Christianity is a religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus, who is called the Christ by his followers. You’ll probably see his name most often written as “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus”.
Christ is a title from ancient Greek; in Hebrew, the title is Messiah. These are essentially the same thing, although Christ is where the terms Christian and Christianity come from.
What Is a Christian?
A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah and chooses to follow in the Way that Jesus shows us through his life and teachings. Of course, different groups of Christians have different ideas about what that actually means or looks like, but generally, if someone says they’re a Christian, they tend to believe some basic things:
- Jesus is the Christ/Messiah (prophesied savior)
- Jesus died on a cross (was crucified), was placed in a tomb, and miraculously rose from the dead on the third day after he died
- Jesus is God the Son
- They accept Jesus as their lord and savior
The Term Christianity
One reason the term Christianity is used is because it originated in the Western world as followers of Christ Jesus became more prominent in Greek and Roman cultures. Since the West was so heavily involved in colonizing the rest of the world, the term Christian is often how people were introduced to Christianity, so it stuck.
Side note: while I have a lot of issues with the way Christianity has spread in the last 2000 years and even with many practitioners today, I choose to use the term Christian because it’s descriptive. A Christian is a person who follows the Christ, who Christianity claims is Jesus.
Christianity and Judaism
Today, Christianity and Judaism usually refer to two different religions, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Jesus was a Jew by ancestry, heritage, and religious practices/beliefs. All of Jesus’s closest disciples were Jews, as well, and almost all of the first Christians were Jews. It wasn’t until after Jesus’s resurrection that significant numbers of Gentiles (non-Jews) started becoming disciples of Christ.
The main distinction that most people are getting at when they distinguish between Christians and Jews is whether someone believes that Jesus is the Messiah. A practitioner of Judaism who doesn’t believe Jesus is the Christ isn’t a Christian (by definition), but Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah don’t suddenly stop being Jews. Remember: Jesus was a Jew, and the first disciples were all Jews.
Sometimes, Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are referred to as Messianic Jews, but the term Jewish Christian seems to be more widely used, historically. This was a way of distinguishing between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
The majority of Christians today are Gentile Christians; they’re not from Jewish ancestry, heritage, or faith, but they believe that Jesus is the Christ.
What Is a Christ/Messiah?
Simply put, the Messiah was a person about whom the ancient Hebrew scriptures prophesied (most Christians know those scriptures as the Old Testament). The Messiah was supposed to be a savior for the Hebrew people (also called Israelites or Jews). Not everyone agreed about who the Messiah would be or what the Messiah would do, exactly, but there was an element of being rescued or restored.
It’s worth noting that the Old Testament doesn’t actually use the words Messiah or Christ. The term Messiah in Jewish tradition usually refers to a king who would come as a man of God and restore aspects of Jewish culture. Eventually, the idea of an eschatological Messiah came about — a Messiah who would restore the nation of Israel, rebuild the temple, and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. These ideas about the Messiah are extrapolated from Old Testament scripture in different ways by different teachers.
In what are referred to as the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the New Testament, some of the competing expectations for the Christ can be seen. Even as Jesus is revealed to some to be the prophesied Messiah, others reject the possibility altogether. Some of the religious leaders, for example, believed that he was quite the opposite: a deceiver in league with demonic forces. Even among those who believed he was the Christ, there was disagreement about what that meant. Some expected him to overthrow Roman rule and restore the nation of Israel, politically. They thought the Christ would reign as king on earth.
Today, many Christians believe that what Jesus saves us from is sin, a “separation” from God on some level that prevents us from sharing in God’s life. I’m grossly oversimplifying, but the idea is that Jesus facilitates a relationship with God, which lets us share in God’s eternal life. That doesn’t mean that we won’t die; everyone dies, but there will be some kind of new creation and eternal life that we can share in just as Jesus rose from the dead and returned to life with God.
Related Bible Passages
This list of passages isn’t exhaustive. It’s just a general introduction for consideration.
Acts 11:19-26 — mentions Christianity spreading to some Greek communities and identifies Antioch as the first place where disciples were called “Christians.”
Acts 26:24-29 — the apostle Paul is on trial before King Agrippa; this is the only other passage in scripture in which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible uses the term “Christian.”
Mark 8:27-30 — Peter mentions some of the theories about who Jesus’s identity, as well as his own belief that Jesus is the Messiah.
Mark 3:20-30 — Some scribes from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being in league with the rule of demons.
Acts 1:6 — After Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples expect him to “restore the kingdom of Israel.”
Romans 6:1-11 — We share in Jesus’s death through baptism, which means we are “dead to sin and alive to God.”
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