Church History 101: The Apostolic Age

After Jesus rose from the dead, he told his disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. Then, before ascending into heaven, Jesus promised that the disciples would receive power to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Can you imagine how Jesus' disciples felt? On Friday, before the resurrection, they witnessed the death of their beloved Lord, the one whom they knew to be the Messiah. Traditional Jewish understanding of the Messiah had taught the disciples earlier in life that the person would set Israel free from its enemies in a physical sense. God was supposed to bless the Messiah, which probably made them wonder why Jesus died by crucifixion - a death that Jews regarded as cursed - and still be the Messiah. A few days later, when Jesus rose from the dead and began teaching the disciples, it started to fall into place. Then, during Pentecost, a Jewish feast celebrating the gift of God's Law, the disciples, 120 of them, received the gift of the Holy Spirit and began speaking other languages. With these languages, or tongues, they were able to preach about Jesus to the international gathering at the Temple. On this day, the book of Acts says that more than 3,000 converted to Christianity.

The Christian church was born that day and the disciples called it "The Way." For the first few years, “The Way" was considered a sect of Judaism. This was because the disciples' religion looked like Judaism in outward practice.

"The death of Jesus on the cross, his resurrection from the grave, and the empowering mission of the Holy Spirit are the foundational realities of Christianity," writes church historian and author Bruce L. Shelley in his book Church History in Plain Language. "From the beginning, then, the apostles preached the resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of God's purpose announced in the Old Testament. The Messiah, once crucified, was exalted above the universe. Apart from that miracle, said the apostles, there is no gospel, no salvation, and no church."

The disciples encouraged people to repent, believe, and undergo baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus. As a result, God would forgive believers and fill them with the Holy Spirit.

"The first forty years saw the infant church spread at a phenomenal rate. It sprang up in most of the major cities of the Roman Empire and was transformed from a tiny Jewish sect into a fellowship of many different peoples," Shelley writes.

The Breach from Judaism - Acts 6, 7

The breach from Judaism began with the martyrdom of Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew selected with six other disciples to minister to fellow Hellenistic Jews who had converted to Christianity. Hellenistic Jews were faithful to their religion, Shelley writes. They had immigrated to Palestine from different parts of the Roman Empire. Heavily influenced by Greek culture, these Jewish Christians best identified with Gentiles rather than their Palestinian counterparts, Shelley writes

"At first the apostles welcomed to the church the Hellenists who believed in Jesus. The spirit of oneness was marred, however, by a growing rivalry between Palestinian and Hellenist members. Some of the Hellenist believers complained that their widows were overlooked in the church welfare program. In an attempt to remove these resentments, the apostles created a council of seven Hellenist disciples, among them Stephen and Philip, to oversee the distributions. They called these men deacons, meaning 'servants' or ministers,'" Shelley writes.

Stephen was soon preaching in synagogues. What he said caused a riot and the leaders dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Using scripture in his defense (the speech is found in Acts 7), Stephen, told the Jewish leaders that the "... institutions of Jewish life, the law and temple, were temporary. God intended them to point beyond themselves to the coming Messiah, who would fulfill all righteousness for all people. The Old Testament's central purpose was to promise the Messiah. And he has come, said Stephen. Jesus is his name. We know this because the events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion give clear evidence of the hand of God."

For the Jewish leaders, who believed that the Old Testament, beginning with the Ten Commandments, "prescribed every move in true worship and every step to true piety," what Stephen said was nothing less than blasphemy. His words condemned him and the leaders rushed him outside the city where they stoned him to death. Thus, began the persecution of the church, and the Hellenistic Jews were forced to flee Jerusalem. This occurred in 36 A.D., according to Shelley.

The Apostle Paul

Saul of Tarsus stood among Stephen's executioners, approving of the action. Afterward, Saul began his own persecution of Christians. "How, he asked, could anyone profess to follow a crucified Messiah? Almost by definition the Messiah is one upon whom the blessing God rests in a unique way. What fool can believe that crucifixion is a blessing from God?" Shelley writes.

On his way to Damascus, a bright light struck Saul blind. Within the light, he heard Jesus say, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" With this, Saul became a believer in Jesus. Damascus Christians helped him and the Lord healed his sight. He began preaching right away and had to be smuggled out of Damascus.

In the years that followed, Saul, better known as Paul, traveled extensively throughout the Roman Empire and preached Christ. He was well qualified for the task. As a young person, he was educated as a Pharisee, the strictest Jewish sect, and he could speak Greek fluently. He was also a Roman citizen so this allowed him certain privileges. Because of his background, Paul could preach effectively to the Gentile world and he had access to Roman authorities. He wrote extensively, and many of his letters are included in today's Christian Bible.

During Paul's ministry, there was a constant tension in the church regarding the law and how much Gentile believers were supposed to follow. "The Palestinian Christians, steeped in traditional Judaism, said, 'Tell them (the Gentile Christians) that unless they submit to the Jewish law, in addition to believing in Jesus, there is no hope for their faith,'" Shelley writes.

Paul disagreed with this and preached "man can be accepted as righteous only through God's undeserved mercy. That is grace. And grace always arises from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Shelley writes. He knew that if following the law was the only requirement, his own upbringing would have made him the perfect candidate (see Philippians 3: 1 - 6).

While Palestinian Christians feared that the Gentile world would cause a decline in Christian morality, Paul said, "If they really have accepted Christ by faith, they have accepted the way of Christ and the mind of Christ. The man who really loves God can do as he chooses, for if he really loves God he will choose to do the will of God."

Upon his return to Jerusalem, after his third missionary journey, Paul was arrested and taken into Roman custody. He requested to see the emperor, which was his right as a Roman citizen, and went to Rome. While awaiting trial, Paul preached. "But after the Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians (A.D. 64) we never hear from Paul again," Shelley writes. The Apostle Peter also died under Nero's hand during this period.

The Break Up of Judaism and Christianity

"Jerusalem, not Rome, however, represents the climax of the separation of ways. While Paul was gathering gentile followers throughout the pagan world, the church in Jerusalem continued its strict adherence to Jewish orthodoxy. Persecution still remained a possibility," Shelley writes.

The Apostle James, brother of John, "the beloved disciple" was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I around 41 A.C.E. After this, John fled the city and Peter was arrested. Peter, who was miraculously delivered, embarked on a missionary journey that ended in Rome. In 62 A.C.E. James, "the brother of the Lord," and the leader of the Jerusalem church was murdered by "command of the Jewish high priest. His death left the Jerusalem church leaderless and demoralized," Shelley writes.

Finally, after increased tensions between the Jews and the Romans caused the Jews to revolt, "in A.D. 70 the Emperor Vespasian's forces, led by Titus, broke through the walls of Jerusalem, looted and burned the temple, and carried the spoils to Rome ... in the reprisals that followed, every synagogue in Palestine was burned to the ground," Shelley writes.

At the start of the revolt, the Christian leaders received a vision and left the city. Jewish leaders considered this treason and later decided to bar Christians from synagogues. With this the break was complete. "For practical purposes A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem mark the end of the apostolic age," Shelley writes. "Most ot the original apostles were dead, and the churches they had founded had passed into new hands ... the message of the apostles would endure persecution and opposition, emerging centuries later as the dominant faith of the Roman Empire."