First Years of Christianity: No. 6

Acts 26:12‑23  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 6
We have seen the formation of the church or assembly; its united prayer; the place shaken where they were assembled; and all filled with the Holy Ghost. The word of God was spoken with boldness. All that believed were of one heart and soul; the apostles with great power gave witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them all. Such was the assembly in the beginning. Alas, what a contrast now!
And yet the true heavenly character of the new assembly was not then fully, if at all, revealed. The man, who was the chosen vessel to make known the church, was not even yet converted from Judaism, This man, Saul of Tarsus was a mad persecutor of the disciples, the great enemy of Christ. As he was on his way to Damascus, breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven, brighter than the noon-day sun. The mad persecutor fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, " Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Amazed at these words, he said, " Who art thou, Lord?" And the Lord said, " I am Jesus, whom thou persecutes!" What a revelation; and what a revolution in this man!
The Jesus he persecuted was the Lord of glory. But most wonderful: this Lord of glory owned every disciple, every true believer, as part of Himself. What was done to them was done to Him. This contained the mystery—stupendous fact, that every believer now on earth was one with the Lord of glory. Many years after this we find it written, " As he is so are we." How little had Saul thought, that what he did to the feeblest disciple he did to Jehovah Jesus, Lord and Christ. "What a repentance, what a change of mind! Trembling and astonished, he said, " Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" He was directed to Ananias, a devoted disciple in the city. Ananias was greatly afraid of this terrible persecutor.-The Lord calmed his fears, and said to him, " Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings and the children of Israel."
Such was the effect on Saul of this revelation, that for three days he was blind and could neither eat nor drink. His eyes were then opened, and he at once proved the reality of his repentance, or change of mind, by being baptized, and took his place with the disciples as those whose sins were washed away. The full account of his commission to preach and teach in the name of the Lord Jesus we find in Acts 26:12-2312Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 15And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. 16But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; 17Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, 18To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. 19Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: 20But showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance. 21For these causes the Jews caught me in the temple, and went about to kill me. 22Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: 23That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:12‑23).
It must be observed that, as the sample minister of Christ, he received his commission and authority to preach direct from Christ Himself: not from man, not from the church. He takes great pains, in Gal. 1, to prove that this was from God. Never did he go to Jerusalem, to the apostles even, to receive authority to preach. He was only recognized by them. " When James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision/'' Gal. 2:99And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. (Galatians 2:9).)
It may justly be asked, if the apostles or the church never assumed to give authority to preach the gospel, or teach in the first years of Christianity, how is it that those who profess to be the successors of the apostles do so now? That is a question for them to answer. They will tell you, they have derived that power and authority to appoint and ordain those who alone shall be set apart to preach the gospel, and administer the sacraments. And yet in the beginning there was no such power or authority in the hands of these very apostles, If there was, let it be shown. Paul was most jealous to disown all such authority.
The subject of the Christian ministry is a deeply interesting one. Does that which assumes to be that ministry now correspond with what it was in the beginning, or is it a totally different thing? Men are now ordained or authorized by men to preach and teach. But we must honestly own, that there is nothing in the New Testament account that corresponds to this. There was the one church of God or assembly of God; and all Christians formed that one assembly. There was the church of God at Rome; but there was no church of Rome at any place but Rome. There was no distinction between the assembly in Greece, and in Italy, or Syria. There were no denominations. If you had spoken of the church of Rome, or church of England in Scotland, or in Ireland, not a man on earth would have understood you. Then, if there were no de• nominations or national churches of the world, there could be no ministers of such churches. Now since this is assuredly, manifestly, the case, it follows that people may be members of such human churches, and not be members of the one body of Christ at all. Quite true, you will say, no doubt millions are so at this day. Then does it not equally follow, that men may be ministers of such churches and not even be Christians, and not ministers of Christ—in a word, that the christian ministry, and the vast denominational ministry, are two very distinct things? There is one thing perhaps above all others that marks this distinction.
The true christian ministry owned and had the guidance of the Holy Ghost where to minister. The ministry, which is of man, is solely appointed by man, and scarcely dares truly to recognize the presence and guidance of the Holy Ghost. Let us turn to the• word. We will first take Peter. Christ appointed him (John 21:15-1715So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (John 21:15‑17)) and gave him the special ministry to open the door of the kingdom to Jews and Gentiles. {Matt. 16:1919And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19).) As to any other appointment from men he had none. Human education, none. He was an mi-lettered man. (Acts 4:1313Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13).) Could the Holy Ghost come down from heaven and use such a man? What a question! Let the preaching in the mighty power of the Holy Ghost answer (Acts 2; 3), and how distinctly he had the guidance of the Holy Ghost. (See Acts 10)
Then let us take the ministry of Paul. Sometimes Acts 13:1-41Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. 3And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. 4So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:1‑4) is quoted as authority for ordaining a man to be the minister, preacher, and pastor. This scripture is doubtless a most important one as to ministry in every way. It gives us the most distinct view of' true christian ministry that we could have. Here is the assembly as seen in the first years of Christianity: " Now there were in the church that was at Antioch, certain prophets and teachers: as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen.... and Saul." Mark, all these were prophets and teachers. They were the chosen gifts of the ascended Lord. "As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." Let us then take Saul. We read at his conversion that he " was certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God." This gave great amazement to all; but his authority to preach and the power were alike from Christ alone. Then Barnabas took him to Jerusalem, and told the apostles how he had preached at Damascus. " And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians," &c. He is then sent to Tarsus. (Acts 9:18-3018And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. 19And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. 20And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. 21But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests? 22But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. 23And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: 24But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. 25Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. 26And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. 29And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. 30Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. (Acts 9:18‑30))
Then again in the formation of the church from the Gentiles at Antioch, Barnabas went to Tarsus and brought Saul: " And it came to pass that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people." (Acts 11:21-2621And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. 22Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. 25Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:21‑26).) Indeed, this scene at Antioch (chap, xiii.) is after the collection had been sent by the hands of Barnabas, and Saul, and after their return. " And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry," or charge. (Chaps, xi. 30; xii. 25.) So that there is no sense whatever in quoting chapter xiii. as authority for doing the very opposite of what the Spirit did here.
Now look at the assembly gathered together at Antioch. There is no man as the minister of that assembly, but the prophets and teachers. They minister to the Lord. Where is this the case now? Is there no president? Yes, the Lord by the Holy Ghost. And where He is, there can be no other chairman or president. They so own the presence of the Holy Ghost that they have His very guidance as to the persons He appoints for a special mission. Here is the secret of the power of the first years of the church. And there is only power now, in proportion as we truly own the Holy Ghost. He is the power.
In all the great gatherings of Christians, can you tell me of one that answers to this assembly at Antioch? Is not the Holy Ghost as truly here now as then? Assuredly, but men put a man in His place, and then pray for the Holy Ghost to come!
Is it not incredible that there should be such darkness as to quote this scripture, when men appoint a man to be the minister over a church? The Holy Ghost did not say, Separate me one of these teachers for this special work, but He sends two; and we see this principle throughout. And in the preachings it is Paul and Barnabas speaking boldly, though Paul was the chief speaker. (Chaps, xiii. 43-46; xiv. 12; xv. 35.) “Preaching the word of the Lord with many others also."
And after the separation of Paul and Barnabas, it is the same with other companions, Silas and Timotheus. (Chap, xvi.) And how the Holy Ghost guided their steps as to where to preach. For the time they were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia; but they were guided to Europe, and from place to place. (Chap. xvi. 6-9, &c.) How distinctly also the Spirit guided Philip to join himself to the eunuch, sitting in his chariot. " Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him." (See Acts 8:26-4026And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. 27And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, 28Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. 29Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? 31And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. 32The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. 34And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:26‑40).) But we look in vain for a single instance of human ordination of a minister over a church to preach or to teach. It is said of Apollos, when he began to preach the gospel, " When he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace." (Acts 18
27.) Surely this is an important scripture for our guidance now.
But, if such was the christian ministry in the first years of the church, as seen in the Acts, and fully borne out in the epistles, where is that same true christian ministry now? It is quite true that the various divisions of modern Christendom each has its ministry. But what have all these in common with the ministry of Christ, or christian ministry, as seen in the word of God? It is high time to search the scriptures to see what is of God, and what is of man. The apostolic appointment of elders and deacons was quite another thing. These might, or might not, be the gifts of Christ to teach or preach. The elders were appointed to care for and guide the assembly in spiritual matters, and the deacons to care for the poor in temporal things. The apostles could also delegate a Timothy or a Titus, but very few would assume that we have apostles now. Let us then, in dependence on the Holy Ghost, turn to His inspired epistles, and inquire what was the church, what its ministry, and what the doctrines taught in the First Years of Christianity.