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Apostle (ἀπόστολος, from ἀποστέλλω, to send forth). In Attic Greek the term is used to denote a fleet or naval armament. It occurs only once in the Sept. (1 Kings 14:6), and there, as uniformly in the New Testament, it signifies a person sent by another, a messenger. It has been asserted that the Jews were accustomed to term the collector of the half shekel which every Israelite paid annually to the Temple an apostle; and we have better authority for asserting that they used the word to denote one who carried about encyclical letters from their rulers. Œcumenius states that it is even yet a custom among the Jews to call those who carry about circular letters from their rulers by the name of apostles. To this use of the term Paul has been supposed to refer (Gal. 1:1) when he asserts that he was “an apostle, not of men, neither by men”—an apostle not like those known among the Jews by that name, who derived their authority and received their mission from the chief priests or principal men of their nation. The import of the word is strongly brought out in John 13:16, where it occurs along with its correlate, “The servant is not greater than his Lord, neither he who is sent (ἀπόστολος) greater than he who sent him.”
It is the opinion of Suicer (Thesaurus, art. Ἀπόστολος) that the appellation “apostle” is in the N. T. employed as a general name for Christian ministers as “sent by God,” in a qualified use of that phrase, to preach the word. The word is indeed used in this loose sense by the fathers. Thus we find Archippus, Philemon, Apphia, the seventy disciples (Luke 10:1–17), termed apostles; and even Mary Magdalene is said γενέσθαι τοῖς ἀποστόλοις ἀπόστολος, to become an apostle to the apostles. No evidence, however, can be brought forward of the term being thus used in the N. T. Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7) are indeed said to be ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις, “of note among the apostles;” but these words by no means imply that they were apostles, but only that they were well known and esteemed by the apostles. The συνεργοί, the fellow-workers of the apostles, are by Chrysostom denominated συναπόστολοι. The argument founded on 1 Cor. 4:9, compared with ver. 6, to prove that Apollos is termed an apostle, cannot bear examination. The only instance in which it seems probable that the word, as expressive of an office in the Christian Church, is applied to an individual whose call to that office is not made the subject of special narration, is to be found in Acts 14:4, 14, where Barnabas, as well as Paul, is termed an apostle. At the same time, it is by no means absolutely certain that the term apostles, or messengers, does not in this place refer rather to the mission of Paul and Barnabas by the prophets and teachers at Antioch, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost (Acts 13:1–4), than to that direct call to the Christian apostleship which we know Paul received, and which if Barnabas had received, we can scarcely persuade ourselves that no trace of so important an event should have been found in the sacred history but a passing hint, which admits, to say the least, of being plausibly accounted for in another way. We know that, on the occasion referred to, “the prophets and teachers, when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul, sent them away” (ἀπέλυσαν); so that, in the sense in which we will immediately find the words occurring, they were ἀπόστολοι—prophets and teachers.
In 2 Cor. 8:23, we meet with the phrase ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν, rendered in our version “the messengers of the churches.” Who these were, and why they received this name, is obvious from the context. The churches of Macedonia had made a contribution for the relief of the saints of Judæa, and had not merely requested the apostle “to receive the gift, and take on him the fellowship of ministering to the saints,” but at his suggestion had appointed some individuals to accompany him to Jerusalem with their alms. These “apostles or messengers of the churches” were those “who were chosen of the churches to travel with the apostle with this grace [gift], which was administered by him,” to the glory of their common Lord (2 Cor. 8:1–4, 19). With much the same meaning and reference Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25) is termed ἀπόστολος—a messenger of the Philippian Church—having been employed by them to carry pecuniary assistance to the apostle (Phil. 4:14–18).
The word “apostle” occurs once in the New Testament (Heb. 3:1) as a descriptive designation of Jesus Christ: “The apostle of our profession,” i.e. the apostle whom we profess or acknowledge. The Jews were in the habit of applying the term שָׁלִיחַ, from שָׁלַח, to send, to the person who presided over the synagogue, and directed all its officers and affairs. The Church is represented as “the house or family of God,” over which he had placed, during the Jewish economy, Moses as the superintendent—over which he has placed, under the Christian economy, Christ Jesus. The import of the term apostle is divinely commissioned superintendent; and of the whole phrase, “the apostle of our profession,” the divinely commissioned superintendent whom we Christians acknowledge, in contradistinction to the divinely appointed superintendent Moses, whom the Jews acknowledged.
The term apostle, however, is generally employed in the New Testament as the descriptive appellation of a comparatively small class of men, to whom Jesus Christ entrusted the organization of his Church and the dissemination of his religion among mankind. At an early period of his ministry “he ordained twelve” of his disciples “that they should be with him.” Their names were: 1. Simon Peter (Cephas, Bar-jona); 2. Andrew; 3. John; 4. Philip; 5. James the Elder; 6. Nathanael (Bartholomew); 7. Thomas (Didymus); 8. Matthew (Levi); 9. Simon Zelotes; 10. Jude (Lebbæus, Judas, Thaddæus); 11. James the Less; 12. Judas Iscariot. “These he named apostles.” Sometime afterward “he gave to them power against unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal all manner of disease;” “and he sent them to preach the kingdom of God” (Mark 3:14; Matt. 10:1–5; Mark 6:7; Luke 6:13; 9:1). To them he gave “the keys of the kingdom of God,” and constituted them princes over the spiritual Israel, that “people whom God was to take from among the Gentiles, for his name” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; 19:28; Luke 22:30). Previously to his death he promised to them the Holy Spirit, to fit them to be the founders and governors of the Christian Church (John 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26, 27; 16:7–15). After his resurrection he solemnly confirmed their call, saying, “As the Father hath sent me, so send I you;” and gave them a commission to “preach the gospel to every creature” (John 20:21–23; Matt. 18:18–20). After his ascension he, on the day of Pentecost, communicated to them those supernatural gifts which were necessary to the performance of the high functions he had commissioned them to exercise; and in the exercise of these gifts they, in the Gospel history and in their epistles, with the Apocalypse, gave a complete view of the will of their Master in reference to that new order of things of which he was the author. They “had the mind of Christ.” They spoke, “the wisdom of God in a mystery.” That mystery “God revealed to them by his Spirit,” and they spoke it, “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches.” They were “ambassadors for Christ,” and sought men, “in Christ’s stead, to be reconciled to God.” They authoritatively taught the doctrine and the law of their Lord; they organized churches, and required them to “keep the traditions,” i.e. the doctrines and ordinances delivered to them” (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 2:16; 2:7, 10, 13; 2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Cor. 11:2). Of the twelve originally ordained to the apostleship, one, Judas Iscariot, “fell from it by transgression,” and Matthias, “who had companied” with the other apostles “all the time that the Lord Jesus went out and in among them,” was by lot substituted in his place (Acts 1:17–26). Saul of Tarsus, afterward termed Paul, was also miraculously added to the number of these permanent rulers of the Christian society (Acts 9; 20:4; 26:15–18; 1 Tim. 1:12; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11).
The number twelve was probably fixed upon after the analogy of the twelve tribes of the Israelites (Matt. 19:28), and was so exact that the apostles are often termed simply “the Twelve” (Matt. 26:14, 47; John 6:67; 20:24; 1 Cor. 15:5). Their general commission was to preach the gospel. taken from common life, mostly Galileans (Matt. 11:25), and many of them had been disciples of John the Baptist (John 1:35 sq.). Some of them appear to have been relatives of Jesus himself. See Brother. Our Lord chose them early in his public career, though some of them had certainly partly attached themselves to him before; but after their call as apostles they appear to have been continuously with him or in his service. They seem to have been all on an equality, both during and after the ministry of Christ on earth; and the supposed prelatical supremacy of Peter, founded by the Romish Church upon Matt. 16:18 is nowhere alluded to in the apostolical period. We find one indeed, Peter, from the fervor of personal character, usually prominent among them, and distinguished by having the first place assigned him in founding the Jewish and Gentile churches; but we never find the slightest trace in Scripture of any superiority or primacy being in consequence accorded to him. We also find that he and two others, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are admitted to the inner privacy of our Lord’s acts and sufferings on several occasions (Mark 5:37; Matt. 17:1 sq.; 26:37); but this is no proof of superiority in rank or office. Early in our Lord’s ministry, he sent them out two and two to preach repentance and perform miracles in his name (Matt. 10; Luke 9). This their mission was of the nature of a solemn call to the children of Israel, to whom it was confined (Matt. 10:5, 6). There is, however, in his charge to the apostles on this occasion, not a word of their proclaiming his own mission as the Messiah of the Jewish people; their preaching was at this time strictly of a preparatory kind, resembling that of John the Baptist, the Lord’s forerunner.
Jesus early informed the apostles respecting the solemn nature, the hardships, and even positive danger of their vocation (Matt. 10:17), but he never imparted to them any esoteric instruction, nor even initiated them into any special mysteries, since the whole tendency of his teaching was practical; but they constantly accompanied him in his tours of preaching and to the festivals (being unhindered by their domestic relations, comp. Matt. 8:14; 1 Cor. 9:5), beheld his wonderful acts, listened to his discourses addressed to the multitude (Matt. 5:1 sq.; 23:1 sq.; Luke 4:13 sq.), or his discussions with learned Jews (Matt. 19:13 sq.; Luke 10:25 sq.); occasionally (especially the favorite Peter, John, and James the elder) followed him in private (Matt. 17:1 sq.), and conversed freely with him, eliciting information (Matt. 15:15; 18:1.; Luke 8:9.; 12:41; 17:5; John 9:2) on religious subjects, sometimes with respect to the sayings of Jesus, sometimes in general (Matt. 13:10 sq.), and were even on one occasion themselves incited to make attempts at the promulgation of the Gospel (Matt. 6:7; Luke 9:6), and with this view performed cures (Mark 6:13; Luke 9:6), although in this last they were not always successful (Matt. 17:16). They had, indeed, already acknowledged him (Matt. 16:16; Luke 9:20) as the Messiah (ὁ Χριστὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ), endowed with miraculous powers (Luke 9:54), yet they were slow in apprehending the spiritual doctrine and aim of their Master, being impeded by their weak perception and their national prepossessions (Matt. 15:16; 16:22; 17:20; Luke 9:54; John 16:12), insomuch that they had to ask him concerning the obvious import of the plainest parables (Luke 12:41 sq.), and, indeed, they themselves at times confessed their want of faith (Luke 17:5); nor even at the departure of Jesus from the earth, when for two or three years they had been his constant and intimate companions (Matt. 16:21), were they at all mature (Luke 24:21; comp. John 16:12) in the knowledge appropriate to their mission. Even the inauguration with which they were privileged at the last supper with Jesus under so solemn circumstances (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:17) neither served to awaken their enthusiasm, nor indeed to preserve them from outright faithlessness at the death of their Master (Matt. 16:14; Luke 24:13, 36; John 20:9, 25). One who was but a distant follower of Jesus and a number of females charged themselves with the interment of his body, and it was only his incontestable resurrection that gathered together again his scattered disciples. Yet the most of them returned even after this to their previous occupation (John 21:3 sq.), as if in abandonment of him, and it required a fresh command of the Master (Matt. 24:28 sq.) to direct them to their mission and collect them at Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). Here they awaited in a pious association the advent of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), which Jesus had promised them (Acts 1:8) as the Paraclete (John 14:26; 16:13); and soon after the ascension of their teacher, on the Pentecost established at the founding of the old dispensation, they felt themselves surprised by an extraordinary phenomenon, resulting in an internal influx of the power of that Spirit (Acts 2); and thereupon they immediately began, as soon as the vacancy occasioned by the defection of Judas Iscariot had been filled by the election of Matthias (Acts 1:15 sq.), to publish, as witnesses of the life and resurrection of their Lord, the Gospel in the Holy City with ardor and success (Acts 2:41). Their course was henceforth decided, and over much that had hitherto been dark to them now beamed a clear light (John 2:22; 12:16).
Under the eyes of the apostles, and not without personal sacrifice on their part, the original Christian membership at Jerusalem erected themselves into a community within the pale of Judaism, although irrespective of its sacred rites, with which, however, they maintained a connection (Acts 3–7), and the apostolical activity soon disseminated the divine word among the Samaritans likewise (Acts 8:5 sq., 15), where already Jesus had gained some followers (John 4). In the mother Church at Jerusalem their superior dignity and power were universally acknowledged by the rulers and the people (Acts 5:12 sq.). Even the persecution which arose about Stephen and put the first check on the spread of the Gospel in Judea, does not seem to have brought peril to the apostles (Acts 8:1). Here ends, properly speaking (or rather, perhaps, with the general visitation hinted at in Acts 9:32), the first period of the apostles’ agency, during which its center is Jerusalem, and the prominent figure is that of Peter. Agreeably to the promise of our Lord to him (Matt. 16:18), which we conceive it impossible to understand otherwise than in a personal sense, he among the twelve foundations (Rev. 21:14) was the stone on whom the Church was first built; and it was his privilege first to open the doors of the kingdom of heaven to Jews (Acts 2:14, 42) and to Gentiles (Acts 10:11). The next decisive step was taken by Peter, who, not without misgivings and even disapproval on the part of the primitive body of Christians, had published the Gospel on the sea-coast (Acts 10:11), and this led to the establishment of a second community in the Syrian metropolis Antioch (Acts 11:21), which kept up a friendly connection with the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:22), and constitutes the center of this second period of the apostolic history.
But all that had hitherto taken place was destined to be cast into the shade by the powerful influence of one individual, a Pharisee, who received the apostolate in a most remarkable manner, namely, Paul. Treated at first with suspicion, he soon acquired influence and consideration in the circle of the apostles by his enthusiasm (Acts 13), but, betaking himself to Antioch, he carried forth thence in every direction the Gospel into distant heathen lands, calling out and employing active associates, and resigning to others (Peter; comp. Gal. 2:7) the conversion of the Jews. His labors form the third apostolic period. From this time Paul is the central character of the apostolic history; even Peter gradually disappears, and it is only after Paul had retired from Asia Minor that John appears there, but even then laboring in a quiet manner. Thus a man who had probably not personally known Christ, who, at least, was not (originally) designated and consecrated by him to the apostleship yet accomplished more for Christianity than all the directly-appointed apostles, not only in extent, measuring his activity by the geographical region traversed, but also in intensity, since he especially grasped the comprehensive scope of the Christian remedial system, and sought to harmonize the heavenly doctrine with sound learning. It is not a little remarkable that a Pharisee should thus most successfully comprehend the worldwide spirit of Christianity.
Authentic history records nothing concerning the apostles beyond what Luke has afforded respecting Peter, John (Acts 8:14), and the two James’ (Acts 12:2, 17; 15:13; 21:18). Traditions, derived in part from early times (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. iii, 1), have come down to us concerning nearly all of them, but they must be cautiously resorted to, as they sometimes conflict with one another, and their gradual growth can often be traced. All that can be gathered with certainty respecting the subsequent history of the apostles is that James after the martyrdom of James the greater (Acts 12:2), usually remained at Jerusalem as the acknowledged head of the fraternity (comp. Acts 12:17) and president of the college of the apostles (Acts 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 2:9); while Peter traveled mostly as missionary among the Jews (“apostle of the Circumcision,” Gal. 2:8), and John (all three are named “pillars” of the Christian community, Gal. 2:9) eventually strove at Ephesus to extend the kindly practical character of Christianity, which had been endangered by Gnostical tendencies, and to win disciples in this temper. From this period it certainly becomes impossible to determine the sphere of these or the other apostles’ activity; but it must ever remain remarkable that precisely touching the evangelical mission of the immediate apostles no more information is extant, and that the memory of the services of most of them survived the very first century only in extremely unreliable stories. We might be even tempted to consider the choice of Jesus as in a great measure a failure, especially since a Judas was among the select; but we must not forget, in the first place, that it was of great importance for Jesus to form as early as possible a narrow circle of disciples, i.e. at a time when there was a small opportunity for selection (Matt. 9:37 sq.); in the second place, that, in making the choice, he could only have regard to the moral and intellectual constitution, in which respect the apostles chosen probably compared favorably with his other followers; and finally that, even if (as some infer from John 2:25) the ultimate results had been clearly foreseen by him, they did not (especially after the new turn given to the Christian enterprise by Paul) strictly depend upon this act of his, since, in fact, the successful issue of the scheme justified his sagacity as to the instrumentalities by which it was, on the whole, carried forward. Some writers have made out quite an argument for the selection of the apostles from their various idiosyncrasies and marked traits of character, and Jesus himself clearly never intended that they should all have an equal career or mission; the founding of the Church in Palestine and its vicinity was their first and chief work, and their services in other countries, however important in themselves, were of secondary interest to this.
The characteristic features of this highest office in the Christian Church have been very accurately delineated by M‘Lean, in his Apostolic Commission. “It was essential to their office—(1.) That they should have seen the Lord and been eye and ear witnesses of what they testified to the world (John 15:27). This is laid down as an essential requisite in the choice of one to succeed Judas (Acts 1:21, 22), that he should have been personally acquainted with the whole ministerial course of our Lord, from the baptism of John till the day when He was taken up into heaven. He himself describes them as ‘those that had continued with Him in his temptations’ (Luke 22:28). By this close personal intercourse with Him, they were peculiarly fitted to give testimony to the facts of redemption; and we gather from his own words in John 14:28; 15:26, 27; 16:13, that an especial bestowal of the Spirit’s influence was granted them, by which their memories were quickened, and their power of reproducing that which they had heard from him increased above the ordinary measure of man. Paul is no exception here; for, speaking of those who saw Christ after his resurrection, he adds, ‘and last of all he was seen of me’ (1 Cor. 15:8). And this he elsewhere mentions as one of his apostolic qualifications: ‘Am I not an apostle? have I not seen the Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9:1). So that his ‘seeing that Just One and hearing the word of his mouth’ was necessary to his being ‘a witness of what he thus saw and heard’ (Acts 22:14, 15). (2.) They must have been immediately called and chosen to that office by Christ himself. This was the case with every one of them (Luke 6:13; Gal. 1:1), Matthias not excepted; for, as he had been a chosen disciple of Christ before, so the Lord, by determining the lot, declared his choice, and immediately called him to the office of an apostle (Acts 1:24–26). (3.) Infallible inspiration was also essentially necessary to that office (John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:10; Gal. 1:11, 12). They had not only to explain the true sense and spirit of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27; Acts 26:22, 23; 28:23), which were hid from the Jewish doctors but also to give forth the New Testament revelation to the world, which was to be the unalterable standard of faith and practice in all succeeding generations (1 Pet. 1:25; 1 John 4:6). It was therefore absolutely necessary that they should be secured against all error and mistake by unerring inspiration. Accordingly, Christ bestowed on them the Spirit to ‘teach them all things,’ to ‘bring all things to their remembrance whatsoever he had said to them’ (John 14:26), to ‘guide them into all truth,’ and to ‘show them things to come’ (John 16:13). Their word, therefore, must be received, ‘not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God’ (1 Thess. 2:13), and as that whereby we are to distinguish ‘the spirit of truth from the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). (4.) Another qualification was the power of working miracles (Acts 2:43), such as speaking with divers tongues, curing the lame, etc. (1 Cor. 12:8–11). These were the credentials of their divine mission. ‘Truly,’ says Paul, ‘the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds’ (2 Cor. 12:12). Miracles were necessary to confirm their doctrine at its first publication, and to gain credit to it in the world as a revelation from God, and by these ‘God bare them witness’ (Heb. 2:4). (5.) To these characteristics may be added the universality of their mission. Their charge was not confined to any particular visible church, like that of ordinary pastors, but being the oracles of God to men, they had ‘the care of all the churches’ (2 Cor. 11:28). They had power to settle their faith and order as a model to future ages, to determine all controversies (Acts 16:4), and to exercise the rod of discipline upon all offenders, whether pastors or flock (1 Cor. 5:3–6; 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10).”
It must be obvious, from this scriptural account of the apostolical office, that the apostles had, in the strict sense of the term, no successors. Their qualifications were supernatural, and their work, once performed, remains in the infallible record of the New Testament, for the advantage of the Church and the world in all future ages. They are the only authoritative teachers of Christian doctrine and law. All official men in Christian churches can legitimately claim no higher place than expounders of the doctrines and administrators of the laws found in their writings. Few things have been more injurious to the cause of Christianity than the assumption on the part of ordinary office-bearers in the Church of the peculiar prerogatives of “the holy apostles of our Lord Jesus.” Much that is said of the latter is not at all applicable to the former; and much that admits of being applied can be so, in truth, only in a very secondary and extenuated sense. See Succession.
The apostolical office seems to have been pre-eminently that of founding the churches and upholding them by supernatural power specially bestowed for that purpose. It ceased, as a matter of course, with its first holders; all continuation of it, from the very conditions of its existence (comp. 1 Cor. 9:1), being impossible. The ἐπίσκοπος, or “bishop” of the ancient churches coexisted with, and did not in any sense succeed, the apostles; and when it is claimed for bishops or any church officers that they are their successors, it can be understood only chronologically, and not officially.
In the early ecclesiastical writers we find the term ὁ ἀπόστολος, “the apostle,” used as the designation of a portion of the canonical books, consisting chiefly of the Pauline Epistles. “The Psalter” and “the Apostle” are often mentioned together. It is also not uncommon with these writers to call Paul “The Apostle,” by way of eminence.
The biblical use of “apostle” is almost entirely confined to the NT, where it occurs seventy-nine times: ten in the Gospels, twenty-eight in Acts, thirty-eight in the epistles, and three in the Apocalypse. Our English word is a transliteration of the Greek apostolos, derived from apostellein (to send). Whereas several words for send are used in the NT, expressing such ideas as dispatch, release, or dismiss, apostellein emphasizes the elements of commission—the authority of and responsibility to the sender. Thus, apostles are sent on a definite mission, in which they act with full authority on behalf of the sender and are accountable to the sender.
The noun occurs only once in the LXX. When the wife of Jeroboam came to Ahijah seeking information about the health of her son, the prophet answered, “I am sent to you with bad news” (1 Kings 14:6). Here apostolos renders Hebrew šālûaḥ, which became a somewhat technical term in Judaism for someone who led the synagogue congregation in worship, a representative of the Sanhedrin sent on official business, a priest, or a few outstanding OT personalities who acted strikingly on God’s behalf. But in no case did the šālûaḥ operate beyond the confines of the Jewish community. So there is no anticipation in the šālûaḥ of the missionary emphasis associated with the NT apostolos.
In Hebrews 3:1 Jesus is called “the apostle … whom we confess,” in conscious contrast to Moses, whom Judaism described with the term šālûaḥ. Jesus spoke more directly from God than Moses was able to do. He repeatedly made the claim of being sent by the Father. When he declared that he was sending his chosen disciples into the world even as the Father had sent him, our Lord was bestowing on apostleship its highest dignity (John 17:18).
The apostles are most often called disciples in the Gospels, for their primary function during Christ’s ministry was to be with him and learn of him. But they are also called apostles, because Jesus imparted to them his authority to preach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14–15; 6:30). Just because this activity was limited while Jesus was with them, the term apostle is rarely used. After Pentecost this situation changed.
The number twelve recalls the twelve tribes of Israel, but the basis of leadership is no longer tribal, but personal and spiritual. Evidently the college of apostles was regarded as fixed in number, for Jesus spoke of twelve thrones in the coming age (Matt. 19:28; cf. Rev. 21:14). Judas was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1), but after that, no effort was made to select men to succeed those taken by death (12:2).
Apostles received first mention in the lists of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Since these gifts are bestowed by the risen Christ through the Spirit, it is probable that at the beginning of the apostolic age these men, who had been appointed by Jesus and trained by him, were now regarded as possessing a second investiture to mark the new and permanent phase of their work for which the earlier phase had been a preparation. They became the foundation of the preparation. They became the foundation of the church—in a sense secondary only to that of Christ himself (Eph. 2:20).
The duties of the apostles were preaching, teaching, and administration. Their preaching rested on their association with Christ and the instruction received from him, and it included their witness to his resurrection (Acts 1:22). Their converts passed immediately under their instruction (2:42), which presumably consisted largely of their recollection of the teaching of Jesus, augmented by revelations of the Spirit (Eph. 3:5). In the area of administration their functions were varied. Broadly speaking, they were responsible for the life and welfare of the Christian community. Undoubtedly, they took the lead in worship when the death of Christ was memorialized in the Lord’s Supper. They administered the common fund to which believers contributed for the help of needy Christians (Acts 4:37), until this task became burdensome and was shifted to men specially chosen for this responsibility (6:1–6). Discipline was in their hands (5:1–11). As the church grew and spread abroad, the apostles devoted more and more attention to the oversight of these scattered groups of believers (8:14; 9:32). At times the gift of the Holy Spirit was mediated through them (8:15–17). The supernatural powers that they had exercised when the Lord was among them, such as the exorcism of demons and the healing of the sick, continued to be tokens of their divine authority (5:12; 2 Cor. 12:12). They took the lead in resolving vexing problems that faced the church, associating the elders with themselves as an expression of democratic procedure (Acts 15:6; cf. 6:3).
The distinctive features of Paul’s apostleship were direct appointment by Christ (Gal. 1:1) and the allocation of the Gentile world to him as his sphere of labor (Rom. 1:5; Gal. 1:16; 2:8). His apostleship was recognized by the Jerusalem authorities in accordance with his own claim to rank with the original apostles. However, he never asserted membership in the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:11), but rather stood on an independent basis. He was able to bear witness to the resurrection because his call came from the risen Christ (Acts 26:16–18; 1 Cor. 9:1). Paul looked on his apostleship as a demonstration of divine grace and as a call to sacrificial labor rather than an occasion for glorying in the office (1 Cor. 15:10).
The most natural explanation of Galatians 1:19 is that Paul is declaring James, the Lord’s brother, to be an apostle, agreeable to the recognition James received in the Jerusalem church. In line with this, in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8, where James is mentioned, all the other individuals are apostles. Barnabas (along with Paul) is called an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14), but probably in a restricted sense only, as one sent forth by the Antioch church, to which he was obligated to report when his mission was completed (14:27). He was not regarded as an apostle at Jerusalem (Acts 9:27), though later on he was given the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9). Andronicus and Junias are said to be of note among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). Silvanus and Timothy seem to be included as apostles in Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 2:6. The references in 1 Corinthians 9:5 and 15:7 do not necessarily go beyond the Twelve. Paul also mentioned a “gift” of apostleship (Eph. 4:11).
It is reasonably clear that in addition to the Twelve, Paul and James had the leading recognition as apostles. Others also might be so indicated under special circumstances. But warrant is lacking for making “apostle” the equivalent of “missionary.” In the practice of the modern church, prominent pioneer missionaries are often called apostles, but this is only an accommodation of language. In the apostolic age one who held this rank was more than a preacher (2 Tim. 1:11). All disciples were supposed to be preachers, but not all were apostles (1 Cor. 12:29). Curiously, at one point in the church’s life all were busy preaching except the apostles (Acts 8:4). Paul would not have needed to defend his apostleship with such vehemence if he were only defending his right to proclaim the gospel. Alongside the distinctive and more technical use of the word is the occasional employment of it in the sense of messenger (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25).
There is some variety in the NT usage of the term “apostle.” The supreme example of an apostle is Jesus Christ Himself. There is also a broad usage referring to many of His missionaries, but most frequently the word is applied to the Twelve and to Paul.
Jesus Christ is the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (He. 3:1), the Son through whom God has spoken His final word to men (He. 1:1), the High Priest who has made propitiation for the sins of His people once for all (He. 2:17; 9:26). Whoever receives Him, receives Him that sent Him (Mk. 9:37). As the Father sent Jesus, He has also sent His apostles to preach the gospel to all the world (Jn. 20:21; 1Clem 42), nor are the disciples to expect a better treatment than that accorded their Master (Mt. 10:24f; Jn. 13:16).
The expression “all the apostles” in 1 Cor. 15:7 seems to include more than the twelve referred to in v 5. Here, as in Gal. 1:15, James is designated as an apostle; and he worthily performed the duties of that office for a generation as a home missionary to Jerusalem, as the chief minister of the church there, and as a witness for Jesus to Jewry. Barnabas is designated an apostle in Acts 14 (cf. 11:22f; 13:1–4), and Junias and Andronicus, kinsmen of Paul, in Rom. 16:7. In 1 Cor. 3:5, Apollos is called a minister (GK. diákonos); hence he is hardly to be included as an apostle in 4:6, 9. Likewise, Timothy is a brother, a minister, and a fellow laborer in 1 Thess. 3:2, and he is probably not designated an apostle in 2:6. The wider circle is intimated in 1 Cor. 9:5 and is presupposed in Didache 11:4–6. Paul’s reference to false apostles in 2 Cor. 11:13 certainly goes beyond the Twelve and himself. In this broad usage, then, an apostle was a first-century evangelist who bore witness to the resurrection of Christ, an itinerant missionary sent by Him to make disciples of all nations.
In most of the approximately eighty cases in which the word “apostle” occurs in the NT, it refers to the Twelve or to Paul. Their unique place is based upon the resurrected Jesus’ having appeared to them and having commissioned them to proclaim the gospel as the eschatological action of God in Christ. As witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Mt. 28; Lk. 24; Acts 1:22; 10:41; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:4) and sole witnesses of His ascension (Acts 1:9–13), they are the guarantors of His resurrection, even as the resurrection is the demonstration that He is the Messiah of prophecy and the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; Rom. 1:4). Moreover, the risen Lord has particularly empowered them by the Holy Spirit for their whole ministry of witnessing, preaching, working miracles, establishing and guiding churches (Jn. 20:22; Acts 1:8; 2 Cor. 12:12; Rom. 15; 1 Cor. 2), and bearing hardships, shame, and suffering for Jesus’ sake (Acts 5:40f; 12:1–4; Phil. 3:8; 1 Cor. 9:1). In the case of the Twelve, an additional qualification for their special apostleship is having had fellowship with the Lord from the baptism of John until Jesus was received up from them (Acts 1:21f); thus they had personal knowledge of the Incarnate Word.
The apostles are regarded as setting the norms of doctrine and fellowship (Acts 2:42), the marking posts (Gal. 2:9), the rule by which one must measure his preaching (Gal. 2:2), the foundation (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14; 1 Cor. 3:11), so that there is no way to Christ that detours around them. Their importance is due to their function of presenting the authentic interpretation of their Lord. With the increasing Gnostic claims for oral tradition an added emphasis accrued to the writings authorized by the apostles. Their common testimony is based on OT prophecy and is preserved in the NT. Since they saw, heard, and handled the Word of life and gave eyewitness testimony to decisive events (1 Jn. 1:1–3), and since no foundation repeats itself, they are irreplaceable in any subsequent generation.
The Twelve Apostles
In His itinerant ministry, Jesus called men to repent and receive the yoke of the kingdom (Mk. 1:14–20; Jn. 1:35–51). From those who heard He gathered disciples, and from among them He called twelve (Simon Peter, James and John sons of Zebedee, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean or Zealot, Judas Iscariot) to be with Him (Mk. 3:15), that they might learn of Him such things as humility (Mt. 11:28–30; Lk. 18:9–14), prayer (Lk. 11:1–13), service to others (Mt. 20:20–28), the characteristics and responsibilities of the children of the kingdom (Mt. 5–7; 13), the person and mission of Himself (Mt. 16:13f; 20:28). Then, delegating some of His own authority to them, Jesus sent out the Twelve as apostles on limited assignments, to preach, to cast out demons, and to heal (Mk. 6:7; Lk. 9:1–6; Mt. 10:1). Their temporary mission accomplished, they returned to Jesus, reporting what they had done and taught (Mk. 6:30; Lk. 9:10). Seeing one casting out demons in the name of Jesus, without specific authorization by the Master, they had forbidden him (Mk. 9:38–41). Jesus assured them that even a cup of cold water given an apostle because he is Christ’s is given to his sender (Mk. 9:41; Mt. 10:40). In these ways Jesus trained an inner circle of twelve to become the permanent apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14), the “twelve tribes” of the New Israel (Mt. 19:28).
The Lord celebrated the Last Supper with the Twelve (Lk. 22:14f) and used that occasion to teach them of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14–17), who would interpret to them the meaning of His message, His acts, and His person. By the Spirit’s abiding presence, their witnessing is not left to their unaided impressions and recollections but is so directed by Him as to become the authentic interpretation of Christ. The arrest and the crucifixion scattered the Twelve, but their resurrected Lord appeared to Peter and to the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:34f). He breathed His Spirit upon them (Jn. 20:22f; Acts 2), and thus empowered and commissioned them as permanent apostles sent by the risen Redeemer to carry His gospel to all nations (Mt. 28:19; Lk. 24:47; cf. Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28).
The inner core of the Twelve consisted of Peter, James, and John (Mt. 17:1; 26:37). As Peter had been the spokesman of the Twelve in the great confession (Mt. 16:16), so with him begins the apostolic faith in Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:34), as well as the apostolic interpretation of His death from such OT passages as Isa. 53 (Mk. 10:45; Acts 10:43; 1 Pet. 1:11, 19; 2:4; 3:18). In Jerusalem Peter led the disciples in appealing to the Lord to designate a successor to Judas as a witness to His resurrection (Acts 1:15–26). Peter with the Eleven proclaimed the risen Christ, who sent the Spirit from God’s right hand. Three thousand were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and continued in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, and prayers (Acts 2). In Christ’s name Peter and John proclaimed healing to the lame man, and Peter used the occasion to preach again the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 3), as a result of which they were temporarily imprisoned. Speaking for the apostles, Peter condemned Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). With John he was sent to Samaria to seal with the Holy Spirit the newly baptized disciples (Acts 8:14). Thereafter Peter extended his missionary activities to Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea, where he opened the doors of the Church to Cornelius, a Gentile who feared God (Acts 9:32–11:18). Later, his missionary activities reached Antioch (Gal. 2) and Corinth (?) (1 Cor. 1:12; 9:5), and probably extended to a martyrdom in Rome.
The apostolic proclamation, that the God of Israel had raised from the dead and glorified as the Messiah the Jesus whom Jerusalem had crucified, aroused animosity. The broadening of the Church, first by the preaching of the Seven and later by Peter’s reception of Cornelius, accentuated the opposition, particularly toward the inner three. Herod killed James the brother of John with the sword, and put Peter in prison, expecting to treat him the same way in order to please the Jews. But the angel of the Lord delivered Peter from prison (Acts 12).
In Antioch, Paul pleaded with Peter to stand by his own true principles of receiving Gentiles and not to play the hypocrite in order to please the Judaizers (Gal. 2:11f). Thus for the truth of the gospel even Peter, the Rock apostle, was corrected by an associate; and at the Council of Jerusalem Peter told how God had used him to proclaim the gospel and minister faith to the household of Cornelius. He begged the apostles and elders to lay no additional yoke upon these gentile believers (Acts 15:6–11). In Corinth some called themselves disciples of Cephas (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22), but Peter seems to have been as careful as Paul to have his associates rather than himself baptize (Acts 10:48), lest men should say that the apostles baptized in their own names (1 Cor. 1:17). Thus Peter was the decisive figure among the Twelve.
The Apostle Paul
Unlike the Twelve, Paul had not accompanied Jesus during His preaching ministry. Nevertheless, he regarded himself and was accepted by the primitive Church as manifesting the signs of an apostle. While Acts gives Paul the title only in ch. 14, where some understand the reference to be to apostles of the church in Antioch, nevertheless the paramount place this book gives to Paul’s ministry attests his full recognition. In its three accounts of the Lord’s initial encounter with Paul as well as in the apostle’s own writing (e.g., Gal. 1:16; 2 Cor. 4:6), his apostleship is presented as the direct action of the risen Lord Jesus. He is an apostle, not from men nor through a man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead (Gal. 1:1). This encounter is not a mere subjective vision, but an objective event, an act of God, a Christophany (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8).
As Paul preached the gospel of Christ (Rom. 15:16–21), Gentiles were brought into the obedience of the faith, and churches were established throughout the Roman world. The fruits of his ministry, miraculous signs (1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 2:8; cf. Jn. 14:12), his labors and sufferings for the name of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:14; 2 Cor. 1:5f; 4:5f; cf. Lk. 21:12), were truly apostolic.
In their ministry to the Jews and the God-fearers, the Twelve could presuppose OT theism, i.e., the living God, His righteousness, judgment to come, and the hope of Israel. Building on this, they sounded the call to repentance and offered men the Lord Jesus as the messianic Savior. In preaching to the Gentiles, Paul was given the additional task of first reasoning of the Most High God (Acts 16:17), the Maker and Governor of all things (Acts 17:24–28), and also of righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come (Acts 24:25; cf. Rom. 1:18–3:19). Then, having sought conviction under the law written in the hearts of men as well as on the tablets of Moses, he called sinners to Christ, the one Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5).
The most significant characteristic of Paul’s apostleship is the graciousness of the Lord’s action in converting His most formidable opponent into His most effective minister. The first word of the encounter recorded in Acts is “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In the Epistles, Paul never forgets that as a persecutor injurious to the Church, he is less than the least of all the saints and not worthy to be called an apostle (Eph. 3:8; 1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:12–16). In such a situation it was only grace on top of grace that made Paul an apostle. Here is grace most clear: Christ is for Paul even when Paul is most actively against Him. Thus is it most evident that the glory is not of men but of God. God is willing to work more abundantly in this very earthen vessel than in others (1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 4:7f; Eph. 3:8f; 1 Tim. 1:14, 16).
By his apostolic commission, Paul was separated from all other interests to God’s gospel concerning His Son (Rom. 1:1–3; 1 Cor. 1:1, 17; Gal. 1:15; 2:7; Acts 22:14–17). Other disciples had a long period of training for their apostleship, but by this great encounter Christ made Paul forever His bond slave, debtor, and apostle (Rom. 1:1, 15). In the case of Paul there was an immediate surrender, his consciousness was completely dominated by the will of God (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1), which he beheld working from his birth to fit him for his particular place in God’s plan (Gal. 1:15; Eph. 1:5; 3:2–9). Here is the recovery of that prophetic consciousness that gives the dominant place to the thought of God. In his letters to the church in Corinth Paul is constantly wringing all self-adulation out of his ministry that men may glory only in Christ, whom God has made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
Paul is careful not to base his apostleship on ecstatic gifts, lest by magnifying his own individuality he overshadow the grace of God (1 Cor. 12; 2 Cor. 12). It is by God’s grace that he is an apostle, commissioned not to honor himself but to serve God in preaching the gospel of His Son (Rom. 1:9; 15:19; 1 Cor. 1:17). Even the signs of an apostle are given Paul only to further his ministry, to magnify God, not himself (1 Cor. 2:5).
In the NT there is always a decisive distinction between the Lord Jesus and His apostles. While He has full authority in Himself, their power is only in His Name and in the Spirit given by Him (Acts 3:6, 12; 9:34; Jn. 15:5). Even so His majesty and might stand behind them. As His witnesses, ambassadors, and vicars (Mt. 10:40; Lk. 10:16), they hold the first and most significant place in the primitive Church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Accordingly, they exercise great authority in matters of discipline (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 5:1–7; 2 Cor. 2:1–10; Jn. 20:23; Mt. 16:19; 18:15–22) and other problems facing the churches (2 Cor. 13:2, 10; 1 Thess. 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:4, 6). Yet they treasure the precept, “you have one teacher, and you are all brethren” (Mt. 23:8; cf. Mt 10:24). Paul sought to increase the joy of others, not to lord it over their faith (2 Cor. 1:24). He insisted that his own preaching as truly as Peter’s conduct must be in accord with the gospel (Gal. 1:18; 2:14). Peter felt obligated to defend his in receiving Cornelius to the other apostles and the brethren (Acts 11:1–18).
The explanation of this paradox is to be found in the missionary situation in the primitive fellowship. In a sense the apostolate was prior to the Church as a sociological gathering. As the foundation pillars they spoke with authority, but it was an authority that sought to bring out and develop the local ministry. The earliest disciples put forward two, of whom the Lord chose Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:15, 23), and the enlarged body selected the Seven, whom the apostles ordained with the laying on of hands and prayer (Acts 6:1–6). The elders shared with the apostles in the decision at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and government appears as a gift distinct from apostleship in 1 Cor. 12:28f Paul participated with the congregational presbytery in ordaining Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). Nor did the apostles take the leading place in administering the sacraments, as the bishops did in the 2nd cent. (1 Cor. 1:14; Acts 10:48). Through the local ministers the apostles made provision for the Church’s worship, government, and discipline to be carried on in their absence and after their decease. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers show the advance of this process.
Later in the 2nd cent. a more strenuous effort was made to ward off the dangers of speculation, schism, and apostasy brought about by persecution. Added stress was placed upon the Apostolic Rule of Faith, the Apostolic Canon of Scripture, and the Apostolic Office, that is, the bishops in churches that had been founded by apostles. These tests were expected to keep church proclamation in conformity with the word and witness of the dominically chosen and commissioned body of apostles.
In the final analysis, the apostles were officers not of the Church but of the risen Lord, who proclaimed Himself through their preaching of Him and so built His Church through their labors. In their activities, the ministry of the Church was so related to the ministry of Christ that it was Christ Himself who was nourishing, sustaining, and directing His Church. And the Church is authentically apostolic only when her thought and action are governed and guided by her Lord, that is, when He rules and teaches His Church through His Spirit and Word by the ministry of men. Through their faithful exposition of the apostolic gospel the risen Lord is still heard proclaiming Himself as the Savior of sinners.
The period from Pentecost to the death of John, the last of the twelve apostles (ca 100), when the Church was under the guidance of Paul (till his death) and the apostles, especially Peter and John.
Apostolic Age. Period of growth and development in the early church associated with the leadership of the 12 apostles. The apostolic age began with the death and resurrection of Christ and ended with a persevering church at the end of the 1st century A.D. It was a dynamic age, encompassing not only the writing of the NT canon but also the development of a philosophy to guide the church in its complex relationships with both external forces (governments, other religions) and internal problems (false teachers, church discipline).
Much is still unknown about the apostolic age. Most of our knowledge comes from comments in the NT epistles and the history of the church recorded in the Book of Acts, which traces only one line of development among many during that time. For example, the ministries of most of the 12 apostles and the growth of the church in areas such as North Africa or Parthia (ancient country southeast of the Caspian Sea) are not described. From the NT materials, however, a valuable picture of the apostolic age can be obtained.
Founding of the Church
Scholars have debated whether the church was founded (1) at the confession of Peter (Mt 16:18; cf. Mt 18:17, the only other place in the Gospels where Jesus used the term “church”); (2) at the resurrection (viewed as the inaugural event of the new age); or (3) at Pentecost (the public empowering of the church by the Holy Spirit). Although arguments can be made for each view, the NT itself shows no interest in the issue. The apostles probably saw the origin of the church in a complex interplay between Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection as God’s vindication of that ministry, and Pentecost as a public manifestation of continuity between Jesus’ ministry and the church’s proclamation.
Jesus’ Ministry. Jesus’ choice of 12 disciples, his reference to them as the “little flock” (Lk 12:32), and his constant teaching on the “poor” and “afflicted” in the kingdom of God are reminiscent of the “remnant theology” of the OT prophets. The remnant was a group called by God out of the apostate nation of Israel, identified with the name of God, and ordained both to call the nation back to repentance and to suffer persecution in God’s name. Therefore Jesus had already conceived of the separation between his band of followers and mainstream Judaism when he spoke of the church.
The term “church” (i.e., the Greek word ecclesia) is found over 100 times in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian Greek translation of the OT. That term, linked with the Jewish concept of the “people of God,” refers to the messianic community of “the last days,” an aspect of God’s plan for which Jesus definitely prepared his disciples.
The Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the climax of his earthly ministry and the starting point of the “church age.” Luke tied the two together in his theological portrayals of the ascension in his Gospel and Acts. The different narratives in his two books related different aspects of the same event. In Luke 24:51–53 the ascension is seen as the conclusion to Jesus’ earthly ministry. That account thus stresses Jesus’ priestly blessing of the disciples and their response in worship. In Acts 1:6–11 Luke showed that the ascension was also the beginning of the church age. There he stressed the empowering, commissioning, and preparing of the disciples for the development of the church.
Those who argue that the resurrection never really occurred have a difficult time explaining the powerful surge of faith in the disciples. For the NT writers, the resurrection was the primary cause of the disciples’ faith. The disciples themselves had failed. Matthew used the term “fall away” (also translated “take offense,” 26:31) to describe what the disciples did after the crucifixion; normally he reserved that term for the apostate Pharisees (cf. 11:6; 13:21; 15:12; and elsewhere). The disciples could hardly have come to their later victorious proclamation on their own. In fact, they were transformed from a defeated band of stragglers into heralds of a messianic community filled with joy and enthusiasm.
The Gospels themselves indicate the relationship between Jesus’ ministry, his resurrection, and the founding of the church. Mark wrote of a “messianic secret” whereby Jesus refused to allow his messianic office to be proclaimed until after the resurrection (Mk 8:30; 9:9). The disciples were told the secret but did not understand it until the resurrection (Mk 4:13; 6:52; 7:17, 18; 9:10). The teaching of Jesus was both the basis of the church (Mt 28:19, 20) and the content of the church’s message. That message had been understandable all along but became discernible only in the light of the resurrection. Luke presented an even more complete picture, showing the continuity between Jesus’ earthly ministry, which inaugurated the “messianic age of salvation,” and the church’s proclamation of the message of salvation. The resurrection was the connecting link between the two.
Finally, John showed that the resurrection “glory” had been visible in Jesus all along to the “eye of faith.” Both salvation (Jn 20) and the church (ch 21), however, could be fully understood only through the resurrection as the key to Jesus’ teaching and person. Thus all four Evangelists declared, each in his own distinctive way, that Jesus’ ministry prepared for the postresurrection message of the church. The essential link was the resurrection, which pointed to the presence of the risen Christ in God’s messianic community, the church.
Pentecost. The inauguration of the church age was sealed by introducing the age of the Spirit at Pentecost. John’s Gospel shows that Pentecost should not be isolated from the resurrection. In what has been called the Johannine pentecost (Jn 20:22), Christ appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, “breathed” on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That was a private, personal strengthening of the disciples, whereas the Pentecost experience was a public empowering and vindication of the church, the remnant of Israel.
During the time of Jesus’ appearances or shortly thereafter, the disciples moved from Galilee and made Jerusalem their permanent home, perhaps expecting the fulfillment of the prophetic promises regarding Jerusalem (Is 2:2–4; 40:1, 2, 9–11). During the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the church experienced the coming of the Spirit. The first Christian Pentecost had a threefold meaning: (1) It signified the outpouring of praise to God on behalf of the new messianic community (seen in the ecstatic utterances, Acts 2:4, 11). (2) It began the time of universal proclamation (seen in the “nations” that understood it, Acts 2:9–11). (3) It demonstrated the power available to the church for accomplishing its task (seen in the wind and fire, Acts 2:2, 3).
The Palestinian Period
The Early Church’s View of Itself. Did the primitive church view itself as “true Israel” or simply as a part of the Jewish nation? Scholars of the 19th century argued for the second option, but many scholars have begun to see a growing “church consciousness” at the earliest stages. The early church actually saw itself as both separate from and a part of Israel itself. The church was the new Israel, hence distinct from the old, but it was also the remnant of the OT hope. As the remnant, it called the Jewish nation to the new “congregation of Jesus,” to the fulfillment of its messianic hopes.
When Christians worshiped in the temple and took part in Jewish feasts, they did so in the belief that they were participating in the fulfillment of the OT promise and not merely as members of another Jewish sect. In fact, the temple and synagogue became the focus of the church’s evangelistic outreach. The early church’s message was one of promise-fulfillment; that is, it pointed to the OT promises of redemption and then showed how those promises were fulfilled in Christ. The earliest recorded creed (1 Cor 15:3–5) followed the promise-fulfillment pattern in stressing that the death and resurrection of Christ took place “according to the Scriptures.” Every NT book except James echoes the same theme, but the early speeches in Acts especially abound with appeals to OT Scripture. The apostles sought to prove to the Jews that Jesus was indeed the Christ prophesied in the OT.
Church Leadership. Early church leadership centered around the 12 apostles, and especially Peter as the “rock” of the church (stressed in Acts 1–15). The importance of the number 12 is seen in Acts 1:21–26 when the disciples chose a replacement for Judas, and in Acts 12:2 when they did not choose a successor to James the brother of John. The two events suggest that at the outset of the church’s existence the apostles felt it was crucial for the sake of its witness that they be 12 in number. When the church was fully established, however, it was no longer necessary to maintain that number. The original significance of the 12 apostles was again connected with the “remnant” motif, the 12 apostles corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. The apostleship of the chosen 12 was based on their presence with the Lord in his earthly ministry and their experience of his resurrection appearances and commission (Acts 1:21, 22).
The complexity of life in the growing Jerusalem church soon proved to be too much for the 12 apostles to handle by themselves. In Acts 6:1–6, the Hellenistic Jewish faction (Jewish Christians who were from Greek territories outside Palestine) complained that the native “Hebrews” (the Palestinian believers) were favored in the distribution of the common funds given to needy widows. The apostles, realizing that they could not handle both evangelistic and domestic duties, chose deacons to handle internal matters. The term “deacon” (meaning one who “waits tables” or “serves”) was uncommon both in Judaism and Hellenism; it originated in Jesus’ concept of servanthood (cf. Mk 10:44).
The Scattering of the Church. Beginning with the stoning of Stephen (one of the first deacons), a wave of persecution hit the Jerusalem church, inspired by Stephen’s witness before the Jewish council and by the Jewish authorities’ growing realization that the Christians were not a mere splinter group within Judaism. The persecution resulted in a scattering of the church’s Hellenistic Jews into outlying regions and brought about several changes.
First, the internal leadership changed from Hellenistic deacons to Jewish elders. Though it is not known precisely when the concept of “elder” originated, it was in use by the time of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:23) and his visit to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2).
Second, the main leadership narrowed further from the apostles to the “pillars” (Gal 2:9), with James the brother of the Lord taking the place of the martyred James (John’s brother) in the inner circle with Peter and John. James’s leadership of the church’s Jewish branch is evident at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
Finally, an emphasis on the “charismatic” (“spiritual”) gifts began to appear. The list of gifts in Ephesians 4:11 (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor–teachers), as well as the other lists (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12), probably go back to that early period. Many scholars have argued for a purely Spirit-led church government in the early period, but the evidence points to the presence of both institutional and charismatic elements from the beginning.
Most important, the scattering of the church became the God-ordained first step to the universal mission of the church. All the evidence suggests that in the first years the early church interpreted the Great Commission in light of proselyte theology; that is, the church sought to reach Jews with the gospel, believing that Gentiles would come to the church by first becoming Jewish proselytes. However, the dispersion forced the church out of Jerusalem and into the Jewish communities of the diaspora. There Christians came into contact with the “God-fearers,” Gentiles who followed Judaism but who had not been circumcised. There also they first faced the difficult question: Did Gentiles have to be circumcised in order to become Christians? The question plagued the church for the next few decades.
The Development of Creeds. During the earliest period the “traditions” or creeds (official doctrinal statements) of the church began to develop. At the outset the sayings of Jesus formed the core of the didache (“teaching”) of the 12 apostles. Those sayings were not written down but were preserved through oral tradition, passed from teachers to converts in much the same way as the rabbis taught their disciples. At the same time, the apostles and teachers began to formulate creeds (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3–5), catechisms (teachings for new converts, e.g., Rom 1:3, 4), confessions (liturgies for worship, e.g., Rom 10:9, 10), and hymns (e.g., Phil 2:6–11), plus formulae for ethical instruction derived from Judaism through Christ’s ethical teachings. Such ethical teachings quickly took on overtones of tradition as the church began to recognize the ethical limits of the new “freedom” found in Christ.
By developing traditions, the apostles and teachers sought to interpret the teaching and ministry of Jesus for later church situations. Quite early in the church’s history the traditions assumed canonical status alongside the sayings of Jesus, as can be seen in the large number of traditional sayings in the NT letters. (In fact, 1 Peter has been called a “compendium” of tradition.)
The Early Church and the Law. The religious practice of the early church also began to take form. Jewish Christians were faithful to the Law and obeyed the Sabbath commandments. In fact, as Matthew showed, the Law still had validity even though it was “fulfilled” by Christ; Jesus seemingly annulled the Law in both teaching and action yet commanded that it be obeyed to the last detail (Mt 5:17–20). The paradox was only apparent. Before Jesus, the Law had served as a mediator between a righteous God and sinful humanity. Jesus fulfilled the Law by becoming the one true mediator between God and humanity. In so doing he called for the same basic response as the Law: repentance. Yet he also made it possible to stop hiding behind the Law from the wrath of God and to enter into true fellowship with him. Thus the Law, still valid in one respect, was transformed by the work of Christ.
So it seemed essential both to recognize the original validity of the Law and to announce its fulfillment by the Law of Christ. Yet the church ran into tremendous problems because it forgot to maintain that tension between adherence to and negation of the Law. The details are clearly spelled out in Acts, as God step-by-step led the church to the gentile mission. First, Philip was led to the Samaritans—an Israelite community that had broken from Jerusalem established its own center of worship and was therefore despised by Judeans. That evangelistic enterprise, at first unacceptable to the Jerusalem church, had to be confirmed by the apostles Peter and John and then by the Samaritan Pentecost (Acts 8:5–25). Evidence that the Holy Spirit worked among the Samaritans helped to wean the early church away from a purely Jewish orientation.
The next step was Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9–16) related to the Jewish food laws as well as to laws about eating with Gentiles. Cornelius, a gentile God-fearer, was converted without being circumcised (vv 17–43). His conversion also had to be confirmed by a Pentecost experience (vv 44–48).
Finally, when Paul’s gentile mission intensified the debate, Jewish Christianity split into opposing camps. Paul’s opponents (the Judaizers) attacked his right to be called an apostle (Gal 1:1) as well as his motives (vv 10–12). They demanded that the new converts be circumcised before being admitted to the church. Paul saw such demands as an attack on the gospel and took the problem to Jerusalem (Acts 15). There the Jerusalem Council, after two influential speeches by Peter and James, endorsed the gentile mission, effectively ending the Palestinian period. At the same time, they requested that gentile believers respect Jewish legal sensitivities (see the “letter,” Acts 15:23–29).
Early Church Discipline. Despite the pronouncement of the Jerusalem Council regarding Gentiles, the Judaizers did not suspend their opposition to Paul but rather intensified it. Jesus had given the disciples a method of dealing with unfaithful church members. If the members did not respond to personal correction, they were to be banned from the church (Mt 18:15–18; cf. Gal 6:1). Thus the Judaizers probably were banned from the church and became a cultic sect. The difference of tone between the Letter to the Galatians, where they are merely opponents, and later epistles (2 Cor 11:13–15; Phil 3:18, 19), where they are called “false prophets” and servants of Satan headed for destruction, illustrates the change.
Worship. Congregation: (Heb. קָהַל qahal; Gr. ἐκκλησία ekklēsia) A congregation of Christians. A group of Christians who gather for a Christian meeting, implying an interacting membership. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it usually refers to the nation of Israel, i.e., “the assembly of Israel” or “the congregation of Israel.” The Greek New Testament refers to congregations of Christians and the Christian congregation as a whole. (Num. 20:8; Deut. 4:10; 1 Ki 8:22; Ac 9:31; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 14:4) The practice of meeting on the first day of the week, celebrating the new creation brought about by the resurrection, probably began during the Palestinian period (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Sunday is first called “the Lord’s day” in Revelation 1:10, though the term was probably in use before then.
At first Christians worshiped in the synagogue on Shabbat (“Saturday”) and with other believers in homes on the following day (Acts 2:46). Acts 2:42 describes the essentials of worship: apostolic teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In the Jewish setting, teaching was more than doctrine; it included practical application of the traditions to everyday situations. Also, teaching was not the duty merely of the leaders but of every individual. An ordinary Jew would give the synagogue sermon, and the head of each household was obligated to teach his wife, children, and servants. In the context of worship Christian teaching took on catechetical forms similar to those in 1 Peter and Hebrews. Teaching occurred in the service in connection with the sacred meal, again following Jewish precedent. “Fellowship” could refer to gifts and offerings (both giving and receiving, Acts 6:1, 2; Rom 15:26), or it could refer to “table fellowship” (again the sacred meal). “Fellowship” may also have referred in a more general way to the special unity and sharing between fellow believers (note its connection with teaching in Acts 2:42). The “prayers” mentioned were probably corporate, referring to participation in the temple and synagogue prayers as well as the community prayers in the Christian service.
The “breaking of bread” was at the center of the worship. There were two aspects: table fellowship in a meal, also called the “agape (love) feast,” and the actual eucharistic celebration (Communion, the Lord’s Supper) centering on the Lord’s own words (1 Cor 11:23–26). At the earliest stage, the table fellowship followed a Jewish pattern. As in the actual last supper (which was a Jewish Passover celebration), Christ’s words of institution and the elements of teaching and praise were all part of the meal. The fellowship of the corporate body in sharing the meal itself was integral with the spiritual aspects of the service. The two were not separated until later, when the meal was misused in the Hellenistic branch of the church. Not understanding its significance, they tended to celebrate it like a pagan feast, replacing the sacred meaning with gluttony, and replacing the agape (love) with self-seeking (cf. 1 Cor 11:20–22).
Baptism early became a Christian counterpart to Jewish circumcision (cf. Col 2:11, 12). The practice originated in Jesus’ resurrection command, which reinstated the baptism of John the Baptist but infused it with new meaning, namely, the entrance of the believer into the kingdom of God. At the beginning, the baptismal event occurred immediately upon conversion (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 13; 9:18; etc.); only later did it take on a formal, institutional aspect.
Period of Expansion
Paul’s Ministry. The apostle to the Gentiles was instrumental in bringing to a close the Palestinian period, but Paul also set the tone for the universal expansion of the church. The birthplace of the gentile mission was Antioch (Syria), a city of 300,000 with 10 percent Jews. The scattered Hellenists of Acts 8 began reaching out to the Greeks and in Antioch established a congregation that did not require circumcision for new converts; they neglected the oral tradition of the Law and other legal requirements (Acts 11:19–21; Gal 2:3–14). That group earned the name which has become the primary designation for the church, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). The Antioch church was the setting in which Paul received his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles (13:1, 2).
Jewish and Hellenistic Relations. The Jewish and Hellenistic wings of the church existed in a dynamic tension but also with definite interaction, especially in the Jewish communities of the diaspora. By the 1st century ad, Hellenistic thinking had permeated Jewish thought, and the church worked creatively within both spheres. The two styles of thought mingled freely and, as their contributions were reflected in church tradition, infusing each other with deeper meaning (e.g., in the concepts of meekness and love).
Further, both Hellenism and Judaism were reinterpreted on the basis of Jesus’ teachings, so the valid traditions of each were maintained in the developing churches. All the NT letters exhibit the process of interpreting local situations in the light of Jesus’ teachings. It seems remarkable that Paul quoted Christ so seldom until one realizes that Paul often alluded to church traditions, which themselves stemmed from the teaching and impact of Jesus. Thus, the ultimate authority of Jesus’ teaching provided the control for the Hellenistic (as well as Jewish) views of Christianity.
The problem of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles did not cease with the Jerusalem Council. Scrupulous Jews felt that social interaction, especially at meals, made them unclean (cf. Acts 10:10–16; Gal 2:11–14). The Jerusalem decree (Acts 15:28, 29; 21:25) was revolutionary, not only in asking the Gentiles to honor the food laws of the Jews but even more revolutionary in thereby sanctioning table fellowship between Jewish and gentile believers. In the Pauline churches, the issue was discussed in terms of the weak and the strong. The “strong” were those spiritually mature enough to free themselves of legal restrictions, such as abstaining from meat offered to idols (1 Cor 8–10) or eating only vegetables (Rom 15) without violating their consciences. Paul commanded his readers to honor the scruples of the “weak” and so to promote harmony.
The Apostolic Preaching. During the period of development, the apostles’ preaching (kerygma) also underwent revision. Although the Jewish mission centered on proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, the gentile mission emphasized the good news that “Jesus is Lord.” Pagans had no basis for understanding Jesus as the Christ, for they had no messianic expectation. In the gentile mission, “Christ” eventually became a surname rather than a title. The stress on the kingdom of God and on Jesus as king also had to be curtailed, because it caused misunderstanding and seemed to the Romans to be treason (Acts 17:7; cf. 16:21). New concepts were added, too, such as the “adoption” of a convert as a “child of God” (a metaphor well known to pagan society but not part of Jewish domestic life) and the cosmic concepts in the hymn recorded in Colossians 1:15–20.
The Jewish kerygma took on a stable form, but the gentile proclamation was expressed in great variety because of the many different outlooks represented in the pagan world. The speeches of Paul to the intelligentsia at Athens (Acts 17:22–31) and to the common people in Lystra (14:15–17) illustrate that variety. In both places, Paul’s starting point was natural revelation (rather than the fulfillment of prophecy, as in the Jewish mission); his speech at Athens was full of quotes and allusions to Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, whereas his speech at Lystra centered on the folly of idolatry.
Nevertheless, there was a unified approach to preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. Attack on idolatry plus proclamation of the one true God became the core of the gentile mission throughout the next few centuries. An appeal to natural revelation was not stressed by the church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries in their strong polemic against idolatry. It fit in well in the formative period, however, when believers took a conciliatory rather than a strongly polemical approach in gentile evangelism. Another uniting theme was Christ’s resurrection and his coming return as judge (Acts 17:31; cf. 1 Thes 1:10); this theme was used to stress the saving activity of the one God in the world. Finally, the message included a demand for repentance before the triune God. Thus, the gentile mission featured a unity of approach but a variety of methods that depended on each audience’s background.
Missionary strategy emerged as well. Following the pattern of congregations in the diaspora that tended to settle in the urban centers, the church concentrated on populated areas, first focusing on the metropolis and then sending converts into surrounding areas. The best example of such a pattern is Ephesus, where Paul settled for two years, lecturing in the school of Tyrannus (note the further development of Paul using a Greek philosophical school to proclaim the gospel). From Ephesus the church sent out converts, such as Epaphras (Col 1:7; 4:12), to take the message into nearby regions. Paul concentrated on Corinth and Ephesus, the capitals of Achaia and Asia Minor respectively, and longed to get to Rome, the hub of the world.
Social Breadth in the Church. The appeal of Christianity in the gentile world was very broad. Writers have commonly stressed the predominance of the lower classes in the early church but have often failed to realize what Jesus and Paul meant by the “poor” and “weak.” For the most part those terms referred to spiritual attitude and status rather than the economic level of a believer. Jewish monotheism held great appeal for intelligent pagans because their polytheism left a spiritual vacuum when they could no longer believe in the gods. That attraction increased with Christianity, which had all of Judaism’s religious and moral advantages without its disadvantages (such as circumcision and a detailed legal code). From the outset, prominent individuals joined the church, including members of the Jewish priestly aristocracy (Acts 6:7), the wife of Herod’s steward (Luke 8:3), and the proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7, 12).
The freedom proclaimed by the church was especially attractive but led to many problems. Luke’s stress on the disadvantaged (the lowly, women, children) in his Gospel shows that the later message of the church had its basis in Jesus’ ministry. The fact that all believers have the same standing before God (Gal 3:28) must have seemed an astounding thing to slaves (“there is neither slave nor free man”) and to women in cultures where women had little social status (“there is neither male nor female”).
If Paul’s passages on women in the church show that the assertion of freedom brought disrepute on the church among the pagans, Philippians 4:3 shows that women like Euodias and Syntyche could be considered coworkers with Paul, and Philemon 10–13 shows that Onesimus, a slave, was accepted by Paul in the same way. The social freedoms brought by Christianity were unprecedented in the pagan world.
Early Heresy. The appeal of Christianity to pagans led to the early church’s greatest internal problem: false teaching or heresy. It was natural that, just as the Judaizers had tried to conform Christianity to Judaism, so pagan converts would seek to recast the traditions in Hellenistic thought forms. A classic example was Simon Magus (Acts 8:9–13), considered by the church fathers to be the propagator of Gnosticism, a philosophical school of thought that claimed special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual reality. Simon’s authority lay in Samaria, where he was regarded as a direct emanation from God. His attempt to buy from the apostles the authority to bestow the gifts of the Holy Spirit resulted from his claim to spiritual superiority. Simon was only one among many who plagued the church. Several NT books—1 Corinthians, the pastoral letters (1-2 Tm; Ti), John’s Gospel, 1 John, Revelation, and possibly Colossians—dealt directly with the heresy of an incipient Christian Gnosticism. To the later Gnostics, Jesus, seen as the highest emanation from God, was a spiritual being, not a true man; salvation was acquired through esoteric knowledge centering on Jesus.
Another heresy arose in Corinth, where Paul’s proclamation of liberty led to “libertinism” (1 Cor 6:12, 13; 10:21–24). The Hellenistic disregard for the physical body led to asceticism (7:1, 2) and even a repudiation of the physical resurrection (ch 15).
Jewish Christianity was also moving in the direction of Hellenistic philosophical thought. As Colossians and the pastoral letters show, Jewish ordinances such as food laws and the feasts were reinterpreted along ascetic lines and given a proto-Gnostic stamp. “Teachers” were being exalted for their esoteric knowledge.
Changes in Leadership. Authority in the early church underwent considerable change. With the acceptance of James and then Paul as valid apostles, the central church leadership expanded beyond the original 12. Paul’s apostleship was based on two factors: his vision of the risen Lord (1 Cor 9:1, 2) and his divine commission to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13; 1 Tm 2:7). It is difficult to know how widely the apostolic office was distributed, because the term “apostle” also had a semitechnical use for appointed church emissaries (translated “messenger” in 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). Paul’s enigmatic use of the plural “apostles” for his fellow workers (Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 4:9; 1 Thes 2:6) could fit either meaning, or perhaps be an even more general term used of itinerant missionaries, a meaning it came to have in the second century.
A balance between charismatic and institutional church government continued. Ephesians 4:11 shows that the offices themselves were based on spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:28–30, which combines offices and gifts without differentiating the categories). The terms used for church offices in the pastoral letters are vague. Most scholars believe that the offices of bishop and elder were still synonymous at that late time. The three letters show, however, that at the close of the period of expansion, the institutional movement was well on its way toward the established form it took in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Changes in Worship. Patterns of worship in the church also underwent significant development during the period of expansion. The gentile church did not feel constrained to observe the Jewish Sabbath or feasts (Gal 4:10; Col 2:16). There is some debate concerning the development of a service devoted solely to preaching and prayer. Some scholars believe that in both Jewish and Hellenistic churches there were two basic services: the sacred meal, which included liturgy and teaching; and a missionary service, which took place in the temple or synagogue (Jewish) or a lecture hall (Hellenistic). The NT letters, however, only mention the fact that a service was held without specifying what form it took.
Two early 2nd-century works—the Didache (a book of instructions on morals and church order) and the letter of a Roman provincial governor, Pliny, to the Emperor Trajan—help solve the dilemma. Both allude to a separate worship service in which the preaching and teaching were paramount. Such meetings may have preceded the eucharistic celebration and prepared believers for it.
Thus, 1 Corinthians 14:23 (the presence of unbelievers in the assembly, unlikely at the sacred meal) and 14:26 (showing that the elements of the service were psalms, teaching, revelations, and speaking in tongues) may refer to a separate worship service. That service may have been followed by the agape meal and eucharistic celebration. As already stated, the meal and the Eucharist were celebrated concurrently in the Palestinian era, but with Hellenistic abuse the two began to diverge; by the early 2nd century at the latest (according to the Didache), the Eucharist was celebrated separately following the meal. Hence the order of worship in the early church was: (1) gathering for prayer and teaching, (2) the agape meal, and (3) the eucharistic celebration.
Baptism was also institutionalized and at some stage, probably during the same period, became a formal ceremony. A probable reason for such formalizing was the growing complexity of the community in the later church. No description of such a service was written until the 2nd century, but the service probably centered on a confession of faith similar to Romans 10:9, 10; the confession became a dialogue regarding the candidate’s doctrine and conduct, as well as a time of instruction on the implications of baptism.
The First Persecution. The period of expansion closed with the first great persecution of the church—under the Roman emperor, Nero. Paul was imprisoned from ad 58 to 60—but there is considerable debate regarding his release and a second imprisonment. Acts does not mention a release and may contain a possible allusion to his subsequent execution (Acts 20:25). The pastoral letters, however, definitely presuppose Paul’s release and further ministry in Asia Minor and Macedonia.
Paul’s death, and probably Peter’s as well, marked the end of the period of expansion. Open evangelism became difficult and Christianity went underground. Nero’s decree against the Christians was not so much the cause as the result of the persecution. Popular feeling against Christians, who were seen as exclusive and individualistic, allowed Nero to use them as a scapegoat to cover up his own misdeeds.
Period of Consolidation
Transition. The next phase of church history was a time of great transition between the dynamic growth of the church under the apostles’ leadership and the catholic church of succeeding centuries. A major feature of that era was the death of the eyewitnesses, which removed the prime apologetic strength of the early church (cf. 1 Cor 15:6). Jesus had stressed belief apart from eyewitness proof (Jn 20:29), and John’s Gospel should have prepared the church for John’s death (21:18–23). With the apostles’ passing, the church became ever more dependent on tradition and second-generation leadership.
The Fall of Jerusalem. An important event in the final period of the apostolic age was the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. Shortly before that event, many Palestinian Christians had left the Holy City and fled to Pella. The church was cut off from its place of origin, a factor causing it to seek new moorings. The church was left with no center of leadership, and until mid-2nd century the church separated into regional groups such as Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria. Rome, because of its position in the empire and because it naturally attracted leaders like Peter and Paul, assumed leadership in the West, while Alexandria became the center of the eastern church.
Heresy and Growing Institutionalism. The Jewish Christians who had stayed within the church had changed from the days of the Judaizers. They no longer made salvation dependent on the Law, but they did follow Jewish customs and ways of thinking. However, the clash between the organized church and Jewish “Christians” who withdrew from the church intensified, so that by the start of the 2nd century there was only sporadic contact.
Gnosticism, however, grew in both influence and power. The reasons are primarily historical; its strength in pagan society also grew and continued to grow until its peak in the 3rd century. Some later NT works dealt with gnostic tendencies in the church. Gnosticism became especially strong in Egypt and Syria. In Syria, it flourished under the influence of Simon Magus and his pupils, who virtually changed Christianity into another Greek mystery religion. The struggles of Ignatius and other 2nd-century writers against gnosticism added to the development of the distinctive doctrines of the patristic era, such as the unity between flesh and spirit, the early emphasis on Christology (the doctrine of Christ), and the importance of the resurrection of the body.
In the Hellenistic world, the problem was not only doctrinal but also ethical. The growth of docetism (a heresy that separated the divine Christ from the human Jesus, maintaining that Christ did not truly die on the cross but left his body before death) was paralleled by a libertinism that differed little from pagan orgies (cf. Rv 2:14, 20).
Two different reactions to heresy took place: one sought to answer it through the historical proclamation in the church traditions (represented in 1 Jn); the other fought gnostic thought by developing institutionalism and mystical interpretations of the church and sacraments. The pastoral letters laid the basis for the second approach, instructing the church to use excommunication procedures against false teachers (1 Tm 1:20; Ti 3:10; cf. 2 Thes 3:6, 14, 15). Though historical proclamation continued to be a valuable defense against heresy, the defense through institutionalism grew through the efforts of the church fathers, preparing the way for later catholicism.
Finally, the institutional approach to church discipline as a whole was growing. In the apostolic period, discipline was a corporate responsibility that centered on the daily life of each member. Principles such as confrontation, confession, repentance, and forgiveness were individualized and practiced in the fellowship of the church’s life. At the end of the apostolic age, especially with the absence of apostolic leadership, such individual spiritual experiences were “institutionalized,” that is, they were made the function of church officers in the context of the organization. The Didache shows that confession and repentance were incorporated into the church service. Also, responsibility for maintaining the purity and unity of the church was increasingly delegated to bishops rather than to individual church members.
Church Leadership. Development of the leadership continued, perhaps because of the absence of the charismatic authority of the apostles. Left without the undeniable leadership of the apostles, the church focused its attention on the remaining offices and functions. The terms “elder,” “bishop,” and “presbyter” (priest or pastor) often had been used interchangeably by the early church. Gradually they became distinct offices, first in the churches of Asia Minor and later in the West. For example, Clement of Rome, a church father and bishop writing around ad 97, equated bishops and presbyters (or elders). On the other hand, Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch writing in the first decade of the 2nd century, made a clear distinction between bishops, who were the highest church officials, and presbyters and deacons, who assisted the bishops. Ignatius’s three-level division of church offices, known as the monarchical episcopate, gradually became the model followed by all churches. It was well established by the mid-2nd century. In that system the bishop in effect became the successor to the apostles and was alone responsible for administering the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (Communion).
Therefore the charismatic approach to church government gradually ceased, being replaced by the episcopacy. The lists of offices in several postapostolic writings fail to mention prophets and teachers and mention apostles primarily in a past sense. All those writers accepted the continuing validity of the prophetic or teaching functions, but for the most part they believed that the ecclesiastical officers filled those functions. At the start of the 2nd century, there were still authoritative teachers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, but the office was disappearing. Increasingly, teaching was no longer viewed as an independent, creative act but as a recitation of the church’s authoritative writings. An interest in an authoritative NT canon (i.e., officially recognized sacred books) was developing.
Formation of the NT Canon. The process of “canonization” actually began early in the apostolic period. The sayings of Jesus were given canonical status quite early, and the creedal traditions had achieved authoritative status by the time the NT letters were written. It is difficult to know how early the Pauline letters were canonized. From the beginning they were read in the churches, with the stamp of apostolic authority (cf. Col 4:16; 1 Thes 5:27; 1 Tm 4:13). The absence of “to the Ephesians” in early manuscripts of Ephesians possibly indicates that the letter was intended for general distribution. Most scholars agree that Paul’s letters replaced the sermon but not the Scripture reading in the worship service. In 2 Peter 3:15, 16 the canonicity of the Pauline letters seems to be recognized. The Gospels probably attained canonical status almost immediately; the 4 were already being collected together at the end of the 1st century (according to Eusebius, a 4th-century church historian). Later attempts to collect all the canonical works developed largely in answer to heresies such as Marcionism. Marcion devised an “authoritative” canon about ad 140 in an attempt to justify his rejection of the OT. In reaction to him and others, the first true canon, the Muratorian canon, appeared about ad 180.
Worship. The worship and sacramental life of the church also became increasingly institutionalized. Both the Eucharist and baptism were seen as a celebrative part of the process of salvation and not as a memorial celebration of previously received, saving grace. At the same time, the liturgical approach to both sacraments continued to develop and was totally formalized, as was the entire worship service. The charismatic approach to worship (seen in 1 Cor 14:26) was increasingly replaced by a formal structure of readings. The free prayers of the congregation were replaced by liturgical prayers recited by the worship leader.
Conclusion. The church survived many internal struggles and seemingly irresistible external pressures in its earliest years. Its preservation and growth seem almost miraculous to Christian students of history. The church that emerged from the apostolic age became a strong and growing organized movement, scattered throughout the Roman empire.
By John M’Clintock, James Strong, E. F. Harrison, W. C. Robinson, and Grant R. Osborne
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