Church History: A Biblical View
Part I - The Apostolic Age: Lesson No. 5 - The Close of the Apostolic Age
The closing years of the apostolic age (70-100 A.D.) remain one of the obscurest periods of church history due to the scantiness of information relating to this period. It seems that all of the New Testament books, except for John's writings (95-98 A.D.), had been written by the time Jerusalem was destroyed (70 A.D.). Consequently, there is little information provided in the Scriptures as to what occurred among Christians during this period. Information from sources outside the Scriptures is likewise sparse. Yet, the close of the apostolic age is one of the more important periods of church history because of its transitional nature. It was during this time that a second generation of Christians arose, and churches were making the move from direct apostolic oversight and influence to entirely independent and local management of their affairs as the apostles began to fade from the earthly scene. These years, then, were practically the first period of post-apostolic church history and would be the seedbed of problems which confronted the church in the years immediately following the deaths of the apostles.
II. The Ministries and Deaths of the Apostles
Legends concerning the ministries and deaths of Christ's apostles abound, but there is little Scriptural information of such. Therefore, what the apostles did in their later years and how they died may be regarded as quite uncertain. Despite some severe persecutions, it appears that the apostles remained in Jerusalem until at least the time of the Jerusalem conference in 50 A.D. (Acts 8:1; 15:6). James, the brother of John, had been put to death by King Agrippa I in 44 A.D. (Acts 12:1, 2). Aside from Peter, John, Jude (vs. 1), and Paul, none of the apostles is mentioned by name after 50 A.D. However, there are a few indications that the original apostles, especially Peter and John, eventually traveled and labored outside Judea. (1) Firstly, they were under instructions from Christ to go into all the world (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15). (2) When Paul returned to Jerusalem for the last time in 58 A.D., mention is made of him meeting with the elders only (Acts 21:17,18) - an indication that the apostles were away from Jerusalem. (3) There are implications or plain statements to the effect that the original apostles, especially Peter and John, did carry their ministries beyond Judea (I Cor. 1:12; 9:5; I Pet. 1:1; 5:13; Rev. 1:9). It is a controversial matter whether or not Peter became the bishop of the church in Rome, as Roman Catholicism claims, but there is no sure evidence that he ever entered that city. Tradition has Peter put to death in Rome about 64 A.D. by being crucified upside down (that position being requested by him supposedly because of a feeling of unworthiness to be crucified just as his Lord was). It is noteworthy that Christ did predict a martyr's death for Peter (Jn. 21:18,19). It is thought that Paul was beheaded right outside Rome in 68 A.D. (II Tim. 4: 6-8,16-18). John supposedly lived and labored in Ephesus during his later years, being the only apostle allowed to die a natural death. The lives, ministries, and deaths of the rest of the apostles are far more unknown..
III. The Spread and Development of the Church
The church grew vigorously during its early years. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were brought to Christ as the gospel was preached within Judea (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7). This pattern of rapid growth continued as the church made its way among the Gentile nations (Acts 16:5). Paul was highly instrumental in getting the gospel to the Gentiles and Jews of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. However, he was not entirely alone in this effort. A strong church was already well established in Rome when he arrived in that city, and before Paul's death Peter is able to write to Christians scattered throughout the northern and western sections of Asia Minor, regions of which there is no record of Paul having visited. Paul did say he preached the gospel as far as Illyricum (northwest of Macedonia) and had aspirations of going to Spain (Rom. 15:19,24). There is no record of Paul evangelizing the island of Crete, but in his waning years it was needful for him to leave Titus there with instructions to appoint elders in every city (Tit. 1:5). At the very end of his life he mentions that Titus had gone to Dalmatia (II Tim. 4:10). Indeed, while writing the Colossian brethren from Rome as a prisoner (61-63 A.D.), he feels justified in saying that the gospel had been preached "in all creation under heaven" (Col. 1:23). There is no reason to believe that this rapid growth did not continue in the last few decades of the First Century, for early Christians were zealously evangelistic. As a matter of fact, when John wrote his Revelation (95 A.D.) there were at least ten known churches in the province of Asia alone.
However, dark, foreboding clouds lay on the horizon. The latest writings of the New Testament (John's books) seem to confirm the existence of the apostasies that Paul prophesied (Acts 20:29, I Tim. 4:1-3; II Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3, 4). Men did arise to usurp preeminence and authority over God's people (III Jn. 9,10), and by the end of the First Century only two of the seven churches mentioned in John's Revelation are in very good spiritual condition (Rev. 2,3). Even the mediocre ones had problems with false teachers and immorality in their midst (Rev. 2:14,15 , 20-24). It is probable that the conditions which prevailed among the Asian churches were typical of all the churches at the end of the First Century. John's writings seem designed to combat incipient heresies concerning the nature of Christ. "Antichrists" had already arrived on the scene prior to his death (I Jn. 2:18; 4:3; II Jn. 7). Such were to constitute major enemies of the cause of Christ in the years to come.
IV. Relations with Judaism and the Roman Government
Although relations between Christians and the unbelieving Jews appear to have been cordial at first (Acts 2:47), the unbelieving Jewish leadership, unable to co-exist peaceably with the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, instigated severe persecutions against Christians. These persecutions continued until the destruction of Jerusalem and eventually became generalized enough to build up in the common Jewish mind a prejudice and hostility toward the church.
The relations of the church with the Roman government were likewise initially favorable. The church was viewed by the Romans in the early years as a branch of Judaism. However, the attacks of the Jewish community upon the church, as well as the distinctive doctrines and practices of the latter, soon clarified things. Nevertheless, Christians did not become the targets of Roman persecution until Nero cast the blame upon them for the catastrophe fire which burned much of Rome in 64 A.D. Consequently, they were subjected to the most horrid deaths. However, the Neronian persecution seems to have been brief and local. It was not until the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.) that a general persecution of Christians by the Roman government broke out. From then on such persecutions continued intermittently until the reign of the emperor Constantine in the early Fourth Century A.D. Though prejudice caused by misrepresentations and misunderstandings prevailed among the common people, the hostility of the Roman government was basically political in nature. Because Christians refused to burn incense to the deified Roman emperor, an act which the Romans viewed as an expression of loyalty and patriotism but which Christians viewed as idolatry, they were regarded as treasonous and worthy of death. John's Revelation was written to reassure Christians caught up in the persecutions of Domitian.
V. The Completion of the New Testament
Of course, as the apostles began to disappear from the earthly scene, miraculous powers among Christians began to fade away with them (I Cor. 13:8-10). However, in their place was left something equally effective: the New Testament. The books constituting the New Testament were penned by eight inspired men, especially Paul. All but John's writings are believed by conservative scholars to have been written 50-70 A.D. prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. John's books are believed to have been written in the last decade of the First Century (95-98 A.D.). The New Testament serves as an infallible, all-sufficient, incorruptible, indestructible guide for the Christian (II Tim. 3:16,17; I Pet. 1:23-25).
(1) (T or F) The entire New Testament was written before Jerusalem was destroyed.
(2) (T or F) In the First Century the church never spread beyond Paul's spheres of labor.
(3) (T or F) Prophecies about corruption in the organization and doctrines of the church began to be fulfilled before the end of the First Century.
(4) (T or F) There are no indications that the original apostles ever traveled outside Judea.
(5) (T or F) The New Testament is a complete and all-sufficient guide for the Christian.
(6) ________ and __________ were two Roman emperors who persecuted Christians in the First Century A.D.
(7) The _____________ was initially viewed by the Romans as a branch of Judaism.
(8) Why did the Roman Government persecute Christians?
(9) Where were ten churches in the Roman province of Asia located in the First Century A D.?
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