Though the term Christian is used today to describe those who believe in Jesus, it was never a term used by believers in the early church to describe themselves.
According to Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, the disciples of Christ were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26), which today is located in modern Turkey. With a population back then of a half a million people, it is often considered the “cradle of Christianity.”
Emboldened by the martyrdom of Stephen, the Jews began to aggressively persecute the followers of Christ. The disciples fled Jerusalem and a number went to Antioch and began preaching that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah both to the Jews and the Greeks (Acts 11: 19-20).
Luke made an unusual statement, “a large number who believed turned to the Lord,” (Acts 11:21) which seems to imply that thought many believed Jesus was the Messiah, not all became disciples.
Though the term Christian (Greek Christianos) was first used in Antioch, the term is only found in two other verses (Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). In all three instances, the term was used to describe Christians by those who were not believers.
The first mention in Acts 11 was significant because it was the first indication that others were recognizing Christians as being different from Judaism.
However the early church did not refer to themselves as Christians but preferred the term disciples or believers because they still saw themselves as Jews, but ones who believed Jesus was the Messiah.
As for the gentiles, the Apostle Paul described those who believed as being grafted into the Olive tree composed of all the believing Jews through Israel’s history. The Jews who did not accept Christ were broken off (Romans 11:17-24).
The church was simply the continuation of Israel.
It wasn’t until the end of the second century that believers first referred to themselves as Christians when Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, used the Latin version of the term, Christianoi (belonging to Christ), to describe those who believed in Jesus.
The term stuck.
So back to the premise of this article who was the first Christian or the first person to believe Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
I would suggest that belongs to Nathanael who John lists as one of the 12 apostles. In the Hebrew his name means “God has given.”
The writers of Luke, Mark and Matthew do not mention Nathanael, but instead refer to a person named Bartholomew as one of the 12. Since John does not mention Bartholomew which simply means son (bar) of Tholomew, it is believed Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person.
But it was John who goes into greater detail about Nathanael. Philip, a close friend of Nathanael, brought him to meet Christ telling Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth was the one who Moses and the prophets spoke about (John 1:45).
Nathanael probably as a joke responded can anything good come out Nazareth (John 1:46), but agreed to meet Christ.
When Nathanael met Jesus, using a word of knowledge, Christ described Nathaniel as a man having no deceit and said that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree before Philip came to him (John 1:47-48).
I have seen this many times in the past, through a word of knowledge God says the very things people were thinking about in order to catch their attention. I remember one instance a prophet who was also pastoring the church we attended gave a word to a young married woman in his congregation.
He prophesied that her husband would become a Christian. Of course, as a member of the congregation, he knew her husband wasn’t a Christian. But then through a word of knowledge he said to her, I saw you driving to church this morning and when you stopped at a red light, you asked God if your husband is ever going to become a Christian.
Then he added that God heard her prayer.
The woman broke down sobbing, because that is exactly what happened.
I suspect that Nathanael was not only sitting under a fig tree, but may have even been thinking about the story of the deceitful Jacob and the angels who were descending up and down a ladder from heaven as Jacob slept, which Jesus referred to later (see John 1:51).
This word of knowledge instantly caught Nathaniel’s attention and he called Jesus the “son of God” and “King of Israel” (John 1:49). Jesus responded:
50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these. (John 1:50 NASV)
Jesus described Nathanael as a believer. Peter wouldn’t fully grasp who Christ was until later (Matthew 16:16-18). So it seems that Nathanael was the first person to believe Jesus was the Son of God of those who did not call themselves Christians.