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 Vol. 3, No. 10 

Page 10

October, 2001

an open Bible

The Early Church

(1 Peter 4:16)

By Louis Rushmore

Bible History

A study of Acts Chapter Two (with special emphasis upon verses 41 and 47) shows that the Lord's church was begun on the Pentecost following the Ascension of Jesus Christ, at Jerusalem and in about A.D. 33. Verse 47 is the first passage to address the church as a present rather than future entity. However, the cost of discipleship with the apostles and several other disciples predated the eventful establishment of the church of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:5-8; Matthew 10:16ff; Mark 6:21-28; Matthew 19:27-30). Moreover, not long after the inception of the church, the cost of discipleship was again incurred upon the disciples of Christ.

The preaching of the Gospel shortly after the beginning of the church (Acts, Chapter Three) had two results. First, the apostles Peter and John were imprisoned; second, about five thousand men plus women believed and were added to the church by the Lord (Acts 4:1-4). Acts 4:17-21 records that the Jewish religious leaders threatened the disciples and commanded them not to preach Jesus. The apostles, though, undauntedly affirmed before the council that they would continue to prefer God's Word to the commandments of men and that they would continue to preach the Gospel of Christ. Doubtless, the apostles knew that their lives were imperiled, but they were willing to pay whatever costs were necessary to be and remain faithful disciples of the Lord.

In the next chapter of Acts, one can observe that the cost of discipleship, among other things, requires that the children of God be honest and sincere. Clearly, Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, wanted to be viewed as sacrificial disciples, although they were not willing to pay the cost commensurate with the esteem they desired (Acts 5:1-11). Though they were not required to sell any of their property and contribute the proceeds to church, selfish motives prompted them to claim that they had been more sacrificial (paid more of the cost of discipleship) than they really did. This event served to impress upon Christians and sinners alike the seriousness of discipleship (Acts 5:12-14). Discipleship should be considered with no less seriousness and soberness today than the day in which Ananias and Sapphira died. All men would do well to ponder the cost of discipleship carefully with prayer.

Acts, Chapter Five also chronicles the further persecution that the apostles suffered as a result of preaching Jesus (Acts 5:17-18). Though captured, they were divinely aided in their escape and directed to resume their public preaching (Acts 5:19-20). Later, the apostles were recaptured, beaten, threatened and released (Acts 5:21-40). The remarkable reaction of the apostles to this cost of discipleship (here persecution) with which they were buffeted is recorded in Acts 5:41-42.

"And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ."

Acts, chapters Six and Seven record the capture, preaching and execution of Stephen (Acts 6:9; 7:60). If there ever was a time in which the faithful disciple of Christ could with God's approval circumvent the cost of discipleship, this was the time. Perhaps by denying the Lord Jesus Christ, Stephen could have preserved himself from physical harm and death. However, in the spirit of (then not yet written) Matthew 10:32-33 and Revelation 2:10, Stephen paid the ultimate cost of faithful discipleship in the sacrifice of his life. Without doubt, though his earthly life came to an abrupt end about two thousand years ago, he is yet alive, spiritually (Matthew 10:28). Spiritual life is all that really matters anyway (Ecclesiastes 12:13; John 14:1-3; Matthew 25:46), so he lost comparatively little.

Other disciples were also called upon to pay the same costs (Mark 6:21-28; Acts 12:1-2). Jesus himself suffered death for us (John 15:13; Romans 5:7-8) and left us an example even for suffering (1 Peter 2:21). It is true that one may never be called upon to pay the cost of death as a disciple, but no one will be called upon to suffer more. If disciples prepare themselves to pay the ultimate cost of discipleship, it is likely that lesser costs can be more easily paid. If patriotic duty may demand of men even the sacrifice of their lives, should it be thought strange or fanatical that true discipleship may require the same?

Acts Eight depicts Saul of Tarsus as a severe persecutor of the church and one who was present at and consented to the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). Later when he also obeyed the Gospel, persecution was directed toward him (Acts 9:23-24).

The Jewish persecution of the disciples in which Stephen lost his life was generally applied to the church, causing the brethren to be scattered throughout the known world (Acts 8:1; 11:19). To please the Jews over whom he ruled, King Herod also participated in this persecution and killed James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-5).

The scattered disciples and the apostle to the Gentiles in his missionary tours frequently confronted opponents of the Gospel (Acts 13:18; 43-48). They often faced vicious persecution, only sometimes from which they were able to escape. Due to persecution at Antioch of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas traveled to Iconium (Acts 13:50-51). However, they also fled Iconium because of persecution and went to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:17). However, in Lystra Paul was stoned (Acts 14:19). In Acts Sixteen one can read of the beating and imprisonment of Paul and Silas; Jason was persecuted in Acts 17:5-9. In Athens, the Gospel was largely rejected and Paul was mocked (Acts 17:16-34).

Acts Eighteen records an assault upon Paul, but through the intervention of a Roman official, he was released (Acts 18:12-17). In the following chapter, several disciples were assaulted, though later released (Acts 19:29-34). Chapter Twenty-One pictures another instance in which Paul was assaulted and captured by a mob (Acts 21:27-31), and then delivered from the mob and arrested by Roman soldiers (Acts 21:31-35). Acts Twenty-Three records that Paul was smitten on the mouth at the command of the high priest (Acts 23:2) when he was brought before the Sanhedrin. Later his murder was plotted (Acts 23:14), for which cause he was moved to Caesarea where he was left imprisoned by Felix for two years (Acts 24:27). Paul remained in prison under the rule of Festus, but later he was sent to Rome according to his appeal, whereupon he was shipwrecked (Acts 27:41).

The Book of Acts is a history of the early church and, therefore, chronicles the costs that came upon it and the members of the churches of Christ. Additionally, various epistles also refer to the persecutions and general costs of discipleship that Christians then were called upon to pay, sometimes with their lives. The apostle Paul summarized the things through which he was caused to go for the sake of his discipleship in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. The epistles exhorted their recipients to faithfulness in spite of personal peril (2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:16; Revelation 2:10). They also warned of false brethren who would resist them and the Gospel (Acts 20:29-31; Romans 16:17-18; 1 John 4:1; 3 John 9-11). Throughout Acts the cost of discipleship that came upon the church of the first century is clearly depicted, though sometimes, we may think, less than completely. The cost of discipleship is easily seen as one godly tenet that was boldly exhibited by early Christians. Present day Christians should obviously not demonstrate less willingness to practice consecrated discipleship and yet expect God's approval to overshadow them!

Secular History

Bible historical accounts have always been revered as true by all those who completely trust the authority of the Scriptures, regardless of whether secular verification of the same is available. Though the Bible itself is never wrong whether addressing doctrinal matters or historical matters or some other subject, secular histories are fallible and, therefore, subject to human error and interpretation. However, secular histories are not to be totally discounted. Hence, the following references from secular history regarding the cost of discipleship in the early church are also included for the consideration of the thoughtful student. Admittedly, some of the following references may not be specifically correct, but the information doubtless accurately depicts the trials and costs generally incurred upon the discipleship of brethren many hundreds of years ago.

Secular history records that the following disciples chose death over renunciation of their discipleship. Philip was scourged, imprisoned and then crucified in A.D. 54. Matthew was slain with a halberd in A.D. 60. James the Less was at the age of 94 beaten and stoned by the Jews and finally his brain was beaten out of its skull with a blacksmith's mallet. Matthias was stoned at Jerusalem and then beheaded. Andrew was crucified. Mark was dragged to death. Peter was crucified head down. Paul was beheaded. Jude was crucified in A.D. 72. Bartholomew was beaten and crucified. Thomas was thrust through with a spear. Luke was hanged. Simon was crucified. John died of natural death. Barnabas was executed in A.D. 73.

Fox's Book of Martyrs names many saints and vividly describes the ways in which they were often tortured to death because of their discipleship. A summary of the vicious ways in which early Christians were killed would necessarily include: being sewn into skins of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs; dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, put on poles and set afire for illumination; beaten to death with clubs; devoured by wild beasts; crucified, crowned with thorns, and thrust through with a spear; burnt at the stake; scourged and pressed to death with weights; beheaded; thrown from lofty points; covered with boiling pitch and set afire; scalded; drown; dragged by horses; put into leather bags together with a number of serpents and scorpions, and in that condition thrown into the sea; stretched upon a wheel until all bones were broken and then beheaded; stoning; torn with hooks; feet pierced with nails and other torture induced before being beheaded; starved; hanged; feet attached to the tail of a bull that was driven down the steps of a temple; broiled; shot to death with arrows; poisoned.

Knowing that Christians were willing to suffer such abuse rather than to recant Christ as their Lord and Savior should serve to emphasize the true definition of discipleship and its costs among present day disciples. How much we would be (and someday, may be) willing to suffer for the cause of Christ is ultimately the thermometer of Christian discipleship! How much fervent zeal do you exhibit (Revelation 3:15-16)?

Conclusion

Nearly everywhere the early disciples went, they had either a great Gospel meeting or a riot! They were said to have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). However, while turning the world upside down with the preaching of the Gospel, the disciples often experienced persecution. Moreover, they recognized in advance that they would be persecuted for the cause of Christ (2 Timothy 3:12).

Christianity became an outlawed or illegal religion in the Roman Empire once it was generally realized that Christianity was not simply another factious sect of Judaism. Therefore, Christians were treated as severely as the worst criminals were. The tortures that were inflicted upon the children of God were not discriminatory regarding either age or gender; all Christians were treated alike.

Passages such as Revelation 2:10 and 1 Peter 4:15-16, though applicable to every generation, especially applied to the day in which they were penned and for several years afterward during the Roman oppressions. The former reads: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." The latter says: "But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil doer, or as a busybody in other men's matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf."

Many in the early church were prepared to pay the ultimate cost of discipleship if necessary, and many did forfeit their lives in the service of the Lord (Revelation 6:9). Whether our discipleship costs us our lives or should less cost be incurred upon present day disciples, only those who pass from life in Christ shall spend eternity in heaven (Revelation 14:13). "And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, said the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them."

Copyright 2001 Louis Rushmore. All Rights Reserved.
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