25 Jun 2016

Who are We? Perhaps it is not “Christian!” Luke’s Designations for the Followers of Jesus in Acts …

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Acts, Church, Luke, Patternism, Sectarianism

nameThe Way … of Espresso

Talya is off to a gun show in Phx with her boyfriend so I rode to my favorite coffee house in Tucson, Cartel Coffee (its not Starbucks), about 7:30. You can do some serious thinking with four shots of espresso pumping thru your veins 😉

Since it is the Sabbath, I thought I would offer some controversial – yet true – notions. Just blame the espresso 😉 .

Sometimes sectarian concerns can blind us. I grew up learning Acts 11.26, “the disciples were first called Christians.” It is true that this word has become THE descriptor of the followers of the Way historically.

But there is no evidence, at all, that Luke intended that to be “the name” of the followers of Jesus. In the entire book of Acts the word only occurs twice (and only three in the entire NT it is a startling fact that Paul, James, John, Jude, Hebrews never once use the term to describe anyone. Peter uses the term but not as a self-descriptor) and neither time is it used as a self-designation. It is certainly not the term Luke himself uses to describe the Jesus people.  Luke does not use “church of Christ” with a big “C” or a little “c” as either a name or descriptor of the followers of Jesus even once.  We find that name as “The Way.”

[Saul] asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way ...” (Acts 9.2)

speaking evil of the Way before the congregation ...” (Acts 19.9)

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19.23)

I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24.14)

But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off ...” (Acts 24.22)

What are People on “the Way” Called by Luke?

Luke actually uses a potpourri of terms to describe the followers of Jesus, “the Way” seeming to be the one that Paul himself latched onto. Contrary to what is often assumed, Luke does not teach that the “church” is a different religion than that of Jesus and Israel … the church is Israel renewed. So Luke uses a bunch of terms for Israel already used in the Hebrew Bible/LXX to describe the followers of Jesus precisely because the followers of Jesus was Israel … or as James puts it … the House of David restored (Acts 15.13-18). Why did I not learn these terms? One (brothers) I did learn but did not understand where it came from. So what are these terms? Here they are … I hope you will look them up yourself to see “if it is so.”

The Brothers

“The Brothers” (hoi adelphoi) is used 25 or 26x by Luke. This is a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking used in numerous intertestamental works and Qumran/Dead Sea Scrolls. Luke reflects this in Acts where Peter addresses the crowd as “brothers” (2.29), as does Paul in Pisidian Antioch (13.26, 38). Even up to the very end in 28.21 the Jews are called “brothers.” This is such a characteristically Jewish way of talking that the NRSV simply glosses the term as “fellow Israelites” (see Acts 2.29, etc)

Luke, seemingly without apology, also applies this term to the messianic community some 23x. For example look at 9.30; 11.29; 14.2, 15.1; 18.27. Some believe that this indicates that Luke did not believe that there was a distinction yet between the “Christians” (I am using that term accommodatingly because it is not Luke’s chosen term for the followers of Jesus though he acknowledges that others, probably enemies, called the followers that) and the “Jews.” The Jews were still the people of God. Gentiles have been added to the people of God in the Book of Acts (again James’s testimony in Acts 15 makes this clear).

The Disciples

Luke’s second most used term is “hoi mathetai” or the disciples (21x). The absolute form, “the disciples” is usually used without qualification but in one instance Luke says “the disciples of the Lord” (9.1).

In Antioch the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (11.26). The verb is in the passive and appears to be a term applied to the disciples from the outside. One scholar writes, “little did Luke realize that this novel designation, used in scorn by the enemies of the followers of Christ, would one day eclipse the title ‘the disciples.”

The term disciples is a constant reminder that those who believe in the Christ are his personal followers. They know his presence in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The Saints

Saints, like brothers, has deep Jewish roots. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX when the band of slaves were at the foot of the Mount and entered the covenant of love they were designated a “holy nation’ (Ex. 19.5-6). The writers in the Hebrew Bible thus speak of Israel collectively as ‘the saints’ (Deut 33.3, Num 16.3, Ps 34.9, 89.6. etc). In later Jewish works the saints are the “elect” of Israel who will enjoy rewards in the messianic kingdom (Dan. 7.18-27; Psalms of Solomon 17.1; 1 Enoch 51.5, 8; 62.6, 8, etc). The Qumran community claimed the title for themselves being the “the saints of his people” (1 QM 6.6, 14.22, etc). See in the Apocrypha, Wisdom 5.5; 18.9; 3 Maccabees 6.3; 4 Maccabees 9.25; etc.

It seems clear that in using this loaded term for his community, Luke is claiming a theologically defined status before God. They are not “new” but they are the restored Israel.

The Church/Gathering/The Gathered People

After brethren and disciples, the term ekklesia is the next most common designation for the messianic community. It is used about 19x.

Ironically through the first four chapters of Acts Luke never “names” this group of people as “church.” They are anonymous. There is no “church” until 5.11 (if we think of “church” as a name anyway). The believers are designated in these first chapters as

those devoting themselves with one accord to prayer

the brothers

all those being saved

the community of those who have believed” (Acts 1.14, 15; 2.1, 44, 47; 4.23, 32)

It has been argued that Luke never uses the term “church” as an equivalent to what we mean by “Christianity.” This is an accurate claim.

Luke first uses the term in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in 5.11. His next use is in 7.38 which refers to the “church” assembled before Mt Sinai (!) as Moses delivers the torah. Significantly the people in Stephen’s speech do not listen (that is they reject) the message of Moses. Because Peter had identified Jesus with the Prophet like Moses, indeed a second Moses (3.22-23) the implication seems to be that just as Moses was with the people of Israel, the ekklesia in the wilderness, so now Jesus is with restored Israel in the eschatological age.

For those who come from my religious background it can be disheartening to learn that the Acts of the Apostles never, not a single time, uses the phrase “Church of Christ” nor “Churches of Christ.”

The People (of God)

The final collective name for believers found in Acts, I wish to look at, is ho laos (the People). This is an incredibly important term for Israel. In the Hebrew Bible/LXX it is the most exclusive designations for Israel. Luke repeatedly uses it for Israel in his Gospel and in Acts. But on two occasions he “dares” to transfer this phrase to the messianic community. In 15.14, James speaks of gentiles becoming “a people (laos) for his name” and in 18.10 we read that “the Lord” tells Paul he has many people (laos) in this city.”

These references must be associated with 3.23 where Peter, speaking to Jews, says that all those who do not recognize Jesus as the prophet like Moses ‘shall be destroyed from “the people” (laos). Just as Gentiles can be included, so ethnic Jews can be cut off (so to Paul’s olive tree in Romans).

Luke never stops using the term ho laos of the Jews however. Even as late as the last chapter of the Acts we read of this significant term being applied to them (28.17, 26, 27).

Conclusion: Embrace our Place in the Story

These are just some of the ways that Luke describes the individual followers of “The Way” (Acts 24.22, etc) … all of them connect the followers of Jesus with the people of God were read about in the “Old Testament” … another term Luke never heard of. Maybe we should embrace the words Luke uses and see ourselves in the same Story that Luke places us in … the Story of Israel.

6 Responses to “Who are We? Perhaps it is not “Christian!” Luke’s Designations for the Followers of Jesus in Acts …”

  1. Aussie Pete Says:

    Bobby, I’ve been thinking on this topic recently. Do you have thoughts on the name “The Way”. Where did it come from? Was it intended to be a stream within Judaism? What significance did it have for the early believers?

    I’ve struggled to locate many resources.

  2. dwight Says:

    I wrote an article that deals with denominationalism and sectarianism and basically makes the same points. The term “church” is sadly misleading of the original meaning of ekklesia, thus when we get to “church” and “churches” we don’t realize that both are still the ekklesia or the people. Thus “churches of Christ” designate the same people as “church of the living God” and doesn’t designate groups or factions.
    An the term Christians, is sparsely used as compared wth saints, brothers, believers and especially the Way as you noted.
    Paul condemned those in Corinth for dividing along the names of many, one of which was Jesus.
    The saints weren’t to be defined by what they called themselves or what they were called by others, but the fruits they produced.

  3. dwight Says:

    From my way of thinking since Jesus called Himself “the way” it was a natural progression for the followers to be of “the way” as well. I don’t think ‘the Way” was as much of a name as much of a descriptor of the people. Besides Jesus nor the apostle never advocated for a name, much less the name of “the Way”. But it is ironic and sad that many who have latched on the “church of Christ” as the name, refuse the moniker of the “Way”, even though it is seen more times in the scriptures.

  4. Michael Arena Says:

    What most “Christians” fail to understand is that God has always only had one religion.

  5. jon atkins Says:

    Andy Stanley has an excellent sermon series on the significance of the fact that “Christian” originated as a derogatory term–stresses that it’s more important (and challenging) to be a “disciple” than a “Christian.” He may not be everyone’s favorite, but I’d strongly recommend the series to anyone–just google “Andy Stanley Christian” for the videos.

  6. Ed Dodds Says:

    RE: “The Way” –

    John 1:23, ESV: “He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”” … John 1:23, NLT: “John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, Clear the way for the LORD’s coming!””

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