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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-1-5 Radical Preaching

And they succeeded, as does that kind of preaching today. Men who began doubting and cynical were pricked in their heart, they realised their need, and were baptized within hours (Acts 2:12,37). The men who marvelled and doubted whether Peter was anything more than a magic man were within a few hours believing and being baptized (Acts 3:12; 4:4). There is a speed and power and compulsion that pounds away in the narrative. Luke has a favourite Greek word, often translated “forthwith…immediately” (Acts 3:7; 5:10; 9:18; 12:23; 13:11; 16:26,33). This is quite some emphasis; and Luke uses the very same word a lot in his Gospel, as if to  show that the speed and power and achievement of the Lord’s ministry is continued in that of His ministers now (Lk. 1:64; 4:39; 5:25; 8:44,47,55; 13:13; 18:43; 19:11; 22:60). The word is scarcely used outside Luke’s writing. And he uses many other words to stress the speed and urgency and fast moving nature of the Lord’s work. They are worth highlighting in your Bible; for our ministry is a continuation of that of our early brethren (Acts 9:18-20,34; 10:33; 11:11; 12:10; 16:10; 17:10,14; 21:30,32; 22:29; 23:30). What does our radical preaching amount to? ‘Come and study the Bible, you might learn something interesting…’? ‘Archaeology proves the Bible true…’? All of which is very interesting, but the essential appeal for conversion, the conviction of desperation within a man’s soul…this is what we need up front. And it is then that we will prick hearts, that friends and contacts will look at us with that abashed look of ‘You touched my heart. OK I know I must do something. What…?’. Now I am not saying we should stage 5 minute conversions. Most I baptise have stumbled through a correspondence course and 380 pages of Bible Basics as a bare minimum, often over several years. But what I am saying is that we will never succeed in converting others unless we are out to achieve it, and unless we are up front with the essential message, after the first century pattern.  

The success of the radical preaching of our early brethren was phenomenal. Even their enemies admitted that they had turned the world upside down. Twelve men and some women filled Jerusalem with their doctrine (Acts 5:28). And I don’t think the presence of the Holy Spirit gifts was anywhere near as significant in this growth as we might imagine. The brethren were largely uneducated working men, exposing the theology and practice of the professional religious leaders as wrong, and showing the world the Truth of Christ. One can imagine them turning up in a town on the Adriatic, perhaps near where people are being baptized today, and preaching that there was this man called Jesus who was the Son of God, who lived in Palestine… to simple folk who had no conception where ‘Palestine’ was, who had never travelled more than 50 km. from their homes. And this man was perfect, the preachers went on, He was crucified by the Romans and then He resurrected, all as predicted in a book called the Old Testament which is viewable at the local synagogue, and now through baptism you can share in that death and resurrection and gain forgiveness, just as God promised to a man called Abraham, who is at the basis of the Jewish and Christian faith…and then you will be spiritual Jews, even though that race is despised amongst you… They would of course have preached far more than this, but humanly speaking the chances of converting anyone to this message were small. There must have been something about those preachers that convinced men of the reality of their message. Their truth and sincerity shone out of them and converted others. Preaching a crucified Saviour was obnoxious to the Jews and a joke to the Gentiles. But somehow, humanly inexplicable, it succeeded.  

An Exclusive Message

The message they preached had an exclusive nature to it- it was radical preaching: ‘this is the truth, and nothing, nothing else on this earth’. Throughout the Roman empire, there was the concept of ‘religio’- the gods were thought to bless the empire if the empire worshipped them, and therefore everyone was expected to participate in the state religion. However, in addition, they were quite free to practice their own religions as well. But here, Christianity was intolerant. They preached that there was no other name apart from Jesus through which we might be saved (Acts 4:12)- a direct and conscious attack upon the ‘religio’ concept. Christ had to be accepted as Lord in baptism, in contradistinction to ‘Caesar is Lord’. A Christian could only serve one of two possible masters. He had to love one and hate the other. The whole idea of “the Kingdom of God” was revolutionary- there was to be no other Kingdom spoken of apart from Caesar’s. But our brethren preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. And those who openly accepted these principles were inevitably persecuted- expelled from the trade guilds, not worked with, socially shunned, their children discriminated against. David Bosch observes (1) : “Christians confessed Jesus as Lord of all lords- the most revolutionary political demonstration imaginable in the Roman Empire”. Philip Yancey likewise (2): “As the church spread throughout the Roman empire, its followers took up the slogan “Christ is Lord”, a direct affront to Roman authorities who required all citizens to take the oath ‘Caesar [the state] is Lord’”. It hurt, it cost, to recognise Him as Lord. And so it should with us. Men and women died for this; and we likewise give our lives in response to that very same knowledge. There is a tendency, which the Lord Himself brought to our attention, of calling Him Lord but not doing what He says. To know Him as Lord in truth is axiomatically to be obedient to Him (Lk. 6:46).  

It has even been shown that in Nero’s time it was forbidden for Christians to use Imperial coinage, with its  images of Caesar as Lord (3). It was in this sense impossible to buy or sell unless one was willing to accept the mark of the beast- exactly as in Rev. 13:17. The next verse goes on to identify the number of the beast / man as being 666. And yet this is the sum of the Hebrew letters in ‘Neron Caesar’! Whatever other application these verses may be seen to have to Catholic persecution, there can be little doubt that their first century context applies to the persecution of the early converts. Later, Domitian demanded that he be worshipped as Lord and God, " Dominus et deus noster" (Suetonius, Domitiani Vita, 13.4). John records how Thomas called the Lord Jesus “my lord and my God”, in active opposition to this kind of thinking (although Domitian came after Thomas). One couldn’t worship Caesar and the Lord Jesus. The Lord Himself had foreseen this when He warned that His followers couldn’t serve two masters. Domitian demanded to be called ‘Master’, but this was impossible for the Christian. Indeed, much of Revelation seems taken up with this theme of the first century refusal to worship the Caesars and deified Roman empire on pain of persecution (Rev. 13:4; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20). “Following the Neronian persecution, being a Christian was tantamount to being part of a criminal conspiracy, and Christians (unlike other religious groups) were punished simply for being Christians (Tacitus Annals 15.44.5; Pliny Letters 10.96.2-3). Their crime was an unwillingness to worship any God but their own, an exclusiveness the Greeks labeled " atheism." The refusal to sacrifice to pagan gods and on behalf of deified emperors was perceived as a threat to the harmonious relationship between people and the gods” (J.L. Mays,  Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary, (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). Although in many parts of the 21st century world the tension between the believer and the beast is not articulated so starkly, the essential realities of the conflict remain, and must be felt by us. 

And yet despite all this men and women lined up to be baptized in response to this radical preaching, and contemporary historians are united in recording the extraordinary and inexplicable spread of Christianity throughout the first century. Why? It seems to me it was simply because of the conviction and insistent power of the preachers; their examples, their very being, meant that God’s Truth was more caught than taught. There is no evidence in contemporary nor Biblical history that there was much mass evangelism / conversion apart from that of Paul and Peter early on. The majority of the converts would have been made by the personal witness of believers themselves. And these are our brethren. We have exactly the same Gospel as them. Some in our community are converting many, against all odds, in geographical areas (e.g. Islamic, strongly Capitalist), in life situations (e.g. single mums with five kids and little money) where humanly speaking it’s stony ground. But many aren’t converting, anyone. This ought to worry us. If we reach the end of our race having converted nobody, I for one would be a worried man. What impact has my witness been on this world? What salt have I been in this world, what was the point of my being here? Our light was lit at baptism so that we might give light to others, not flicker out under a bucket. Note that this figure suggests that if we don’t witness in some way, our own light will go out. Preaching is therefore for our benefit. We must ask, Are we a light of Christ in this dark world, or just faithful members of a religious group? Because, from the first century pattern, we can’t blame our environment, or hide behind ‘they’re not interested’. Of course they aren’t, until they meet us- but the brightness of our witness, the startling, conscience pricking nature of who we are, will make the uninterested desperately interested. Whether or not their hearers were finally converted, the early preachers  pricked the hearts of men with their message (2:37; 5:33; 7:54). Without intending to, they made men sit up and take notice of them (4:13).  

How often do you and I talk about the cross and resurrection of Christ, either to each other or to people in the world? And are we radical preachers? We'd far rather tell the world about archaeology or Russia or someone invading Israel, than the ugly truth of the cross. We'd far rather tell each other about the bad weather yesterday than share a few meditations about the cross. And all that could indicate that we don't think much ourselves about it. Like the disciples, whenever the subject of the cross comes up, we prefer to change the subject. The breaking of bread should not bring us up against the reality of the cross with a jolt. Reflection upon it should be the basis of our daily thinking. The early brethren had seen and known Jesus,  despised, hated, dropping from exhaustion in the boat, slumping dehydrated at a well, covered in blood and spittle, mocked in naked shame. And now they knew that He had risen, that He had been exalted to God's right hand so as to make the salvation of men possible, and surely going to return. They spoke this out, because they knew Him. “With great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33 RV). And yet through the Gospels and with the eye of faith, we know Him too. And this must be the basis for our witness. 

I am convinced that a major reason for the success of the early church was that they weren’t paranoid about issues of fellowship and guilt-by-association; they were simply radical preachers. They preached an exclusive message, but they wished to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The Lord Himself taught that the time would come when His followers would be disfellowshipped from the synagogues. But He doesn’t teach them to leave the synagogues, even though first century Judaism was both doctrinally and morally corrupt. Acts 26:11 would seem to imply that there were Christians “in every synagogue”. Paul was called “brother” even before his baptism, and even after his baptism, he refers to the Jews as his “brethren” (Acts 22:5,13). Of course, he knew all about the higher status and meaning of brotherhood in Christ; but he wasn’t so pedantic as to not call the Jews his ‘brethren’. He clearly didn’t have any of the guilt-by-association paranoia, and the associated standoffishness it brings with it, which have so hamstrung our witness to the world. 

Paul’s Positivism

Paul makes an assumption in 1 Tim. 6:1, in warning believing slaves to act faithfully before their unbelieving masters, lest the doctrines of God be blasphemed by them. Paul takes it as read that the slave would have taught the doctrines of the faith to his master, and therefore any misbehaviour by him would cause those teachings to be mocked. He assumed that radical preaching would be going on. And again in Tit. 2:5, he writes that wives should behave orderly so that “the word of God be not blasphemed”. He assumes that all believing men and women would be preachers of the word, yet if the wives were disorderly in their behaviour they would bring mockery upon the message preached. His reasoning in 1 Cor. 3:10-12 is likewise that “every man” will make a convert, and he should ensure they are firm in the faith, lest he lose them at judgement day. These assumptions of Paul reflect his positive way of thought, in a brotherhood that abounded in weakness and failure to live up to its potential. Likewise he writes of marriage as if marriage within the faith was and is the only model of marriage which he knows, even though there must have been many failures to live up to this ideal, as there are today. And in Rom. 6 he assumes that all his readers are baptized- he has this way of assuming things.  Luke too was a positivist. He uses the word for ‘Diaspora’ to describe how the brethren were “scattered abroad” (Acts 8:1,4; 11:19); he saw this persecution as turning them into the new Israel. He records how the converts were repeatedly “multiplied” (6:1,7; 9:31; 12:24), using the very word for the ‘multiplying’ of Abraham’s seed as the stars (7:17; Heb. 6:14; 11:12). Every baptism he saw as the triumphant fulfilment of the promises to Abraham, even though many of those who ‘multiplied’ later turned away.


(1)  David Bosch, Transforming Mission(New York: Orbis, 1991)

(2)   Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995) p. 246

(3) John Stott, The Cross Of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: I.V.P., 1986).