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The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
One Hidden Word
I am a Christian."
The young man said nothing else as he stood before the Roman governor, his life hanging in the balance. His accusers pressed him again, hoping to trip him up or force him to recant. But once more he answered with the same short phrase. "I am a Christian."
It was the middle of the second century, during the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius. Christianity was illegal, and believers throughout the Roman Empire faced the threat of imprisonment, torture, or death. Persecution was especially intense in southern Europe, where Sanctus, a deacon from Vienna, had been arrested and brought to trial. The young man was repeatedly told to renounce the faith he professed. But his resolve was undeterred. "I am a Christian."
No matter what question he was asked, he always gave the same unchanging answer. According to the ancient church historian Eusebius, Sanctus "girded himself against [his accusers] with such firmness that he would not even tell his name, or the nation or city to which he belonged, or whether he was bond or free, but answered in the Roman tongue to all their questions, 'I am a Christian.'" When at last it became obvious that he would say nothing else, he was condemned to severe torture and a public death in the amphitheater. On the day of his execution, he was forced to run the gauntlet, subjected to wild beasts, and fastened to a chair of burning iron. Throughout all of it, his accusers kept trying to break him, convinced that his resistance would crack under the pain of torment. But as Eusebius recounted, "Even thus they did not hear a word from Sanctus except the confession which he had uttered from the beginning." His dying words told of an undying commitment. His rallying cry remained constant throughout his entire trial. "I am a Christian."
For Sanctus, his whole identity—including his name, citizenship, and social status—was found in Jesus Christ. Hence, no better answer could have been given to the questions he was asked. He was a Christian, and that designation defined everything about him.
This same perspective was shared by countless others in the early church. It fueled their witness, strengthened their resolve, and confounded their opponents. When arrested, these courageous believers would confidently respond as Sanctus had, with a succinct assertion of their loyalty to Christ. As one historian explained about the early martyrs,
They [would reply] to all questionings about them [with] the short but comprehensive answer, "I am a Christian." Again and again they caused no little perplexity to their judges by the pertinacity with which they adhered to this brief profession of faith. The question was repeated, "Who are you?" and they replied, "I have already said that I am a Christian; and he who says that has thereby named his country, his family, his profession, and all things else besides."
Following Jesus Christ was the sum of their entire existence. At the moment when life itself was on the line, nothing else mattered besides identifying themselves with Him.
For these faithful believers, the name "Christian" was much more than just a general religious designation. It defined everything about them, including how they viewed both themselves and the world around them. The label underscored their love for a crucified Messiah along with their willingness to follow Him no matter the cost. It told of the wholesale transformation God had produced in their hearts, and witnessed to the fact that they had been made completely new in Him. They had died to their old way of life, having been born again into the family of God. Christian was not simply a title, but an entirely new way of thinking—one that had serious implications for how they lived—and ultimately how they died.
What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?
The early martyrs were crystal clear on what it meant to be a Christian. But ask what it means today and you're likely to get a wide variety of answers, even from those who identify themselves with the label.
For some, being "Christian" is primarily cultural and traditional, a nominal title inherited from a previous generation, the net effect of which involves avoiding certain behaviors and occasionally attending church. For others, being a Christian is largely political, a quest to defend moral values in the public square or perhaps to preserve those values by withdrawing from the public square altogether. Still more define Christianity in terms of a past religious experience, a general belief in Jesus, or a desire to be a good person. Yet all of these fall woefully short of what it truly means to be a Christian from a biblical perspective.
Interestingly, the followers of Jesus Christ were not called "Christians" until ten to fifteen years after the church began. Before that time, they were known simply as disciples, brothers, believers, saints, and followers of the Way (a title derived from Christ's reference to Himself, in John 14:6, as "the way, the truth, and the life" [NKJV]). According to Acts 11:26, it was in Antioch of Syria that "the disciples were first called Christians" and since that time the label has stuck.
The name was initially coined by unbelievers as an attempt to deride those who followed a crucified Christ. But what began as a ridicule soon became a badge of honor. To be called "Christians" (in Greek, Christianoi) was to be identified as Jesus' disciples and to be associated with Him as loyal followers. In a similar fashion, those in Caesar's household would refer to themselves as Kaisarianoi ("those of Caesar") in order to show their deep allegiance to the Roman Emperor. Unlike the Kaisarianoi, however, the Christians did not give their ultimate allegiance to Rome or any other earthly power; their full dedication and worship were reserved for Jesus Christ alone.
Thus, to be a Christian, in the true sense of the term, is to be a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ. As the Lord Himself said in John 10:27, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (emphasis added). The name suggests much more than a superficial association with Christ. Rather, it demands a deep affection for Him, allegiance to Him, and submission to His Word. "You are My friends if you do what I command you," Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room ( John 15:14). Earlier He told the crowds who flocked to hear Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine" ( John 8:31); and elsewhere: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Luke 9:23; cf. John 12:26).
When we call ourselves Christians, we proclaim to the world that everything about us, including our very self-identity, is found in Jesus Christ because we have denied ourselves in order to follow and obey Him. He is both our Savior and our Sovereign, and our lives center on pleasing Him. To claim the title is to say with the apostle Paul, "To live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).
A Word That Changes Everything
Since its first appearance in Antioch, the term Christian has become the predominant label for those who follow Jesus. It is an appropriate designation because it rightly focuses on the centerpiece of our faith: Jesus Christ. Yet ironically, the word itself appears only three times in the New Testament—twice in the book of Acts and once in 1 Peter 4:16.
In addition to the name Christian, the Bible uses a host of other terms to identify the followers of Jesus. Scripture describes us as aliens and strangers of God, citizens of heaven, and lights to the world. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, members of His body, sheep in His flock, ambassadors in His service, and friends around His table. We are called to compete like athletes, to fight like soldiers, to abide like branches in a vine, and even to desire His Word as newborn babies long for milk. All of these descriptions—each in its own unique way—help us understand what it means to be a Christian.
Yet, the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently than any of these. It is a word picture you might not expect, but it is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus.
It is the image of a slave.
Time and time again throughout the pages of Scripture, believers are referred to as slaves of God and slaves of Christ. In fact, whereas the outside world called them "Christians," the earliest believers repeatedly referred to themselves in the New Testament as the Lord's slaves. For them, the two ideas were synonymous. To be a Christian was to be a slave of Christ.
The story of the martyrs confirms that this is precisely what they meant when they declared to their persecutors, "I am a Christian." A young man named Apphianus, for example, was imprisoned and tortured by the Roman authorities. Throughout his trial, he would only reply that he was the slave of Christ. Though he was finally sentenced to death and drowned in the sea, his allegiance to the Lord never wavered.
Other early martyrs responded similarly: "If they consented to amplify their reply, the perplexity of the magistrates was only the more increased, for they seemed to speak insoluble enigmas. 'I am a slave of Caesar,' they said, 'but a Christian who has received his liberty from Christ Himself;' or, contrariwise, 'I am a free man, the slave of Christ;' so that it sometimes happened that it became necessary to send for the proper official (the curator civitatis) to ascertain the truth as to their civil condition."
But what proved to be confusing to the Roman authorities made perfect sense to the martyrs of the early church. Their self-identity had been radically redefined by the gospel. Whether slave or free in this life, they had all been set free from sin; yet having been bought with a price, they had all become slaves of Christ. That is what it meant to be a Christian.
The New Testament reflects this perspective, commanding believers to submit to Christ completely, and not just as hired servants or spiritual employees—but as those who belong wholly to Him. We are told to obey Him without question and follow Him without complaint. Jesus Christ is our Master—a fact we acknowledge every time we call Him "Lord." We are His slaves, called to humbly and wholeheartedly obey and honor Him.
We don't hear about that concept much in churches today. In contemporary Christianity the language is anything but slave terminology. It is about success, health, wealth, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness. We often hear that God loves people unconditionally and wants them to be all they want to be. He wants to fulfill every desire, hope, and dream. Personal ambition, personal fulfillment, personal gratification—these have all become part of the language of evangelical Christianity—and part of what it means to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Instead of teaching the New Testament gospel—where sinners are called to submit to Christ—the contemporary message is exactly the opposite: Jesus is here to fulfill all your wishes. Likening Him to a personal assistant or a personal trainer, many churchgoers speak of a personal Savior who is eager to do their bidding and help them in their quest for self-satisfaction or individual accomplishment.
The New Testament understanding of the believer's relationship to Christ could not be more opposite. He is the Master and Owner. We are His possession. He is the King, the Lord, and the Son of God. We are His subjects and His subordinates.
In a word, we are His slaves.
Lost in Translation
Scripture's prevailing description of the Christian's relationship to Jesus Christ is the slave/master relationship. But do a casual read through your English New Testament and you won't see it.
The reason for this is as simple as it is shocking: the Greek word for slave has been covered up by being mistranslated in almost every English version—going back to both the King James Version and the Geneva Bible that predated it. Though the word slave (doulos in Greek) appears 124 times in the original text, it is correctly translated only once in the King James. Most of our modern translations do only slightly better. It almost seems like a conspiracy.
Instead of translating doulos as "slave," these translations consistently substitute the word servant in its place. Ironically, the Greek language has at least half a dozen words that can mean servant. The word doulos is not one of them. Whenever it is used, both in the New Testament and in secular Greek literature, it always and only means slave. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a foremost authority on the meaning of Greek terms in Scripture, the word doulos is used exclusively "either to describe the status of a slave or an attitude corresponding to that of a slave." The dictionary continues by noting that
the meaning is so unequivocal and self-contained that it is superfluous to give examples of the individual terms or to trace the history of the group.... [The] emphasis here is always on "serving as a slave." Hence we have a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders it, which he has to perform whether he likes it or not, because he is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of his owner. [The term stresses] the slave's dependence on his lord.
While it is true that the duties of slave and servant may overlap to some degree, there is a key distinction between the two: servants are hired; slaves are owned. Servants have an element of freedom in choosing whom they work for and what they do. The idea of servanthood maintains some level of self-autonomy and personal rights. Slaves, on the other hand, have no freedom, autonomy, or rights. In the Greco-Roman world, slaves were considered property, to the point that in the eyes of the law they were regarded as things rather than persons. To be someone's slave was to be his possession, bound to obey his will without hesitation or argument.
But why have modern English translations consistently mistranslated doulos when its meaning is unmistakable in Greek? There are at least two answers to this question. First, given the stigmas attached to slavery in Western society, translators have understandably wanted to avoid any association between biblical teaching and the slave trade of the British Empire and the American Colonial era. For the average reader today, the word slave does not conjure up images of Greco-Roman society but rather depicts an unjust system of oppression that was finally ended by parliamentary rule in England and by civil war in the United States. In order to avoid both potential confusion and negative imagery, modern translators have replaced slave language with servant language.
Second, from a historical perspective, in late-medieval times it was common to translate doulos with the Latin word servus. Some of the earliest English translations, influenced by the Latin version of the Bible, translated doulos as "servant" because it was a more natural rendering of servus. Added to this, the term slave in sixteenth-century England generally depicted someone in physical chains or in prison. Since this is quite different from the Greco-Roman idea of slavery, the translators of early English versions (like the Geneva Bible and the King James) opted for a word they felt better represented Greco-Roman slavery in their culture. That word was servant. These early translations continue to have a significant impact on modern English versions.
But whatever the rationale behind the change, something significant is lost in translation when doulos is rendered "servant" rather than "slave." The gospel is not simply an invitation to become Christ's associate; it is a mandate to become His slave.
Rediscovering This One Hidden Word
The Bible's emphasis on slavery to God is missing from the pages of most English translations. But that which is hidden in our modern versions was a central truth for the apostles and the generations of believers who came after them.
Excerpted from Slave by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2010 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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