By H.W. Everest
THE agencies through which God would bring to man the spiritual renovation are all embodied in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom or church of Christ, "the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I ask your attention to the kingdom of heaven as a great fact, as an actual existence among men, as something most wonderful in its conception and still more wonderful in its realization.
Moses, before he laid down the scepter, pointed to the coming Messiah, to a prophet like unto himself, mediator, law-giver and ruler. Israel's greatest poet spoke of one who should sit on David's throne and at the right hand of God. Daniel, standing among the ruins of ancient empires and with the horoscope of coming ages before him, said "In the days of these kings shall the God of Heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms and it shall stand forever."
John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The young carpenter of Nazareth had a divine conception of this kingdom, and no thought of man can ever equal the sublimity of that conception; a kingdom not of this world, yet including all nations--a dominion over the hearts and consciences of men; a kingdom of truth and love; a kingdom universal and eternal; a kingdom which He would found in His own ignominy and death, and the scepter of whose authority He would never lay down.
While to all outward seeming He was but a wretched Jewish peasant, without a soldier at His beck and without a single denarius to pay for His burial, when as yet not a word of His teachings had been written, and while the blood was trickling down His face from the many wounds of the mock crown of thorns, to the scornful question of the Roman governor, "Art thou a king?" He said: "I am a king, and hereafter you shall see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of Heaven."
In answer to Peter's confession that He was the Christ, the Son of God, He said: "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And yet He died on a Roman cross, He was buried in a borrowed grave, a great stone was rolled to the door of His sepulchre, His mother's heart was pierced through with many sorrows, and His few disciples were scattered abroad.
Miraculous though it be, the conception of the Nazarene was more than realized. On that memorable day of Pentecost, the disciples at Jerusalem were all with one accord in one place. There was a sound as of a rushing mighty wind. The Holy Spirit came in baptismal power and testified with tongues of flame that God had made that same Jesus both Lord and Christ.
This was the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven. The prophetic utterances and symbols were fulfilled, the long ages of preparations were justified, the human cry for grace and mercy was heard, and three thousand conversions signalized this auspicious beginning.
Is Jesus a king? He reigns more gloriously than did Caesar or Napoleon. Has He a kingdom? Millions of subjects bow the knee before Him and submit to His sway. Is His kingdom universal? He rules from shore to shore and from zone to zone. Is His dominion an everlasting dominion? It will be as lasting as the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and cannot perish until truth and love shall die. The miracle of His kingdom is only less than the miracle of Christ Himself.
My theme, thus introduced, "The First Century of the Church of Christ," I shall discuss not as a matter of church history, but as related to the religious movement with which myself and nearly a million of my brethren stand identified.
The first Christian century is the beginning corner where we must place our theodolite if we would measure correctly the boundary lines of heaven's kingdom. It is the pow sto where we must place our fulcrum if we would effectively use, the lever of the Gospel. It is the center whence streams forth the light of revelations over all the past and all the future, and around which all Bible truth revolves in more than astronomic harmony. That the first Christian century was all this and more is evident from several points of view.
First. This century was the period of inauguration and confirmation. When did the kingdom of heaven begin on earth? Not when Daniel said: "In the days of these kings will the God of Heaven set up a kingdom;" not when John the Baptist proclaimed: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," for the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he; not when Jesus said: "On this rock I will build My church; "not when the dying malefactor prayed "Lord, remember me when thou comest in Thy kingdom." Jesus was not exalted to the right hand of power until He had suffered the humiliations of the scourge and the cross, and not until He had conquered death and hell did He enter heaven leading captivity captive.
The kingdom of heaven was not possible until it was announced on earth that "God had made that' same Jesus both Lord and Christ." Prophets and Apostles bear witness that Jerusalem was the place and the last Jewish Pentecost the time. Isaiah predicted that "the law should go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Peter declared that Joel's prophecy concerning the last days began to be fulfilled on that Pentecost, and that that was the beginning of the new dispensation. Thence forward in the sacred history the kingdom of heaven is referred to as an accomplished fact; sinners "are translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son," and saints rejoice in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.
This position in regard to the beginning of the church of Christ is impregnable. All that preceded, whether it be the law of Moses, the utterance of the prophets, or the work of Jesus, was but preparatory, while all that followed, under the guidance of the Apostles, was but a development and confirmation of its power.
Moreover, this century was the heroic age of the church--heroic like that of a nation when it declares its independence and sovereignty and makes that declaration good in successful warfare. The Christ had been humiliated and exalted--crowned with thorns and crowned with glory. His kingdom had been proclaimed by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. It was to be sustained by the power of truth and the attractions of divine love. Its conquests were to be won, not by the sword, but by the preaching of the Gospel.
Will this new and unique kingdom of the Nazarene stand? Will it increase? Will it triumph? The first hundred years gave proof that it would stand, that it would break in pieces all other kingdoms and endure forever.
A second point of view presents the first Christian century as the culmination and expansion of all that had gone before in the history of redemption. As the geological ages with their rising series of living forms were without meaning till man appeared, so Jewish laws and institutions have little meaning except they stand revealed in the light of the Gospel.
What was the meaning of sacrifice? It seems obscure and heathenish till we see "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world." What the meaning of the Mosaic tabernacle and its priestly services? None until we see its mysteries illumined by the correspondence between type and anti-type. Even some of the parables of Christ are not intelligible except in the light of subsequent facts: The sower who went forth to sow and who gathered a harvest according to the condition of the soil; the mustard seed and the full-grown tree; the king who went into a far country to receive a kingdom and to return.
The results of this century fully justify the facts of redemption, the divine love, the humiliation of Jesus, the ministry of angels, the mission of the Holy Spirit, the garden and the cross, the darkness and the earthquake, the resurrection and the ascension, the mission of the Apostles and the Saviour's prediction of their triumph over all opposition. If the Bible student shall master the history of this century, the past will be clear and the future glorious.
A third consideration of much importance is the fact that during this century the church was under the miraculous guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus promised His Apostles and their immediate followers the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He told them that He would send them another comforter, even the spirit of truth, whom the world could not receive.
He commended them to wait at Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. He left the elements of His kingdom in chaotic conditions; Jewish ritual and prophecy were the only historic facts not yet built into the scheme of redemption; the sublime truths which He had taught rested only in the memories of a few devoted disciples and were liable to perish utterly.
His sun had been obscured at noonday and had gone down in blood; His followers were disorganized and dispersed. It was at this juncture, when all things seemed to be at the worst and needing more than ever before His presence that Jesus was taken from the earth.
But the Spirit was to come and bring order out of this chaos. It was to lead the Apostles into all truth, to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, to follow the Apostles with signs and wonders, with demonstrations and with power.
The church of the first century was under the immediate supervision of the Holy Spirit. In fulfillment of the Saviour's promise it came upon the waiting disciples with baptismal power. Peter and the other apostles spoke the Gospel as the Spirit gave them utterance.
It was the source of wisdom, determining the matter and form of the Gospel proclamation, opening the door to the Gentiles, settling the question of difference between Jews and Gentiles, edifying the church through spiritual gifts, interpreting the Scriptures, directing the movements of evangelists, and disclosing the future.
It was the source of power; power to heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead; power to confirm the Word with miraculous manifestations; power to organize the church, determine its officers, its sacraments and its methods of worship and work.
Let it also be emphasized that the miraculous presence and power of the Holy Spirit were peculiar to the Apostolic age, to the first century of the church. The only authentic record of such supernatural phenomena is in the New Testament. In the earlier and later Christian fathers, fact and fable are so intermingled that human wisdom cannot separate them. It is beyond controversy that no miraculous endowments are now in possession of the church.
Such supposed manifestations now, whether public or private, whether in a Quaker meeting or a camp-meeting, whether prophesied by Christian Scientist or faith healer, and whether of Protestant or Roman Catholic endorsement, are a delusion and a dishonor, are of man or the devil, are modifications of epilepsy or hypnotism, and originate in weak heads or in wicked hearts.
As nature began in a miracle, but now stands in the clear light of science, so did Christianity begin in these superhuman phenomena, but it now moves on under the guidance of beneficent law.
If anyone claims the baptism of the Holy Spirit, let him speak with tongues, if he arrogates to himself the authority of Jesus, let him prove his apostleship by presenting his miraculous credentials; if he claims to be the vicegerent of Christ and lords it over God's heritage, let him show that Heaven confirms his word by signs and wonders following.
These pretenders, these fanatics and cranks, male and female, with their lying relics and mock miracles are descendants of Jannes and Jambres, who withstood Moses, and are a disgrace to the church of the nineteenth century.
A fourth proposition is a logical inference from what I have said. The Christianity and the church of this first century, as revealed and perfected by the Holy Spirit, are presented as a finality.
Now for more than eighteen hundred years the heavens have kept silence, a silence not again to be broken until the trump of God shall sound and the dead shall rise.
What God has done cannot be improved upon. It has no deficiencies and no redundancies, and hence the apocalyptic curse falls on him who shall add to this finished work, or who shall dare to take from it. There can be no need of change in any respect since God and man, sin and righteousness, heaven and hell are forever the same. No authority has been delegated to any man, pope or council to amend or abolish any portion of this perfect system. It is the anti-Christ, that hierarch of heresy, that has presumed to change times and laws.
These are the "last days," the last dispensations of the grace of God. We are to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for I delivered to the saints. The Pauline anathema is terribly conclusive "Though we or an angel from Heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." "As I said before, so say I now again: if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed;" and this anathema comes not from the vatican, but from the throne of God.
"All flesh is as grass, and the glory of man as the flower of the grass; the grass withereth and the flower thereof falleth away, but the word of the Lord endureth forever; and this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you."
This brings us logically and relentlessly to a fifth point of view, to the all-important conclusion that the first century of the Church of Christ, that the inspired record of this century left us by the Holy Apostles and evangelists who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the only source of authority in religious matters.
"The Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants." Everything must be measured and approved or disapproved by the Divine standard of the New Testament. If creed and dogma, if sacrament and ritual do not agree with these Scriptures, it is because there is no light in them.
What question can be greater than this one of religious authority? Who can forgive sins? Who can give commands which reach forward into eternity? Who can bind the conscience? Who can establish law for the day of judgment? Who can decree ordinances and governments for the church? And on whose rod and staff shall we lean as we go through the valley and shadow of death?
The risen Christ, said: "All authority in heaven and in earth is given unto me; go ye therefore."
To the Apostles this authority was delegated, but to none others. Episcopacy and papacy alike are unsupported pretensions; the chain of succession lies in broken fragments which cannot be welded, nor is it linked to the throne of Christ.
Councils, whether ecumenical or otherwise, and assemblies, whether general or provincial, are without legislative authority, for a voice has come to us from the excellent glory, "This is my beloved Son; hear ye Him."
Nor has any man or class of men been authorized and inspired to interpret the New Testament for the rest of the world. This is no revelation which requires another revelation to reveal it. God has not put into the hands of any mortal man such an instrument of oppression.
The assumption that he has done so has been productive of evils the most tremendous; it has divided Christendom into hostile sects and united church and state; it has built up great systems of priest-craft and converted the institutions of religion into sources of revenue; it has drawn up creeds and enforced them with the sword; it has kindled the fires of martyrdom and invented the horrors of the Inquisition; it has persecuted churchman and dissenter with equal ferocity, and drenched many a battlefield with fraternal blood.
Notwithstanding pope or priest, creeds or ecclesiastical anathemas, every man has free access to the Word of God. Not only may every man interpret for himself, but he must do so and will do so; for thought is eternally free, and neither men nor devils can put it in chains.
This right and duty of every man and church to come to the New Testament as the only source of authority this side of the throne of God has made it necessary that this shall be a science of interpretation. Coming to the same book and following the same rules of exposition, we shall come to the same conclusions.
As in science, so in theology; the inductive system of investigations will bring contending dogmas and factions into harmony. Hence with us, as a people, this science of interpretation has always occupied a prominent place.
We build on the best text and translations of the Holy Scriptures; we would apply the strictest logical and grammatical law to the words and sentences; we would recognize the progressive character of revelation and the three distinct dispensations of the grace of God, Patriarchal, Jewish and Christian.
We ask who speaks, to whom, and for what purpose? We distinguish between law and custom, between the permanent and the temporary, between the precedent and isolated facts. We feel bound where the Apostles have bound us; but where they have left us unbound to any custom or method of administration we are determined "to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."
Still further, the first century of the church is a remarkable period because the nineteenth century so regards it, because it is the central point toward which all the great currents of religious thought and reformation are tending.
Every institution of the church has been changed and marred by unholy hands; we must go back to the first sources. All the streams of religious teaching have been polluted by theological speculations and priestly abuses; we must go up and drink at the fountain head. All the offices and organizations of the church have been prostituted to worldly ambition and worldly gain; we must again stand in the presence of the Apostles and see how they administered the kingdom of heaven.
Coming back thus to the first century of the Church of Christ, what shall we find? What were the characteristics of that divinely constituted church, and what the sources of its power? The Apostolic church was remarkable for its absence of several things: There was no pope, no papal palace, no papal bulls, no papal anathemas, no papal decrees, no papal nuncios. Who was Paul and who was Peter but ministers by whom they believed?
It cannot be shown from the New Testament that Peter was ever at Rome. The Peter who would not receive the homage of Cornelius, but said: "Stand upon thy feet; for I also am a man," could not have endured to be called "Christ's Vicegerent," or "Lord God the Pope."
The Roman pontiff was developed in after years out of an overgrown metropolitan bishop. The only New Testament prototype of the pope is Diotrephes, who loved to have the pre-eminence. And this is asserted to be true, not as a matter of controversy, but of unquestioned scholarship.
There was no hierarchy, no gradations of priestly honor, metropolitan archbishop, bishop, priest, monk and layman. Christ was the only high priest, with no vicar on earth or in heaven, and the Apostles had no successors.
All Christians were kings and priests unto God. The work of the church was divided among the servants of Christ, but there was no ecclesiastical ladder of promotion to tempt an unholy ambition to deeds of pride and oppression.
We do not read of the "Right-Reverend John Mark," or of "Cardinal Timothy," nor of "ArchBishop Titus." These titles and the things they signify arose far this side of the first century.
There was no ecclesiasticism, no complicated system of church government formed after the model of the Roman Empire; no "Great Iron Wheel" to crush out individualism; no Ferris wheel to elevate the few above the many. There, was no tyranny of one church over another and no danger that some arch-heretic might be brought to trial and so disrupt the whole church.
There was no speculative theology. They were so busy preaching Christ and Him crucified that they had no time to write out a system of divinity. They deferred many interesting questions until they should no longer "see through a glass darkly." They gave heed to Paul's instruction: "That they strive not about words to no profit;" that they "shun profane and vain babblings;" "neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith."
There were no anxious-seat conversions. Then faith came by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. Then men received assurance of pardon through obedience to the commands of the Gospel. Then none who wanted to become Christians went away unblessed and doubting the word and mercy of God. In all the Book of God you will find nothing that corresponds to some modern revival' scenes, unless it be the one enacted by the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
There was no infant membership. They did not practice baptismal regeneration. Faith and repentance were essential to discipleship. The New Testament furnished not a single example of infant membership.
There was no six months' probation. The same day that they made confession of faith in Jesus they were added to the church. They took the lambs into the fold and did not leave them exposed to him who goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
There were no pseudo baptisms. Those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit spoke with tongues. They did not think that affusion was a mode of immersion. They did not try to bury a man in a few drops of water. It was always preceded by a change of heart and life. It is, conceded by all competent scholars that immersion was the Apostolic practice and that the Saviour Himself set the example. All the substitutes for New Testament baptism came up in subsequent times.
There was no Sabbath. The Jewish Christians continued to observe it as they did circumcision, but it had been taken out of the way. The Lord's day, the first day of the week, was observed by the ancient church, not as a Sabbath, not as a day of rest, but as a day of worship, a day consecrated to the Lord, a day of great religious activity.
There was no "auricular confession," no "transubstantiation," no "extreme unction," no "purgatory," no "holy water," no "Mariolatry," no worship of the saints, no "papal infallibility." If you would learn about these inventions, you must go to an encyclopedia and not to the New Testament.
There was no human creed. They had a creed but it was divine; announced from heaven; demonstrated by the Holy Spirit; needing no revision; embodying the central formatives built of Christianity, the belief of which gave men the power to become the sons of God.
What were the positive characteristics of that Apostolic church?
It was a Christ church. That Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was its creed and foundation, a creed announced by the Father, predicted by the Prophets, preached by the Apostles and confessed by every disciple. They were baptized into Christ; they put on Christ; they walked in Christ; they died in Him. They bore His name, were imbued with His spirit, followed His example and looked forward to His coming a second time without a sin-offering to salvation. They gave Christ the pre-eminence in all things.
It was a Gospel church. They accepted the, Gospel facets that Jesus died for our sins, that He was buried and that He rose the third day according to the Scriptures. They obeyed the Gospel commands to believe on the Lord Jesus, to repent, to confess His name, and to be baptized by His authority. They rejoiced in the Gospel promises, the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit and eternal life. They were saved by the Gospel, and though to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, to those who believed it was the wisdom of God and the power of God.
It was a people's church. It was not for the aristocratic or learned few, but for every man. Hence the conditions of the discipleship were very simple and level to the comprehension of every one who needed to be saved. They were to believe in Christ, turn away from sin and give a test of this faith and repentance in their ready obedience in baptism.
They were not required to become experts in introspection until they could analyze their own state of mind and measure the degree of faith and feeling. They were not required to fathom the mysteries of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, nor to unravel the perplexities of election and free grace. They were not required to examine thirty-nine articles, more or less, and settle the most obtuse theological problems; if such had been the hard conditions, many youthful acid ignorant sinners could not have been saved.
It was not controlled by a body of priests; but all matters not legislated upon by the Apostles were decided by the whole body of believers. It was a people's church because nothing was done to exclude the poor and the wretched.
The members were gathered in from the highways and the hedges. They had no splendid cathedral, so elaborate in furnishing and with audiences so richly dressed that the poor man was put to shame. It did not have to build mission churches and come down to people, for it was itself a mission church and was already down among the masses.
It was an obedient church. Its life began in obedience. It continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine, in the partnership, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. The Lord's death and resurrection were commemorated every week. They were intent on carrying out the great commission. They went forward in the path of obedience though that path might lead to prison and to death.
It was a free church. It did not form an unholy alliance with the state; was not the slave of priest-craft and superstition; did not manacle itself with rigid creeds and customs until growth and knowledge in grace were impossible; was not subject to fate, either through an eternal election, or through the impotence of total depravity; but it was free to receive the Gospel, and just as free to reject it; free to use the best methods and means in carrying out the commands of Jesus; free in this respect to avail itself of all progress in science and art; free to declare the whole counsel of God though martyrdom might be the consequence; free in the highest sense, for the truth had made it free.
It was a praying church. Christ, though Lord of all, set the example. It was while in prayer that the Holy Spirit came; they prayed without ceasing. No theory of God, which makes Him an iceberg in the sides of the north, no theory of law, which makes God as well as man its victim, which binds the Almighty so that He cannot hear and answer prayer, kept them from the throne of grace.
It was a united church. They built on the foundation of Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone. They were united by the "one Lord, one faith, the one baptism, by the one body, the one spirit, the one hope and the one Father of all." They were not divided over men, nor neither Paul, nor Peter, nor Apollos was willing to become a leader in any schismatic movement. They were not divided over opinions, for their differences were not exalted into tests of fellowship. They did not press the heads of all believers into the same mould, nor seek to connect their necks into cast iron so that they could not turn to take a new view of any subject.
They did not seek to introduce the horrible monotony of perfect uniformity. Even Jew and Gentile gathered and worshiped in the same congregation, for Christ was their peace, who had broken down the middle wall of partition between them. The prayer of Jesus for the unity of His disciples was gloriously answered, for the times of sectarian division and strife had not yet come.
It was a missionary church. They seemed constantly to hear the Saviour saying: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." Their energies were concentrated on mission work. When scattered abroad from Jerusalem, they went everywhere preaching the Word. Deacons like Stephen and Philip gained great boldness in the Gospel. Women were prophetesses and helpers. Evangelists were everywhere, depending on their own labor, supported by single churches or by the combined aid of large districts. Missionary church? Why, the church of the first century did scarcely anything else. They did not spend their time in learning to pronounce the party shibboleth correctly, nor spend the Lord's money in building up contending factions.
It was a suffering church. Its founder was crucified, its Apostles were murdered and thousands of its members were slaughtered to make a Roman holiday, but the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.
It was a triumphant church. The combined hostility of Jews and Gentiles, of high-priest and Roman governor, of Pharisees and Greek philosophers, of depraved human nature and satanic agencies, only served to prove that the gates of hell could not prevail against it.
It went forward from conquering unto conquest. Converts multiplied with wonderful rapidity--three thousand, five thousand, a great company of the priests, and millions before the close of the century.
Country after country fell before it--Judea, Samaria, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, the Roman Empire, Babylon, Arabia and Ethiopia. Before the death of the last Apostle, the whole world had heard the wonderful proclamation; and all this without armies, without steamships and railroads, without printing presses and libraries, without colleges and favoring Christian governments--all this in the midst of heathenism and against the most bloody opposition.
Could we but reproduce the church of the first century in its spirit and power, with our millions of money and our millions of men, and with our peaceable access to all tribes and nations of the earth, how soon all the kingdoms of this world would become the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
As a brotherhood, nearly a million strong, this is our position, this is our endeavor. We present no human creed and no human plan of confederation, but we say: "Let us go back to the days of inspiration and infallible teaching, let us sit at the feet of the Apostles, let us rally around the cross."
Here we stand; we can do no otherwise, so help us, God. And, if in the good time coming, whose auspicious signs are already apparent in the ecclesiastical sky, the contending churches of Christendom shall drop creeds or revise them out of existence, cease to glory in party names, and return to the church of the first century, to the foundation of Apostles and Prophets, they will find us a people tenting on that ground and lifting the banner of the cross higher and still higher.