The Christian Church in the First Century - Edward Burton - ebook

THE present volume intends to instruct the general reader in the knowledge of the early Fathers of the Christian Church. It may thus be learned how the Church passed through the Apostolic era into that of the “Apostolic Fathers”. These Fathers belong to the period between the close of the New Testament Canon and the days of St Irenaeus (AD 160) a period during which the record of the progress of the Church and of its heroes is very scanty. From the time of the great Bishop of Lyons onwards we have an abundant Church literature, and much fuller details in history than before. We see at that epoch how the Church had spread itself far and wide, but the seed had grown almost secretly. There were many writers during the interval whose works have perished, though, it is even now possible that some of them may yet be found buried away in the lumber rooms of Eastern monasteries...

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Edward Burton


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Copyright © 2016 by Edward Burton

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THE Kingdom of Christ, or the Church of Christ, may be said to date its beginning from the time when the Head of that Church and Kingdom rose in triumph from the grave. The Son of God, as He Himself informs us, had shared His Father’s glory before the world was; and the scheme of redemption had been laid in the counsels of God, from the time of the promise being given, that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head: but this gracious and merciful scheme had not been fully developed to mankind, till Jesus Christ appeared upon earth, and died upon the cross.

It had indeed pleased God, at sundry times and in divers manners, to acquaint the Jews with the coming of their Messiah; but the revelation had been made obscurely and partially: it was given to one nation only, out of the countless millions who inhabit the earth; and the Jews themselves had entirely mistaken the nature of that kingdom which their Messiah was to found. They overlooked or forgot what their prophets had told them, that He was to be despised and rejected of men; and they thought only of those glowing and glorious predictions, that kings were to bow down before Him, and all nations were to do Him service. The prophecy of Daniel (though there might be doubts as to the precise application of its words) had marked with sufficient plainness the period when Christ was to appear; and when Augustus was Emperor of Rome, a general expectation was entertained, not only by the Jews, but by other nations also, that some great personage was shortly to show himself in the world.The Jews had strong reasons for cherishing such an expectation. If the sceptre had not actually departed from Judah, it had not been sufficient to preserve their independence, or to save them from the disgrace of being a conquered people. That this disgrace was shortly to be removed, and that their fetters were soon to be burst asunder, was the firm belief of a large proportion of the Jewish nation; and the name of their Messiah was coupled with ardent aspirations after liberty and conquest.

It was at this period, when the minds of men were more than usually excited, that the voice was heard of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. John the Baptist was the forerunner of the long-promised Messiah; but, instead of announcing Him to his countrymen as a king and a conqueror, he opposed himself at once to their strongest prejudices. They prided themselves upon being God’s chosen people; and, as children of Abraham, without thinking of any other qualification, they considered their salvation to be certain. John the Baptist persuaded his followers to get rid of these notions. He taught them to repent of their sins; and, instead of trusting to outward ceremonies, or to the merit of their own works, to throw themselves upon the mercy of God, and to rest their hopes of heaven in a Saviour, who was shortly to appear. This was a great step gained in the cause of spiritual and vital religion. The disciples of the Baptist were brought to acknowledge that they had offended God, and that they had no means in themselves of obtaining reconciliation. It was thus that they were prepared for receiving the Gospel. John the Baptist made them feel the want of that atonement, which Jesus Christ not only announced but which He actually offered in His own person to God. And not only was John the forerunner of Christ during the short time that he preceded Him on earth, but even now the heart of every one, who is to receive the Gospel, must first be prepared by the doctrines preached by John: he must repent of his sins, and he must have faith in that One who was mightier than John, who was then announced as about to appear, and who shortly did appear, to reconcile us to His Father, by dying on the cross.

John the Baptist proclaimed to the Jews, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand; and though it is not probable that many of them understood the spiritual nature of the kingdom which was to be established, yet they would all know that he spoke of the Messiah; for the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, were expressions which they had long been in the habit of using for the coming of Christ. When the Christ was actually come—not, as the Jews expected, with the pomp and splendor of an earthly king, but in an obscure and humble station—He began His preaching with the same words which had been used by the Baptist, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. When He sent out His twelve disciples to preach these glad tidings to the cities of Judaea, He told them to use the same words. From which we gather, that the Kingdom of God, or of Christ, was not actually come when Jesus was born into the world, nor even when He began His ministry. It was still only at hand. Jesus Christ did not come merely to deliver a moral law, nor to teach us, by His own example, how to live, and how to die. These were indeed the great objects of His appearing among us as a man; and the miracles which He worked, together with the spotless purity of His life, were intended to show that He was more than man: but Jesus Christ came into the world to atone for our sins, by dying on the cross. This was the great end and object of His coming; and Christ did not properly enter upon His kingdom till the great sacrifice was offered, and He had risen again from the dead. It was then that the Church of Christ began to be built. The foundation of it, was laid in Christ crucified; and the members of it are all the believers in Christ’s death, of every country and every age. It is this Church, of which, with the blessing of God, we may attempt to trace the history.

Jesus Christ had a great many followers while He was upon earth. Many, perhaps, sincerely believed Him to be the Messiah; but it is probable that very few understood the spiritual nature of the deliverance which He had purchased. The task of explaining this doctrine to the world was committed by Him to twelve men, or rather to eleven; for the traitor was gone to his own place: and when Jesus Christ was ascended into heaven, we have the spectacle before us of eleven Jews, without a leader, without education, money, rank, or influence, going forth to root out the religious opinions of all the nations of the earth, and to preach a new and strange doctrine, which was opposed to the prejudices and passions of mankind.

The doctrine itself may be explained in a few words. They were to preach faith in Christ crucified. Men were to be taught to repent of their sins, and to believe in Christ, trusting to His merits alone for pardon and salvation; and those who embraced this doctrine were admitted into the Christian covenant by baptism, as a token that they were cleansed from their sins, by faith in the death of Christ: upon which admission they received the gift of the Holy Ghost, enabling them to perform works well-pleasing to God, which they could not have done by their own strength. The commission to preach this doctrine, and to admit believers into the Christian covenant by baptism, was given by Christ, while He was upon earth, to the eleven apostles only; and one of their first acts, after His ascension, was to complete their original number of twelve, by the election of Matthias, who was known to them as having accompanied Jesus from the beginning of His ministry.

It is needless to observe that this small band of men, if we give them credit for the utmost unanimity and zeal, was wholly unequal to the conversion of the world. There is also reason to believe that, at this time, they had very imperfect insight into the doctrines which they were to preach; but their Master had promised them assistance which would carry them through every difficulty, and fit them for their superhuman labor. Accordingly, on the day of Pentecost which followed His ascension into heaven, He kept His promise by sending the Holy Spirit upon them, in a visible form, and with an effect which was immediately connected with their commission to preach the Gospel. The twelve apostles suddenly found themselves enabled to speak several languages which they had never learned; and the feast of Pentecost having caused the city to be filled, at this time, with foreign Jews, from every part of the world, there was an immediate opportunity for the gift of tongues to be exercised by the apostles, and observed by the strangers.

We have thus, at the very outset of the Gospel, a convincing proof of its truth, and of its having come from God; for nothing but a miracle could enable men to converse in languages which they had never learned; and if the apostles, by means of the gift of tongues, propagated a false doctrine, it must follow that God worked a miracle to assist them in propagating a falsehood.

The effect of the miracle was such as might have been expected. There must have been some hundreds of persons in Jerusalem, who had not only witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, but who were partly acquainted with His life and doctrines. The foreign Jews were probably strangers to His history; but they now heard it, for the first time, from men who proved their inspiration by evidence which could not be resisted. The apostles took advantage of the impression which this miracle had caused. They explained to the multitudes the great doctrines of the Gospel; and the result was, that on this, which was the first day of their preaching, no fewer than three thousand persons were baptized, professing themselves to be believers in Jesus Christ. These persons were not yet called Christians, nor do we read of their being known at present by any particular name; but they were distinguished by a spirit of brotherly love and charity, which might have been sufficient of itself to show, that their religion came from God.

State of Judea in time of Christ

It may here be convenient to take a hasty sketch of the political state of Judea at the time of our Saviour’s crucifixion. It was, in every sense of the term, a conquered country, though the Jews were very unwilling to allow that they were subject to any foreign dominion. Their independence, however, had been little more than nominal, ever since the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey, in the year 63 before the birth of Christ. This was the first transaction which brought them directly in contact with the overwhelming power of Rome. Herod the Great, who was not properly a Jew, but an Idumaean, though he dazzled his subjects by the splendour and magnificence of his reign, was little else than a vassal of the Empire; and he saw the policy of paying court to his masters, who, in return, allowed him to reign over a greater extent of territory than had been held by any Jewish prince since the time of Solomon. Still there was a large party in the country which could not shut their eyes to the fact that Herod was a foreigner, and that the influence of foreigners kept him on his throne. To get rid of this influence by an open insurrection was hopeless; but Herod’s connection with Rome, and his introduction of Roman manners among his subjects, kindled a flame, which was smothered for some years, or only broke out partially and at intervals, but which ended in the final ruin of that devoted people.

Upon the death of Herod the Great, which happened not long after the birth of Christ, the Romans put in execution the usual policy of conquerors, and made resistance still more difficult on the part of the conquered, by dividing their territory into parts. Judea was given to one of the sons of Herod, and Galilee to another; but the still more decisive step had already been taken, of including Judea in the general order which was issued by Augustus, that the whole empire should pay a tax. The money was not levied in Judea till some years after the issuing of the edict. The opportunity chosen for this unpopular measure was on the deposition of Archelaus, who had held Judea since the death of his father, and was removed from his government, to the great satisfaction of his subjects, about the year 8. The Romans now no longer disguised their conquest. They did not allow the Jews to retain even the shadow of national independence; but Judea was either made an appendage to the presidentship of Syria, or was governed by an officer of its own, who bore the title of Procurator. One of these procurators was Pontius Pilate, who was appointed in the year 26, and held the office at the time of our Saviour’s crucifixion. He continued to hold it till the year 36, when he was banished to Vienne in Gaul, and there is a tradition that he died by his own hand; but we know nothing of his directing any measures against the apostles, during the remaining years of his holding the government of Judea.

It seems to have been the general policy of the Romans, not to interfere with the religious customs and prejudices of the Jews. The usual residence of the procurator was at Caesarea, on the sea-coast, and he only went up to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, or on other extraordinary occasions. With the exception of a Roman garrison, which occupied the tower of Antonia, and was always ready to overawe the inhabitants in case of a tumult. Jerusalem had, perhaps, less the appearance of a conquered city, when it was the capital of a Roman province, than when it was the residence of Herod, who called himself an independent sovereign. The high-priests still exercised considerable power, though the Romans had seen the expediency of taking the appointment to this office into their own hands, and of not allowing the same individual to hold it for a long time.

It might be thought, that this foreign interference, in a matter of such high and sacred importance, would have been peculiarly vexatious to the Jews; but the competitors for the office, who were at this time numerous, were willing to be invested with the rank and dignity of the priesthood, even at the sacrifice of their national pride. The same feelings of ambition and jealousy inclined the high-priest, for the time being, to pay great court to the Roman authorities; and, so long as this good understanding was kept up between the two parties, the influence of the procurator was as full and complete as he could desire; though, to outward appearance, the management of affairs was in the hands of the high-priest.

Such was the state of things, when the apostles began their commission of preaching a new religion in Jerusalem. The narrative of the Evangelists will inform us, that the procurator had no wish to interfere in such questions, except at the instigation of the priests and the Sanhedrim. Even then, he took it up more as a matter of state policy, than of religion; and it was necessary to persuade him that Jesus was setting Himself up as a rival to the Emperor, before he would give any orders for His execution.

As soon as he returned to Cesarea, the field was left open for the Sanhedrim to take what steps it pleased for checking the apostles and their followers. There was always, however, need of some caution in any measures which were likely to excite a popular commotion. The turbulent character of the Jews, as well as their suppressed impatience under the yoke of conquest, were well known to the Romans, though they pretended not to be aware of it; but the troops which garrisoned the capital, had special orders to be on the watch against every appearance of riot or tumult. It thus became necessary for the high-priests to avoid, as much as possible, any public disturbance in their plans against the apostles.

The Romans had no objection to their practising any violence or cruelty against the followers of Jesus, so long as they did it quietly; and this will account, in some measure, for the Gospel making such rapid progress in Jerusalem, though the same persons continued in authority who had put Jesus publicly to death. The miracles worked by the apostles were evidences which could not be called in question; and the more general was the sensation which they caused among the people who witnessed them, the less easy was it for the high-priests to take any decisive steps.

It is not likely that the Gospel would be embraced at first by the rich and powerful among the Jews. These were the men who had excited the populace to demand the crucifixion of Jesus; and our Lord Himself appears to have foretold, that the poor would be most forward to listen to the glad tidings of salvation. Such was undoubtedly the case in the infancy of the Church; and the apostles did not forget, while they were nourishing the souls of their converts, to make provision also for supplying their bodily wants.

Those believers who possessed any property, contributed part of it to form a common fund, out of which the poorer members of the community were relieved. It is a mistake to suppose that the first believers gave up the right to their own property, and, in the literal sense of the expression, maintained a community of goods. The Gospel taught them, what no other religion has taught so plainly and so powerfully—that they were to give an account to God of the use which they made of their worldly possessions, and that they were to look upon the poor as their brethren. They, therefore, abandoned the notion that God had given them the good things of this life for their own selfish enjoyment. They felt that they held them in trust for the benefit of others, as well as of themselves; and a part, at least, of their income, was to be devoted to the relief of those who would otherwise be in want.

Beginning of Apostolic Preaching.

Charity, in the fullest sense of the term, was the characteristic mark of the early Christians; but the bond which held them together, was faith in a common Saviour: and they immediately established the custom of meeting in each other’s houses, to join in prayer to God, and to receive the bread and wine, in token of their belief in the death and resurrection of Christ. There is abundant evidence that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated frequently, if not daily, by the early Christians. It, in fact, formed a part of their ordinary meal; and scarcely a day passed in which the converts did not give this solemn and public attestation of their resting all their hopes in the death of their Redeemer.

‘Their numbers increased rapidly. The apostles worked stupendous miracles. Many of the converts were themselves endued with the same power of speaking new languages, or of doing extraordinary works; and, before many weeks had elapsed, not only were some priests and Levites numbered among the converts at Jerusalem, but the new doctrines had begun to spread through the neighbouring towns.

The attention of the Jewish authorities was soon attracted to the apostles and their followers. Several causes combined at this time to raise among the Jews an opposition to the Gospel. The zealous patriot, whose numbers were increasing, and who were becoming more impatient of Roman domination, had indulged a hope that Jesus would have raised the standard of the Messiah, and headed an insurrection against the conquerors. Instead of seconding their wishes, He always inculcated obedience to the government, and was put to a disgraceful death.

The followers, therefore, of such a man, if they were not too despicable to obtain any notice, were looked upon as enemies to the liberty of their country. All those persons who were immoral in their conduct, but, at the same time, pretenders to sanctity, could not fail to be offended at the severe reproofs which they received from Jesus and His disciples. The notion that righteousness was to be gained by an outward observance of legal ceremonies, was utterly destroyed by the preaching of the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven was said, by the new teachers, to be thrown open to all persons who repented of their sins and believed in Christ: and hence every one who was self-righteous, every one who boasted of his privileges as a descendant of Abraham, felt it to be a duty to persecute the disciples of Jesus.

It was not, however, so easy a matter to suppress the new doctrines. The people looked on with amazement, and even with terror, while the apostles were working their miracles; and when they preached in the Temple there was no want of multitudes who listened eagerly to their words. Every day increased their popularity; and the authorities had not courage to act openly against them. If they succeeded in arresting one or more of them privately, their prison doors were miraculously thrown open; and instead of being brought to answer their charge or receive their sentence, they returned to disseminate their doctrines more publicly and boldly than before. If some false disciples insinuated themselves into their company, the immediate detection of their hypocrisy exhibited still more plainly the superhuman power of the apostles.