What is a Christian, who is my brother and what is the Church?
Three questions need to asked and answered lest we be led astray. Jesus, Paul and other writers of the New Testament warned us of false Christs, false brothers and false shepherds who would seek to draw away Christians to follow them (Acts 20:28-31). We therefore need to be able to discern the true from the false: what is a true Christian, who is a true brother and what is the true Church?
The term ‘Christian’ only occurs 3 times in the New Testament. Its first use is in Acts:
…and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26).
So a Christian is a disciple of Christ, one who believes in Him, follows and obeys His teachings.
A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ
This is the essential qualification, repeated numerous times throughout the New Testament and especially in the gospel of John where believing in or having faith in Jesus is used over 50 times.
But what does it mean to ‘believe in Jesus’? Believing in Jesus is not just acknowledgement of His existence and historical facts about His life. It is more than mental agreement to the truth of something. It is not simply believing that but believing in. In the original Greek, where we are told to believe in Christ, it literally says we are to believe into (eis) Christ. It is a complete, personal trust and confidence in the One whom we put our faith. As an illustration, if I were to say I believed in the prime minister of Australia it would imply I trusted him completely, his judgement, his decisions, his wisdom and be prepared to do whatever he asked.
So when we say we believe in Jesus we are saying we completely trust Him, His word, His promises (though not yet fulfilled), His judgement and are prepared to do whatever He asks of us. It means we trust in Him, not in our own wisdom or ability. We might be a ‘good’ moral person who has been baptised and attends a church regularly but that does not necessarily mean we are a Christian – one who believes in Christ.
When we believe, trust in Christ, in that initial step of faith, so much is given to us by the grace of God and through Christ’s death and resurrection: we are forgiven of our sins, we are justified (that is, made right in God’s sight), we are saved from Satan’s dominion and power, transferred into Christ’s kingdom and authority, we become born again – of God’s Spirit, we are adopted as sons – children of God, we become Jesus’ brothers – fellow heirs, His sheep and branches of the true vine (Jesus), members of His body – He being the head.
Since we are recipients of ‘so great a salvation‘ we must be diligent to work out and not neglect all that we have been given in Christ as the writer to the Hebrews warns us:
How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard (Hebrews 2:3).
In what way can our great salvation be neglected? First we need to know what true faith, belief in Christ means.
To believe means to confess Him
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32 ).
… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God (1 John 4:15).
To believe means to obey Him
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36).
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31).
To believe means to follow Him
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life (John 8:12).
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me (John 10:27).
To believe means to eat and drink of Christ
Jesus used the metaphors of eat and drink to illustrate what it meant to believe in Him:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live (John 6:53-57).
As food and water are essential for the life of our body, so Jesus Himself is our true life – eternal life.
True faith in Christ, therefore, is active not passive.
To believe means to love Him
He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him (John 14:21).
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)
Faith needs to endure
Having believed we need to sustain that faith in Christ, that is it needs to continue. It is not sufficient that we believe once in a moment of time.
In scripture where we are asked to believe it is, in most cases, the present tense (as, for example, in John 3:15-18 and 36 where a literal translation would read ‘is believing in‘), that is one that begins and continues. In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:13) Jesus tells of those who ‘believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away‘. Therefore we can expect our faith to be tested.
The parable of the sower
Those on the rocky [soil are] those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no [firm] root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away (Luke 8:13).
Here Jesus teaches us that faith needs to run deep, to hold fast to His words so as to endure the inevitable trials and temptations of this life.
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).
To be faithful to Jesus may cost our reputation before men. It may even cost us our life as is now happening to Christians in many parts of the world.
Our faith will be tested through trials to prove it is real and through endurance we will grow in spiritual maturity:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
So whatever we may endure as Christians we need to keep eternity in perspective – the hope and joy that will one day be ours.
Faith can be in vain
Scripture teaches us that while we might have believed, it can be in vain, that is to no effect:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1).
And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain – for He says, “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
What does Paul mean by saying our faith can be in vain? Our faith is in vain when it is of no effect, that is there is no fruit in our lives, shown first in love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who are in need or suffering. Faith is in vain if it fails to continue in the midst of trial or persecution as in 1 Peter and James above.
True faith will be shown in good works as James corrects the idea we can have faith without them:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for [their] body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, [being] by itself. But someone may [well] say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognise, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without [the] spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).
Note James’ words that if we ignore the needs of a brother or sister our faith is useless, it is in vain. He also refers to the ‘the demons (who) also believe, and shudder‘, that is they believe and know the judgement which will one day come upon them.
Protected by the power of God
Though trials will come, Jesus tells us to be faithful and obedient and assures us that God, by His grace, gives us the power and strength to do so:
...who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5).
…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:19 ESV).
Therefore we need never despair when our faith is tested (and we can expect at some time it will be). Trust In God and His strength.
Is my brother someone who is part of my church, excluding others? Or his he anyone who claims to be a Christian?
Jesus answered this question:
While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him.
Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).
Luke, recording the same incident says this:
My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8:20).
Our brothers are those who do God’s will, who trust and obey Him. Which brings the next question: what is the will of God?
Jesus tells us:
For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40).
We believe in Jesus and all that means. If you believe, trust, confess, obey and love Him – you are my brother. If you have been born again, a child of God, then you are my brother. Yet we should be on guard against the common idea that only those who are a part of our church or who agree with us on every point of doctrine are our brothers. But this does, I believe, give us the right and responsibility to speak the truth in love to anyone who professes to be a Christian – especially if they are walking in error according to God’s word.
While we commonly associate the word ‘church’ with a building used for Christians to meet in, or an organisation based on particular interpretations of Scripture, that was never the case in the early church. The word translated in English as ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia (meaning called out ones). It refers to an assembly of people, not a building or organisation, who have been called by God, out of the world system and into Christ’s kingdom through His death and resurrection. The church, assembly, body of all believers in Christ collectively is simply referred to as ‘the church of God’. Today we have numerous denominational ‘Church of xxx’, some even claiming to be the ‘one true church’.
In the New Testament, whenever a letter was addressed to a church, it was to the church within a certain city or locality. In the early church Christians met, either in public places or in private homes for the first three hundred years. It was only after the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalising Christianity throughout the Roman empire that buildings dedicated for Christian meetings were constructed. In recent times many Christians have sought to return to the early church structure through what is known as the house church movement. This article on ‘the simple church’ is also informative.
Scripture reveals a mystery, something that was once hidden but now revealed, that the church, the household of God is the body of Christ, He being the head and the chief cornerstone upon which the body, the church, is built.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:18).
The Church as a Spiritual Building
Peter, as Paul previously, reveals the Church as spiritual house, built with living stones, Christ being the cornerstone:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:4-6 ESV).
The church was founded by Christ when He rose from the dead after His victory on the Cross. Each believer becomes part of His spiritual body and joined to Him. Every believer is a priest in the sense of offering to God spiritual sacrifices. As members of His body we each have unique, individual abilities and functions given to us by the grace of God for the purpose of edifying one another, building up the church, motivated by humble, selfless love not pride or desire for power and control.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV).
The Church as a Vine
Jesus tells us that we are branches of a vine, He being the vine:
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Church is not made, grown or held together by man-made rules, hierarchy or organisation but by each believer being joined to Christ through believing and obeying the truth and loving his brother (and sister) in Christ. Church leaders have the responsibility, under Christ, to first, be an example, and secondly to shepherd, watch and teach those under their charge to follow Christ and keep the faith in word and deed. This is not done by ‘lording it over the flock’ but in love and gentleness. As Peter says:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to [the will of] God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
The church is therefore the whole body of those who believe in Christ, living stones built into the spiritual body of Christ, under the direction of Him as the head. It is not any one visible church organisation here on earth. We are joined to Christ, to His body, not through another man or earthly organisation – not the apostle Peter or an apostolic successor and not a certain ‘one true church’. When we are baptised we are baptised into Christ, into His spiritual body, not a church here on earth. This is a most important fact to recognise, for to believe we are responsible to another man or organisation here on earth so as to be joined to Christ and to God the Father, is effectively to put that man or organisation in place of Christ.
It is crucial therefore that our faith is in Christ, and in Him alone, not in the fact we are a member of a particular church. If our faith and security lies in any organisation or person other than Christ our faith will be in vain.