The New Testament contains over 175 names, descriptive titles, and figures of speech referring to Christians, applicable to both the individual and the group. The origin of these names is traceable to the Old Testament, Jesus' teaching, the church, and nonbelievers. Few of them appear as static proper names; instead, the New Testament contexts in which they occur largely determine their meaning.
These names are rich in theological detail. The giving of personal names in biblical times often signified a religious conviction about their recipients or something that would be done through these people. The giving of Christian names, likewise, expresses something about the religious status and character of the person and group named and something about what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through them. These names, in effect, provide us with a first-century compendium of Christian belief. They describe, in part, the Old Testament Jewish roots of Christianity, the role of the Godhead within Christianity, the union of believers with God and Christ, the nature of Christian life and conduct, and the importance of the gospel.
Names Associated with Old Testament Israel. Comparable to the Old Testament's depiction of national Israel as Abraham's physical descendants, the New Testament depicts the church as his spiritual heirs. Jesus appears in the New Testament as the means through which God has fulfilled his promise to make Abraham "the father of many nations." On the basis of the believer's union with Christ, the church stands as its direct fulfillment. Abraham's faith, in this regard, models Christian belief. His faith in God's promises was "credited to him as righteousness" ( Gen 15:6 ); this holds true as well for anyone who places faith in Jesus ( Rom 4 ). For this reason, Paul stresses that all believers-Jew and Gentile-legitimately stand as Abraham's offspring ( Rom 4:16 ; 9:8 ), seed ( Gal 3:29 ), Abraham's children ( Rom 9:7 ; Gal 3:7 ), and children of the free woman ( Gal 4:31 ) and the promise ( Rom 9:8 ; Gal 4:28 ).
The New Testament posits a high degree of continuity between Old Testament Israel and the church. The way in which Christians have frequently taken over and adapted Old Testament names and terms relating to Israel to describe themselves particularly strengthens this link. This is evident in various descriptive titles (such as "chosen people" [ 1 Peter 2:9 ; cf. Isa 45:4 ]), figures of speech (like flock [ John 10:16 ; cf. Jer 31:10 ]), and the imaging of divine qualities (e.g., a "holy people" [ Eph 5:3 ; cf. Deut 28:9 ]). The church made a deliberate effort to identify themselves with believing Israel. The church now appears as its successor, as the new Israel or true Israel. (But this present status of the church does not necessarily exclude a future response in faith by ethnic Israel as a whole [see esp. Rom 11:25-32 ]). Biblical writers describe both believing Israel and the church as a creative work of God ( Isa 60:21 ; 64:8 ; Eph 2:10 ), further strengthening this continuity. God's revelation in Christ is not the negation of his revelation through Moses, but its perfect and final fulfillment.
The temple appears in Israel's history, from the early monarchy period on, as the center of worship. Here God's presence visibly dwells and priests intercede before him on behalf of the people by means of offerings and sacrifices. The New Testament spiritualizes this religious focal point with respect to believers.
Believers are the holy temple of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Cor 6:19 ) and the living God ( 1 Cor 3:16-17 ); they are its living stones ( 1 Pe 2:5 ) and golden lampstands ( Revelation 1:12-13 Revelation 1:20 ). As living stones, believers are being built up by Christ into a spiritual house, a temple, which stands in marked contrast to the physical temple built with dead stones. As God's temple, all believers have his Spirit living in them-a pervasive divine indwelling unknown to Old Testament Israel.
Believers consider themselves a holy and royal priesthood ( 1 Peter 2:5 1 Peter 2:9 ), a kingdom of priests ( Rev 1:5-6 ; 5:10 ), and priests of God and Christ ( Rev 20:6 ). Thus, like Old Testament Israel, the church appears as a kingdom of priests. But unlike Old Testament Israel, they become ministers of a new covenant ( 2 Co 3:6 ). This new work does not, however, mark the abrogation of the Mosaic law, but its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Whereas the old covenant was external and written on stone tablets, and resulted in condemnation when people failed to keep the law, the new covenant is internal and written on the hearts of people, who, through faith, are redeemed by Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
Believers also visualize themselves as an aroma of Christ ( 2 Co 2:15 ), firstfruits of all God's creation ( James 1:18 ), and firstfruits to God and the Lamb ( Rev 14:1-4 ). Paul exhorts believers to offer themselves to God continually as living sacrifices in the form of thanksgiving or dedicatory offerings ( Rom 6:13 ; 12:1-2 ).
Old Testament writers frequently describe Jerusalem as the city of God's presence, the city of God ( Psalms 48:1 Psalms 48:8 ; 87:3 ), and the holy place where the Most High dwells ( Psalm 46:4 ). In the New Testament, this relation is applied to the church. John, in the Book of Revelation, depicts the church as the bride of the Lamb, descending from heaven as the city of God (3:12), the Holy City (21:2, 10; 22:19), and the new Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2, 10). Here the image of the heavenly city symbolizes the perfect and enduring presence of God (and Christ) among all his people. This same relation is also portrayed in Hebrews 12:22, where the heavenly city is described as the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and Mount Zion.
Names Associated with the Godhead. The New Testament names, the called ( Rev 17:14 ), the chosen ( Col 3:12 ; 1 Peter 2:9 ; Rev 17:14 ), and the elect ( Mark 13:20 Mark 13:22 Mark 13:27 ; Titus 1:1 ; 1 Peter 1:1 ), clearly indicate that believers are joined to God by his sovereign election to salvation. The first Christians experienced an identity crisis. Was it Christianity or Judaism that stood directly in line with the Old Testament promises of God? This dilemma was resolved through the realization that Christians too were predestined to share in God's plan of salvation. Peter's description of believers as a people belonging to God ( 1 Peter 2:9-10 ) is reminiscent of Hosea 1:6-10 (cf. also Rom 9:25-26 ; 10:19 ) and intended to resolve any uncertainty in this regard.
Names of Christians also reveal that believers identify themselves with divine qualities and exhort one another to image them in conduct. Jesus says, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" ( John 14:9 ; see also 12:45 ; 2 Cor 4:4 ; Col 1:15 ; Heb 1:3 ). Jesus images God. As God's children, believers are similarly to image something of God and Christ's character, both individually and as a group. Their ability to do so is based solely on the new life won for them in Christ, through which they have been made the "righteousness of God" ( 2 Co 5:21 ), and on the provision of the Spirit as their divine resource for achieving this standard in living. Therefore, as these names suggest, to see believers was (and still should be), in effect, to see something of God and Christ.
In a more restricted sense, New Testament writers refer to believers as witnesses. The majority of instances occur in Luke's Gospel (1:2; 24:48) and Acts (1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 26:16), with two in the Petrine letters ( 1 Peter 5:1 ; 2 Peter 1:16-18 ). The term "witness" (marturia [marturiva]) refers to eyewitness testimony to Jesus, to one who presents evidence of the gospel message on the basis of firsthand knowledge of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection ( Acts 1:22 ). As Luke clarifies in Acts, the historical reliability of the gospel message is as important as the message itself, for its authenticity is what provides listeners (and readers) with the need and urgency to respond to it. The basic assumption here is the historicity of Jesus' life, ministry, and passion as reported by Luke and, more broadly, by the New Testament itself. A number of other names of believers-Christians ( Acts 11:26 ; 26:28 ; 1 Peter 4:16 ), disciples ( John 13:35 ; Acts 6:1-2 ; 11:26 ; 14:21-22 ; 18:27 ), followers of the Way ( Acts 9:1-2 ; Acts 19:9 Acts 19:23 ; 22:4 ; Acts 24:14 Acts 24:22 ), and Nazarenes ( Acts 24:5 )-seem closely tied to the historical Jesus.
Names Associated with the Believer's Union with God and Christ. New Testament writers use a number of different family-related concepts to describe, positionally, the believer's standing with God and Christ. In general terms, believers are members of God's family ( Eph 3:14-15 ; 1 Peter 4:17 ) and household ( Eph 2:19-20 ; 1 Tim 3:15 ). Believers are frequently pictured as God's offspring. Their sonship is predestined by God ( Rom 8:23 ), entered into by faith ( Gal 3:26-28 ), attested to by God's Spirit ( Rom 8:15-16 ), and qualifies them as heirs of God ( Rom 8:17 ; Gal 3:29 ; 4:7 ).
In marital terms, believers will be presented to Christ, their husband, as pure virgins ( 2 Co 11:2 ) and his bride ( Rev 19:7-8 ; Revelation 21:2 Revelation 21:9 ; 22:17 ). These images portray the complete and perfect union of Christ and his people.
The New Testament reflects a strong family bond among believers. They call each other brother ( Acts 9:17 ; 14:2 ; 15:36 ), a brotherhood of believers ( 1 Peter 2:17 ), family ( Gal 6:10 ), and friends ( 3 John 14 ).
New Testament names of Christians, such as believers ( Acts 4:32 ; 2 Cor 6:15 ; 1 Tim 4:12 ), followers of the Way ( Acts 9:1-2 ), and slaves and servants of God and Christ ( 2 Cor 6:4 ; Eph 6:6 ), reflect a new Spirit-inspired and Spirit-guided allegiance to God and Christ. As these names suggest, this kind of commitment aims at a complete renunciation of any mental or physical allegiance to persons or things that would impinge on a faithful reliance on God and Christ.
The New Testament contains many names of Christians that explicitly identify believers with God and Christ. Perhaps the most expressive of these is the body of Christ imagery. All believers are united to Christ ( 1 Cor 6:15-17 ), with Christ as the head ( Eph 1:22-23 ; Col 1:18 ) and the church as his body ( 1 Cor 12:27 ; Eph 1:22-23 ; Col 1:24 ). The body, in turn, is made up of many parts ( Rom 12:4-5 ; 1 Corinthians 12:12 1 Corinthians 12:14 1 Corinthians 12:20 ), each having distinguishable but interdependent, God-appointed tasks ( 1 Corinthians 12:15-19 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 ).
Names Associated with Christian Life and Conduct. According to the New Testament, moral purity is a distinguishing feature of Christian life and conduct. Names patterned after the day-night and light-darkness contrasts particularly illustrate this. Believers are sons of the day ( 1 Th 5:5 ), children of light ( Eph 5:8 ), light in the Lord ( Eph 5:8 ), light of the world ( Matt 5:14-16 ), and sons of the light ( John 12:35-36 John 12:46 ; 1 Thess 5:5 ). These designations stand in marked contrast to ones depicting their former sinful life in darkness and night ( Eph 5:8 ; 1 Thess 5:5 ). Names such as the blameless ( 1 Thess 3:13 ; Rev 14:4-5 ), the holy ( Eph 2:19-21 ; 5:3 ; 1 Thess 3:13 ), instruments for noble purposes ( 2 Ti 2:21 ), obedient children ( 1 Pe 1:13-16 ), the righteous ( 1 Peter 3:12 ; 4:18 ), and saints ( Acts 26:10 ; Rom 8:27 ; 1 Cor 6:1-2 ) reiterate our continuing responsibility to reflect in life and practice this new moral standing with God.
The term "world" (kosmos [kovsmo"]) in the New Testament often denotes unbelievers and their sinful way of life. The New Testament graphically affirms that believers are not of the world. They are aliens and strangers ( 1 Peter 1:1 1 Peter 1:17 ; 2:11 ). The world perceives preachers of the gospel as fools for Christ ( 1 Cor 4:10 ), and refuse of the world and scum of the earth ( 1 Cor 4:13 ). Yet as salt of the earth ( Matt 5:13 ), believers ultimately strive, despite hostility, to win the world to Christ.
Names of Christians also indicate a number of important responsibilities the Christian has. As priests ( 1 Peter 2:9 ; Rev 1:5-6 ), believers are to offer themselves continually in spiritual service and worship to God. Believers are to love the lost. Christians are servants of the gospel ( Eph 3:7 ), chosen instruments taking the gospel to Jew and Gentile ( Acts 9:15 ), and salt of the earth ( Matt 5:13 ). As ambassadors of Christ ( 2 Co 5:20 ), they, in fact, serve as Christ's representatives through whom Christ (and God) delivers his message of reconciliation to the world.
Believers are to desire personal piety. The images of athletes ( 2 Tim 2:5 ), doers of the Word ( James 1:22-25 ), hardworking farmers ( 2 Tim 2:6 ), obedient children ( 1 Peter 1:14-16 ), runners in a race ( 1 Cor 9:24-27 ; Heb 12:1 ), and soldiers ( 2 Tim 2:3-4 ) indicate that perseverance, obedience, discipline, single-mindedness, and the putting into practice of biblical teaching should typify the life of all believers.
Names Associated with the Gospel. Understood in the names of Christians, as Abraham's descendants and heirs to the promises God made to him, is the gospel's universal mandate. It is for all people. Through Christ, Abraham has become the "father of all nations, " the one through whom "all peoples on the earth will be blessed" ( Gen 12:3 ).
The hope of the gospel is the hope of eternal life. In Jesus' teaching, children of God are children of the resurrection ( Luke 20:35-36 ). Believers are heirs to the promise of the gospel, the hope of eternal life ( Rom 8:17 ; Titus 3:7 ).
In Revelation 3:12, Jesus promises to give believers the name of God, the name of the city of God (the new Jerusalem), and his own new name. This means nothing short of an inseparable identification and perfect union of all believers eternally with God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
H. Douglas Buckwalter
Bibliography. H. J. Cadbury, The Beginnings of Christianity, 5:375-92; R. S. Rayburn, EDT, pp. 216-18; BEB, 1:431-34; TAB, pp. 537-42.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Christians, Names of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".