This is the third, and probably the last part of the transition in this series of messages. Our theme has been and will continue to be the names and titles which have been applied to God’s people. Up until two weeks ago, we were looking at a dozen or so which come to us out of God’s Word. We looked at names like – “saints of God,” “the brethren,” “disciples” and “Christians.” And then I moved on to descriptive titles such as “sheep,” “salt of the earth,” God’s husbandry” and “light of the world.” Beginning next week, I want to introduce you to names like “Waldensians,” “Donatists,” “Novatians” and “Anabaptists.” Some of you are already acquainted with these, but to others they might be like a new dish which mother has just put on the supper table. Sometimes they look funny, and many of them taste a bit strange to our well-developed palates. Some people may be predisposed to ignore them because they aren’t your usual Biblical food. And admittedly, some of these are not without problems, but then, unlike you, I have my problems too.
This morning, in my historical vignette, I included a 165 year old editorial by Sewell S. Cutting. When you heard it most agreed with what he wrote – “No Christian denomination has been so indifferent to its history as our own. Our (Baptist) fathers have been left to sleep in dishonored graves. The labors they performed – the sufferings they endured – the heroic characters they bore – have alike been forgotten. The books which, amid penury and toil, they wrote in defense of their persecuted faith, are almost wholly unknown to those who now possess the noble heritage of religious freedom and Christian truth which they bequeathed. It is time for the honour of our name, as a Christian people, that this indifference were broken up, and that we begin to study for ourselves, and to teach our children the lives and deeds of the founders and fathers of our (Baptist) churches.” Tonight we begin to put into practice what Brother Cutting recommended so many years ago.
At the close of the New Testament era, God’s people were called “Christians” and “Martus”
We spent a message looking at what was meant by the name “Christian.” It basically boiled down to someone who fully and consistently identified himself with Christ Jesus. It wasn’t like a baseball cap with the name “Christ Jesus” on it. It was more like a coat or cloak which covered every part of that person’s life. It incorporated all that was meant by “disciple,” “believer,” “saint” and “servant.” And the title “martus” (mar’-toos) became one of its synonyms. “Martus” is translated “witness” twenty-nine times – but also “martyr” three times. Many of those early Christians were witnesses for Christ to the extent that Stephen was a witness.
And most of those Christians, wherever possible, were members of God’s churches. We could have had a message on the title “church member” – but it isn’t found as such in the Bible. According to Thomas Armitage, at the opening of the second century, the year 101 AD, there were from two to three hundred churches, scattered over a thousand miles. The distance between Rome and Jerusalem was about 1400 miles by sea, and twice that far using the northern Africa route then across to Malta and Italy. (By the way, I could greatly slow down our progress by constantly citing my sources, but I’m going to deliberately keep from doing so. Initially, I will be using Armitage, John T. Christian and Robert Robertson. When something is really significant or from an unusual source, I’ll try to identify him.)
These early churches were constituted with Bible-believing, born-again, saints of God. Every open profession, and every baptism contained a self-imposed death threat, because both heathen society and Jewish society hated the thought that Jesus Christ was God or the Messiah. So the members of those churches were not there by convenience – but by choice – and risk. And from Rome, to Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch to Jerusalem, those were Baptistic churches, believing basically what you and I believe today. Those churches were filled with salty saints, lights creating light houses in their locales.
They were not trying to create NEW societies other than new churches in neighboring communities.
By about A.D. 150 those churches had agreed to and collected the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The first translation of the New Testament was the Syriac, often called the “Peshitta” or “Peshito,” which means “simple” or “literal.” It became the Bible of the churches of the East and was considered to be an exact copy of the various original documents of the New Testament. In other words, those churches possessed the documents of Bible Christianity. Following the Peshito there came a Latin translation and a Coptic version in Egypt. And by the way those versions all clearly and properly translated the word “baptizo” – “immerse.” Irenaeus, born in 130 AD, says that many of the barbarous tribes had the Word of God in their hearts, because men had translated the Bible into their native tongues and the better educated taught it to others. During the first century after Paul and Peter, the churches of the Christians took all of their doctrinal questions to the Word for God for answers. Various ancient writers even speak of the original letters of the Apostles still residing in the churches to which they were sent – Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica and so on.
The church in Antioch, Syria was prototypical of the evangelistic zeal in many of the early churches. There were converts to Christ – “Christians” – springing up all over the Roman Empire by the grace of God. By AD 180 there were Christians from Britain to the Tigris in Iraq; from the Danube to the Libyan Desert. Justin Martyr, who died in 165 AD wrote that there was no race, Greek or Barbarian, that either wandered in wagons or dwelt in tents which did not offer praise to the Crucified One.
In our bulletin for today I included a quote from Tertullian in his defense before the Roman Emperor. “We are but of yesterday, yet we have filled your empire, your cities, your islands, your castles, your corporate towns, your assemblies, your very camps, your tribes, your companies, your palace, your senate, your forum; your temples alone are left to you. So great are our numbers, that we might successfully contend with you in open warfare; but were we only to withdraw ourselves from you, and to remove by common consent to some remote corner of the globe, our mere secession would be sufficient to accomplish your destruction, and to avenge our cause. You would be left without subjects to govern, and would tremble at the solitude and silence around you – at the awful stillness of a dead world.” My history books are filled with testimonies to the evangelistic success of the early churches.
Sadly about the middle of the second century, churches were growing so quickly, that it was either difficult to maintain enough copies of the written word, or many people were growing lazy. More and more church leaders were using and following oral tradition rather than written copies of the Word. Some, like Eusebius and Papias, appear to have been deliberately creating fictitious accounts of the life of Christ and the Apostles. But many others, not having full copies of the Bible, quoted Scriptures from memory and through that – error was introduced. You’ve all heard me trying to quote scriptures, and you know full-well that I’ve often failed to get it right. At least you had the written Word with which to correct my mistakes.
Here is the point of this message thus far –
The gospel was being spread throughout the Empire, and the Lord was redeeming the lost – primarily among the Gentiles. Churches were being established, and initially they were patterned after churches of the New Testament – both in doctrine and in practice. Those people, no matter what their status in society, were not respected – they were in the world but not of the world. They were not trying to change society into some Christian form – they were too busy living the Christian life, enduring persecution, and awaiting the return of Christ. I Thessalonians is most likely the first of the New Testament epistles. In chapter one Paul described the life of the new believer – “From you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” This was characteristic of the life of the early Christian, and it should characterize our lives today.
An historian named Isaac Taylor described the first century Christians and churches this way: “Our brethren of the early church challenge our respect, as well as affection. For theirs was the fervor of a steady faith in things unseen and eternal; Theirs, often, a meek patience under the most grievous wrongs; Theirs the courage to maintain a good profession before the frowning face of philosophy, of secular tyranny, and of splendid superstition; Theirs was abstractness from the world and a painful self-denial; Theirs the most arduous and costly labors of love; theirs a munificence in charity, altogether without example; Theirs was a reverent and scrupulous care of the sacred writings; and this one merit, if they had no other, is of a superlative degree, and should entitle them to the veneration and grateful regards of the modern church. How little do many readers of the Bible, nowadays, think of what it cost the Christians of the second and third centuries, merely to rescue and hide the sacred treasures from the rage of the heathen.”
Early in the second century a man named Diognetum wrote – “The Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; They follow the usages of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things, as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offsprings. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are ca-lumniated, and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell. In short, what the soul is to the body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is diffused through all the members of the body, and the Christians are spread through the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; so the Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, invisible, keeps watch in the visible body; so also the Christians are seen to live in the world, for their piety is invisible. The flesh hates and wars against the soul; suffering no wrong from it, but because it resists fleshly pleasures; and the world hates the Christians with no reason, but they resist its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh and members, by which it is hated; so the Christians love their haters. The soul is enclosed in the body, but hold the body together; so the Christians are detained in the world as in a prison; but they contain the world. Immortal, the soul dwells in the moral body; so the Christians dwell in the corruptible, but look for incorruption in heaven. The soul is the better for restriction in food and drink; the Christians increase, though daily punished. This lot God has assigned to the Christian in the World, and it cannot take from them.”
The churches of the second century (101 to 200 AD) were for the most part filled true Christians – saints.
There was no baptism of babies, because only believers were immersed. And they were immersed as a testimony to their faith in Christ, not for salvation. Baptism was considered to be extremely important – it was proof of their new lives in Christ. And it was close to being a death sentence in an ungodly world. The Lord’s Supper, too, was merely a commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ Jesus.
Those early believers usually possessed the Bible in their own languages, and their pastors were literate and educated. There were no associations or denominations – nothing but individual, autonomous churches. Each congregation elected, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, their own pastors – they were not appointed by other congregations or by important men in other places. Those pastors were often called “elders” and even “bishops,” but their ministry was confined to and through their congregation and is missions. As Paul mentions of the Thessalonians, those churches and Christians were anticipating the soon return of Christ, whom they considered to be the Son of God – they believed in the deity of Christ. Without going into more detail, those early churches and Christians believed what we believe. From our vantage point we might call them “Baptistic congregations” and from their perspective, they might call ours a “Christian congregation.”
But to quote Armitage, “The Christians did not intend to overthrown the empire, nor did they complain of their political condition.” All that the Christians sought was the right to worship God under the laws of common humanity. When one proconsul reasoned with Pastor Achatius , that he who lives under the Roman law should love the Roman princes, Achatius replied, “By whom is the Emperor more loved than by Christians?” “Good,” rejoined the governor, “Prove your obedience by sacrificing to his honour.” That Christian pastor replied, “Nay, rather I pray for my Emperor. But a sacrifice, neither he should require nor I pay. Who can offer divine honor to a man?” And for that Achatius was executed. He died being unwilling to serve the gods by command of the State. And millions of others have similarly died, being unwilling to serve the gods by the command of the state religions.
I won’t go into the details – you can read them in “Foxes Book of Martyrs” and other places. Suffice it to say that there was a cost to being a Christian in first and second centuries. Armitage says that “no such bloodshed had ever been known” before. Christian homes were plundered; Christians were driven into living on the streets, crypts and caves. They were dragged from those dens and caves; they were tortured in order to reveal the names of others. There were few places where they could hide and to meet together for worship. Again, Armitage wrote “They were burned with hot irons, tossed in nets by wild bulls, thrown to ravenous beasts in the arena, and their bones were denied burial. Delicate and weak women passed through tortures unheard of, without complaint. The public appetite was sharpened to all sorts of horrors, and yet these children of God met their fate with a holy heroism that was not only enthusiastic but ecstatic.”
During the first and into the second century there were sound and fundamental churches and Christians. But eventually there began a deterioration and decline, which brought about new names and titles for the saints. And beginning next Sunday we’ll start taking a look at them.
Once again, we leave this message with the question mentioned several times already – Are we, personally worthy of the names which have been applied to us? Are we the kind of Christians they were at the close of New Testament?