Designations of the Early Believers in Acts

Mark Grasso

In God’s dispensational dealings with mankind, there are three main groups of people: the Jews, the Gentiles and the assembly (1 Cor. 10:32). In the early days of the assembly recorded in the first part of Acts, the distinct and separate character of the assembly as a called-out company (the literal meaning of the Greek word translated ‘assembly’ in 1 Corinthians 10:32 and elsewhere) was not only true in principle but was manifest in the practice and practical walk of Christians as well.

This is evident from descriptions of the early Christians in Acts, all the more so as some of these descriptions were given to them by unbelievers.

The disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1)

While the New Testament sometimes uses the phrase ‘the disciples’ to denote the twelve apostles specially called by the Lord while He was on the earth (Matt. 10:1–4), the word ‘disciples’, particularly in Acts, often refers more generally to those who had believed on the Lord Jesus. In both instances, the meaning of ‘disciple’ is important. Strong’s Concordance gives it as learner or pupil. Another thought connected with the word is a follower (see Luke 14:26–33). Although much of the truth which God has, in His grace, made known to us in the New Testament was still to be revealed at that time, the early Christians had willingly taken upon themselves the yoke of Christ and were learning of Him (Matt. 11:29). They also understood that the Lord Jesus was indeed Lord and that they were not their own (1 Cor. 6:19–20) but had to obey His commandments and follow in His footsteps (1 Pet. 2:21), cost them what it may. The word ‘disciple’ may not encapsulate all of our standing and privileges as believers in this dispensation (which may be why the word does not appear in the epistles), but would any of us want to suggest that we should not forsake all and follow the Lord Jesus in our lives?

The way (Acts 9:2)

When Saul eagerly besought the high priest for permission to arrest the Christians in Damascus, he knew that it was sufficient if the written authorisation simply described them as men and women of ‘the way’. At that time, to be a Christian was not merely to believe on the Lord Jesus and enjoy peace with God (blessed though these things are, of course). Rather, it was a way of life, and not only in certain respects but in every aspect of life. Moreover, the walk of the believers, both individually and collectively, was so distinctive that it could be seen as a particular ‘way’. In fact, it was altogether so different from the ways of the world and the way of any other religion that it was known to all as the way’.

Christians (Acts 11:26)

The title ‘Christian’ is in such common use today that we may have little consciousness of the origin of the word. The disciples in Antioch were such ardent, faithful and true followers of the Lord Jesus that, like Paul, they were imitators of Him (1 Cor. 11:1). As the Lord blessed the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in that city, Christ lived in the believers there in a real way (Gal. 2:20), and they so spoke and acted like Him that the world gave them the title ‘Christians’ — the etymological meaning of which is ‘of the same character as Christ’. What an example the young believers there set for us in that the world saw nothing but Christ in them:

Showing to all, where once He trod,
Nothing but Christ — the Christ of God.[1]

Their own company (Acts 4:23)

Given the strong fleshly nationalistic feelings which many Jews had at the time, it is very likely that many of those who were added to the church at its commencement were subsequently outcasts to their family and friends. However, they did not lose out. They came to enjoy the blessings of Christian fellowship and, in no longer being restricted to the enjoyment of companionship after the natural order of things (2 Cor. 5:16), to be built up by communion with those who were also part of the family of God and who, being of Christ and having Him as their shared object, were truly their own company.

[1] Samuel O’Malley Cluff, ‘Nothing but Christ’ Spiritual Songs hymn 388.