committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER I

THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHES—HISTORY

"GO ye therefore, and make disciples of all the the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you; and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." In this parting injunction of the risen Lord to his disciples, which the Duke of Wellington aptly called the marching orders of the ministry, we have the office of the Christian Church for the first time defined. In obedience to this command the early Christians preached the gospel, founded churches, and taught obedience to Christ as the fundamental principle of the Christian life. And though many of them could say with Paul that they spent their days "in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness," they found it a faithful saying that their Lord was with them alway. In so far as the church in all ages has been obedient to Christ's command it has experienced the truth of this promise.

It is significant that in his teaching Jesus mentioned the church but twice, and then only toward the close of his ministry. The distinctive feature of his teaching is the setting up among men of the kingdom of God—a kingdom not of this world, but spiritual, into which he only can enter who has been born from above, who is meek, childlike, spiritually minded. Being spiritual, this kingdom is invisible, but it has an outward, bodily manifestation, an institutional as well as an incorporeal existence. That manifestation is the church, the ecclesia, those "called out" from the world and gathered into a society whose aim is the extension of the kingdom. This church potentially existed from the day when two disciples of John the Baptist followed Jesus and believed on him as the Messiah (John I: 35-40) ; but of actual existence as an organized society of believers during the life of Jesus no trace appears in the four Gospels. The day of Pentecost marks the beginning of the definite, organic life of the followers of Christ. The descent of the Holy Spirit, according to the promise of the Lord, was the preparation for the great missionary advance, of which the conversion of three thousand on that one day was the first fruits. Not only did this multitude hear the word and believe, but on the same day they were "added to the church," which can only mean that they were baptized. It was once urged, as an objection to the teaching and practice of Baptists regarding baptism, that the immersion of so many people on a single day is physically impossible. The missionary history of our own time has silenced this objection forever, by giving us a nearly parallel case. In 1879, at Ongole, India, two thousand two hundred and twenty-two Telugu converts were baptized on a single day by six ministers, two administering the ordinance at a time; the services being conducted with all due solemnity, and occupying in all nine hours.

The baptism of this great multitude on the day of Pentecost was not only their public confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and their formal induction into the company of believers, but the beginning of a new life of Christian fellowship. For a time at least, this fellowship took among the saints at Jerusalem the form of virtual community of goods, and this so-called "Christian communism" is often held up as a model for the I life of Christians in all ages. "And the multitude of them that believed," says the record, "were of one heart and soul; and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common. . . For neither was there among them any that lacked, for as many as were possessed of lands or houses sold them, and brought the price of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made unto each according as any one had need." It is evident to one who reads the entire account that this was a purely voluntary act on the part of the richer believers, prompted by a desire to relieve those whom the peculiar emergency had made specially needy. The optional nature of the sales and gifts is evident from the words of Peter to Ananias, who with Sapphira conspired to lie to the Holy Spirit—"Whiles it [the property Ananias had sold remained, did it not remain thine own" And after it was sold, was it not in thy power?" To sell all one's goods and distribute unto the poor, though proposed by Jesus to the rich young ruler as a test of his desire for eternal life, was not a general condition of discipleship, even at this time and place. But there is no reason to suppose that after the temporary stress had been relieved, this community of goods continued among even the Jerusalem brethren, while there is every reason to believe that no other church in the apostolic age practised anything of the kind. There is entire silence on the subject in the Epistles and the remainder of the Acts—a thing inconceivable if Christian communism had been a fundamental principle of the apostolic churches. It is not wise or fair to draw a sweeping conclusion as to present duty from premises so narrow and uncertain.

The saints at Jerusalem had all been born and bred as Jews, and they had no idea that by becoming followers of Christ they had ceased to be Jews. They were daily in the temple, and scrupulously fulfilled all the duties prescribed by the law of Moses. Nor did the Jewish authorities regard them as adherents of a different religion; they were rather a sect or party among the Jews than a separate body. This is not to say that they were approved by the priests and the Sanhedrin; on the contrary, very soon persecution of them began. The Sadducees were the first to proceed against them, on the avowed ground that the apostles "proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection of the dead." The result of this persecution was a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a new advance; a multitude of believers were added, until the number of men alone became five thousand. The Sadducees had the experience of persecutors in all ages, that "heresy" is like a firebrand, and he who attempts to stamp out either by violence only scatters the sparks, until the little fire becomes a great conflagration.

About four years after Pentecost a fresh persecution was begun. The stoning of Stephen was its first act, and this was followed by a systematic and determined effort to extirpate this new heresy. This time it was the Pharisees who led the persecution, and prominent among them was Saul of Tarsus. The disciples at Jerusalem were dispersed, but they became preachers of the gospel wherever they went. They had come to Jerusalem from distant places, and had tarried there; now they would naturally return to their homes and carry with them their glad tidings of salvation through Jesus, the Christ. Thus a persecution that at first seemed likely to be fatal to the church at Jerusalem really ensured the perpetuity of Christ's religion by scattering its adherents throughout Asia Minor.

Shortly after this occurred an event, improbable, incredible even, if it were not certain, fraught with consequences most profound and far-reaching to Christianity, nothing less than the sudden conversion of its bitterest opponent. Saul, brought up at the feet of Gamaliel and learned in the law, renowned for his zeal in persecuting the church of God—in which, like so many other persecutors since, he verily believed he was doing God a service—was stricken down and blinded on his way to harry the saints at Damascus, by the appearance in the heavens at midday of the Christ whom he persecuted. Three days later, with sight miraculously restored, he was baptized into the fellowship of Christ's followers, and soon was as zealous in preaching the truth about the Messiah to the Jews as he had formerly been in opposing those who held it. Persecuted by the Jews, distrusted by the Christians, he had to pass through a long and painful ordeal before he became fitted for the work to which God had separated him from birth. Three years were spent in seclusion in Arabia, and several other years in obscure labors, before his fitness for a larger service was recognized by his brethren.

In the meantime, Philip, one of the deacons of the church at Jerusalem, seems for a time to have stepped into the place made vacant by the death of Stephen. He preached the gospel in Samaria, and wrought miracles; many believed and were baptized, both men and women. None of these converts, so far as appears, was a Gentile; and the eunuch shortly afterward baptized by Philip was doubtless a Jewish proselyte. Slow of heart, indeed, were the followers of Christ to admit that any but a Jew could be saved through Christ. They still regarded themselves as Jews; the gospel was a gospel for Jews; salvation was for Jews.

The first recorded case of preaching the gospel to a Gentile is that of the centurion, Cornelius, of Cesarea, When Peter had gone to him in obedience to a vision; when he had preached Christ to him and his friends and they all believed; when the Holy Spirit fell upon them, so that they spoke with tongues and glorified God; the apostle felt that he had but one course, and he unhesitatingly baptized them. "Who was I that I could hinder God," he said, in recounting the affair to the church at Jerusalem on his return; and they, though they had at first doubted and criticised, were in turn convinced that this was the work of God, and glorified him, saying: "So then, to the Gentiles also God has given repentance unto life." The conversion of Cornelius therefore marks an era in the history of Christianity, since it was never after questioned that the gospel was to be preached to Gentile as well as to Jew; the religion of Christ was not to be a mere Jewish cult, but one of the great missionary religions of the world?the greatest of them all.

This characteristic alone discriminates Christianity from the Judaism whence it sprung. Judaism was essentially narrow, exclusive, non-missionary; not in the purpose of God, but as the religion was actually held and practised. It was God?s plan, indeed, that in Abraham and his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed, but the Jews never took kindly to that idea. The fundamental notion in their minds was separation from the nations; God had chosen them from all others and made them his peculiar people. Power and dominion were to be given them, according to the promises of prophets, a kingdom more glorious than Solomon's; and that others should share in these privileges was a thought as bitter as wormwood to a Jew. Though the Jews made proselytes of individuals from time to time, the number of those thus added to them was relatively insignificant, and of any general attempt to convert the world to Judaism there is no trace in the I Jewish literature of any age. If all the world were Jews, where would be the special privilege and glory of the Jew? But Christianity is nothing if not missionary. It exists because its Founder said to his followers, "Go, disciple," and it exists for no other purpose than this. From the day of Pentecost until the day of Christ's second coming, the history of Christianity has been-will be-a history of missionary advance.

But when the world-wide scope of the gospel was admitted, there was still much question as to the status of Gentiles when they had been converted and baptized. The old notion that the Christian was also a Jew was slow in giving way, and with great diligence the task was continued of sewing the new patch of Christianity on the old, worn-out garment of Judaism, notwithstanding Jesus had declared it to be impossible and foolish. Still in bondage to the law of Moses, many were unwilling that others should enjoy the liberty wherewith Christ has made men free. They demanded that every Gentile convert should become not only a Christian, but a Jew, and insisted that he should be circumcised and become a debtor to the whole law. But there were men like Paul, who, though bred as Jews, when they had become converts to Christianity, comprehended its significance. He, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, glorying in his servitude to the law and his scrupulous observance of all its requirements, strove long and violently against the new faith and its adherents. But when he was enlightened by the Spirit of God, there fell, as it were, scales from his eyes; thenceforth he discerned clearly that Christianity differed profoundly from Judaism, in that it was a religion of the spirit, not of the flesh. He saw that in Christ the whole law had been fulfilled, and that the believer in him is delivered from its bondage; that a religion of types and external rites was now anachronism, and must soon die out among those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Therefore, to bind the Gentile converts with this moribund law, to require spiritual believers to live after fleshly ordinances, was not only ridiculous and unjust, but was in fact to nullify the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles.

The crisis in this "irrepressible conflict" was reached at Antioch about fourteen years after Pentecost. Paul had preached for some years in Asia Minor, especially at his native city of Tarsus, and at the invitation of Barnabas he went to Antioch to take part in a promising work there. For a year they preached and taught, and there the disciples were first called Christians. At the instance of the Holy Spirit, Barnabas and Saul were set apart for a special work of preaching in the regions beyond, and the second great step forward was taken in the history of Christianity. They made a tour of Asia Minor, and the island of Cyprus, in which they probably spent two years, and on their return to Antioch again abode there a long time. It was at this juncture that certain men from Judea endeavored to persuade the Antioch church that unless Gentiles were circumcised after the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. No little dissension followed, and it was finally decided that "Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question." The proceedings and decision of this "council" at Jerusalem are given fully in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The meeting was the Gettysburg of the Judaizing party; the Gentiles were not required to be circumcised and to live as Jews; and although the struggle continued for some time, and once again at Antioch became violent, these were only the expiring throes of error. From this time onward Christianity assumed a distinct character, and was no longer confounded with Judaism. The settlement of this question not only determined for that age the character of Christ?s religion, but prepared the churches for a larger advance in missionary effort.

The details of the evangelization of the Roman empire ire only imperfectly known to us, though the fact of such evangelization is amply attested by the New Testament documents, as well as by uniform Christian tradition. We have a fairly complete account of the labors of Paul, especially up to his imprisonment at Rome, closing  about the year A. D. 63. Three missionary journeys of his are described with considerable fulness of detail. The first has already been mentioned; in its course the gospel was preached in Salamis and Paphos, at Antioch of Pisidia, Jconium, Lystra, and Derbe, perhaps in other places. Not less than three years must be allotted to the second journey, during which the apostle preached in Galatia, at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth, staying in the last-named city a year and a half. The third journey occupied about four years, of which over two were spent at Ephesus, and the rest in Galatia and Phrygia, Greece (probably at Corinth), and Troas. The story of these twelve years of Paul's life is practically all that we know in any detail of the apostolic labors through the Roman empire. For the rest we must depend on vague hints and uncertain traditions. It appears probable, however, that after A. D. 63 Paul was acquitted and released, and labored four or five years more, visiting Crete and Macedonia, Troas and Miletus, and perhaps also Spain, before his final arrest, imprisonment, and martyrdom. This conclusion best explains many passages in the so-called pastoral Epistles that are otherwise puzzling, not to say inexplicable.

Regarding the labors of the other apostles, our information is even more scanty and less trustworthy. Had John Mark performed for Barnabas and Peter the service that Luke rendered to Paul; had some disciple of John made a record of his labors, our knowledge of the apostolic era would have been vastly increased. We know that the First Epistle of Peter was written from Babylon and addressed to the Christians of five Asiatic provinces; from this it is perhaps a fair inference that Peter had previously preached in those provinces. That he was ever in Rome does not appear from the New Testament, but tradition is well-nigh unanimous that he suffered martyrdom there. That he was bishop of the Roman church for twenty-five years, according to Roman claims, is a later and manifestly absurd invention. There no reason to doubt the tradition that John lived to an advanced age and died at Ephesus. The fourth Gospel shows traces of Alexandrine thought that makes probable a period of residence in the greatest of the Eastern cities of the empire. All that we definitely know of him is that for a time he was in banishment on the Isle of Patmos; whether he had any personal connection with the seven churches that he addresses in the Revelation can only be conjectured.

Some few scattered traditions embody the beliefs that were prevalent in the third century regarding the labors of the other apostles. Andrew is said to have preached in Scythia, Bartholomew in India, Thomas to have evangelized Parthia, and Mark to have founded the church at Alexandria. It is impossible to decide whether tales like these are lingering echoes of the truth or the mere inventions of a later time. Even regarding them as inventions, however, they have this significance: they testify to a general belief in the third century that the labors of all the apostles were abounding and fruitful. There is no doubt that the new leaven spread with a rapidity truly wonderful throughout the Roman empire. In the earliest  records of Christian literature in the second century we find Christians literally everywhere. The well-known letter of Pliny to the Emperor Trajan, written about A. D. III, says that this "superstition" pervades not only the cities of his province (Pontus and Bithynia), but villages and even farms, so that the temples were almost deserted, the sacred rites intermitted, and fodder was no longer purchased for the animals to be sacrificed, at which the farmers complained bitterly. Heathen and Christian writers alike bear witness to the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the empire. To account for this phenomenon something more is necessary than what we are told in the New Testament records; there is a large amount of unwritten history of the apostolic period, that must forever remain unwritten, but whose general outlines we can vaguely see. It has been estimated, though this must necessarily be pure guesswork, that when John, the last of the apostles, passed away, near the close of the first century, the number of Christians in the Roman empire could not have been less than one hundred thousand. In so brief a time the grain of mustard seed had become a tree.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved