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Church History

I.  Introduction:

 Tonight we will be looking at the very beginning of the history of the Church.  Basically, our goal is to cover the first-century of the Church, specifically around a.d. 30-90.  Much of this period is covered in the book of Acts and the other books of the New Testament.  We can see the great struggle for Christianity to separate itself from Judaism.  In fact, some would consider this Ďthe most important development in first-century Christianity.í  Thus, tonight we want to consider this struggle and the events and people that helped shape the first-century.  We need to begin by trying to understand what was going on culturally and politically in the first-century.

II.  Important people and events

 A.  I want us to begin by considering Paulís words in Galatians 4:4-5.  Paul writes: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  Here, Paul writes of Jesus coming Ďwhen the fullness of time had come.í  We might then ask, In Godís sovereign plan of the universe, what was going on at the time of Christ?  We cannot get into the mind of God to say exactly why the Lord came at this time.  Yet, we can identify some factors historically, that God saw fit to use to aid in spreading the gospel and growing the young Church.  I want to just mention three of these factors. 

First, we could speak of the Roman roads and the Pax Romana.  The road system allowed easy travel for the early Church to move from city to city.  Also, the Pax Romana, or forced Roman peace, allowed for safe travel and just a safer environment for the spread of the gospel.  Second, the Greek language aided the growing Church.  Since most of the Roman Empire spoke Koine Greek, this made it easier for Christians to communicate with other people no matter where they went.  Third, the Jewish diaspora, which refers to Jews settling in cities all over the Empire, also aided the spread of the gospel.  Since many Jews were spread throughout the Empire, this provided a background for Christianity and an already heightened expectation of the Messiah that aided the missionary movement of the Church.  Obviously other factors could be identified such as Roman and Greek cultural influences, but these three help us understand what was going on and to see, once again, Godís providence in sending Christ at this time.

 B.  Now let us turn our attention to a few of the important people of the first-century.  Following Eckman, we will note three individuals: Peter, John, and Paul.2   Peter was the apostle to preach at Pentecost.  This event, marked by the outpouring of the Spirit upon believers, is considered the beginning of the Church.  In Acts 2 we read of Pentecost and Peterís sermon there.  We see Peter emerging as the Churchís first leader and spokesman here at Pentecost.  Until the story of Paul is picked up, Peter dominates the story of the early Church in the book of Acts.  We do see others emerge, such as Stephen, Philip, and John (who we will discuss next), but Peter is obviously significant in this period of the Church.  In Acts 15, we see that Peter spoke at the Jerusalem Council (49) in favor of accepting the Gentiles without requiring them to obey the law by circumcision (a fight Paul would take up).  In this council and in the stance of Peter and Paul and the others, we see the growing separation between Judaism and Christianity.  It is doubtful that Peter set up the Roman Church or presided over it as the first Pope.  Tradition does hold that he was crucified (see John 21:18-19) upside down in a.d. 68, under the persecution of Nero.
 
 The next figure to consider is the apostle John.  Acts tells us that John was a coworker with Peter during the early days of the Church.  His gospel is very unique and tells us much about the life and ministry of Jesus, along with the Synoptics.  John, in his gospel emphasizes the deity of Christ and the importance of the Spirit.  We know that John was exiled to Patmos in the early 90s.  Here he wrote the book of Revelation.  He was probably released from exile between 96-98 and returned to Ephesus.  There, he mentors many of the early Church Fathers (many of whom we will look at next week) up until his death.

 Our last figure to consider is the apostle Paul.  Paul brings much to the table.  He was Jewish in his religion, Greek in his culture, and Roman in his politics.  Early on, when we first meet him in the book of Acts, he seems to be the last person we would expect to impact Christianity so profoundly.  Yet, all this changes on the road to Damascus, as we read in Acts 9.  It was 13 years before Paul would take his first missionary trip in a.d. 48.  Yet, this missionary to the Gentiles would labor fruitfully on this trip and two others that would follow.  The question of how a person, specifically a Gentile person, is justified led him to the Jerusalem Council.  After this Paul would continue boldly proclaiming the message of Salvation by grace alone to Gentiles and Jews alike.  He was arrested after coming to Jerusalem another time.  After he appealed to Caesar, he was sent to Rome and was placed under house arrest.  As with Peter, he most likely died under the Persecution of Nero in a.d. 68.

 Obviously many other people could be mentioned here.  Eckman makes a point of the roles of women in the early Church.  We could also talk about the Churchís first martyr, Stephen, or Paulís companion Barnabas or Silas, or Timothy, or Mark, or others.  Needless to say, the first-century was marked by many faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  Through these, the Lord established His Church and spread the gospel way beyond the city limits of Jerusalem.

 C.  Along with these people, we could also mention some important events of the first-century.  I will only mention four here.  First, as we have already discussed, we should mention Pentecost as the beginning of the Church.  As recorded in Acts 2, it is at Pentecost that the Spirit is poured out on believers and the Apostles begin fulfilling Christís command in Acts 1:8.  Second, we should mention the Jerusalem Council of a.d. 49.  As we have seen, this was an important event for Gentile believers and for the separation of Judaism and Christianity.  A third event to mention would be the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70.  In a.d. 66 there was a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in Jerusalem.  This revolt was immediately put down by the Romans and it eventually led to the destruction of the city four years later.  Many see this event as a fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies.  This even also furthered the separation between Judaism and Christianity because the Christians did not support the revolt.  One last event to mention is the great persecution of Nero, which began in a.d. 64.  Nero was a young ruler who fell out of favor with other leaders and with the Roman people.  When a fire broke out in Rome and destroyed most of the city, Nero blamed the Christians and began to persecute them.  Some have suggested that Nero started the fire himself in order to rebuild Rome how he wanted.  It has also been recorded that Nero would often light his gardens for parties by burning Christians.  His persecution of Christians would not be the last time that they faced persecution at the hands of a Roman leader. 

III.  What can we learn from this time in history?

 First, we can learn that God is sovereignly working in history to bring glory to Himself by the ingathering of a people who have been redeemed by the work of Christ.  We see the Pax Romana and the Roman roads and the universality of the Greek language and the spread of Jews all as under the providence of the Lord.  It is He who set the times and brought about the fullness of time for when Christ would come and the Church would begin.  As we study the rest of this series through Church history, we will see this great truth again and again.  Indeed, our God will accomplish all His purposes, including His purpose to call and redeem the Bride of Christ.

 Second, we see that Christ has brought in a new age.  With Christís coming, there has been a major shift in redemptive history.  It is now the last hour.  The Kingdom has been inaugurated and will be fully established at the second coming of the King.  In the lives of the apostles, the split from Judaism, and the establishing of the Church, we see evidence of this great shift.  With this shift come two great realities.  First, we see that the climax of the Old Testament and Godís revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  As we see in the book of Acts, this reality changes everything.  The second reality that is more realized in the new age is Godís heart for the nations.  We see clearly that the gospel is not limited to the Jews.  This blessing to the nations was promised long ago to Abraham and is now fully realized in the gospel being proclaimed to the Gentiles.  Our very salvation is evidence of this great reality.  May we indeed be faithful in continuing the work begun in the first-century of proclaiming the gospel to all the nations, until our great King returns!  Amen. 

1 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing,1995), 16.
2 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 10-13.
3 Eckman, 14-16.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 06 July 2007 )

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