The Church Age


43 The Early Christian Church

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:39

Jesus won the crucial covenant victory at Calvary. Satan lost all further credibility with the angelic host in heaven. Furthermore, sin, sinners, and Satan and his evil angels were to be destroyed. If this is true, why then did Jesus not return immediately to earth and fulfill the promise of restoration, beginning His reign of righteousness in an earth made new?

One must remember that God can save sinners for eternity only by love and persuasion. God must demonstrate that grace alone is sufficient to save. Under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the early church made an excellent beginning. The church was glorious in its first love. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, three thousand souls joined the church on that one day, and then “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). This was the beginning of the Christian church. It would quickly showcase the people’s love and the Holy Spirit’s grace and power as the church spread throughout the Roman Empire. This was the period when the power of Christ crucified and risen again appealed to many.


The Covenant Confirmed

Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross was the foremost victory for Christ in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. If Christ won that victory, then why has He not come before now? Why has there been such a long delay?

It is easy for humans to think this way. We are impatient. We want to see suffering brought to an end. Yet, one must consider the circumstances as God sees them-

1. Is the church ready? Are the people ready for Jesus to come? God is patient and is willing to wait that more people might be saved (2 Peter 3:9; cf. Gen. 15:16).
2. Satan showed his cruelty, deception, and murderous design at Calvary. The power of grace to change people’s lives was yet to be shown (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Peter 1:22, 23).
3. As the early church fell into division and heresies, the church was “in the wilderness” for 1260 years. God is now working to restore truth and power within the church before Jesus returns.
4. In the far-reaching plans of God, He must be shown to the entire human race and to angels as who He is: righteous, merciful, and just and true in all His dealings (Ps. 85:9, 10; Rom. 3:4; 14:11; Rev. 15:3).


The Gospel to the World

At Calvary, the plan of salvation, initially believed in prolepsis (in anticipation), was now a fact. Jesus confirmed the pardon for sins anticipated in the animal sacrifices and justified human beings by His true and effective sacrifice. He fulfills His promise of salvation in the covenant (Heb. 9:15). Jesus’ ministry was in Palestine, a relatively small country. The gospel of pardon and salvation must be taken into all the world.

While on earth, Jesus laid plans to build His church. He trained twelve men as His disciples. They knew what Jesus taught and became like Him in attitude and zeal. They formed the core of the new church. Jesus had definite requirements for His followers, and He took the time to teach these to His disciples.

At Sinai, God gave to Israel the Ten Commandments as a guide to make of them a holy nation. Animal sacrifices illustrated forgiveness through the coming Messiah. People knew the ten-commandment law before Jesus came to this earth. Now He taught that every person must, by God’s grace, love God and love his or her neighbor, obeying God’s commandments from the heart. Only thus could a person please God and become part of “an holy nation.” Simply put, Jesus’ requirements are: Take up your cross daily and follow Me.

To follow Jesus required commitment. He said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23 adds “daily”). To follow Jesus means-

• trusting Him, having faith in Him, following His example, and keeping close to Him
• giving up one’s personal plans and doing the will of God1
• being willing to take on an unpopular cause and face hostility, opposition, and even death itself
• accepting poverty like Jesus, who had “not where to lay his head”2
• Moses gave us an example, “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25). Christians today must still follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2) so He could do God’s will. It was a call to join the army of God and accept His discipline.


Suffering, Persecution, Even Death

Even as Jesus faced persecution and opposition, those who followed Him would face the same.3 This is a planet in rebellion. The war that began in heaven continues on this earth. The devil, “as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Even John the Baptist, cousin and forerunner of Jesus, suffered persecution, imprisonment, and death. The fellowship of suffering is a gift.

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. (Phil. 3:10)

Jesus knew that the church faced long years of opposition, persecution, and death. Why would an all-powerful God permit His people to suffer and die? Here, are some thoughts:

1. We live in a world temporarily ruled by Satan.
2. Sin-depraved human nature, and even the righteous acts that humans do, are, too often, for selfish reasons.
3. The fires of affliction can reveal the true beauty in human character.

It required courage to be a Christian in the first century. It still requires courage. Knowing there would be hardships, Jesus’ promised His presence, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).


Lay Up Treasure in Heaven

A person must deny self to follow Jesus. He said to the rich young ruler to “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21). To follow Jesus means to put Him above all material considerations. Jesus asks that we commit even our goals and purposes to Him, “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

While a man must be attentive to and support his family, he must not let his family come between himself and Jesus (Luke 14:26). If a man loves God first, he will love his family more. A man’s example of faithfulness to God, even under opposition, will be a help to his family, too.


New Birth, New Creature, New Nature

When Nicodemus came at night, “Jesus answered and said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Paul also said, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). To be a Christian means living an entirely new life. Following this change, there must be growth in grace. Peter wrote, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that, by these, ye might be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). To live as a Christian is not a passive experience.

To keep the Ten Commandments, we must love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.4 Keeping the commandments reveals the love of God in our heart (John 14:15; John 15:10). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). Love and freedom can exist only within the boundaries of God’s law. Laws guide every aspect of biological life on the planet. Why should we think that human behavior should be any different?


What Is Love?

Love arises from the deep emotions of the heart. It is the positive, attractive aspect of the emotions. Rightly understood, love is the underlying focus of all righteous Christian actions. Godly Christian love is a primary motive. Those possessing such love will love the unlovely. They will take in the unpleasant, ungrateful, and the wicked. They will even take in their enemies. True Christian love is not a soft sentimentality, for it may require applying discipline or a firm response. Love always requires doing what is best for all involved at all times.

The Old Testament teaches love, though the New Testament emphasizes love even more. This is probably because the increased emphasis was needed to unite people through love in a society that was divided into many disparate groups. Because of this increased emphasis, some have placed love in opposition to law, discipline, obedience, doctrine, and “works” of all types. They frequently ask: Does love not accept everyone? Does it not care for everyone? Does it not help everyone to be happy? Does it not avoid offending anyone?

The answer to these questions is “yes, yes, yes, yes” and “no, no, no, no.” We accept all people for who they are, but we do not accept the sins that they may still commit. We care for the needy whenever we can, but we also expect the needy to work and help themselves wherever they can. We want everyone to be happy and joyful in the Lord, yet we must mourn for the sins they commit. A Christian will never purposely offend anyone, but he may need to help a brother see his wrongdoing to save his soul.

Jesus taught that love must support the keeping of His commandments”--If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Love is central to Christianity, and it must be strong. The faith and love of the early church led believers to face persecution and death, preach the Word everywhere, and sell all that they had to help support and establish the church. Does God expect less of us today?


Jesus’ Presence Through the Spirit

The requirements of Jesus listed above are all done through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, and the church “went forth conquering, and to conquer” (Rev. 6:2). Within a generation, the church had spread throughout the Roman Empire. Less known is the spread of the gospel to India, central Asia, and even to China and Japan through the Church of the East.5

The fundamental promise of the everlasting covenant is: “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Heb. 8:10). Before Jesus ascended, He met with the disciples in Galilee. There He gave them the Great Commission to spread the gospel to the world and concluded with the promise, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). This was a covenant promise; God’s people would yet become a “kingdom of priests.”

In His promise to be with His church “unto the end of the world,” Jesus made a personal commitment. He ascended to heaven in the human nature that He will retain for eternity!6 Because of this, He cannot be in all places at one time. However, the Holy Spirit, who does not have the limitations of humanity, now represents Jesus over all the earth. The power of grace, the direct influence on human hearts, comes through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit converts the heart and helps a person partake of the divine nature.7

Why is the Holy Spirit needed? There were many things that Jesus did not tell the disciples, and they needed further instruction through the Holy Spirit. Even after three and one half years, they still did not fully understand His mission. Some of the things the disciples could not understand are-

• The disciples could not believe what Jesus plainly told them about His being rejected, suffering, and dying.
• They did not understand that the Jewish nation would be rejected as the chosen people of God.
• They did not know that the restoration of the throne of David was a future event (and would ask about it just before the Ascension, Acts 1:6).
• It was difficult for some to put the sacrifices and ceremonies aside as no longer needed.
• They did not see the gospel going to the Gentiles.

These were all things that were needed for the salvation of humankind. The Holy Spirit was more than a subjective, emotional experience. The gifts of the Spirit are varied and practical (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11-13). The Holy Spirit came as a teacher, to bring the disciples into the full light of truth (see John 14:26; 16:1-16).

The apostles needed time to integrate the teachings of Jesus into their thinking and to understand and believe all that He taught, testing them by experience and making them a part of their lives. The Holy Spirit guided them in this process. Believers from a Jewish background needed to recognize that Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the sanctuary services and that the believer’s faith was to be in Him, not in ceremony and ritual.


Endnotes

1. Christ is our example. Thus, Jesus’ disciples must be willing to follow Him (Matt. 4:19; 9:9; 16:24; John 13:15; Phil. 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6) and accept poverty as He did (Matt. 19:21; 8:20). They were to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:15, 16), not living according to the flesh (1 Peter 4:1). The prophets are also a worthy example (James 5:10).

2. Jesus says: “Follow Me” (Matt. 4:19, 21, 22; 8:22; 9:9; 16:24; 19:21; Mark 2:14; 8:34; 10:21; Luke 5:10, 11, 27, 28; 9:23, 59; 18:22; John 1:43; 10:27; 12:26; 21:19).

3. Christians should expect opposition and persecution (Matt. 5:10, 11; 10:18; Mark 13:9; Acts 5:41; 9:15, 16; Rom. 8:17; 1 Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor.1:7; Phil. 1:29; 3:10; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:13).

4. Jesus’ commandments are fulfilled through love to others (Matt. 5:44; Luke 10:27; John 13:34; 2 John 1:5).

5. The gospel spread to eastern nations through the Church of the East, headquartered in Antioch of Syria (B. G. Wilkinson, Truth Triumphant [Ringgold, GA, TEACH Services, Inc., 2005], pp. 21-26, 34-44, 331-364). See also http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Church_of_the_East.

6. Jesus will have the marks of the crucifixion throughout eternity (Hab. 3:4, NIV; Zech. 13:6). When Jesus comes again, He will have the glorified humanity that the redeemed will enjoy (1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2).

7. See John 14-16 for more on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.