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8 words that many Christians misunderstand

Christians sometimes use some words that everyone seems to understand but many have trouble giving a definition to if asked. This column will cover eight such words: incarnation, trinity, mercy, grace, Messiah, Christ, Apostle, and disciple.

Incarnation:  The idea that God became a human. This is not to be confused with reincarnation, the Hindu/Buddhist idea that a person is born, lives, and dies many, many times. I created a parable to illustrate this word. Imagine a farmer going out to his barn in the middle of winter. As he gets close to the barn, he sees a small flock of birds on the ground outside his barn. He stops and observes them for awhile, and realizes that they are close to freezing to death. He opens the doors of the barn, thinking that if they would go into the barn they will be safe; but they don’t go. He gets behind them and tries to shoo them in, but all they do is scatter. He keeps trying to get them into the barn, but they flee in different directions. In his frustration he thinks, "If I could just become a bird, then I could tell them it is safe inside the barn." And that is the incarnation. God gave his message to people over and over prior to Jesus, people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. But his message kept getting skewed, or people didn’t really listen. Finally, God decided to come to earth and show people how to live. And so he did when God came to earth as Jesus: this is the incarnation.

Trinity:  One God in three roles: Father (creator), Son (came to earth), and Holy Spirit (teaches). This is an idea that can be confusing. In class, I use an example to explain this concept: me (or you can use you). Think of me, I tell my students: I am one person, but I am someone’s son, someone’s husband, and someone’s father. I am one person but I have three roles. So Christians believe in one God, but when God acts in different ways then Christians use different titles. When talking about Creation or even Heaven, Christians use the word "Father." When talking about the incarnation, God on earth, Christians use the word "Jesus." When talking about being taught by God to understand this or that, Christians use the words "Holy Spirit." So Christians believe in one God but give the different roles that one God plays different titles, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Mercy and Grace:  I heard these simple definitions at seminary, and thought they were so cool that I would teach them whenever I could. If you think about it, these words are difficult for most people to define. They are words that are used a lot in churches, but I find that not many people can say what they mean. I hear things like, "Well, I know what they mean, I just can’t put it into words." So here we go. Mercy: not getting what you deserve. Grace: getting what you do not deserve.

Messiah/Christ:  Messiah and Christ mean the same thing: "anointed" or "chosen one." Messiah is taken from the Hebrew language and Christ is taken from the Greek language.

Apostle:  Jesus chose 12 men to be his Apostles while he was alive. Later Paul and Matthias (Acts 1:26) were added as Apostles and there might have been more. But an Apostle is someone who saw Jesus and was given a task or appointed by Jesus. Apostles held a special authority from God. The last Apostle to die was probably John around the year AD 100.

Disciple:  A follower of someone else. So all Christians are disciples of Jesus, just as all Muslims are followers of Muhammad. The Apostles were also disciples.

©2008, 2012 Mark Nickens