CHURCH HISTORY: APOSTOLIC PERIOD
With this message I shall begin a series of four messages on church history. You will find these studies educational, informational, and I hope inspirational. This historical investigation embraces a period of time stretching from 33 A.D. to the present time,- History has a tendency to divide itself into distinct periods, and this is especially true regarding the history of the New Testament church which was established in this world by Jesus Christ. Church history divides itself quite cleary into four divisions: the apostolic period, the dark ages, the reformation period, and the restoration period. The first period of church history is the apostolic period; it receives its name from the twelve apostles who lived on the earth during this time. Church history which transpired during the lifetime of the inspired apostles is unique and is an historical division of its own. No other period of history may properly be called the apostolic period. It was an exceedingly short period extending from 33 A.D. to 100 A.D., and it covers only a total of sixty—five years. However, these few years were filled with momentous events which shook the world. So much was packed into this little period, I will have to use brevity in discussing the things which should be remembered. You can read about this church period in the 23 consecutive books of the New Testament beginning with Acts and ending with the book of Revelation.
The first thing to be remembered is that the apostolic age was the beginning of church history. When the first Gentiles were received into the church undeer the preaching
of Peter the apostle said, “And as I began to sppeak the Holy Spiorit fell on thm even as
the beginning”(Acts 11:15). The Holy Spirit fell on Peter and the other apostles when the church had its beginning. Peter made reference to the beginning of the Church of Christ, the beginning of the kingdom of Christ, and the beginning of the religion of Christ. These are all synonymous terms, and all refer to the same thing. Church history began when the church began in 33 A.D., fifty days after Jesus died on the cross. Jesus returned to heaven before His church began on the earth. Moreover, Christ did not personally establish His church. He delegated authority to the apostles to begin His church and kingdom on the earth. The Lord' church was established for the first time in the city of Jerusalem with the baptism of 3,000 people in one day (Acts 2:41,47). Church history did not begin in Los Angeles, London, or New York. It began. in Jerusalem in the land of Palestine. A good Bible student should remember the founder of the church, the time it began, and the place of its beginning. Christ was the founder; the time was 33 A.D., and the place was Jerusalem. All churches today should be extensions out of this first church in Jerusalem. It was a model church, and churches today should study that first one and conform to it in all particulars.
The second notable fact of the apostolic age is that the church became a world wide organization in the short span of a half century. The Lord' church became a prominent organization and was respected all over the world. This religion was not an insignificant movement by a few radical followers of Jesus. It was an organization of world renown in the latter half of the first century A.D. The phenomenal growth of the church was fantastic. After ttae beginning in Jerusalem, the kingdom of Christ spread to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is a matter of historic amazement that the New Test— ainent church catapulted to a world famous status in just 65 years. Jesus predicted this amazing expansion in Matthew 13:31 saying, “The kingdom of haven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” The meaning of this parable is that His church would have a small beginning but grow fast and become great in a short time. Thirty years after the church began, Paul wrote to the church in Colosse and expressed thanks for the hope they enjoyed in the gospel. He then added these words, “Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world...”(Colossians 1:6). We learn from this statement that during the time of the apostles the gospel had gone into all the then known world. The church had spread so far and wide that the apostle Paul almost ran out of a place to preach. In Romans 15:23,24 Paul said, “But having no more place in these parts, and having a great desire these many years to come unto you; whenever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you...” Spain was a long way from Jerusalem, but Paul was knocking on their door before he died. All over the world heathen religions crumbled before the church, and they gave up their idols to worship the one true and living God. In just 65 years starting from nothing, the early Christians put the church on the map. We have not been able to match their success from that day to this.
A third historical fact of importance is that the Bible was completed during the apostolic period of church history. The Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. The Old Testament books were completed about 400 B.C., and the New Testament books were completed by 100 A.D. All New Testament books were written during the apostolic period of church history while the apostles were still alive to verify their authenticity. No inspired books were written after the death of the apostles. Miraculous inspiration and revelation from heaven was limited to the apostolic period of church history. Paul had completed his writings before Peter died. Peter made this statement about Paul's inspired writings, “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction”(2 Pet. 3:16). The last book of the New Testament was written about 95 or 96 A.D. by the apostle John. The Bible says in Jude 3, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” This cearly means that revelation has been completed. There will be no more revelation from God. The faith has been delivered one time for all time; therefore contend for it. No books written after the apostolic period are to be accepted as inspired books from God.
Fourthly, we can learn from the apostolic period what the church should practice in worship and doctrine. Under the direction of the apostles, the church was set in operation like God wanted it to be and how it should be to the end of the world. The church in any age of the world can measure itself by the church in the apostolic period. The divine characteristics of the church from 33 A.D. to 100 A.D. can be used as a measuring stick to correctly identify the Lord's church today. For example, in the apostolic period, God had His own names for the church. It was called the “Church of Christ(Romans 16:16), and the “Church of God” (I Corinthians 1:2). All human names and titles which tend to divide the church were rejected and forbidden(I Corinthians 1:12). There was no confusion caused by numerous denominational churches, differng nnames and doctrne. In addition, Christ was the only head of the church, and each congregation was independent under Christ's oversight. There was no centralized organization with one church being over another church. Each local church was organized with elders as the highest officers and with deacons who were assistants to the elders. Elders were also called bishops and pastors.
There was no organization higher than the local church. No teaching of the scripture instructs evangelists to become a permanent part of the congregation to take over the work of the elders. The elders or bishops, the deacons, and the evangelists were the only officers of the church. An ecclesiastical hierarchy within the church was unknown. This may seem strange when one considers the multiplicity of church officials in the various religious groups today, but the New Testament authorizes only Elders, Deacons, and Evangelists in the organization of the church. The people who became disciples of Christ were called Christians. This fact is revealed in Acts 11:26, “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” This name showed they were followers of Christ. They used no divisive, human names which separated them from other followers of Christ. The church was a group of believers who were obedient to the commands of Christ as taught by the apostles. As the number of disciples increased, elders or bishops were appointed in each congregation. Then deacons were appointed to assist the elders in their work. The New Testament was the only creed and the only law governing the church.
There was just one way to become a Christian, and there were no exceptions to the rule. Faith was required in God and Christ, followed by a turning away from a sinful life in the heart. This was called repentance which means a change of the will caused by godly sorrow for sin. In addition a public confession was required that Christ was the Divine Son of God sent from heaven and Lord of all. The conversion process was completed by immersion in water for the forgiveness of all past sins. After complying with these divine commands, immediately the Lord added all baptized believers to the church, a body of beliers called out of darness into the marvelous light of God. There was no church of your choice; there was only the church of the Lord's choice. Only Christ has the authority to add a person to the church, and this is done by complying precisely with His requirements for church membership. The public worship of God was simple, consisting of a public meeting every Lord's Day to observe the Lord's Supper which was a commemoration of His death. In addition, they studied the Bible, engaged in prayers, and worshipped God in singing psalms without instrumentation, making melody in their hearts. On each Sunday, a contribution was taken as each Christian gave as he was prospered and as he freely purposed in his heart. The church in any age can be measured and judged as right or wrong, true or false by simply comparing its doctrine and teachings to the church in the apostolic period of church history.
Finally apostolic period of church history was notable as a time of great church persecution. The worldwide success of the Christian religion brought a violent reaction from competitive religions. There were no less than ten thousand Jews in Jerusalem who became Christians. This greatly endangered the Jewish religion, and the leaders reacted with a brutal persecution against Christians. The Jewish persecution started about 36 A.D., just three years after the church was established. The Jerusalem church was scattered all over Palestine in order to save their lives(Acts 8:1). In this persecution the apostles were imprisoned several times; Paul was arrested and sent to Rome as a Roman prisoner. Stephen, the first martyr, was murdered in this persecution. The God of heaven reacted to this attack on the church by permitting the Roman army to destroy the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Thousands died in the city, and the Roman general,
Titus, took some 80,000 Jewish captives to Rome. It is believed the Jews were compelled to build the Colosseum of Rome. To commemorate his success in bringing Palestine under
Roman domination, a great triumphal arch was erected. This arch, built nineteen hundred years ago, still stands. It is one of the chief attractions for tourists in the city of Rome.
Following this persecution were a series of persecutions by the Roman government. The religion of Rome was paganistic and characterized by polytheism and idolatry. The church recognized that the authority of Christ was above all other authority, and this brought an attack by the Emperors of the Roman Empire. The pagan priests appealed to the Roman rule to stop the spread of Christianity. They called it a strange superstition which had fastened itself upon the cities and the open country as well. The first Roman persecution began in 64 A.D. under Nero the Roman Emperor. Christians were put to death in every way cruelty could devise. One historian says, “And in their deaths they were made the subjects of sport; for they were covered with skins of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined, burned to serve for nocturnal lights.” Paul was put to death in this persecution, and it is believed that Peter too died under Nero's persecution.
Another effort to blot the Christian religion from the face of the earth was made when Domitian was Emperor. This persecution began about 84 A.D. Thousands of Christians were arrested, and many were put to death by torture. Others were sacrificed to wild beasts in the arena of the Colosseum. In this persecution the aged apostle John was banished to the
isle of Patmos. It was there that he wrote the famous book of Revelation in the New Testament. The final church persecution in the apostolic age was instituted by Trajan who became Roman emporer in 98 A.D. All feasts and festivals called for the citizens to bow in worship before the statues of the gods. Christians refused to do this and were charged with being atheists who rejected all gods. However, in the face of all these persecutions Christianity grew and flourished.