17.2 THE ORGANIZATION OF PREACHING WORK
“A small band of Jesus’ disciples spread this message: ‘He who was shamefully
executed is and remains the coming Ruler in the future time of God.
He who was dead has come alive again. The present age of the world
is nearing its end. Jesus will appear a second time in glory and
authority. Then God’s rule will be made secure over the whole earth’.
This was their immense task: to challenge the people of Israel in
the face of imminent catastrophe, and more, to shake the whole
of mankind out of its sleep in the face of certain destruction
so that all men might be prepared for the coming of the
Kingdom. People from depressed and mean circumstances suddenly knew
that their new faith was the determining factor, the moment of decision
for the history of humankind. For this tremendous certainty, the
primitive church gained the strength she needed daily from the writings
of the Jewish Law and the Jewish Prophets; in the witness of holy
surrender to death in a watery grave; in their communal meals celebrated
to proclaim the death of Jesus; and in the common calling upon God
and the name of Jesus. “Lord, come!” was their ancient cry of faith
and infinite longing. That the Messiah Jesus rose from the dead
and that God’s Kingdom will break in at His second coming was the
message of His first followers. Death must come before resurrection,
the resurrection of the flesh; the promise of a future millennium
is linked to the prophecy of judgement, a prophecy that attacks
the prevailing order and conditions of mankind at their roots” (1).
The organization of the preaching of the Gospel is a work of the Spirit.
In the first Christian century the Lord gave instructions through unmistakable
open visions (Acts 18:10; 16:9; 22:21). But the evidence is abundant that,
in general, the apostles and other brethren and sisters made plans, sanctified
them by prayer, and then carried these plans out. “Paul said to Barnabas,
‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached
the word of the Lord and see how they are doing’” (Acts 15:36). The Lord’s
interference was minimal. On one occasion he diverted Paul and Silas,
on another he told Paul to remain in a particular city when he was disposed
to call off an ongoing Bible campaign (Acts 16:6-10; 18:9). But there
is little evidence of deliberate and open divine manipulation of events.
Overall, in the first Christian century, as now, the Spirit of the Lord
guided affairs and organized the worldwide mission through work planned
by his servants and also by the hidden ways of Providence, by much use
of so-called ‘coincidence’. He richly blessed the decisions which his
preachers made, only overriding them when absolutely necessary. With just
a few notable exceptions, the Lord’s first century witness was conducted
on exactly the same principles and in a similar manner as it is done by
us today. Personally, I find this a great encouragement.
The links between the Spirit of Jesus and the preachers were: prayer,
fasting, and the laying on of hands (Acts 13:3). The laying on of hands
was not a sacrament; it was a simple gesture of sponsorship and of identification
with the missionary work. These simple sacred acts sanctified the plans
and endeavours of the preachers, enabling them to feel an integral part
of the Spirit’s work. There is every reason why they should be utilized
by us today.
The Spirit tells us in Revelation 1:13 that the Lord Jesus is in the
middle of our ecclesial world. Sometimes Revelation chapters 1 to 3 are
interpreted as if Jesus is a kind of travelling inspector doing the rounds
of various ecclesias. But it is not like that at all. He is right “in
their midst”, just as he promised (Matthew 18:20). He is also the founder
of every ecclesia. After that, we build (I Corinthians 3:10-12).
As far as these early preachers are concerned, their prayer was for boldness
(Acts 4:29). It took a mere two verses of the record for that prayer
to be fully answered, for immediately afterwards they “spoke the word
of God boldly” (v.31). Boldness, audacity almost, is the mark of all the
preaching work recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. It was dynamic, forthright,
confident. The preachers knew that if their faith was strong, whatever
they did in the name of the Lord, and wherever they went, it would be
blessed. “You know”, wrote Paul, “that the Lord will reward everyone for
what good he does” (Ephesians 6:8). Finger biting uncertainty as to whether
it is God’s will or not is simply faithlessness. If He has given a general
command, then He will accept the particulars. If we zealously and unitedly
sow and water, God will give the increase (I Corinthians 3:7).
I once worked on a campaigns committee with a brother as chairman who
was so afraid of, as he put it, “going against the will of God”, that
before deciding on even the smallest matter he insisted that we use match
sticks to cast ‘lots’. This was not the spirit of our early preachers:
they knew the will of God. We too can know what activities are
acceptable to Him, and in which He will find pleasure. A brother may have
a sudden impulse to preach in (say) Eskimo and head off to the Arctic.
Preaching among all nations is God’s will, so we can’t possibly go wrong!
Unless, of course, we are only doing it for our own vainglory.
In the primitive church ecclesial life was dynamic, a vibrant partnership
with the Lord Jesus himself. He was really among them, backing
their efforts, strengthening their weak hands, and fulfilling his purposes
through them. “But, brothers”, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “when
we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought),
out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you…but Satan stopped
us” (I Thessalonians 2:17-18). The whole work was cast in terms of a spiritual
crusade, without carnal weapons, in which the well-laid plans of the preachers
might be temporarily thwarted and disrupted by Satan - usually Jewish
envy, but involving other pagan influences too. But they were confident
that their ultimate triumph was certain and guaranteed (Romans 16:20).
Wherever new lightstands were lit, there had to be local leadership.
Considering the immorality of those times, the qualifications for ecclesial
leadership demanded by the Lord were quite startling (1 Timothy 3; Titus
1). A recent survey in a country where there have been missionary converts
for a century and a half revealed that not one ecclesia in the sample
could claim that all its elders met all the scriptural requirements. In
several smaller ones, it was acknowledged that not one elder passed the
‘test’ in every respect and could be considered “blameless”. Yet the apostle
insists that these requirements for brand new ecclesias in Crete must
be met (Titus 1:6).
What are we to make of this? It has to be that the aim, the goal, and
the standard are always beyond us. If none of us dare claim that we are
“blameless”, who will be an elder? Especially when James tells us that
it is a very serious responsibility, not to be lightly undertaken (3:1-2).
Surely the first century ecclesias must have coped with this problem,
but we are not sure how they did.
Historians and commentators have failed to find a human factor which
satisfactorily explains the spread of the Gospel in the first and second
centuries of the Christian era. They have likewise found our brotherhood
to be uniquely inexplicable in modern times. Our demise as a denomination
has been predicted many times, the present spectacular expansion never.
We have no headquarters here on earth, we are disorganized, quarrelsome,
excessively hypercritical of each others’ efforts, stubborn, zealous,
over-confident, timid - all at the same time! Because of so many bogus
claimants to Holy Spirit powers in the churches around us, we tend to
“quench the Spirit” which Scripture says we must not do (I Thessalonians
5:19). Yet, as in the first century, so in these last days the great work
goes on - simply because it is a divine and not a human work.
How was the first century missionary work financed? We do not know and
the Lord has not seen fit to tell us. It could hardly have been much different
from our informal system today, except that, from the evidence we
have, the early Christians were much more open-handed and generous with
their resources than we are. It is certain that the work was not centrally
funded like many aggressive fast-growing modern cults and sects whose
aim is to peddle a branded religious product not a living faith. Their
tendency to depend heavily on special bureaucracies with complex vested
interests in various developments and regions, and to whom individual
preachers are personally accountable, is neither healthy nor scriptural.
This nowhere appears to be the biblical pattern. There must be scope for
individual preaching, ecclesial preaching, and preaching by national and
international associations of brothers and sisters. But these must be
kept as informal as possible. In the early days, there was obviously much
informal brotherly co-operation, with brothers and sisters travelling
around, sharing tasks and helping one another when problems arose (Romans
We read of Scythian believers in Colossians 3:11. Scythia was outside
the Roman Empire, in the modern Ukraine. According to Ukrainian sources,
the Christian faith was first preached to the Scythians by Andrew, the
first disciple whom Jesus called to his service (John 1:40). He is known
in the Ukraine as Pervozvannyi, the first called. Certainly, some Scythians
in what is now the Ukraine had already been converted to the truth of
the Christian gospel within thirty years of the ascension of Jesus to
his Father. The first Christian preaching was in the synagogues of the
Jews. Andrew, like all the twelve apostles, was a Jew, and preached to
Jews. But there were no barriers to making converts from among the native
tribes, and though generally considered “barbarians”, the Scythian believers
were quickly given equal status in the Christian church. Later in the
first century, many Christians from within the Roman Empire were exiled
to Scythia, several hundred of them settling in the capital city of Kherson,
where very successful Bible campaigns were held, led by a brother named
Klementos. However, the authorities viewed this effort with alarm, and
Klementos was executed (900 years later his body was exhumed and taken
to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital!). A very similar pattern of preaching
and ecclesial growth must have occurred in Crete, Illyricum, Africa, Dalmatia,
Spain and other areas mentioned in the New Testament letters.
It seems beyond doubt from the available literature that the principal
method of witness everywhere in the first two centuries was to invite
friends to observe the breaking of bread, so as to see for themselves
how love prevailed in the midst of a heartless world. In many parts of
the worldwide brotherhood today this method has great potential for enlightenment
and conversion. Other methods used in the first century include Bible
classes in homes, schoolrooms, public halls and synagogues, open-air meetings
in market places and public squares, and impromptu proclamation on shipboard
or in private transport (Acts 10:27; 19:9; 17:17; 27:33; 8:31). Times
hardly change. These are common enough methods among us today. They have
the advantage of spontaneity and are very cost-effective.
In absolute numbers and in rate of growth, it has been pointed out that
the first hundred and fifty years of the early Christian missionary expansion
and the last hundred and fifty years are roughly comparable. So we need
not feel ashamed. We are not saved by membership in any “church”, big
or small, but by individual faith in the truth of God. It is not more
organization that we need. It is greater generosity and more sacrificial
service. Two things are required for true love to flourish: effort and
sacrifice. God has loved us into the truth. If we can take our cue from
Him, we will be as instruments in His hand.
(1) Eberhard Arnold: Die
ersten Christen nach dem Tode der Apostel, pages 3-5.( Alan Eyre )