History of the Church of God

Struggle for Truth

Part 3


As the first century drew to a close, only the aging John remained alive of the original 12 apostles trained by Jesus. Life was difficult. Even though the Christian Church had spread throughout the Roman Empire, efforts to stamp it out continued. Domitian ruled as Roman emperor from A.D. 81 to 96. He instituted the second great persecution against the Church. But out of that persecution came a powerful witness of the early Church. Many traditions grew out of John's confrontation with Domitian.

John and Domitian

Without a doubt, Domitian had heard of John. Perhaps his greatest concern was the Christian doctrine that Jesus would become king. The Roman emperor could not tolerate another king, so Domitian brought John to Rome. When asked to confirm the rumors of Jesus becoming the Roman king, John's reply is recorded as this: "You also shall reign for many years given you by God, and after you very many others; and when the times of the things upon earth have been fulfilled, out of heaven shall come a King, eternal, true, Judge of the living and the dead, to whom every nation and tribe shall conform, through whom every earthly power and dominion shall be brought to nothing, and every mouth speaking great things shall be shut" (from Ante-Nicene Fa­thers, by Roberts and Donaldson, the collection of writings that in­cludes the Acts of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, pages 560-562).

One tradition about this confrontation says Domitian asked for proof of these things. At that John asked for a cup of poison, which he mixed and drank with no harmful effects.

Suspecting a plot, Domitian required a condemned criminal to drink the potion. The criminal died instantly. As the story goes, John later took the dead man by the hand and raised him back to life.

Yet another tradition has Domitian immersing John in a cauldron of boiling oil. When no harm came to John, Domitian banished him to the prison isle of Patmos.

A prisoner on Patmos

John was on Patmos, as is clear from his own writing: "I, John, both your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 1:9).

While John was imprisoned on Patmos, Christ revealed to him the final book of the sacred writings that would complete the Bible-the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation.

There, through dreams and symbols, Jesus Christ laid out the flow of events that would culminate in his return to establish the millennial reign of God's government on the earth.

The struggle against heresy

After John was released from prison, he not only had to battle the persecution of the Roman government, he had to struggle against false teachers.

One of the most influential heretics of the late first century was Cerinthus. Another tradition from that time was a chance meeting of Cerinthus with John and his young companion Polycarp at the public baths.

Upon seeing the heretic, John is alleged to have said something like this to Polycarp: "Let us flee the baths, lest the wrath of God consume us all with this son of Satan."

Thus we are introduced to Polycarp-the successor to John in the ministry of the Church in Asia Minor.

Born sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, Polycarp trained under John till John died shortly after the turn of the first century.

For more than the next half century, Polycarp struggled to preserve the true faith.

The struggle continues

During the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (A.D. 98-117), Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote to the emperor about the growing Christian churches: "The contagion of that superstition [Christianity) has penetrated not only the cities but also the villages and country places ."

Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians. What kind of punishment ought to be inflicted on this group who seemed to be causing local peoples to desert their pagan temples?

In one of his letters to the emperor, Pliny wrote that they "assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as god."

To find out more about their beliefs, he tortured two ladies who may have been deaconesses and reported, "I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition."

After reading Pliny's report, Trajan ordered that Christians who were caught ought to be punished, but they were not to be actively sought out.

The government's tolerance provided opportunity for cautious growth. But the Church was fragmenting. Doctrine became subject to a variety of interpretations.

Gnostic organizations began to use Christian doctrines and terminology. Followers of Simon the Magician, Carpocrates and Cerinthus were sometimes identified with Christianity. A sect known as Ebionites were said to blend customs and ordinances of the Jews with the Christian teachings.

The complexity of knowing who really were the faithful followers of Christ is shown by this statement from historian Edward Burton: "The fugitives from Jerusalem ... while some became true disciples of Jesus, others, as in the case in the spreading of new opinions, may have imperfectly learnt, or ignorantly perverted, the real doctrines of Christianity" (Lectures Upon the Ecclesiastical History of the First Three Centuries, page 264).

The principal custodians of the faith resided in the churches of Asia Minor. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was the best-known leader.

Other Important second-century figures

In the large eastern city of Antioch, Syria, traditions preserve Ignatius as the second successor to Peter in that region.

Arrested by the Romans, Ignatius may have paid a visit to Polycarp in Smyrna while on the journey to Rome.

Trajan sentenced Ignatius to die about A.D. 115. Before being thrown to the lions in the arena, Ignatius wrote, "I bid all men know that of my own free will I die for God ... only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ."

By this time, the western Christian churches at Rome were also gaining strength and authority. It would yet take another two centuries, but in the course of time, Rome, capital of the western empire, would also become the seat of what would be called Christianity.

Philosophers and writers associated with the development of the Christian church were also associated with a changing theology. Men like Clement of Rome (died about A.D. 97), Justin Martyr (100-167), Irenaeus (130-200), Tertullian (150-220), Origin (185-254) and Eusebius (260-340) provide us with the bulk of information we have from these first three centuries of Church history.

Most of the prominent names are from the church in the West-the church that ultimately would take the name Roman Catholic.

Changing doctrines and Ideologies

Through these first centuries Christianity struggled with new theological precepts: What should be the place of Mary in worship? Should Sunday be sanctified as a day of worship to honor the resurrection of Jesus?

Should the Church observe the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, or observe an Easter commemoration of Christ's resurrection? What about "Jewish" practices such as Holy Day and Sabbath worship? What was the true nature of God? Who and what was Jesus a man, God, or both?

Basically Christianity divided into two areas of theology. In the West, headquartered at Rome, the Roman bishop (not yet called the Pope) was gaining influence and power. There, special consideration of Mary, Sunday as a day of worship and casting off things "Jewish" grew in popularity.

Polycarp and the churches in the East maintained the traditions of the early Church regarding the seventh-day Sabbath, the Holy Days and the laws of clean and unclean meats.

In other words, Christians in the East strove to do what Jesus and the early apostles did.

Polycarp's trip to Rome

Perhaps the most significant event in Polycarp's ministry was his struggle to preserve the faith once delivered. When the church in the West established Easter. Sunday as a memorial to the resurrection, they discontinued observance of Passover on the 14th of Nisan.

Churches in the East continued the custom of observing the Passover on the same night Jesus instituted the new symbols of bread and wine. The controversy, still with us even all these centuries later, was called the Quartodeciman controversy, its name coming from the Latin words meaning "14th."

Even though he was past 80 years of age, Polycarp undertook a journey to Rome to discuss this matter with the bishop of the Roman church, Anicetus. Neither could persuade the other. Polycarp returned to Smyrna. Even though persecuted by the government and rejected by the growing church at Rome, Polycarp would not yield to the change.

The last days of Polycarp

Only a few years after that confrontation, Polycarp, then 86, was arrested at Smyrna. The complete tradition is told by the fourth-century writer Eusebius.

On the first Holy Day of the Days of Unleavened Bread, during the night, government officials arrived to arrest him. Rather than attempt an escape, Polycarp arose to meet them. The soldiers were surprised to find an old man, now feeble with years. They had expected a dangerous troublemaker.

To the contrary, Polycarp asked that a meal be prepared for them, then requested an hour of prayer before being taken away.

After his prayer, Polycarp was permitted to ride a mule into the city. Upon arrival, officials rode with him in their carriage trying to persuade him to reject his Christian ways and give honor to Caesar as god. "What harm is there in saying 'Lord Caesar?"' they asked. "Just sacrifice to him and you will be safe."

Polycarp made no reply.

As they persisted, Polycarp finally answered, "I have no intention of taking your advice." The magistrates angrily turned to threats. He was shoved from the carriage and had to walk to the stadium where a large crowd was gathering for the games.

The final hours

As they neared the stadium, now filled with roaring fans, a loud clap of thunder rattled the arena. Because of the clamor most did not hear the voice: "Be strong, Polycarp."

It was announced at the arena, "Polycarp has been arrested."

The proconsul demanded: "Swear by the genius of Caesar. Say `Away with those who deny the gods."' Of course, the Roman official meant for Polycarp to acknowledge the Roman gods and deny the God of the Bible and his Son, Jesus.

With a twist of irony, Polycarp waved his hands toward the roaring crowd and cried, "Away with the godless!"

Upon further demands to renounce Christ, Polycarp finally proclaimed: "For 86 years I have served him, and he has never done me wrong. How can I now blaspheme my King who saved me?"

"I have wild beasts," the proconsul roared.

"Call them," the old man calmly replied.

"If you make light of the beasts," retorted the official, "I'll have you destroyed by fire."

Polycarp responded: "The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished. In the judgment to come there is a fire of eternal punishment reserved for the wicked."

The huge crowd called for the lions. But the time allotted for that kind of sport was already past.

"Burn him alive," they shouted. Many rushed from the stadium to gather logs and sticks.

A great pyre was built and Polycarp was bound on top. He prayed, "O Father ... I bless you for counting me worthy of this day and hour."

The men in charge lit the fire. It roared into the air. Those who were there said it took the shape of a great sail. Polycarp's body seemed protected from the flames. The executioner rushed forward, thrusting a sword into Polycarp's body.

Polycarp's life came to a dramatic and speedy end.

But what he stood for, the preservation of the original and pure truth of the gospel, would never die.

Leadership passes to Polycrates

Leadership of the Church passed to a young man about to enter the prime of his ministry-Polycrates. He would also live a long and productive life in Christ's service.

In nearly a repeat of Polycarp's trip to Rome, Polycrates also journeyed to the capital to discuss with the bishop of Rome (then Victor I) the matter of Passover versus Easter. Victor held to Easter.

By now the authority of the Roman bishop was sufficient to demand that those in the East give up the 14th of Nisan memorial and observe Easter. Victor threatened excommunication if they did not.

Polycrates refused to give in. He wrote: "We, for our part, keep the day scrupulously, without addition or subtraction. In Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord's advent, when he is coming with glory from heaven and shall search out all his saints.... All of these kept the fourteenth day of the month ... in accordance with the gospel, not deviating in the least but following the rule of the Faith."

He concluded, "Better people than I have said, 'We must obey God rather than men."'

Polycrates lived through most of the second century. But great changes were to take place in the coming two centuries.

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