More than two billion people across the world describe themselves as Christians. The Christian faith crosses all boundaries of culture, ethnicity, class and nationality. There are Christians in every corner of the world, even in countries where it is dangerous to admit that you are a Christian because of the threat of religious persecution. Most can meet other Christians openly but some must do so in secret. People express their Christian faith in different ways which is why there are so many different denominations or styles of church. But the core beliefs are the same. The Bible book 1 Peter speaks of the Church now not as a building or a tradition but being made from ‘living stones’ – the Christian Church is its people. The same book also describes Christians as, ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation belonging to God….Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God’. Being part of a church is an important part of life for a Christian. It is an opportunity to meet other believers and pray together and to praise and thank God. It is also a place where Christians grow in their knowledge and understanding of God and his love for humanity. But just going to church does not make anyone a Christian – anymore than being in France means you are French.
Unity among believers, whatever their background or tradition, was important to Jesus. Just before his death, he prayed for future Christians. The Bible book, John, records him praying, ‘…that they may be one as we are one’ and ‘may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me...’.
Christians were known as ‘believers’ or followers of ‘The Way’.
The early Christians
The word ‘Christian’ was not used during Jesus’ lifetime. The first people to follow Jesus were Jewish. Jesus, who was also a Jew, lived in a Jewish territory close to the Sea of Galilee. He recruited 12 local men to be his closest followers (or disciples) when he began teaching in around 27AD. Many others followed him too. As he travelled and taught, people from other religious backgrounds and ethnicities also heard and believed him, including Samaritans and Romans.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection Christians were known as ‘believers’ or followers of ‘The Way’. The first time believers were called Christians was at Antioch in what is now northern Syria within around 20 years of Jesus’ death. They were a mixture of Jews and non-Jews and spoke different languages. What they had in common was their faith in Jesus Christ.
Christians and persecution
In his teachings, Jesus said there would be a cost for those who followed him. He said the world would hate Christians because of him. Persecution broke out soon after Jesus had ascended to heaven. Stephen, an administrator in the early church, was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death about five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Disciples such as Peter, Andrew and James were also executed for their faith. Under the Roman emperor Nero, Christians were routinely persecuted. But this caused the Christian faith to spread.
Over the centuries, many thousands of Christians have paid a price for their faith. Persecution continues in many parts of the world today where Christianity is seen as a threat to the authorities. Some are denied jobs or promotion; others are disowned by their friends and families. But for others the price is higher: they are imprisoned, tortured or executed for their faith.