“So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
– Acts 11:26
Today, if either by birth or by participation, we are part of a Christian church of some sorts, then you can call yourself a “Christian.” If the government mails out a census asking about our religious preferences, we can check the box that says “Christianity” and that identifies us as a Christian. Of course, none of this means that we are necessarily bound to live by any certain set of beliefs and values to be regarded as a Christian.
It was very different during the middle part of the first century. As this Jesus movement emerged, those who joined the movement were believers and disciples. They were believers but not just believers in some creed. They were people who heard “the good news about the Lord Jesus” and as a result “believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). That is, they not only believed in Jesus as Lord and Messiah but also believed in his way of life, embracing it as their way of life. Consequently, when Barnabas arrived among these believers in Antioch, “[he] saw what the grace of God had done…” (Acts 11:23).
This is how these believers became disciples. Of course this was the work of God among them, yet what Acts 11:26 tells us then is that they were identified as Christians because they were disciples of Jesus Christ first. To identify these believers as “Christians” would be the same as being identified as “Messianists” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 205). Whether we speak of them with the Greek/Latin term “Christians” as the book of Acts does or with the Hebrew term “Messianists”, such identity is due to their devotion to following Jesus as believers in Jesus and his way of life.
The irony in then and today is this: Then people were identified as Christians because they were committed disciples. Today people can identify themselves as Christians and not necessarily have any commitment to living as a disciple of Jesus.