The term Christian means ‘belonging to Christ'.

The New Testament

The first Christians

The use of the term ‘Christian' to describe the followers of Jesus, is first recorded in the book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible. Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, came the Day of Pentecost, sometimes called the ‘birthday of the church'. At Pentecost, Peter boldly told the crowds that had gathered in Jerusalem that although Jesus, the promised Messiah, had been put to death, God had brought him back to life again (see Big ideas: Messiah, Christ, Jesus). He said that if they would repent of any wrong they had done and be baptised in the name of Jesus, they would receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is essentially how people become Christians.

About 3000 people are said to have responded on that day, becoming the first converts to Christianity (Acts 2:32-41) and part of the new community of the Church. At first they were known as ‘belonging to the Way' (Acts 9:2), possibly because Jesus had said:

‘I am the Way … No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6).

‘The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch' (Acts 11:26), one of the places in which they settled when they had to leave Jerusalem because of persecution.

A faith for everyone

The first Christians were Jews. Initially Christians remained within Judaism. They continued to worship in the Temple, but also hold their own gatherings on the first day of the week, Sunday, because it was the day of Christ's resurrection. Peter, their leader, became convinced that the Christian message was for Gentiles as well as Jews. After much debate, it was agreed that gentile converts did not have to observe Jewish laws relating to food and circumcision (Acts 15:1-35).

Saul of Tarsus, a Jew who originally persecuted Christians, was converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). His name was changed to Paul and he began to preach the Christian faith to both Jews and non-Jews. He explained key teachings of the Christian faith, and their practical application to daily life, in letters which today form part of the New Testament. Crucially, he explained that all human beings can come to God and are equal within the Christian community, a revolutionary message in a time of slavery and deep social divisions. His journeys took the Christian gospel through Asia Minor, into Greece, and finally to Rome. His message was so radical that he was accused of ‘turning the world upside down' (Acts 17:6).

From persecution to acceptance

Emperor ConstantinopleDuring the early centuries, Christians experienced periods of severe persecution and many died for their faith. In 313 AD, however, the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantinople became the centre of the church within the Eastern Roman Empire (from which the Orthodox churches have developed), while the church in the West looked to Rome (the focus of the Catholic church).

Growth and diversity

As Christianity has spread into different areas and adapted to different cultures, variations and divisions have emerged. By 1054, the Orthodox and Catholic churches had grown apart in belief and practice. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to further divisions within the western church.

Christianity is a worldwide religion, and continues to grow in many parts of the world. The New Testament encourages Christians to share their belief in Jesus Christ in order that others may experience a transforming relationship with God. Over the centuries it has brought about significant social change and reform and encourages the sharing of resources through giving.

Related topics

Big ideas: Messiah, Christ, Jesus

Other cultural references

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