To be honest, the Scriptures do not say why we are called Christian or who began referring to us by this name, but it does tell us we became known as Christians first in Antioch. I think this gives us clues for the why and also the who that are involved in how we have become known. First of all, we need to understand that it was probably meant to be a derogatory remark. The early Christian graffiti shown above seems to imply this is so. In fact, the Scriptures never show that we ever described ourselves as Christian in the early decades of the Jesus movement. We didn’t begin doing so until sometime in the 2nd century CE. There are only three references in the New Testament that describes us in this manner. Two are in Acts and the third is in the first epistle of Peter. Notice:
Acts 11:26 KJV And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.
Acts 26:28 KJV Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
1 Peter 4:16 KJV Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.
Acts 11 shows that non-Christians referred to us by the name Christian, while Acts 26 has King Agrippa referring to the Jewish sect as Christian. Again, it was other people or non-Christians referring to us by this name. Finally, Peter says, “if any of you suffer persecution as a Christian…” In other words, other people were identifying us by this name and in a quite negative manner. Therefore, is seems that Scriptures are clear that the term Christian, which identifies the followers of Christ, was at first derogatory and used by non-Christians to identify the followers of Jesus. If this is so, the reference to our being called Christian first in Antioch (Acts 11:26) implies the term was used by non-Christians and in an unflattering manner.
Secondly, we see that, if we were referred to by the name Christian first in Antioch, it was a term that was quickly picked up by others, even important people like King Agrippa who fancied himself a worshiper of the true God in Judaism. In other words, the term was not simply neighborhood slang, used to identify the followers of Jesus. It was used by the important people in Antioch. Otherwise, how could we have ever come to be known by this name in Caesarea and, in fact, all over the Roman Empire? People who used it were important people who travelled often and referred to us by this name wherever they went.
Notice the timeline of this reference to the followers of Jesus. It comes to us in chapter 11 of Acts. The chapter begins with Peter having to explain why he entered a Gentile’s home and ate with him. This was Cornelius, the first Gentile baptized as a follower of Jesus who was not compelled to be circumcised by those in Judea. This was big news, and notice that Cornelius’ band was stationed at Caesarea just south of Ptolemias where Petronius, the Roman governor of Syria waited for his reply from Caligula, who had ordered him to set up his image in the Temple at Jerusalem. Rome and Jerusalem were at the brink of war, and “…the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26)!
Remember that the term Christ-ian comes is the Graecized manner of referring to Messianics, or followers of the Messiah. This had reference to the Jewish claim that a King would rise who would free them from the bonds of their enemies. Antioch was the capital city of the eastern frontier province of Syria. Today, American secret service agents keep a watchful eye on those they consider might harm our country. Don’t you think the Roman government at Syria had been keeping a watchful eye upon this Jewish sect who preached about a new Kingdom of God, whose Lord and King was the Messiah, Jesus?
The Jews and Rome were at the brink of war, and only a few years before this Jesus, the founder of this sect of the Jews, had been executed (as far as Rome was concerned) as a political agitator. However, the Roman government’s continued investigative activity had reckoned this particular Jewish sect as politically innocuous, due to its idea that the Kingdom of God was spiritually defined and were opposed to using external force against any government. On the contrary, they preached to “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” and that included taxes. Therefore, although it was a Messianic movement within Judaism, it was not a threat to Caesar.
In order to differentiate this body of believers (who also had recently been accumulating a considerable number of gentile followers) from other Jewish sects, the Roman officials were probably the first to begin referring to the followers of Jesus as Christ-ian. Remembering that the believers in Antioch spoke Greek and any reference to Jesus as the Messiah would be used in its Greek form, Christ. The suffix “ian” is actually Latin, implying that it was the Roman officials who first took the Greek, Christ, and added a Latin ending to the term and began referring to the followers of Christ as Christian!