How We Taught the New Testament in the Past: Lesson 31: “And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith”
This year’s lesson follows the missionary labors of Paul in establishing branches of the Church throughout the region. An adult lesson from 1942 looks at the establishment and practices of those early branches through the eyes of the branches themselves, rather than through following the missionary.
The Church of Jesus Christ in the Meridian of Time
Most Christians believe that while Jesus of Nazareth was upon the earth He established a church and gave directions for its continued growth and activity. some few contend that he did not establish any type of organization and that the organization which later came into existence was the work of Paul and other apostles. there is, however, in the bible account much to support the contention that Christ established a church. this point of view is confirmed by latter-day revelation.
The period during which Jesus lived was one of relative peace in the Mediterranean world and was to that degree favorable for the introduction of the Christian religion. The Jews, in common with most peoples, were subjected to the rule of the roman Empire and while allowed a certain freedom of control over civil and religious affairs chafed under the heavy burdens of taxation which the conqueror imposed.
In general the Jews considered themselves superior to their conquerors, the proud possessors of priceless knowledge concerning the one true God; with a sacred literature, priestly organization, traditions, and system of laws which set them apart from all other peoples. when ignominy of defeat and economic pressure weighed upon them most heavily they found comfort and hope in their assurance of a Messiah who would come to reign over them and liberate them from their enemies. But the Israelites, or Jews, as they were collectively called, while thus distinguished as a people from the rest of the world, were not a united people. On the contrary they were divided in matters of religious and national policy into many divisions. The principle parties were the Pharisees and Sadducees. In addition we read of Essenes, Galileans, Herodians, and others.
The Jews were living under the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. Paul describes the law of Moses as “Our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,” [Gal. 3:24.] and had it been fully understood and lived the nation might have proved ready for the religion of love the Savior brought. But the Mosaic law had in large part been misunderstood and its provisions largely nullified by fictitious rulings, or its beauty lost sight of under a multitude of ridiculous regulations.
Jesus repeatedly affirmed that he had not come to destroy the Mosaic law but to fulfill it. His teachings, were, however, in sharp contrast to the laws of the Jews as they had come to be interpreted, so the Pharisees and Sadducees alike considered Him their enemy, and, from the beginning of His ministry, plotted to bring about His death.
While Jesus accepted the authority of “the law and the prophets” and repeatedly substantiated His teachings from them, He refused to follow the interpretations of the Jews which centered in the observance of the letter and neglected the spirit of the Mosaic injunctions. Jesus did not therefore build upon any of the then existing Jewish churches and the Christian church which came into being was entirely independent of prior Jewish religious societies.
Whatever records were kept in the time of Christ and immediately afterward have been lost, except for such preservation as the New Testament writings afford, so that it is difficult to trace the growth of the Church organization. however the New testament accounts of Christ’s life show the fundamental beginnings of the Church, and latter-day revelations confirm and add to this information.
The Calling of the Twelve
The gospel accounts are clear concerning the calling of twelve men to special labors in the cause of Christ, to be witnesses of Him to all the world. We read in the account by Matthew: “And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease –
“These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, 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.
“And as ye go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [Matt.; 10:1, 5-7 (Read entire chapter.)]
In latter-day revelation Christ refers to these twelve “disciples” as “apostles.” After revealing the powers of the Priesthood in the Church to Joseph Smith, the Lord added:
“Behold, this is the way that mine apostles, in ancient days, built up my church unto me.” [Doc. and Cov. 84:108.]
In the scriptures it is recorded that Christ while yet living referred to the church which He had established as a then existing organization. We find that reference in these instructions:
“If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault * * * If he will not hear thee then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church, but if he neglect to hear the church let him be unto thee an heathen man and a publican.” [Matt. 18:15-17.]
This is a direct evidence that Jesus had established a formal Church. The statement that Jesus and the twelve continued to baptize and confirm those who believed indicates also the existence of an organization into which they were being initiated as members. Thus we read in Matthew’s account:
“When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John,
“Though Jesus himself baptized not so many as his disciples.” [John 4:1-2. (Note – Verse 2 is given here as revised by Joseph Smith in his inspired revision of the Scriptures.)]
Aside from the existence of a church baptism could have little meaning. Certainly baptism as an ordinance could not be perpetuated without a church.
The New Testament documents also report the Master’s choosing of seventy disciples to be His ministers and to perform a like mission to that of the twelve apostles. Thus we read:
“After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.” [Luke 10:1. Compare with Matt. 10; St. Mark 16:17-30.]
The period of Christ’s earthly ministry was cut short by His crucifixion and His followers had not become particularly numerous. It is doubtful if need had arisen for the appointment of bishops, and the offices of the Lesser Priesthood, or for the full unfolding of the Church plan. however, the foundations had been laid and the necessary Priesthood conferred upon the apostles so that the Church organization could be completed as needed.
The Unfolding of the Church Under the Apostles
After the resurrection of Christ, and His appearances to His disciples, the Church, under the leadership of Peter, James, and John, launched a missionary program which within a century carried the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. The resulting growth in Church membership necessitated the completion of the Church organization with all the offices and callings of the Priesthood. Deacons [I Tim. 3:8-12.], teachers [Acts 13:1.], and priests [Rev. 1:6], were ordained. Bishops were appointed [I Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:17.], the first being James, the brother of the Lord, as Bishop of Jerusalem. Also elders [Acts 14:23; 15:6; I Peter 5:1.], high priests [Hebrews 5:1-5.], pastors [Eph. 4:11.], and evangelists [Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; II Tim. 4:5.] were ordained.
Besides these specific offices in the priesthood, there were callings of a temporal nature to which men were set apart by authority. Thus we read:
“Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them and said, it is not reason that we should have the word of God, and serve tables.
“Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among your seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayers, and to the ministry of the word.
“And the saying pleased the multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch;
“Whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed they laid their hands on them.” [Acts 6:2-6.]
The Apostle Paul likens those appointed to labor in the offices and callings of the Church to a perfect body, the various offices being comparable to the various organs and members of the body, each being necessary to a perfect functioning. [See I Cor. 1:12-27; Romans 12:4-5; Eph. 4:16.]
All of the officers in the pristine church recognized the authority of the twelve apostles with Peter at the head. The existence and work of the Church becomes the standard by which the true Church of Jesus Christ can be known in any dispensation. concerning this James E. Talmage wrote:
“The existence of these officers and particularly their operation with accompaniments of divine assistance and power may be taken as a distinguishing characteristic of the Church in any age of the world. A crucial test whereby the validity or falsity of any claim to divine authority may be determined. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the everlasting gospel, its principles, laws and ordinances and the Church organization founded thereon must be ever the same. In searching for the true Church therefore, one must look for an organization comprising the offices established of old, the callings of apostles, prophets, evangelists, high priests, seventies, pastors, bishops, elders, priests, teachers, deacons, not men bearing these names merely, but ministers able to vindicate their claim to positions as officers in the Lord’s service through the evidences of power and authority accompanying their ministry.”
The Ordinances of the Early Church
The ordinances of the Gospel were few and simple. The first ordinances of the Church, that of baptism, was performed freely where faith and repentance were manifest. The form of baptism is indicated as immersion in water, for we read:
“And Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water.” [Matt. 3:16.]
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
“Wherefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” [Rom. 6:3-5. See also Col. 2:12.]
The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper was also carried out with simplicity and with real meaning. Nothing could suggest greater simplicity than the introduction of the Sacrament by the Savior during this last supper with His twelve apostles. [Read Matt. 26:26; Luke 22:19-20.] Paul attempted to preserve the true meaning of the sacrament. In one of his letters to the Saints at Corinth he wrote:
“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
“And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me.
“After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink, it, in remembrance of me.
“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.
“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
“For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
“For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” [Cor. 11:25-30. Read Matt. 26:26; Luke 22:19-20.]
In addition to the ordinances of baptism and the Sacrament was the ordinance of the laying on of hands, which accompanied confirmation into the Church, the healing of the sick, ordinations to the priesthood, and the setting apart for various offices and callings. No pomp or ceremony accompanied any of these ordinances and no special dress was affected by those officiating. Everything was marked with simplicity.
The Growth of the Church and the Rise of Church Literature
The real growth of Christianity began when the Apostle Paul and others carried the gospel into the Greek world. Within the space of the next fifty years, the gospel had grown from the narrow confines of Palestine to the entire Mediterranean world and had become in very deed a world religion, competing with the great religions of the day and even with the political systems of the time. It was during this period that the literature now known as the New Testament came generally into being and the letters of Paul were written addressed to the various Christian churches. About the year 70 A.D. the Gospel of Mark was written. between the years 80 to 85 A.D. the Gospel of Matthew made its appearance. Based upon earlier records which now are lost, the Gospel of Matthew identified Christ as the Messiah for whom the Jews had been looking. Undoubtedly the writer had in mind an attempt to convince the Jews who were turning against the Church, that Jesus Christ was indeed their Messiah. About the year 90 A.D. the Gospel of Luke appeared. Luke was a Greek physician and the gospels preceding his time, namely the Gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of Matthew, were addressed to Jewish people and spoke in Jewish terms, although they may have been written originally in the Greek language. Luke was desirous that his own people should have a story of Jesus that they could understand. Accordingly he wrote a life of Christ in which Jewish terms and customs are explained. Somewhere about the close of the century, between 95 A.D. and 110 A.D. the fourth gospel, that of St. John made its appearance. It was written to convince mankind that Jesus was the Son God, giving emphasis to His divinity and power. The letters of Paul and the Gospels were not, however, considered as scriptures for some time, nor were they brought together in one volume. Indeed, it was not until the death of the Apostle Paul that his letters were collected together, and it was sometime after the appearance of the several gospels before they were joined together in a single volume.
Various other letters written by Peter, James, John, and others were preserved in the archives of the Church and the time was to come when their contents were considered scripture. The first collection of these early Christian writings to be known as scripture was the collection made by Marcion about the year 130 A.D., after the Apostolic Period had come to a close. Marcion’s New Testament contained seven of the Pauline letters, the four Gospels, and the Book of Acts. His collection was not accepted by the churches and Marcion suffered disappointment. It was not until a council of bishops was held, in the year 180 A.D., that a collection of Pauline letters, plus the gospels and the Book of Acts came to be regarded as scripture and was announced as a “New Testament,” to be read in all the churches.