What’s in a Name?

In my Bible reading recently I noticed how Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, used different titles to designate the early Christians. Seven of these terms appear in one narrative. As I pondered the question of why Luke did this, it occurred to me that these were not merely stylistic flourishes. He was hinting at what Christians really are supposed to be.

For example, in Acts 9:2, Luke refers to Christians as those who belonged to “the Way.” Later on in Acts, Luke would use this descriptive term at least seven more times. Jesus said, “I am the Way” (John 14:6).

Christians are called “saints”  in verse 13, or in the words of the New International Version, “holy people.” This is the identity of those who are set apart for God’s purposes.

Then in the same chapter, verse 14, he refers to “all who call on your (God’s) name.” Luke is quoting Ananias, the leader whom the Lord commissioned to baptize Saul of Tarsus at his conversion. Saul (later to be called Paul) has been persecuting those who call on the name of Jesus. Now he has become one of them!

Next, Luke uses the term “disciples” to refer to Christians. Verse 19 says Saul spent time with the disciples in Damascus after his conversion. A disciple is a learner, a follower of a worthy instructor.

Luke uses the language of family love to call Christians “brothers” (sisters is implied) in Acts 9:30. (The most recent edition of the NIV uses the gender-neutral “they.”) In this narrative, Saul’s fellow-Christians were seeking to protect him from assassination by enemies of the gospel. That is what brothers and sisters do for each other.

They are called “the church” in verse 31. This is an inclusive term to designate all followers of Jesus in a large region of Israel at that time: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.

Finally, in Acts 9:41, Christians are called “believers.” They are the ones who have faith in Jesus as savior, who trust the message of the gospel.

What’s in a name? Luke’s descriptive language in Acts 9 uses different shades of meaning to convey important truths about a Christian’s true identity.

Jesus is “the Way,” and those who believe in him are on the only way to God, and to eternal life (Acts 16:17, 18:25-26). As “saints” they are called to be “made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Christians habitually “call on (God’s) name” in prayer. In all circumstances, they “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). They are to be “disciples,” those who learn the Word of Christ and obey it. Jesus said, “Learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

” Brothers and sisters” are members of the same family. The obvious implication is that the spiritual ties that bind Christians together are very much like (and are often deeper than) the natural bonds uniting a human family. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus said this would be true.

The “church” is literally an assembly of believers called together to worship God in the name of Jesus his Son. Paul used exalted language to describe the majestic importance of the church (1 Timothy 3:15). Christ loves the church so much that he “gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). True Christians are to love the church (John 13:34-15) and assemble as the living church gathered in Jesus’ name (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Acts 9 closes with a story of many people believing on the Lord Jesus through the ministry of the apostle Peter. “Believers” are people who no longer trust in themselves or their own efforts to gain eternal life. They trust only in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This is a term Luke uses throughout the book of Acts to teach that salvation is through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone (Acts 4:12, 15:11, 16:31).

In his descriptive language, Luke is showing us different aspects of what it means to be a Christian and to live as a Christian. Does he describe you?

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner