In thousands of Christian writings and sermons, the church of the first century has been used as a paradigm for our contemporary church, and we are correct in doing so. The early church is in many ways the criterion and fundamental principle for what we believe and do.
The early church received God’s special revelation. We are told about that church in the book of Acts and about the early believers who were the original recipients of the New Testament epistles. It was that community of faith that personally listened to Christ, to the apostles, and to the next generation of leaders, known as the fathers of the church. In other words, those in the early church received the gospel message and all the other evangelical doctrines firsthand.
That church was responsible for “closing” the biblical canon. Those early believers recognized the real Gospels and the authentic apostolic letters, and discarded dozens of writings of dubious origin. Because of these believers, the discarded writings were not recognized as having been inspired by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, they never became part of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
The early church was an example in many things. Just to name a few examples, the believers in the first century exemplified obedience. Rather than obey men, they obeyed God (Acts 5:29). They demonstrated solidarity among one another (2:45), resolution of internal conflicts (6:1-7), and courage to face suffering and persecution because of the gospel (8:1-4).
The early church was a church on a mission. In addition to the previous examples, these believers stand out for their missionary model. It was not an economically rich church, as many are today that have more money than they do members. It was not politicized, as many churches are today that know more about regulations and statutes than they do about the Word of God.
The early church was not a humanly empowered church, as are many members and leaders today, with delusions of grandeur. It did not keep people entertained with fun stuff, as churches do today that offer a scrupulously well done service so members feel happy, as if they were consumers. It was not a clerical church in which only a few participated. Nothing like the ones that exist today, where laymen have no place, as if they didn’t have the Holy Spirit.
The church of the first century was never any of that because it was a church on a mission!
Prison and prayer
For example, Acts 12 tells us that Herod had killed James with a sword and then went after Peter. He arrested and imprisoned him, then had Peter bound with chains and guarded by four squads of soldiers. But the church prayed without ceasing, and, finally, God performed a miracle: An angel appeared and freed Peter (vv. 1-10).
The story continues:
[Peter] came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying. And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a girl named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her gladness she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter stood before the gate (vv. 12-14).
In this scene, we find three outstanding characters: Mary, Mark, and Rhoda. Each one of them tells us about the church on a mission.
Mary, the mother of John Mark, offered her house to the believers, rather than have them go to the temple. Many brethren gathered and, naturally, began to evangelize as the gospel convicted them. There was edification because they learned the Word of God. There was fellowship as they shared together as brethren. There was worship as they called on the name of the Lord. And there was service by depending on one another.
John Mark is the evangelist credited with writing the second Gospel. He was part of the first missionary team, which eventually became two because Paul took Silas to Syria and Cilicia, and Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus (15:37-41). It doesn’t take much wisdom to see the passion of this young man dedicated to evangelizing, and whose house was always full of people.
Rhoda was the young woman who, upon hearing a knock, left the gathering to open the door. She went back to tell the others that it was Peter. What this humble young woman teaches us is another of the basics of the church on a mission: service.
In these times, we lack people like Mary, Mark, and Rhoda who not only connect to or attend the Sabbath service but also are visible on the other days of the week. We are, after all, called to be a church that is visible beyond the temple and beyond the Sabbath.
Even in challenging times of persecution, the early believers were examples of what the church should be. Even in adverse conditions, they evangelized, worshipped, fellowshipped, edified each other, and served.
The early church was not only evangelical but evangelizing. May we follow the example of these committed believers beyond our congregations and beyond the Sabbath.