There has been much dispute as to whether this new name was given by Barnabas and Saul under
divine authority, or by the Gentiles of Antioch, or by the disciples themselves. It would serve no
practical purpose to decide between the latter two suppositions, for, with whichever party it
originated, it was subsequently accepted by the disciples in general.

As to the supposition that the name was given by direct revelation through Barnabas and Saul, a
thorough discussion of its merits would require more verbal criticism than is suited to the design
of this work, and, at the same time, be less decisive in reference to the authority of the name in
question, than the course of investigation which we prefer to institute. We retain, therefore, the
common version of the passage, which is sustained by the great mass of critics of all ages and all
parties, while we seek a more certain basis on which to rest the divine authority of the new name
than verbal criticism can establish.

If the New Testament furnishes any names for the people of God, its authority in reference to
their use is not less imperative than in reference to any other use of language. We can have no
more right, in this case, to substitute other names for them, or to add others to them, than to do
the same in reference to the names of the apostles, of the Holy Spirit, or of Christ.
Religious names are significant. They not only distinguish the bodies to which they belong, as do
modern names of individuals, but they distinguish them by a condensed description of their
peculiarities. All the peculiarities of a religious denomination are expressed by the
denominational name in its current import. Hence, to call a Baptist by the name Methodist would
be worse than to call Smith by the name of Jones; for, besides miscalling him, it would be
misrepresenting his religious principles. It is true, that, in thus miscalling the Baptist, you have
not changed him into a Methodist, for he remains the same by whatever name you call him. Still,
you have miscalled him and done him injustice. Truth and justice, therefore, require us to use
religious names with reference to their significance.

If denominational names are significant, those originally applied to the body of Christ are not less
so. They distinguish the people of God by designating some of their peculiarities. These
peculiarities were found either in the relations which they sustained, or in the character which
they exhibited to the world. The first relation which attracted the attention of the world, as they
followed Jesus from place to place, was that of teacher and pupils. This suggested the name
disciples, or learners, by which they were first designated, and which is the most common
designation in the gospel narratives. From the fact that there were disciples of John, with whom
they might be confounded, they were, at first, styled "disciples of Jesus." But when John had
decreased, and Jesus had increased, the limiting words were dispensed with, and the term disciple
was appropriated, so that, standing alone, it always meant a disciple of Jesus. In the four gospels
the limiting words are commonly employed; but in Acts, where Luke is giving some of their
history as a great people spreading through the earth, after once calling them "disciples of the
Lord," at the time Saul starts after them to Damascus, he drops the limiting words, and thence
throughout the whole narrative he calls them simply the "disciples."

When the disciples assumed a new relation to their teacher, it necessarily brought them into a
new relation to one another. From the nature of the moral lessons which they were learning, and
which they were required to put into immediate practice, this relation became very intimate and
very affectionate. It gave rise to their designation as "the brethren." They were so styled first by
Jesus, saying to them: "Be not called Rabbi; for one is your teacher, and all you are brethren"
(Mt 23:8). This term, however, as a distinctive appellation of the whole body, is used only once in
the gospel narratives, where John says of the report that he would not die: "This saying went
abroad among the brethren" (Joh 21:23). In Acts it frequently occurs in this sense; but still more
frequently in the Epistles. The latter being addressed to the brethren, and treating of their mutual
obligations, this term most naturally takes precedence in them, and the term "disciple," which is
used in speaking of a brother rather than to him, is as naturally omitted. This accounts for the
fact that the latter term is not once found in the Epistles.

This increasing currency of the term brethren in the later apostolic age is intimately associated
with the introduction of another name which came into use in the same period. Jesus frequently
called the disciples his own brethren, and taught them, in praying to say, "Our Father, who art in
heaven" (Mt 6:9; Lu 11:2); but the title, "children of God," which grew out of the relation thus
indicated, was not applied to them during this early period. It is not so applied in any of the
gospels but John's, and in this only in two instances, where it is evident that he is using the
phraseology of the time in which he writes rather than of the period of which he writes (Joh 1:12;
11:52). This appellation, as a current and cotemporaneous title, is found only in the Epistles,
being brought into use after the disciples had obtained more exalted conceptions of the blessed
privileges and high honors which God had conferred upon them. It extorted an admiring comment
from John, in his old age: "Behold, what manner of love the Father bestowed upon us, that we
should be called the sons of God!" (1Jo 3:1).

By this time the disciples exhibited to the world a well-defined character. It was such as identified
them with those who, in the Old Testament, were called saints, and this suggested the use of this
term as one of their appellations. The persecutions which they were enduring still further
identified them with the holy "prophets who were before them" [Mt 5:12]. This name occurs first
on the lips of Ananias when he objected to approaching Saul of Tarsus. He says to the Lord, "I
have heard by many of this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints in Jerusalem" [Ac 9:13].
In the Epistles this name is used more frequently than any other.

All of the names we have now considered are well adapted to their specific purposes; but all of
them presuppose some knowledge of the people whom they are intended to distinguish. An entire
stranger would not at first know who was meant by the disciples, or the brethren; but would ask,
Disciples of whom? brethren of whom? Nor would he know who were the children of God, or the
saints, until you had informed him to what certain characters these terms apply. There was need,
therefore, of a name less ambiguous to those who had the least information on the subject--one
better adapted to the great world. This, like all the others, originated from circumstances which
demanded it for immediate use. When a Church was established in Antioch, it became an object of
inquiry to strangers, brought thither by the pursuits of commerce, from all parts of the world.
They were strangers to the cause of Christ in reference to all but the wonderful career of its
founder. The whole world had heard something of Christ, as the remarkable personage who was
put to death under Pontius Pilate, though many had heard nothing of the early history of his
Church. From this fact, when strangers came to Antioch, and heard the new party who were
attracting so much attention there, called Christians, they at once recognized them as followers of
that Christ of whom they had already heard. This explains the fact stated in the text, that "the
disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." The fact that Luke here adopts it, and that both
Paul and Peter afterward recognized it, gives it all the validity of inspired usage, and, therefore,
all the weight of divine authority. That it is a New Testament name is undisputed, and this
renders its divine authority indisputable.

This name, whether given by divine or by human authority, was not designed as an exclusive
appellation, seeing that the others were continued in use after its introduction. It merely took its
proper place among the other names, to answer its own special purpose.
To sum up the facts now adduced, the New Testament usage in reference to names is this: When
the followers of Jesus were contemplated with reference to their relation to him as their great
teacher, they were called disciples. When the mind of the speaker was fixed more particularly on
their relation to one another, they were styled brethren. When their relation to God was in the
foreground, they were called children of God. When they were designated with special reference
to character, they were called saints. But when they were spoken of with the most general
reference to their great leader, they were called Christians. A practical observance of the exact
force of each of these names would soon conform our speech to the primitive model, and would
check a tendency to exalt any one name above another, by giving to each its proper place.
The names now enumerated are all that are furnished by the New Testament. We have assumed
above that it would be subversive of divine authority for disciples to adopt any other names. The
truth of this assumption is demonstrated by the rebuke which Paul administers to the Corinthians
for this very sin. He says to them: "It has been declared to me, my brethren, by them who are of
the household of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that each of you
says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul
crucified for you? Or were you immersed into the name of Paul?" (1Co 1:11-13). Now, if it was
sinful for these brethren to assume the names of men, how can it be innocent in us to do the very
same thing? The question demands the most solemn and trembling consideration of this

It is no extenuation of this fault to urge that the divisions which now exist are of a different
character from those in Corinth; for the difference is entirely in their favor. They had not gone so
far as to divide the Church into separate organizations, but had merely formed parties within it,
like the parties of the present day, which sometimes exist within a single denomination. The sin
of to-day is, therefore, much greater than theirs.

It is equally vain to excuse our sin, by urging that the party names now worn are necessary, in
order to distinguish the parties from one another. If the existence of the parties themselves were
authorized by the Scriptures, this excuse would be valid; for we could not censure ourselves for
the unavoidable results of that which is itself right. But the existence of party divisions constitutes
the chief crime in the case, and leads to the sin of party names, as stealing leads to lying. The
thief must inevitably lie, or acknowledge his theft; so the partisan must either cling to his party
name, or give up his party. The name, in the mean time, is a necessary evil, but, being self-
imposed, it is none the less evil from being necessary.

Not to multiply words upon this point, it is sufficiently evident, from the above considerations,
that parties and party names among Christians should be obliterated. If we say that it is
impossible to obliterate them, we are simply saying that it is impossible to bring Christians back
to the New Testament model--for, in the New Testament period, there were no such divisions, and
therefore a restoration of that state of the Church would be the destruction of parties and party
names. If this is impossible, it can only be from one cause, and that is, that men professing to take
the word of God as their guide are so hypocritical in this profession, that they will, at all hazard,
persevere in despising its authority in reference to a prominent item of duty. How shameful it is,
that men will uphold parties and party names, which they know perfectly that a strict conformity
to the New Testament would utterly destroy! There is only one means of escape from this crying
sin. Those who love God must break loose at once, as individuals, from the bondage of party, and
take a position where they may be upholders of no party, and wearers of no party name. All who
act thus will find themselves planted together on the plain letter of the Scriptures, as their only
rule of faith and practice.

In addition to the observations already submitted on this topic, we remark that every significant
name which a man wears imposes some obligation upon him, and appeals to him incessantly,
though silently, to discharge this obligation faithfully. Does a man in foreign country declare
himself an American, he realizes that there is a peculiar demeanor required by the fact, and feels
constantly called upon to act worthy of the name he wears. Even a man's patronymic, which means
no more than that he belongs to a certain family, is forever warning him not to disgrace the name
of his father. So it must be with all religious names.

Is a man called a disciple of Jesus? He remembers that it is the part of a disciple to learn what his
teacher imparts, and to imitate his example. Whenever he is reminded that this is his name, he
feels the necessity of studying the teachings of Jesus, and walking in his footsteps. Whenever he
finds himself neglecting these duties, his very name rebukes him. This thought was not
overlooked by the great Teacher himself. He says to those Jews who believed on him, "If you
continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall
make you free" (Joh 8:31,32). Again he says, "It is enough for the disciple to be as his teacher";
and "whosoever does not bear his cross and come after me, can not be my disciple" (Mt 11:24; Lu
14:27). Thus he gives emphasis to that exhortation which the name itself is constantly sounding in
the ear of conscience.

But the disciple is also one of the brethren--a brother to the Lord Jesus, who is the oldest brother
of a large family. This name is full of affection and sympathy. I can not meet a man and call him
brother, without some thought of the fraternal sympathy which should exist between us. If, when
my heart is poisoned by unkind feelings toward a disciple, he meets me and calls me brother, I
feel reproached by the word, and am choked in the attempt to pronounce it in return. It will never
let me forget the law of love. Its influence is recognized by Peter, who says, "Seeing you have
purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren,
see that you love one another with a pure heart fervently" (1Pe 1:22).

There is another obligation involved in this name, arising from the fact that the brothers in one
family stand on an equal footing in reference to authority, no one having supremacy over the
others, but all subject to the father. Jesus makes use of this fact as the ground of a serious
injunction. "Be not called Rabbi; for one is your teacher, and all you are brethren; and call no
man on earth your Father, for One who is in heaven is your Father; neither be called Leaders, for
one is your Leader, the Christ" (Mt 23:8,10). The fact that we are brethren is thus made to bear
directly against that thirsting for titles of distinction, and for rank and authority in the Church of
Christ, which is invariably the offspring of an unholy ambition. The modern Leaders of sects--the
ghostly Fathers of mystic Babylon, and the swelling titles by which Doctors of Divinity, and the
Reverend and Right Reverend Bishops and Archbishops of the present age are distinguished,
exhibit the most flagrant contempt for this solemn commandment of the Lord. A man who
understands the meaning of the fact that he is one among many brethren, is guarded, by the
humility of this title, from participation in a sin like this.

If such are the obligations implied in the names disciple and brethren, what shall we say of that
more exalted title, children of God? It originates from a supposed likeness between them and
their Father. We are commanded to love our enemies, to bless them who curse us, to do good to
them who hate us, and pray for them who persecute us, that we may be children of our Father who
is in heaven (Mt 5:44,45). Thus the very highest moral obligations imposed in the word of God
must ever press upon the soul of him who ears this title, inciting him to become a partaker of the
divine nature.

When, in addition to these appellations, you call a man a saint, you thrust him as a companion
into the midst of all the holy men of old, and make him struggle to be like them. So palpable is
the force of this name, that the mass of professed Christians have long since ceased to wear it.
When men apostasized from what its meaning indicates, it hung so heavily upon the conscience,
that it became like a coal of fire on their heads, and they found relief in throwing it off from
themselves and appropriating it to a few of the worthy dead. If we would ever come back from the
long apostasy of ages, we must learn to wear the name saint, and walk worthy of the company with
which it identifies us. The term saint means a holy one, and Peter exhorts, "As he who called you
is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of behavior; because it is written, Be ye holy for I am holy"
(1Pe 1:15,16).

The name Christian embodies within itself, in a more generic form, all the obligations
specifically expressed by the other names. Being derived from the name of him who is "head over
all things for the Church" [Eph 1:22], whose name is above every name [Php 2:9], it is a title of
peculiar honor and glory. It calls upon the man who wears it to act a part in consonance with the
historic memories which cluster around it, and encourages him with the reflection that he wears a
high dignity even when despised and spit upon by the powers of earth. So thought Peter, when this
name was most despised. He says, "If any suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let
him glorify God on this account." "If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are you; for
the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (1Pe 4:14-16).

When the servant of Christ remembers that all these names belong to him; that, because he is
supposed to be learning of Christ, he is called a disciple; because he is one of the happy and loving
family of equals, they call him brother; because the Father of that family, whose character he
strives to imitate, is God himself, he is called a child of God; that, because he is presumed to be
holy, he is called a saint; and that, for all these reasons, he wears the name of him who by his
mediation and intercession enables him to be all that he is, how powerful the incentive to every
virtue, constantly yet silently pressing upon his conscience, and how stern the rebuke to every

When we turn from this deep and holy philosophy of scriptural names, to consider the import of
mere partisan badges, how heartless they all appear! The constant and only influence of party
names is to intensify mere partisan feelings. The man who wears the name Methodist feels called
upon by the fact to simply act like a Methodist; and when that name is appealed to among those
who honor it, it is only to exhort one another to diligence in that which is peculiarly expected of a
mere Methodist. So with all other party names. There is nothing in any of them to excite the
longings of a sin-sick soul, and hence they are never appealed to when sinners are exhorted to
repent. On the contrary, the most zealous partisans are often heard to assure sinners, "Our object
is not to make Presbyterians of you, or Methodists, or Baptists; but we want you to become
Christians." How strange it is that men will pertinaciously cling to names which they are thus
ashamed of in the presence of penitent sinners, when there are others at hand given by God
himself, full of honor to the wearer, and of attraction to all who seek salvation!

        J. W. McGarvey (ORIGINAL COMMENTARY ON ACTS, p. 144-151)

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