and how stern the rebuke to every vice!

_ _ _

Some, no doubt, were not happy to read the word brethren in this essay. But remember, McGarvey wrote this well over 100 years ago, when the King James Version was still the primary Bible translation in use. In the KJV translation of the New Testament, the word brethren occurs 229 times.

It probably should also be noted that McGarvey likely cared not at all that someone would take offense at what he wrote.

—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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