The followers of Jesus Christ were first referred to as “Christians” by the Gentiles of Syrian Antioch, and the name was more than likely meant as an insult (see Acts 11:26).
In the New Testament, believers never refer to themselves as “Christians”; rather, they use such terms as brethren (Acts 15:1; 1 Corinthians 16:20, NAS), disciples (Acts 11:26; 14:24, NKJV), and saints (Acts 9:13; 2 Corinthians 13:13, ESV). Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus sought out those “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2), indicating that an early label for Christians could have been “people of the Way” (see also Acts 19:9; 24:22).
Believers in Christ came to be called “Christians” during a time of rapid expansion in the church. Persecution had forced many believers from Jerusalem, and they scattered to various areas, taking the gospel with them. The evangelism was at first limited to Jewish populations. That changed when “men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20–21). Barnabas was there in Antioch, as was the newly converted Saul, and they were both teaching in the church. “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26, BLB).
At the time that believers got the appellation Christians, it was common for the Greeks to give satirical nicknames to particular groups. So those loyal to the Roman General Pompey were dubbed “Pompeians,” and the followers of General Sulla were called “Sullanians.” Those who publicly and enthusiastically praised the emperor Nero Augustus received the name Augustinians, meaning “of the party of Augustus.” To the Greeks, it was all a fun word game and a verbally dismissive gesture. Then a new group cropped up in Antioch; since they were characterized by behavior and speech centered on Christ, the Greeks called them “Christians,” or “those of the party of Christ.”
In the first decades after the resurrection, the word Christ meant little to the general population. In fact, some ancient sources refer to believers as “Chrestians” and relate that their key figure was “Chrestus,” reflecting limited knowledge of the actual faith. This makes it seem even more likely that the word Christian was cobbled together by those who were not involved in Christianity themselves.
Non-believing Jews of that day would not have referred to believers as “Christians,” since Christ means “Messiah” and refers to the Son of David. Christ was exactly what they did not believe Jesus to be; such a term would not have been used by Jews until it became an established, stand-alone word. In the book of Acts, we see the unbelieving Jews referring to Christians as those “of the Nazarene sect” (Acts 24:5)—Nazareth being a city of low repute in the minds of most Israelites (see John 1:46).
Both the Bible and history suggest that the term Christian was probably meant as a mocking insult when it was first coined. Peter actually tells his readers not to be “ashamed” if they are called by that term (1 Peter 4:16). Likewise, when Herod Agrippa rejects Paul’s appeal to be saved, he says, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” and he was probably playing off of the negative reputation of that term (Acts 26:28). Why would he, a king, submit to the indignity of being called a “Christian”?