THE RISE AND DECLINE OF CHRISTIANITY
The Beginning of Church History
Before His ascension into heaven, Jesus Christ told His disciples, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: BUT TARRY [wait] ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be ENDUED WITH POWER FROM ON HIGH.”1
That power was GOD’S HOLY SPIRIT, which was sent to establish the Church on the day of Pentecost.
The twelve apostles and about 108 others assembled as Christ had commanded. This was the beginning of the NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH.2
Out of the thousands upon thousands who had heard Christ preach, who had been healed by Him, who had even been miraculously fed by Him, only 120 really deeply grasped what He had said, and were there waiting as He had instructed.
God Sends His Spirit
But through those 120 God began His Work, and established HIS CHURCH.
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues [that is, divided among those in the room, not forked like a snake’s tongue] like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost [Spirit], and began to speak with other tongues [languages, not unintelligible gibberish], as the Spirit gave them utterance.3
With this miraculous and UNIQUE event, the Church was founded. Few churches today realize the significance of this day — few even realize what day it was. It was THE DAY OF PENTECOST.
Amazingly enough, the Church was not founded on Sunday, the first day of the week. No, it was not even founded on the Sabbath.
The DAY OF PENTECOST is one of God’s annual HOLY DAYS listed in the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus, and throughout the Old Testament. Christ kept every one of these Holy Days during His lifetime — and so did the disciples.
In fact, if they hadn’t been keeping the Holy Days, no one would have been there to receive God’s Spirit in 31 A.D. But they were there just as Christ had instructed. “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come,” Luke writes in Acts 2:1 — they were there keeping it. But which day of the week was it?
How to Count Pentecost
Believe it or not, it was on a MONDAY. That’s right — Pentecost every year MUST fall on a Monday. Here is how to count this feast:
And ye shall count unto you FROM the morrow AFTER the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths [that is, seven full weeks] shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath [week] shall ye NUMBER FIFTY DAYS; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD.4
Anyone who can count to fifty can easily determine the correct day for Pentecost. In fact, that is exactly what the word “Pentecost” means — “count fifty.” In the Old Testament it was called the Feast of Firstfruits.
God instructed them to count from “the morrow after the Sabbath.” The Sabbath from which they were to count was the weekly Sabbath which fell between the two annual Holy Days during the Days of Unleavened Bread.
They were to count fifty days “from the morrow after the Sabbath.” That is, count fifty days FROM SUNDAY. Fifty days from Sunday HAS TO BE a Monday. Therefore, Pentecost falls on Monday every year. It is the only Holy Day which is counted. All the others fall on a set day of the month, which, of course, means each year they would fall on different days of the week.
Every year Jews from all over the entire Roman Empire came to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Pentecost — 31 A.D., was no different.5 On this day, the Christian Church had its official beginning.
Upon Whom Was the Church Built?
Once again we come to another great opposite. Millions who profess Christianity believe Jesus Christ commissioned the Church to be founded upon the Apostle Peter.
Let’s once more look into Christ’s own statements to see if that is what He really said.
When Christ revealed to the disciples that there would be a Church founded after His death and ascension to heaven, He told them:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and UPON THIS ROCK I will BUILD MY CHURCH; and the gates of hell [hades, the grave] shall not prevail against it.6
Most churches today assume that Christ said He would build His Church on Peter because the name “Peter” comes from the Greek word, “petros,” which means rock.
But a closer examination of the verse in the original Greek reveals the word “petros” means a little rock, a stone, or a pebble.
After addressing Peter, Christ said, “Upon this rock, [Greek, “petra”] I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH.” This is a Greek word of the same root meaning, “rock” but the different ending intensifies it. It means a huge mass of rock, a giant boulder — not a tiny piece of rock or a pebble as the word “petros” means.
Christ was not saying He was building His Church on the little rock, the Apostle Peter. Rather, He was building it on a huge Rock. Who is that Rock?
Notice it plainly in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
Now therefore ye [the Church] are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; AND ARE BUILT UPON the foundation of the APOSTLES AND PROPHETS, JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF BEING THE CHIEF CORNER STONE.7
The CHURCH OF GOD is not founded on a human being, but upon JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF. And not just the Apostle Peter, but ALL the apostles form the foundation stones. And further, not just the Apostles of the early New Testament Church, but also THE PROPHETS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT are the foundation stones upon which the Church of God is built.
Christ today is the Chief Cornerstone of the Church — He is the living Head of it. Notice Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “And He [Christ] is before all things, and by Him all things consist. And HE IS THE HEAD OF THE BODY, THE CHURCH.”8
The Church was not founded on a man — it is not headed by a man. But the living, resurrected Christ is the very foundation of and the Head of His Church — a Church He said He would never leave or forsake, and one against which even the gates of hades — the grave — would not prevail. It would never die out.
The Ministry of Peter
With the day of Pentecost, then, on Monday, June 18, 31 A.D., the New Testament Church began. Peter preached the first inspired sermon on that very day. Within the space of that one day of Pentecost, 3,000 people had been converted, and were baptized.9
The twelve Apostles (Matthias had been added to replace Judas who betrayed Christ) began their active ministry right in Jerusalem.
It was here the Church developed for several years. The Church grew by leaps and bounds within weeks. In addition to the first 3,000 who were baptized on the day of Pentecost, there were 5,000 men who believed.10 With women also being added, the Church in Jerusalem must have grown rapidly to over 10,000.
Through the Apostles Christ performed miraculous healings, gave His ministers gifts to speak in foreign languages, and empowered them with gifts of prophecy. “And the word of God increased; AND THE NUMBER OF THE DISCIPLES MULTIPLIED IN JERUSALEM GREATLY; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”11
Within the first year or two the Church must have been well over thirty or forty thousand in Jerusalem alone.
Christ had told the disciples, “But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost [Spirit] is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in SAMARIA, and UNTO THE UTTERMOST PART OF THE EARTH.”12
Soon a great persecution arose in Jerusalem as a result of the new way of life brought by Christ’s ministers. Stephen was stoned to death. So Luke records for us, “And at that time there was a great persecution against the Church which was at Jerusalem; and THEY WERE ALL SCATTERED ABROAD THROUGHOUT THE REGIONS OF JUDAEA AND SAMARIA¼”13
And as Christ had directed, the gospel began to spread. Philip was sent to Samaria where many were baptized. The apostles Peter and John went up and laid hands on them for the reception of the Holy Spirit. And the word of God continued to grow and multiply.
Through a miracle recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts, God revealed to Peter that He was making an opportunity for GENTILES to understand His way, as well as the Jews.
About that same time God called Saul, a young Jewish persecutor who had caused the Church a great deal of trouble. It would later be his responsibility to take the gospel to the entire Gentile part of the Roman Empire.
The Other Apostles
But what about the other eleven Apostles? The book of Acts primarily discusses the ministries of Peter and Paul. It says very little about the other Apostles of Jesus Christ.
We do know Christ told the apostles, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: BUT go rather TO THE LOST SHEEP OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL.”14
It was God’s purpose to use Paul to take the gospel to the Gentile Roman Empire. The other Apostles were to go to Israel. THEY KNEW, then, where the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel were. They undoubtedly went to them.
Israel had settled in Northwestern Europe, Britain, and to the east in Parthia. To these areas the other disciples carried Christ’s message. But since God did not choose to preserve their ministries for us, we have to understand early Church history from the book of Acts.
Peter was the apostle to the Jews; the others went to the Lost Ten Tribes. Paul preached to the dispersed Jews and to the Gentiles.
The Ministry of Paul
We now come to the active ministry of the Apostle Paul. Obviously, in a work such as this, there is not time or space to fully discuss the entire lives and works of the men God used to found His Church and to carry the gospel to the world. But to make the story complete, we need to at least briefly review the story as revealed in the book of Acts.
After Paul was converted in the year 35 A.D., he immediately departed to Arabia where he was personally instructed by Jesus Christ.15 Paul was being prepared for a work just as big as any of the apostles, and Christ gave him over three years of direct training just as the original twelve had.16
With the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile in the Church, the way was open to take the gospel to the world. Paul and Barnabas were sent to northern Syria and finally to Antioch. For over a year the Churches grew, and it was here the world began to first call Christ’s followers by the name “Christian.”17
Paul, after being ordained to apostleship in the Church, began his well-known journeys throughout the Roman Empire. Everywhere he went Churches were established — ministers were ordained.18
In the year 50 A.D., and on the day of Pentecost — exactly nineteen years after the foundation of the Church — God led the Apostle Paul to carry the gospel into Europe for the first time.19
Prior to this, the ministers had been limited to Asia. But in that year, Paul crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, and the gospel spread from there.
Here we see just how important the preparation of the Roman world was. Paul, a Roman citizen, had the right of appeal to Rome. When on trial, he used that right, and thereby was able to preach at Rome, remaining there in his own hired house for two years.22
With the year 61 A.D., the book of Acts comes to a close.
Thirty years of dedicated and zealous work by the Apostles is all God preserves in Biblical writings. But within thirty years, the gospel had spread from Jerusalem, to Samaria, to all Asia, and throughout the empire. Scores and scores of thousands must have been converted by this time. Christianity then became noticed in the empire.
Persecutions Set In
Up to the mid-sixties A.D., Christianity enjoyed a relatively free course in the empire. It grew miraculously. Of course, there were trials.
The Jews had Stephen stoned in about 34 or 35 A.D. The Apostle James was killed by Herod about 43 A.D., again as a result of pressure from the Jews. The Apostle Paul was sometimes let out of town by night, or protected in an unknown home as a result of Jewish persecution.
But the Romans paid little attention to Christianity until well after Paul’s Roman imprisonment. By this time a madman had become Caesar at Rome — NERO.
Everyone has read of the great fire at Rome in 64 A.D. The fire, without doubt, was started by Nero in his insanity. When in danger of being discovered, he used the first scapegoats he could think of.
“These Christians,” Nero raved, “caused the fire. They want to burn down our gods.” Christians by the scores, perhaps by the hundreds, were taken — many martyred. Here is how Tacitus describes the terrifying times:
¼But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome . . . an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.23
Paul, having been recognized as the leader, was once again taken prisoner and carried back to Rome. Here, in about the year 65 or 66, He was beheaded — the common death for Roman citizens. But this did not happen until God, through Paul, had firmly established Christ’s message throughout the empire.
What Did the Apostles Teach?
It is very plain in the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul that the gospel went to the world. But was it the very same gospel Christ preached? Did Peter and Paul have different messages? Did Paul found a new theology? Let’s look into the BIBLE and see.
First notice Paul’s own statement regarding the gospel, and the seriousness of preaching it correctly. “But though WE [all of God’s ministers] or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”24 This is so important it is repeated in the next verse.
It certainly doesn’t sound like Paul taught any other message than the one taught to him by Christ, and the same message every other minister of Jesus Christ preached.
As the book of Acts begins, Christ confirms even again to the apostles, “To whom also He shewed Himself alive after His passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD.”25
The message of the entire book of Acts is the message of the RESURRECTED CHRIST, the King of the Kingdom of God, which is to be established on this earth. Paul and Peter and all the Apostles taught it — and they taught it just alike. In fact, Paul wrote the Church at Corinth, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, THAT YE ALL SPEAK THE SAME THING, and that there be no divisions among you.”26
When James and John first traveled to Samaria, “when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, [they] returned to Jerusalem, and PREACHED THE GOSPEL in many villages of the Samaritans.”27 And the Apostle Paul, on his first journey through Asia Minor, “PREACHED THE GOSPEL.” “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch.”28
Just as Jesus Christ preached the GOOD NEWS, the gospel, to His Disciples, so the disciples preached the same gospel, the same GOOD NEWS to the world.
Did They Do Away With the Laws and the Sabbath?
Many professing Christian denominations readily admit that Jesus Christ kept God’s laws — even the Sabbath. But it is the common assumption of almost everyone in the churches today, that the Apostles did away with the laws, and especially the Sabbath. They teach the early New Testament Church met on Sunday, the first day of the week.
Let’s again LOOK INTO THE BIBLE to see if this is so.
We have already seen, contrary to many theories, the Church was established on the Day of Pentecost — a Monday. That was not at all the regular day of worship, but an annual Holy Day or high day.
Then, on which day of the week did the Apostles preach?
Since Paul is commonly thought of as the one who taught the Gentiles not to observe the “Jewish” laws, let’s see what he did in the Gentile cities. “But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue ON THE SABBATH DAY, and sat down.”29 Here is the Apostle Paul in a Gentile city, nineteen years after the foundation of the Church, entering into the synagogues to teach.
“But,” some say, “that was to reach the Jews who met on the Sabbaths.” Was it?
Notice this carefully. Later that same day, “¼when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, THE GENTILES besought that these words might be preached to them THE NEXT SABBATH.”30
Here, surely, was Paul’s golden opportunity to show the Gentiles they did not need to keep the Sabbath, if it was nailed to the cross. But what happened in Antioch in Pisidia?
“AND THE NEXT SABBATH DAY came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God.”31
No, Paul did not do away with the Sabbath at all. He taught Jews and Gentiles to keep it — he always kept it, week in and week out.
Notice again, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: and Paul, AS HIS MANNER WAS, went in unto them, AND THREE SABBATH DAYS reasoned with them out of the scriptures.”32
And again in Greece, “And he reasoned in the synagogue EVERY SABBATH, and persuaded the Jews and the GREEKS.”33
The Church founded by Jesus Christ was, and still is, a Sabbath-keeping Church. Peter, Paul, James, John, and every other disciple of Christ kept it. And this information is included here, because so few have understood how to even find the accurate history of the true Christian Church.
Two vital keys we have discussed in chapters seven and eight are those of the MESSAGE Christ preached, and which was carried to the world; and the LAWS OF GOD, including the SABBATH DAY on which the Church worshipped. These keys lead to the understanding of where God’s true Church is, and how to read about it in history.
The Foundation Complete
At the conclusion of exactly thirty-eight years, the Church had completed its FOUNDATION WORK. God allotted two nineteen-year time cycles for the gospel to go to the world. It began at Jerusalem, spread throughout Judea, then to Samaria and to all Asia. That took exactly nineteen years.
And, as we have seen, nineteen years to the day after the Church began — on the Day of Pentecost in 50 A.D. — the gospel went to Europe. For nineteen more years the gospel spread to cities and villages.
Then Roman persecution set in. Paul was killed. The Church began to be scattered.
In the late sixties A.D., the Jews rebelled against the Romans. Armies marched into Jerusalem.
But Christ had warned His Church of this time,34 and when they saw Jerusalem encompassed with armies they fled. This took place in 69 A.D., just shortly before Jerusalem was brutally destroyed by Titus, the Roman genera, in 70 A.D.
At this point in history, the story of the Church is very difficult to pick up. Eusebius records that members of the true Church at that time were called Nazarenes. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eleventh edition, records:
Nazarenes, an obscure Jewish Christian sect [they were Christians who kept the Sabbath, so the same Church as recorded in the book of Acts]. . . . According to that authority [Panarion, xxix. 7] they dated their settlement in PELLA from the time of that flight of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, immediately before the siege in A.D. 70.35
The Church in Jerusalem fled from the persecution of the Romans in 70 A.D. They fled to the small town of Pella to the northeast of Jerusalem. This concluded the spread of Christianity in any organized way as far as we know from recorded history. After Christianity began, it spread and grew miraculously and gigantically for thirty-eight years.
We now come to the period in Church history which Jesse Hurlbut calls, “THE AGE OF SHADOWS.”36 It is the period which has nearly been lost to all understanding.
In the next and final chapter, we will see the reasons that this period in history is ALMOST, but not quite, lost, and what really did happen in the closing years of the first century A.D.
16I Corinthians 15:5-8, I Corinthians 11:23.
23Tacitus, The Annals, xv. 44.
26I Corinthians 1:10.
28Acts 14:7, 21.
35“Nazarenes,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (1911), vol. XIX, p. 319.
36Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41.