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Early Christian History: Forging a Glorious Church in 300 Years

Early Christian History: Forging a Glorious Church in 300 Years
Early Christian history filled 300 years with extraordinary people, documents and events that built a church to last God’s people 2000.

The Church of Jesus Christ sprang out of the Old Church of the Old Testament, begun by the faith of Abraham*, founded through the 12 Patriarchs, and described in the books of Moses.* It was born out of suffering, generations of slavery in Egypt, and conflict with the enemies of God, and built by God’s people, first as a Tabernacle and then as the Temple. The glory of that “church” came at its consecration by Solomon* when the Glory of God filled it. But from that point on it began to die. (* by name means there is a short biography in SPIRITUAL LIVES.)

Jesus* was born into that Old Church and worshiped in it for 30 years. He was the fulfillment of all its teachings, prophesies, and history, but it would not have Him. Its glory had long departed, and its operation had been taken over by wealthy people, scribes and Pharisees.

They had no desire to fulfill its mission to be “a house of prayer for all people.” They used it as a national government and rallying point against the Roman occupation. Its soul had been lost, eaten up by wealth and replacement of worship and righteousness with intricate rituals and observance of laws that burdened the poor and enriched those administering them.

Jesus spent 3 years ministering to His people, and the common people “heard Him gladly.” But the leaders feared losing their place and authority and opposed Him at every turn. Blinded by envy, they attributed His ministry of healing, exorcism and miracles to Beelzebub and conspired with the Romans to have Him crucified.

Little did they know that His sacrifice took away the sins of the world and rendered their sacrificial system obsolete. They had no idea that His Resurrection inaugurated God’s Kingdom that was “not of this world,” and that the Holy Spirit He sent would write His laws into their hearts and minds, making their laws useless, and establishing a “new people that belonged to Him,” and a new church.

That new church began on the Day of Pentecost, while the Old Church was still standing, and although those leaders saw the power, truth, and miracles of this new “way” in action, they became even more fierce in opposition, using every power they had to hinder and destroy. They went against the advice of one of their most respected teachers who counseled them to leave it alone, warning that “if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” Acts 5:39

But the opposition from the Jewish leaders continued and grew even more fierce as the disciples of this “new way” won thousands of Jewish people to Jesus and the fellowship in Jerusalem grew. A Jewish mob stoned Stephen to death. Then, the high priest hired one of them to increase the pressure by putting people of “the Way” in prison. Here Jesus Himself stepped in and converted the enemy into a pioneer missionary and apostle to the Gentiles.

Herod joined in the persecution, killing one of Jesus’ disciples (James the brother of John) with the sword and putting another (Peter) in prison. Suddenly, God struck Herod down, but the word of God grew and multiplied. Acts12:24. The followers of Jesus left Jerusalem, moving to Antioch, where they were first called “Christians,” and the new church had a name.

The hostile Jewish leaders in Jerusalem continued their terrorist ways, killing James, the brother of Jesus and leader of Jerusalem’s church. It was the death knell for the Old Church which was totally destroyed and the Temple burned to the ground by the Romans in 70 AD. This marked the end of the ritual sacrifice and forms and furniture of the church of the Old Covenant, now replaced by the New.

Here are the KEY DATES for early Christian history, limited here to the apostolic period.

c.4 BC Birth of Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem.

c.26-30 AD Death of Jesus Christ.

c. 30-33 Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Sometimes known as the Birthday of the Church.

c.34 Stephen – First Christian martyr (Acts 7).

c. 48Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Gentile Christians accepted alongside those in the Jewish tradition.

c. 60 First Gospel published (often thought to be that written by Mark).

c. 62 Martyrdom of James, “The Lord’s Brother”

.c.67-68 Apostles Peter and Paul* martyred in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.

70 Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire ends.

Destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Centre of Christianity moves to Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome.

c. 90 Book of Revelation and Gospel of Saint John* written.

But the New Church was already planted and growing by now. The Gospel had been preached throughout the Roman world by the apostles and their successors. All the books of the New Testament were complete and in circulation among the dozens of churches operating throughout the Roman world.

44 to 96 AD: The completion of the New Testament

James, the brother of the Lord, wrote his general epistle in 44, and Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians in 49, with a dozen more to follow through 62, when Peter wrote general epistles and Mark his Gospel. Matthew wrote his Gospel in 50, Luke his sometime before 67 and John his Gospel and 3 epistles in 85. John’s Book of Revelation COMPLETED THE NEW TESTAMENT IN 96.

All these NEW TESTAMENT WORKS were in circulation among the churches for years, and they shared them with one another.

St. John’s death marks the end of the Apostolic Era and the beginning of the Apostles’ successors’ ministries. It is to these men we look now to see the continuing growth of the church in the 2nd century, the church fathers and early martyrs. They will be followed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by 3 great teachers and 2 Roman Emperors who played powerful and essential roles in early Christian history and the founding of the church.

2 documents function as bookends to this early Christian history, the Didache and the Nicene Creed.

While the New Testament gives general instructions for church worship and government there was an immediate need for practical procedures and clarity on what was acceptable and what was not in both.

The Didache (80-123): Full title being the Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations begins by identifying Christianity as the Way of Life and virtue, in contrast with the wicked Way of Death. This is a contrast Jesus Himself made in the Gospel of Matthew and has raised the question of whether Matthew himself had a role in the composition of this foundational teaching document.

While the Didache did not lay out the service order as fully as we have it today, it did provide guidelines for Christian ethics, church organization and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
It contains a written catechism and speaks to the roles of bishops and deacons and their authority. Baptism was by full immersion but sprinkling allowed if that was not possible.

While the order of service would continually develop in the coming centuries, the DIDACHE provides a solid scriptural basis for worship, including the Lord’s Prayer and prayers to accompany Communion.

3 GREAT TEACHERS AND 2 ROMAN EMPERORS who played essential roles in early Christian history

Polycarp* (69 -156) was a disciple of St. John and bishop of Smyrna. Some credit him with gathering the books of the New Testament as we now have them. Others believe that he was the “Angel of the church at Smyrna” mentioned by Jesus in Revelation 2:8.

He was a true and faithful teacher of the Gospel and a fierce enemy of heretics. When condemned to die by a Roman proconsul his famous words were recorded:

“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.
You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”

When tied to the stake he said, “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”

Irenaeus (130 – 202) was brought up under the ministry of Polycarp and is famous for “Against Heresies,” written in 180. In it he opposed the Gnostics and published this understanding of the Person of the Lord Jesus:

“For inasmuch as He had a PRE-EXISTENCE AS A SAVING BEING, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.22.3.

He became bishop of Lyon (in today’s France) and helped establish the doctrine of apostolic succession, which is still followed today. He also testified to the continuance of gifts of the Holy Spirit:

“We also hear many brethren in the church who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light, for the general benefit, the hidden things of men and declare the mysteries of God, who also the apostles term spiritual."

Origen* (184 -253) was the son of a martyr and the greatest scholar and Bible teacher of his day. He wrote over 6,000 books and taught that both the Old and New Testaments were the Word of God. He was caught up in the struggle between those seeing the church as an institution and those seeing it as the mystical body of Christ where He was present when 2 or 3 were “born again” and gathered in His name.

In his view,this mystical body of Christ was eternal and invisible in contrast to the church on earth that was a humanly administered body in a particular geographical area.

Because of this view, St. Jerome* and other Catholics labeled him a heretic, but Origen believed absolutely in the truth of the Scriptures, salvation through the blood of Jesus, and the necessity of the new birth. For this faithful stance, he is honored today as much as for his great scholarship.

Diocletian* (244 -314) was the 51st emperor of Rome and the most autocratic. Rising from the military, he was a successful general and administrator who divided the empire into four districts, each with its own Caesar and himself at the top.

He determined to restore ancient Roman customs, among them the ancient gods & goddesses.
To this end he issued an “Edict against the Christians” in 303, ordering the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the empire, and prohibiting them from assembling for worship.

A fierce persecution ensued beginning with the execution of ministers and other leaders but then expanding to all who would not offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Contemporary historian Eusebius observed:

All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death…and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments. We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other. Eusebius HE VIII.8-9

Modern historians estimate the number of martyrs to be 3,000-3,500, but older historians place the number much higher. But the bloodshed did not have its intended effect. Diocletian abdicated and the persecution stopped. Soon after, one of his successors as Emperor would first recognize Christians, allow them to worship, and later make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Diocletian’s persecutions failed to stop the spread of the Gospel. In fact, his reforms to stabilize the empire gave missionaries a solid base from which they could go into the still-heathen lands surrounding the Empire and win millions to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Constantine the Great* (296 -337)

Constantine was the 57th emperor of Rome (306-337). He was raised a pagan, got a formal education at the imperial court, and learned Latin literature, Greek, and philosophy

Because of his father’s position and his own military ability, he rose to prominence in the empire and made a name for himself with extensive military campaigns.

On the eve of his battle with an opponent whose army with more than twice the size of his own, Constantine had a dream in which he was told to mark his soldiers shields with the Chi Rho, ☧, the sign of Jesus Christ.

This he did, and the next day, according to Eusebius, “he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or “with this sign, you will conquer“; this occurred while he was marching at midday.

Constantine won the battle and entered Rome in 312. He stopped the persecution of the Christians and issued the Edict of Milan in 313, legalizing Christianity and other religions in the empire but making it clear that he owed his success to the Lord Jesus Christ. From this time on, he actively promoted the church, gave tax exemption to the clergy, and built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as well as the original St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

As Roman Emperor, he was also Pontifex Maximus, the chief high priest of the Roman pagan religion with authority over the conduct of its worship.
He now used this position to influence the Christian faith, particularly in the conflict over Arianism, a dispute over the nature of God and the relationship of the Father and Son.

Constantine called for a council of bishops to deal with it. (He invited all 1800 bishops in the Roman World, but only 318 came to the site in what is now Turkey.) The result was the Council of Nicaea in 325 which defined orthodoxy via the NICENE CREED based on the doctrine of the Trinity.

There is no doubt of his importance to history and to the church of Jesus Christ. He served as emperor for 31 years, longer than anyone since the first emperor Augustus. He ended the persecution of believers and demonstrated the power of God to overcome the world. He is regarded as a saint by the Orthodox Church and called isapostolos (Ισαπόστολος Κωνσταντίνος)—an EQUAL OF THE APOSTLES.

Concluding thoughts on early Christian history

Although He was the Son of God, Jesus was born in a low estate to poor Jewish parents. He was laid in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. He called twelve disciples and taught them the Gospel.

Rejected by His own, indeed, opposed by their leaders who conspired with Rome to have Him crucified, Jesus triumphed.

What they saw and His end on the cross became their end, and His sacrifice shut down their animal sacrifices and their ancient form of worship.
His blood atoned for the sins of the world and broke down the wall of separation they had built between the Jew and Gentile.

His bodily Resurrection conquered death, and His ascension into heaven signaled tht outpouring of the Holy Ghost which created the Church and opened the door to the Kingdom of heaven. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, His disciples “turned the world upside down,” led millions to salvation, and overcame persecution and martyrdom to build a glorious Church that humbled emperors, welcomed slaves, the poor, men and women, boys, and girls from every nation.

All this was accomplished in just three hundred years and has endured for 1800 more. Over a billion souls today assert themselves a part of this church, this body of Christ and Bride. I am thankful to be one of the living stones of His body. Are you?

Come today, accept His gift of salvation. His blood was shed for you, to wash away your sins and give you eternal life. He is praying for us today and preparing a place for us with Him. Accept His free gift of salvation and become a living stone of this glorious church.

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