The Church Age


45 The Later Christian Church

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

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Acts 20:28-30

Once Jesus Christ had ascended to heaven, Satan could no longer reach Him. However, Satan viciously attacked the church, bringing in dissension and persecution. When God’s people sinned, Satan taunted Christ and the holy angels, claiming that Jesus died in vain and that grace had no power to save.

As the church increased in popularity, it also became more formal. Heathen philosophy brought heresies into the church. As popularity further increased, spirituality decreased until the church became the state religion. It was not long before the church assumed the characteristics of the paganism it replaced. Yet, it was still God’s church, and God still had a people.


The Great Commission

For the three and a half years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples had followed their Master as He preached, taught, and healed the people. They had some intimation of what their future work would be through the missionary journeys on which He had sent them. After the crucifixion, the disciples were frightened and confused. They lost all hope of being a part of the restored kingdom of glory.1

After Jesus’ resurrection, everything changed for the disciples. Their master and friend was alive! They soon learned that He would return to His Father in heaven but would always be with them, even to the end of the world. Furthermore, He had given them a work to do to prepare the world for His return. They would receive the Holy Spirit, and, with His power, they would take the message to the far corners of the world. The disciples had become apostles (meaning, those who are sent out).

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:18-20)

Shortly before His ascension, He told His followers, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

What Jesus told them is what they did. Braving discomfort, hunger, persecution, and opposition, they carried the gospel message, wanting so much for Him to return soon!


Exponential Church Growth

The church was first twelve, then one hundred and twenty, then five hundred, then 3,000, then another 5,000! “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). Jesus was the Head of the church. After Jesus ascended to heaven, under the Holy Spirit the apostles took over the daily operation of the church. They cast aside their striving to be the greatest.

For those who knew Christ on earth, their love for Christ was a burning zeal. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, these men “turned the world upside down” (Acts 16:20; 17:6), carrying the gospel to the entire then known world. An illustration may help understand how the disciples might have felt.

At the Houston airport, a tough-looking soldier was waiting for a flight transfer. He was going to see his wife and child after a tour of military duty. Sitting on the edge of his seat in anticipation, he could hardly wait to get on that plane and go the rest of the way home! That is how the disciples felt; they were driven by intense expectation of Jesus’ soon return. That is how Jesus anticipates bringing us home. That is how we also should feel!

As the original apostles died, the church slowly changed. Love waned; divisions, persecutions, human failures, and heresies began to appear. Jesus commended the churches for their strengths but rebuked them for their failures. Always He urged His people to overcome sin and receive His promises. He was still guiding the church. (See Rev. 2 and 3.)


Why Does God Permit Persecution?

In the Old Testament God blessed His people Israel. He prospered them and intended to make them “the head and not the tail” in all human endeavors (Deut. 28:13). The actual history of ancient Israel was one of prosperity when they obeyed God, and famine, drought, and oppression by foreigners when they forsook Him.

In the Christian church, we find just the opposite. Often there is persecution, oppression, and sometimes death when the church is faithful, and peace when the church has compromised. Why is this? We do not have all the answers. We might ask: Is the church today living up to the light it has been given? Often, it seems, prosperity leads to apathy. This may be why God is sparing in those He prospers. Most of us learn obedience better through suffering (Heb. 2:10). We are left with the following thoughtful questions:

1. Why would God permit His church, the bride of Christ, to be torn by dissension and apostasy?
2. Why would a sovereign God not defend His loyal followers from persecution?
3. Why does a sovereign God allow suffering, disease, war, and death?

These are difficult questions. Here are a few answers to consider, but even these seem inadequate.

1. This is a world of sin. The war that began in heaven continues now on earth. Satan delights to cause trouble of all kinds. Death is the common lot of all mankind. Even when being careful, one can prolong life only a short time.
2. We bring much of our troubles on ourselves.
3. “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
4. The honor of God is the central issue in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. God, who knows the end from the beginning, will sometimes protect and will sometimes allow trouble to reveal His grace, power, and love.
5. Those who lived through World War II and the years since have observed that Christianity often shines brightest under adversity.

Once, when the sons of God met at the gates of heaven, Satan came and claimed to rule this earth (Job 1:6-11). God challenged him by referring to His servant Job. Satan replied that God had put a hedge about him and that Job served God out of self-interest. The book of Job disputes Satan’s claim and shows that Job was a righteous man who truly loved God, even in suffering.

John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah, called the people to repentance. He was not afraid to tell people that they were sinners, including Herod himself. Herod put him in prison (see Matt. 3:1-10; Luke 3:1-20). Jesus did nothing to release John from prison, and Herod soon beheaded him. John was the first martyr among Jesus’ followers. Jesus spoke highly of him, calling him “more than a prophet” and saying, “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:7, 11).

If Jesus had performed a miracle to release John, He would have given support to Satan’s charge against God about Job, and future believers would have expected the same, causing a difficulty when God wanted to demonstrate that His grace is sufficient to deal with any problem (2 Cor. 12:9).

Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. (Job 1:9-11)

Even when Jesus’ followers suffer persecution, He promises, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).


The Fellowship of Suffering

Jesus suffered persecution all through His life on earth. He accepted His lot of toil and hardship without complaint. He faced the charge of being illegitimate when He confronted the Jewish leaders about how their plans to kill Him were not what Abraham would have done. “Ye do the deeds of your father,” He said. Their response had a barb, “We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God” (John 8:41).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about persecution being a blessing.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:10-12)

Persecution for Jesus’ sake is evidence that a person is living right! Paul repeated the teaching: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).

When Jesus worked miracles, the people loved Him. However, they did not understand the real purpose of His mission until after the resurrection. Even His disciples could not understand that He came to die for their sins. The ultimate persecution that He experienced was being rejected by the Jews, being tried and crucified, and then feeling abandoned as His disciples ran away. It seemed that even His heavenly Father forsook Him. Yet, Jesus had a faith that did not fail (Isa. 42:4). Before He died He said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Christians need that kind of faith today!

If the world hated Jesus, it will also hate those who love Jesus (John 15:20). We are offered fellowship with Jesus in suffering. Is the gospel of Jesus a pearl of great price, or is it something we are willing to receive only if it is convenient? Jesus has shown that only a total commitment is acceptable to Him. His reward is for those who demonstrate their commitment to Him. He told the church at Smyrna, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).


New Bad Ideas

Heresies in the church began as intriguing thoughts and whispers in the ear. These thoughts were reinforced by expression in discussions and pride of opinion. Some heresies will cater to the sinful desires of the human heart, and some are brought in as the pre-existing beliefs of new converts. They flourish where Bible study and prayer are neglected. Satan was well aware of what was happening, and he attacked the church as “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8).

The first heresy began as a division between two factions: the Jewish Christians, who were raised in Palestine and had difficulty giving up 1400 years of tradition, and the Greek-speaking Jews and new Gentile converts, who had little or no attachment to the ceremonial law. This issue had far-reaching consequences in Paul’s epistles, where the issue is addressed in a number of ways. Initially, this was dealt with in the Councils of Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 15). While the Jerusalem Council ended well, there was a party of Messianic Jews who continued to follow Paul on his missionary trips and work against him to bring new converts under the ceremonial law (Gal. 1-3).

Most heresies developed because of people’s failure to accept and understand Jesus’ saving work on the cross. The Jews had their traditions and writings; the Greeks had philosophy. Pagan influences also found their way into the church. The Hellenized school at Alexandria took these ideas and tried to harmonize them with Christianity. Scholars, called “Church Fathers,” wrote on these issues, the now popular Church of Rome accepting many of their ideas.


Early Church Heresies

The following are examples of the most predominant heresies in Church history:

The Ebionites could not accept the triunity of God comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They taught that Jesus was a natural son of Joseph and Mary and was endowed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism.
Docetism (third century) believed in the divinity of Jesus but denied His humanity. This arose from the Greek concept that all matter is evil. They believed His suffering and death on the cross appeared to be real, but were not.
Monarchians held that God the Father was absolute and transcendent but that the Son had a beginning and was created out of nothing before time began. They believed that He was also God, but not to the degree that the Father is. They were forerunners of the Arians (AD 250-336) in later years.
Athanasius (AD 296-373) opposed the Monarchians and upheld the unity of the essence of the Father and the Son. The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 rejected Arianism, though it lived on for several centuries.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, there was a strong debate between the schools of Alexandria and Antioch regarding the nature of Christ and how Jesus could be truly God and at the same time truly man. The Alexandrians focused on the divinity of Jesus and the Word taking on flesh. Those from Antioch stressed Jesus’ humanity and that the Word became a human being.

Apollinaris (AD 310-390) taught that the divine Word took the place of the human mind; he denied the genuine humanity of Christ. This was condemned in the Council of Constantinople (AD 381).
Nestorius (c AD 451) exaggerated the distinctions between the two natures of Christ. He taught Jesus was either two persons or two natures separately existing side by side.
Eutyches (AD 378-454) contended that, in the incarnate Christ, divinity and humanity coalesced into one, essentially denying the two natures of Christ.

At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the views of both Nestorius and Eutyches were condemned. The council maintained the unity of the person of Jesus as well as the duality of His natures. They taught Christians to confess Christ as fully divine and fully human, to be acknowledged in two natures “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” This helped to limit confusion, but did not solve all the problems. The controversy continued with the Monophysites, Monothelites, and the Adoptionists. A simple statement regarding the nature of God is that there is one God in three persons. Beyond this, “silence is golden.”


Later Church Heresies

During the Middle Ages, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas wrote on the person of Christ. They did not add much to what had already been decided, though they brought more attention to the work of Christ.2 At this time, one would do well to study Luke 1:34, 35; John 1:1-3, 14; and Philippians 2:5-8, and believe what it says.

Anselm of Canterbury (AD 1033-1109) taught that sin, being an infinite offense against God, required a satisfaction equally infinite, one that God alone could provide. Christ took the place of man and, by His death, made complete satisfaction to divine justice. His death was not a ransom paid to Satan, but a debt paid to God.

Peter Abelard (AD 1079-1142) taught that the essence of sin was contempt for God’s will. It resided more in peoples’ evil intentions than in their actions. This concept trivialized the law of God and the nature of sin. It denied the covenant of God and the substitutionary death of Christ at Calvary. Adherents of this concept taught that Christ’s life and death simply aroused in sinners an answering repentance and love, which became their reconciliation and redemption. Christ’s death did not pay the penalty for man’s sin; it was only a revelation of God’s love. This philosophy is called the “moral influence theory.”

During the Reformation, there was a dispute between Luther, who believed in the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Communion service (transubstantiation), and Zwingli and Calvin, who felt that the body and blood of Christ could be in the bread and wine only symbolically and spiritually.3

Through the ferment of these disputes, we can see both the establishment of truth and the adoption of error in the church. This process continues to the present. It is the responsibility of each Christian to test all beliefs by what the Bible teaches.


Endnotes

1. The disciples wanted to be part of a restored Jewish kingdom of glory, based on worldly greatness (Matt. 18:1, 4; 20:20- 24; 23:11; Mark 9:34; 10:43; Luke 9:46, 48; 22:24-26; 24:21). The Old Testament prophecies spoke of a restored kingdom (Jer. 23:5, 6; Ezek. 39:24-27; Zeph. 3:15-17). If Israel had fulfilled her mandate before Messiah came, He would have fulfilled these prophecies (Dan. 9:24).

2. Raoul Dederen, “Christ: His Person and Work,” Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000), pp. 190-203.

See the following websites regarding the Eucharist:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther
http://philofreligion.homestead.com/files/mpaper8.htm
http://bfhu.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/martin-luther-on-the-real-presence/
Also, search for “Controversy about the Eucharist”.

3. Raoul Dederen, Handbook of Seventh-Day Adventist Theology. electronic ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2001, p. 880.