All hope seemed gone. Jesus hung suspended between earth and sky. Heavy hearted, some disciples returned to fishing while two others made their way toward Emmaus. Confronted with the resurrected Christ, these men changed! Defeat swallowed up victory. The disciples on Pentecost were tremendously different from those who trudged away defeated on "Good Friday."
Disciples first preached the "Good News" of Jesus' resurrection on Pentecost, about 50 days after the crucifixion. Three thousand responded to Peter's invitation. More victories followed the initial success. The believers grew from 3,000 to 5,000 men within a short span (Acts 4:4) and more were added daily. Soon the rapidly increasing band included even a number of the Hebrew priests (Acts 5:7). Throughout Acts you see this same scenario repeated again and again.
Why was the early church so successful? From this lecture you hear four answers to this question. The early church succeeded because (1) those early believers understood the church's purpose, (2) there was a fertile field for evangelism, (3) they sought to fulfill Christ's purpose regardless of place or peril and (4) the early church organized for fulfillment.
I. The early church understood it's purpose.
Evidence shows that the first century church understood the church's purpose -- evangelism. Christ's example was too close for it to be otherwise. In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus pointedly stated, "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him" (John 3:17). Speaking to Zacchaeus, the publican, Jesus said, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).
Seeing the example of self-sacrifice for others' salvation, the early church recognized reconciliation as its mission. Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul pointed out specifically that God gave the church the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Serving as a role model for the Corinthian believers, Paul appealed to them and to others to be "reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20) because Christ had become sin on their behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Winning the lost is only half the battle. When Jesus commissioned His disciples, he told them to disciple others by baptizing them into the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then to "teach them to observe all that I commanded. . ." (Matthew 28:20). A secondary, but tremendously important, purpose for the church is edification. God does not intend for instruction to merely improve the student. Rather, the body nurtures to equip "the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). The church teaches new converts so they may participate in evangelizing others who are edified to win others. Those first believers understood this truth!
II. There was a fertile field for evangelism.
Not only did the first Christians understand God's purpose for the church, they faced "fields that were white unto harvest." Scholars make much of Galatians 4:4 which states that Jesus appeared in "the fullness of time." It is true that God providentially prepared the soil so the Gospel would take root. The world was united politically, there was one language, ethnic barriers were eroding away and there was only one commercial empire.
The Roman Empire's religious atmosphere contributed to the readiness for the Gospel. The first preachers enjoyed white fields among Judaism. Hebrew religion flourished because of its strong emphasis on monotheism. After the Babylonian Captivity Jews abandoned idolatry. Most historians note this emphasis on one God as Judaism's unique contribution to world religions. Gentiles did not miss this emphasis. While most Gentiles despised the Jews, many found it attractive because of its worship of one God and its moral teaching.
Jews responded to the Gospel because of a strong Messianic hope. In some circles Essene teachings heightened this expectation. Essenes looked for a "teacher of righteousness." Some scholars maintain Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes who determined to introduce the Essene "teacher of righteousness" to others. I don't think any evidence supports this contention and comparisons of the Essenes with Jesus and John show far more differences than similarities. The Essenes taught a dualism in which there was both a "good God" and a "bad God." Christianity offers one God and an evil adversary -- Satan. The reality of Messianic hope contributed to Christianity's early successes among Jerusalem and Judean Jews.
Early Christians also found white fields among adherents of the mystery religions. The Roman Empire contained well over a dozen of these esoteric religions. They developed along geographical lines. Phrygians worshiped Cybele, Magna Mater, Attis and Adonis. Egyptians honored Serapis and Isis-Osiris while Mithra was common in Persia.
Each mystery religion compared favorably with others. Initiates entered the mysteries secretly and converts swore to keep the various rituals secret. All mysteries promised salvation, immortality, and intimate contact with deity. They usually worshiped a deity which was usually a young god who died and returned to life. When initiates made contact with deity the religion taught that the resurrected god "lived in the believer." You can see an example of this in the Magna Mater's "Tauroboleum." In the "Tauroboleum", a convert or priest (it is unclear which) enters a pit. Others slaughter a bull on a grill over the individual. As the animal's blood pours over the individual, he "partakes of the bull's power, sexual and otherwise." The person supposedly takes on the bull's major attributes. After the ceremony, the participant was greeted with the phrase, "reborn for eternity."
Liberal, progressive and Marxist historians suggest Christianity borrowed from the mysteries or is itself a Hebraic mystery. Recent evidence debunks this completely. Mystery religions borrowed much from Christianity. Although the mysteries antedate Christianity, the questioned rituals only date back to the third or fourth century and no records of a tauroboleum exist prior to A.D. 143.
Mystery religions presented a fertile field for Christian evangelists because the mysteries instilled a deep yearning for salvation and immortality in their adherents' hearts. At the same time, gross immoralities associated with these religions sickened the better thinkers. Christianity, which offered both life everlasting and a moral lifestyle, filled the gap.
Early Christians not only found white fields among Jews and followers of the mysteries, adherents of various philosophical systems also offered fantastic opportunities. Ancient philosophical systems promised the means to discover meaning and purpose in life. These systems, however, could not make good. By the first century growing dissatisfaction marked the philosophical schools. Lucretius (95-55 B.C.) indicated dissatisfaction with the philosophies and a growing sense of despair during his period. The Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65) reported obsession with death and death wishes. The period's pagan philosophers appeared to be overcome with "dry rot" and their systems shriveled up from within. At this point Christianity stepped in offering a person rather than a system, and people responded.
III. The early church obeyed. . . regardless.
The first century church understood its purpose and faced fields white unto harvest. Today's church exists because they were obedient, too.
You can see the evidence of their obedience in Christianity's rapid spread during the middle of the first century. After Stephen's stoning the church spread throughout Palestine. At first the church appeared to entrench itself in Jerusalem awaiting for the Lord's imminent return. It took persecution to force them out. When they went, "they went preaching the Word" (Acts 8:4).
One of the witnesses of Stephen's stoning later engaged in vigorous persecution. Saul of Tarsus, while taking letters to Damascus approving his persecution, met Jesus. He converted to Christianity and Jesus commissioned him to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Three missionary journeys later Paul had effectively reached the Roman Empire's urban centers. His effectiveness can be seen in Acts 19:10 where in Ephesus "all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks."
Others took the Gospel message to urban centers, too. Paul's letter to Rome, written between A.D. 50-55, shows that Christianity reached the Empire's capital quite early. Acts also tells us of Apollos indicating someone preached Christ in the great cosmopolitan city of Alexandria. Records show that by the end of the first century Christians had introduced the faith into most of the Empire's urban centers. Early Christianity was an urban religion. Illustrating that fact is the very origin of the word pagan, which we improperly but popularly use to designate an unbeliever. The word comes from paganus which literally means "rural dweller."
Other information relates the Apostles' missionary activity. Much of this information derives from traditional sources, but we have no good reason to absolutely deny any of it. We are told Mark labored in Egypt. We can be fairly certain Mark was in Rome for a time. Paul asked for him to be sent to him during his imprisonment. Other traditions place Andrew, Matthew and Bartholomew in the regions around the Black Sea. We do know that a strong church existed among those now known as Armenians. The Armenian church continues to exist despite tremendous persecution in the past and present by Moslem Turks and by the Soviets. References place Thomas, Simon the Canaanite and Thaddeus in India. Tradition suggests James went to Britain. It is also likely that Paul, after an early release from Roman imprisonment, traveled to Spain and Britain.
IV. The early church was organized to fulfill its purpose.
You can accomplish much with simple structures. With all of the opportunities facing the church they organized to accomplish their mission.
Historians generally identify two leadership groups in the early church. The General Leaders, made up of the Apostles, Prophets and Teachers provided the initial foundation for the church and then died out. These leaders exhibited broad authority throughout the church. There were also a number of itinerant teachers. You catch glimpses of these leaders in 2 and 3 John and in an early document known as the Didache. The Didache states that if a man asks for nothing but housing he is a good teacher. After A.D. 25, however, we have no information about teachers.
Local Leaders, the bishops, elders and deacons, operate within the local church exclusively. The New Testament shows us the earliest practice treated bishops and elders as synonymous. The elders or bishops were always plural and given oversight responsibilities only in their local congregation. Elders and bishops protected the flock from false doctrine and guided efforts to properly edify believers. The function of deacons is less sharply defined. The word means servant and many suggest they simply served as directed by the elders.
As the church changed and grew, these latter officers changed too. Part of the change came from circumstances outside the church. Other changes reflected an alteration in the understanding of the church's purpose.
Christians faced terribly difficult times during the first century. Yet the first century saw tremendously successful evangelistic efforts resulting from a sense of purpose, identification of the lost, obedience to Christ and an organizational structure geared for action..
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