What does the word ‘Christian’ mean in a multicultural society? In one context it might distinguish a person from a member of a number of other religions. In a different context it simply says that a person is not an atheist or an agnostic. To a large extent, the term ‘Christian’ has lost its original significance for many people. Some people might call themselves ‘Christian’ in the Census forms, but hardly ever go to a Christian church service.
When the label ‘Christian’ was first given to a group of people in Syrian Antioch — it wasn’t a Western church, by the way —it referred to someone who was a real follower of Jesus Christ. As Christianity became increasingly separated from its Judaic roots, and was no longer a protected religion, to be seen as a Christian meant that you were exposed to persecution, being marginalised, and suffering discrimination that could affect your job possibilities, and in some cases even placed you in danger of your life. Today, at the first indication of being regarded as ‘strange’, people shy away from identifying themselves as Christians. Persecution has had a healthy effect within Christianity. It tends to separate the genuine from those who are not. Those who are genuine Christians are often seen as ‘strange’. What was once regarded as ‘strange’ and ‘queer’, is now seen as ‘normal’; and what was regarded as ‘normal’, is now seen as ‘strange’ and ‘queer’. That is not a new trend. When God spoke through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, he said,
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20).
In the very challenging book “Back to Jerusalem”, the leaders in the Church in China said, “There are more than two billion professing Christians in the world today—people who say they follow Jesus Christ! That is a staggering number. So, why then are there still so many needy countries and areas of spiritual darkness in the world today?” They say that: “The problem lies in the kind of Christianity practised by the majority of believers today.” The way these Chinese leaders see the Western Church is that “it has become no more than a cultural thing, like joining a club which demands very little of us.”
In fact, they may not be far from the truth. I recently listened to a sermon based on Matthew 11:28–29, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest…”. It was likened to the coffee advertisement on TV, where the taxi driver invited the poor tired, sleepy toll collector and offered him a hug.
The Chinese Christian leaders say that there are more than enough Christian “believers” in the world today. God doesn’t want more believers; he wants more disciples! Even the word ‘believer’ has lost its distinctively Christian significance in some countries. In some of the Churches in Ukraine and Russia, if someone calls himself a ‘believer’ he or she gets asked, ‘A believer in what?’ So, let’s try to get back to the Bible to see how the early Church leaders understood being a follower of Jesus.
What Is A Christian According To Paul?
When Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Philippi, he talked about the motivations, goals, ambitions, strivings that should characterise a genuine Christian. Paul’s favourite expression for a person who belonged to Christ, is not the word ‘Christian’, but someone who is ‘in Christ’. When he uses the expression in a descriptive sense, he is simply describing who the person belongs to: he is an ‘in-Christ person’—someone who belongs to Christ. Sometimes he uses it in adverbial sense which suggests that anyone who is ‘in Christ’ should actually live as someone who is intimately related to Christ. In other words, if you are ‘in Christ’, then act as someone who lives and moves and has his being in the Son of God.’
To be ‘in Christ’ has four implications:
When we come across a passage in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter, we always think of the context. I remember vaguely reading somewhere in the distant past, that ‘the text, without the context, is a pretext.’ In the case of the Philippians, Paul had a very special relationship with them, although there was some kind of disunity among them. That is not a new thing in any Church, but Paul is aware that the eyes of the world were upon them, and that their spiritual maturity and growth in Christ was vital to the resolution of this problem. So, how did he go about it in this letter? What were the essential characteristics of a true Christian? There are four relationships that have to be correctly understood.
- Our relationship towards Christ
Firstly, Paul talks about their relationship with Christ. They had to learn to live in the security of that relationship.
- This security was to be found in constant communion with God through Jesus Christ. A genuine relationship with another person always means that we will want to spend time with them; coming to know them better; wanting to live in the best possible relationship with them. This is even more true of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus Christ who is Saviour and Lord. Paul says,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:6-7).
- They had to have confidence in Christ’s ability to complete the work that he had begun in their lives. What God has commenced in our lives in the present is only the beginning of what he wants to achieve in us and for us in the future.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (1:3-6).
- They had to know that God cared for them in practical ways. Jesus told his disciples before he went back to the Father, I will not leave you as orphans (Jn. 14:18). The God who has adopted us, takes upon himself the responsibility of caring and providing for us.
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (4:19).
- They needed to find their contentment and strength in Christ. A Christian’s contentment is not found in what he possesses, or what he has achieved. It is in the certainty of belonging to an unchanging God who holds our future securely in his hands.
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (4:13).
- Their joy had to come from their experience of the Lord. Some people’s joy comes from the novelties they constantly seek, or from things going their way. Some Christians even find their joy in bright meetings and good friends. The question that needs to be asked is, If these were to be removed, would our joy continue because it is centred in our ongoing experience of Jesus Christ and his goodness and grace to us?
…my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! (3:1).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (4:4).
Their relationship with Christ had to be dynamic.
- Paul said that life was to be lived for Christ, not for ourselves. He said,
For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1:21).
- The Christian life was a growing experience, not just some experience in the past.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (1:9-11).
- That which they had experienced inwardly, had to be worked out in practical living.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:12-13)
- A genuine Christian is a person who wants to know Christ more and more. Paul said,
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (3:10-11).
- It is a life that is constantly pressing towards the ultimate goal; never satisfied with what has gone before.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (3:13-14).
- We need to live up to what we have attained.
Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (3:16).
- We need to see ourselves as pilgrims in this life. Our roots are not to be put down too deeply here and now. We are to live in this world as responsible citizens, contributing to its welfare, but we are not to absorb the world’s values and lifestyle. We are to provide a contrast to life that attracts people to Christ.
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (3:20-21).
2, Our relationship towards others in the Church
- Our attitude towards others needs to conform to Christ’s attitude.
- In our relationships with one another, we need to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11).
- We need to strive after the kind of unity that is ‘in Christ’. This is not censensual unity. It is unity that is in Christ and in his Word.
We need to care for the welfare of others.
I have no one else like him [Timothy], who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (2:20-21).
- A Christian needs to be on guard against those who try to deceive.
Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers (3:2).
- A Christian needs to have a correct perspective on material and temporal things.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (3:7-9).
3. Our relationship to the World
- As Christians, we need to live in a way that is worthy of the Gospel, whatever our circumstances.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (1:27).
- A Christian needs to be prepared to suffer for Christ.
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him (1:29).
- A Christian needs to be an illustration of the Gospel in a society that is ungodly.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (2:14-16).
4. Our relationship to the mission of Christ
- A Christian has to be concerned for the world in his or her prayer life.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (1:4-5).
- Their partnership in the Gospel had to affect their willingness to give.
Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only (4:15).
Being ‘in Christ’ involves all four relationships. If any one of those relationships is lacking, we are failing to be in a balanced relationship with Christ. This is where the adverbial sense of this expression ‘in Christ’ comes to the fore in its importance for us. That is, the full implications of what we should be if our relationship with Christ is healthy.
Let me quote from “Back to Jerusalem”. “Today most Christians in China’s house churches are fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ. Every Christian is a soul-winner; every believer is involved in fulfilling the Great Commission. The work of the Church is not done by a few “qualified” individuals but by millions of passionate farmers, office workers and salesmen and women all over the nation. Some of the greatest evangelists are teenagers who have been called by God to travel from village to village sharing the good news not only about what Jesus has done in the past, but what he can do in the lives of all who surrender to him today.”
The book goes on to say, “Believers [in many places of the world] try to follow God, but their prayers and commitment are clouded by indecisiveness. Their prayers go like this: “Oh Lord, I am so weak. Please send your power. I am weighed down with sin. Please come and relieve me.” If they ever hear the King’s call to go somewhere and do something for the sake of his kingdom, they feel they need extra encouragement before they can safely step out: “First let me check with my wife, my pastor, my boss and my mother-in-law to see if it’s OK with them…When they are convinced that nothing will go wrong, then they step out.”
Let me tell you the story of Sister Chang.
Sister Chang was a house-church leader from Henan. One day she felt God directing her to preach the Gospel from the steps of the local police station. She was fully aware of the consequences of such an action. Yet, after praying about it, the compulsion remained strong. When she went to the police station, it didn’t take long for her to be arrested. Humanly speaking, her actions made no sense.
Sister Chang was sentenced without trial and sent to a women’s prison where she found herself among thousands of spiritually lost souls. She continued to share the Gospel among these women, and the effects of it spread like wildfire throughout the prison. Within just three months, eight hundred women believed in Jesus. The entire atmosphere in the prison changed and new sounds of praise and worship could be heard in the prison hallways and in the courtyard.
The prison director was greatly impressed and told her that his job had been made a lot easier as a result of her influence in the prison. There was no more fighting among the women, and the women had become more gentle and obedient. He even offered her freedom and a full-time job in the prison with a wage of three thousand yuan a month (approx. $375 USD, a fortune in rural Henan). “We will also give you a car and your own driver, and will find you comfortable housing,” he offered.
Sister Chang briefly considered the offer, and then replied, “Twenty years ago I became a disciple of Jesus Christ and he has been wonderful to me. I don’t believe your offer of a car, driver, and salary is in line with what Jesus wants to do with my life, and I belong to him. All I want to do is preach the good news.”
Not every Christian is called to that kind of ministry. But, every Christian is called to that kind of obedience.