The first century church
If we look at the church today, it is in fact not one church but many – all with different traditions, beliefs and practices. In the east we have the Orthodox churches; in the south the Roman Catholic churches; in the north the Protestant churches; and in Africa both Catholic and Protestant. And when you look at the various branches of Christianity there are many different customs and many different ideas – it’s hard to believe that they are all part of the same religion. How do we know which is the true Christianity?
All these forms of Christianity started from one source, and that is the gospel message taught by Jesus and his disciples 2,000 years ago – and that’s why we are interested in the first century church. What did they believe? How did they worship God? How did they live their lives? We would like to remove all the ideas and customs which have been attached to Christianity in the last 2,000 years and get back to the original message.
We can find out about the first century church from the Bible record, and in particular the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the growth of the church in the 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What they believed
Luke records for us several speeches made by the apostles in those early years, of which seven are preaching speeches:
Acts 2:22-39. Peter in the temple at Jerusalem (Pentecost)
Acts 3:12-26. Peter in the temple at Jerusalem (after healing the lame man)
Acts 5:30-32. Peter before the council at Jerusalem (after being arrested)
Acts 10:34-43. Peter before Cornelius at Caesarea
Acts 13:16-47. Paul in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch
Acts 17:22-31. Paul in the Areopagus at Athens
Acts 26:2-23. Paul before King Agrippa at Caesarea
It’s a good exercise to run through those speeches and pick out the main messages. And there are two themes which come up in every single speech, so they seem to be the most important ones:
God raised Jesus from the dead (2:24, 3:15, 5:30, 10:40, 13:31, 17:31, 26:23)
People must repent, be baptised and receive forgiveness (2:38, 3:19, 5:31, 10:43, 13:30, 17:30, 26:20)
The resurrection is the foundation stone on which the gospel is built. Paul, standing before Felix, said, “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today” (Acts 24:21). The resurrection was the proof that Jesus was the Son of God and that God was with him; without the resurrection our faith is useless, Paul says (1 Cor 15:14).
The Old Testament foretold not only the resurrection of Christ, but also the resurrection of the faithful. Paul said to King Agrippa: “And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today … Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:6,8). The apostles preached that Christ rose from the dead, and that is our hope too (1 Cor 15:20-23).
Is the resurrection the central theme of Christianity today? In many churches ideas about the resurrection have become confused by the idea of an immortal soul: if you believe in an immortal soul, then there is no longer any need for resurrection. But for the apostles, resurrection was at the heart of the gospel message.
Repentance and baptism
But it is not enough to hear the gospel message and then carry on as we are; we must do something about it. When Peter told the people that they had crucified their Messiah, there was a profound reaction from his audience: “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you …” (Acts 2:37-38). The people realised that they were inadequate; they needed to change; and they needed forgiveness. And they were baptised.
Do the churches today emphasise the need for repentance and forgiveness like the apostles did? Do they practice baptism in the way the apostles did, by immersion in water? We need to compare the churches today with the first century church.
How they lived
What effect did the gospel have on people’s lives in the first century? After that first speech by Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem at Pentecost, about 3,000 people were baptised, and we have a wonderful description of life in the early church in Acts 2:43-47. People’s lives were really changed when they believed in Christ. They followed the teaching and example of Jesus in a very real and practical way.
Jesus gave us a “new commandment” – to love one another. And we are talking here about a selfless love that gives and doesn’t count the cost; a love which always seeks the good of others. It’s not something that human beings do naturally, because by nature we look after ourselves first. But that’s the sort of love Jesus asks us to show. And the amazing thing is that Jesus showed that kind of love in his life. So we see the early church following the example of Jesus. “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45).
They are also an example of fellowship, which means sharing and participating in a common purpose. We are all in Christ and we all share the same purpose, which is to serve God. This means that we will naturally want to be with our brothers and sisters as much as we can, so that we can share our experiences, encourage one another, and help one another. And we can see this fellowship in action in Acts: “All the believers were together and had everything in common ... Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:44,46).
Of course, we all fail to live up to the ideals of love and fellowship which Jesus showed us, but it would be interesting to know how much different churches today promote such ways of life. It’s something that we all should try to live up to in our lives.
There are many churches today, all with different customs and ideas. So we need to get back to the source: the first century church.
The most important things the apostles taught were: the resurrection of Jesus, and the need to repent and be baptised.
The effect of the gospel in people’s lives was to encourage them to show love and fellowship.