History of the Church of God
(Age of Shadows)
Much of what we know about the beginning of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, we owe to a man named Luke. He was a physician who became a minister in the first century Church.
Luke wrote that early Church history in "The Acts of the Apostles," one of the inspired books of the New Testament.
We will not here go into full details of the book of Acts. We advise our readers to carefully read Acts for a better background to what we discuss.
Luke was a frequent traveling companion and fellow-minister with another convert to the Christian Church. That other man was to have more effect on the Church than perhaps any other. He was Saul of Tarsus. His name was changed to Paul.
The New Testament Scriptures tell us only a little about the work of the original apostles Jesus personally trained.
We have the biographies of Jesus compiled by Matthew and John. Later John wrote three letters that became part of the Scriptures. He also penned the final book of the New Testament, called the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation.
There are also two letters of Peter, who held the principal position of leadership in the early Church.
Through Paul, the gospel goes to the world
Paul made by far the largest single contribution to the New Testament Scriptures--14 letters in all. Paul told the story of his travels and defined doctrines of the Church as he preached the gospel of the kingdom of God throughout the world.
As we noticed last issue, the growth of the Church went largely unnoticed in the Roman Empire. The Church appeared to be no more than a Jewish sect. The early Church kept the seventh-day Sabbath and observed what most people called the Jewish Holy Days. For many years the Church suffered persecution because of complaints by the Jewish community. Sometimes those persecutions were severe. At other times years went by with rapid growth and relatively few major problems.
By the early 60s Christian congregations existed in most major cities of the Roman Empire. There was even a growing Christian community in the capital city. Rome.
The apostle Paul was sent to Rome as a prisoner because of charges filed against him in Jerusalem. After two years in the city of Caesarea. Paul appealed his case to Caesar at Rome.
Although a member of a Jewish family, Paul was a free-born Roman citizen. Roman citizens had the right to appeal to Caesar. So Paul. finding he could not obtain justice in Judea, appealed to Rome
Changes at Rome
In the year A.D. 54 the teenage. adopted son of the Roman Caesar Claudius had come to the highest office in the Western world. His name was Nero.
Nero's mother contrived the death of Claudius to bring her son to power. Young Nero was to have a major effect on the now established Christian Church.
When Paul finally arrived in Rome after an arduous Mediterranean voyage he was placed under house arrest to await trial. It was A.D. 60.
Because no charges from Jerusalem were formally filed against him, he was released two years later.
It does not appear there was anything more than casual contact between this dynamic apostle of the Christian Church and the Roman emperor But things were to change.
The fire at Rome
When Nero viewed the city of Rome from his balcony, the slums of the city spread below him. Nero envisioned Rome as the world's premiere city. He planned fabulous buildings. beautiful gardens, impressive statues and fountains. The slums below his palace, where thousands of poor and indigent people lived, had to be replaced.
History is often polluted by legend. But most modern historians feel the account of the fire at Rome in A.D. 64 leads to the conclusion Nero was responsible for the fire.
Whether or not Nero was to blame, the fire was a great tragedy. Ten of Rome's 14 precincts were burned. Thousands were killed. Public and private buildings were ruined.
Roman persecution begins
Who was to blame? Rumors quickly spread that Nero was personally behind the tragedy. Shrewd politicians had to find someone else to point the finger at.
These Christians-they could be blamed.
"They believe the world will be destroyed by fire," one noted.
"Why, they wouldn't lift a hand to extinguish it," another shouted.
"The Christians say this terrible fire was God's fiery vengeance on us," yet another exclaimed.
So Christians became the scapegoat.
The horrors of A.D. 64 make up one of the great tragedies of Church history. It was the first of 10 Roman persecutions to afflict the Church for nearly three centuries. But no persecution could stamp out Christ's Church. Jesus said it would never die (Matthew 16:18).
Meanwhile, back in Judea
Two years after the fire at Rome, in the eastern province of Judea, the Jews attempted to overthrow the Roman government. It was A.D. 66.
A leading Roman general, Vespasian, was dispatched to Judea to put down the rebellion. A bloody four-year war resulted.
During that time, Paul, the best-known leader of the Christian Church, was arrested by Roman officials, although his arrest was not directly related to the Judean war. Paul was taken to Rome for trial. The government found him guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to die.
Since Paul was a Roman citizen, his execution was by beheading. It was the spring of A.D. 68 when the untimely and unfortunate death of this great apostle took place.
Ironically, Nero's political strength had collapsed. Within a few days Nero committed suicide after his military forces revolted.
The scanty and
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
Gibbon, chapter 13, 7th edition
On the eastern front, Vespasian left his son Titus in charge of the armies to continue the fighting in Judea. Vespasian rushed to Rome. He would soon become Caesar.
During the fighting of the hot summer of A.D. 70, the armies of Titus broke through the walls of Jerusalem. The Jewish insurrection was crushed. Jerusalem was savaged.
Even the great temple King Herod had renovated was torched. Titus carried many temple accoutrements back to Rome. If you travel to Rome today, in the ruins of the ancient city, you can see the conquest of Judah pictured on the arch of Titus.
The Church knew to flee
But what about the Christians? Jesus' followers were commonly called Nazarenes, after Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 24:5). Jesus had warned his Church, in the Olivet prophecy of Luke 21: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains" (verses 20-21).
When Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70, believing Christians (Nazarenes) had already fled the city. On an earlier Feast of Pentecost, God miraculously warned those who would heed to get out before the destruction took place.
The Church fled to the northeast-to the town of Pella, beyond the Jordan River.
By A.D. 70, the organized preaching of the gospel was halted. Peter had been crucified. James, the Lord's brother, was killed. Paul had been beheaded. Jerusalem had fallen. Christians were driven from Rome.
The Church was being severely tested. Would it survive? Or would persecution end the Church after only 40 years?
Remember, Christ had assured his apostles, "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
The Church would not die.
It would be persecuted. It would be small. But it would not die.
For nearly a hundred years after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, historical evidence of the Church is indeed scanty.
The biblical record closes late in the first century A.D. The aging John was the sole survivor of the first apostles. He was left to combat mounting heresies and endure persecution from within and without.
The beginning of heresy
Among the final battles John had to fight was a mounting heresy that had begun many years before.
Perhaps as early as A.D. 33, the first great heretic to deceive in the name of the new Christian religion came on the scene. The Bible tells of this important figure in Acts 8. This man's name was Simon Magus, or Simon the magician.
Simon was the high priest of the Samaritans-the peoples who lived just north of Judea. The bulk of the Samaritans descended from the peoples transplanted by the Assyrians into the region in the eighth century B.C.. They had brought their Chaldean religious customs with them.
Over the centuries, living near the Jews, the Samaritans had adopted some Jewish practices while retaining their ancient Chaldean customs. They had also added Greek philosophies and Persian customs. This mixing of religious customs and beliefs is called syncretism.
When. Philip, the first Christian minister to preach in Samaria, powerfully proclaimed Christ's message, the Samaritan high priest believed his preaching-or at least he appeared to.
The apostles at Jerusalem, learning how many Samaritans were becoming believers, sent Peter and John to continue preaching and complete the baptism ceremonies begun by Philip. Miracles accompanied those early conversions.
Soon Simon's true spirit was revealed. He offered money to Peter and John for the powers of the ministry they had.
Peter rebuked Simon for his lustful attitude and bribery. To this day we call an attempt to purchase a church office "simony," after Simon Magus.
Simon left without truly being converted. He did not have hands laid on him and did not receive the Holy Spirit. But Simon saw the attraction of this new Christian doctrine and way of life.
To his already mixed religious philosophies, Simon added something new-Christian words and practices. Of course those practices were twisted and distorted. They were combined with Jewish ceremony, Babylonian superstitions, Greek mythology and Persian mysteries.
Like the true apostles of Jesus, Simon carried his message from city to city. In time he arrived in the capital city of Rome.
He attracted a significant following. So great were Simon's power and influence that some people honored him as a god. They even erected a statue of him on the Tiber River, an action reserved only for the most important dignitaries.
Then Simon yielded to his great vanity. The traditions about his death vary, but two that are popular involve an attempt to prove his supernatural powers.
One tradition says he asked to be buried alive, promising to reappear in three days just as Jesus had done. Another tradition tells that Simon, to prove his powers, tried to fly off a tall building.
In any case, Simon died. His heresies, however, live on today! Many modern religious practices and concepts are nothing more than
Simon's, with Christian names added.
But the work of Simon was only the beginning of heresies.
Simon not the only heretic
From the earliest days of the Church, the truth Jesus' apostles proclaimed became distorted.
One deception was Gnosticism. The Gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "to know," exerted a powerful influence on first-century religion.
A careful study of the New Testament books reveals numerous confrontations with gnostic influence even among members of the true Church of God. You can read the second chapter of Colossians as an example.
Late in the first century, another influential heretic, Cerinthus, confronted the apostle John. The Bible does not name Cerinthus, but concerns John expressed in his three epistles refer, without a doubt, to this man's teaching and influence.
The first century ends
Late in his ministry, the aging John prepared for the passing of leadership in the Church to a new generation.
John probably lived past the turn of the first century. He would have been more than 1oo years old when he died.
During the decade of the 90s the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96) exiled John to the Aegean isle of Patmos. The Bible does not document much of this period, but God did inspire the visions of the Book of Revelation while John was imprisoned there.
After his release from prison. John continued his ministry in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the seven-congregation circuit mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. His principal headquarters was at Smyrna. There he took under his special care and tutelage a young man named Polycarp.
After John's death, the baton of leadership in the Church of God would be passed to this man. For more than another half century, Polycarp was to direct the affairs of the Church of God in Asia Minor
Click Here for Part Three