So if the believers were not called by the name of Christ at first, what were they called and how did they refer to their beliefs? The believers were certainly known as “disciples” and referred to themselves as “brothers,” “members of the household of God” and even “saints,” but the earliest known term describing what these early believers believed, the religion they followed, was simply “the Way.” Acts 9:2 tells us that Saul sought to apprehend believers: “… so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (See also Acts 18:25-26, Acts 19:9 and other instances.)
Now why was early Christianity referred to as “the Way”? Interestingly, Judaism had long thought of the Torah as a “way” in that it dictated a way of life which was synonymous with walking rightly before God, a way of righteousness described in the Book of Isaiah: “…This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21b). The ancient Jewish Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran also followed a “way” which, for them, was more a way of ritual and observance of the law.
But for the Christians there was a Messianic aspect to the term. Isaiah 40:3 (a verse quoted several times in the New Testament) says: “…prepare the way of the Lord…” and for the early disciples, Jesus, as the Messiah promised throughout the Hebrew scriptures, was the living embodiment of that way – and, of course, he himself had said: “I am the way.” But let’s look at that affirmation a little more closely – Jesus said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In saying this Jesus made it clear that he was not only an embodiment of the right way of life, but he was also the “way” in the sense of being a road, a path, a way to the Father. This verse tells us, in fact, that Jesus is the only way to the Father. God is certainly a respecter of those everywhere who do good (Acts 10:34-35), but Christians accept the words of Christ that ultimately it is only through Him that we find the way to eternal life.
So this earliest of terms for Christianity carries a lesson within itself. It is very easy to think of Christianity as “a faith” – a distinct set of beliefs and doctrines to which we subscribe; but the words of Christ and the understanding of the earliest believers show that Christianity is not just “a set of beliefs,” but a way of life, and a way upon which we travel toward the person and nature of God. This “Way” involves the desire and effort to live as Christ did through Christ living in us and we in Him. “The Way” is not only about beliefs, though these are, of course, important - it is about how and where we walk.
And the way in which we walk may be the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:14), but it is not a single-lane pilgrim’s track – it is a way in which we share the walk with others: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…” (1 John 1:7 and see also 1 John 2:9-11). This is something we see throughout the Book of Acts – the earliest Christians knew there was only one “Way,” and that our calling is to help others along that way as well as to walk in it ourselves.