Early Church History, Part 2
TAKING A LOOK AT PAUL If you have ever wondered how there came to be so many denominations of the church, you are certainly not alone. Looking at the church as it was in the Apostles
TAKING A LOOK AT PAUL
If you have ever wondered how there came to be so many denominations of the church, you are certainly not alone. Looking at the church as it was in the Apostles time, it’s sometimes hard to see any connection at all to the modern churches we have today.
As we continue our journey back in time, we are going to continue to look at how things were, why they changed, and the possibility that perhaps we all need to take a step back and look at where things might be amiss.
Today, we continue on as we left off with the disciples shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 AD. Probably the most noteworthy of the Apostles, and certainly the one from whom we hear the most, is the Apostle Paul. And so we will delve into his life in this portion of our series.
The Early Life of Paul
Unlike Jesus and many of the disciples, Paul was not originally from Israel. Hailing from Tarsus, he was first known as “Saul” and had an interesting upbringing. His father was Hebrew, and a hard worker. So Saul was no stranger to hard work himself, but neither was he a stranger to the Word of God.
Saul was a student of divinity, under the teaching of Gamaliel. In fact, Gamaliel wrote of Saul, “In all my experience I have never had a scholar like Saul of Tarsus.” On the outside looking in at that time, it would have seemed Saul had it all. He was trained in the finest schools, was employed as a tent maker so he never had to worry about his occupation, he studied the Scriptures with a fervor that few could find fault in, and his life was, overall, practically spotless.
However, he looks back as an older man, and still calls himself the chief of all sinners. Why? We’ll get to that, but let’s continue on as Saul moves along his way towards his encounter with Jesus.
Paul In The Bible
One of the first stories in which Paul is a key player in the Bible is when Stephen is being stoned to death. He didn’t actually take part in the execution, however, he only held the coats of those that did. He went on from there to seek out Christians that he could put in prison.
We find an account of his own in Acts 8:3-4 “As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.”
Paul was so vicious a persecutor of the early Christians that everyone feared him and scattered out, no doubt running for their lives. But that never stopped them from continuing to spread the gospel.
Paul’s Damascus Road Experience
Let’s look first at Paul’s own telling of this story, as found in Acts chapter 9:1-9 –
“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?
And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.”
In the meantime, God spoke to a man named Ananias, who was to go and lay hands on Saul so that he would receive his sight. Though Ananias was apprehensive, and said so to God, he went anyway and did as he was instructed to do. Of course, Saul’s sight was immediately restored and he was baptized immediately following.
Paul Begins to Preach
After receiving his sight, being baptized and having a meal from which he regained his strength, Saul stayed on a few days with the disciples there in Damascus. The very ones he had set out to arrest and imprison! But it didn’t take long for him to get right along to his called position.
He immediately began to preach in the synagogues, that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (Acts 9:20). People were astonished that this one who had came to destroy Christians was now not only siding with them, he was preaching and proving that Jesus was the Christ that the ancient prophets had spoken of throughout the Scriptures.
Paul Flees For His Life
It didn’t take long until the Jews had grown tired of Saul’s new way of doing things and they decided he had to be done away with. They watched the gates, both day and night, waiting for their chance.
But Paul knew what was going on and the disciples put him over the wall in a basket so that he could escape to Jerusalem. Once he got there, however, all the disciples there feared him to the point they wanted nothing to do with him.
Barnabas stepped up then, to explain what had happened to Saul, how he had been blind and that he had witnessed him preach in Damascus with great boldness. They finally accepted him there, and he again preached boldly in the Name of Jesus, even arguing with Grecians about it. Once he had made yet another group angry enough to kill him, the disciples took him to Caesarea, and then sent him on to Tarsus from there.
Peace For The Churches
With Paul now staunchly on the side of the God and the disciples, the churches throughout the area finally saw some peace. Because of this, the churches were edified, members received comfort from the Holy Ghost, and the churches multiplied. Peter had even received a vision from God that Gentiles were to be accepted into their number, when he preached to Cornelius and his family.
Later, Barnabas went to Tarsus, found Saul, and brought him back to Antioch. They remained with the church there for an entire year and it was in the city of Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).
Paul The Preacher
Paul never attempts to downplay his role in the persecution of the early Christians. In fact, he speaks of it quite often, and with great sorrow. But he is just as quick to give God the glory for bringing him into the light and giving him a message to preach.
It is safe to assume that, while spending time with the disciples of Jesus, the very ones that walked and talked with Him, that Paul probably asked a great many questions. His zeal was so great for Jesus, it’s hard to imagine that he did not. Furthermore, when he finally did begin to preach, he did so with such convicting speech that he “convinced” them by “proving” that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. Surely, this knowledge did not stem from some grand illusion, as many who were against him were sure to have assumed.
Paul gives a specific view of who Jesus was. He states that Jesus was a man, not at all unlike many other men, as we see in Philippians 2:7 and Romans 5:15. Paul tells of how Jesus was born as a Jew and that he lived under that law Himself (Galatians 4:4). His ministry was particularly and solely to the Jewish people in Israel (Romans 15:8).
He tells of how Jesus was humble, obedient, poor and came to be a minister himself rather than be ministered to. But he then sees Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate culmination of His entire ministry, the very reason he came and worked among His people, in much the same way that Jesus regarded Himself (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:38, Luke 22:27, and John 12:27).
Paul not only preached Jesus, but he worked diligently to know and imitate him on a daily basis. In fact, it’s one of his key points to direct Christians to be followers and imitators of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1 and Philippians 2:5). It is safe to say that Paul dedicated his preaching to making sure that Christians stayed as close to the teachings of Jesus as possible.
Paul the Missionary
Before stopping to do all the writing that constitutes so much of the New Testament, Paul was first a missionary. From about 35 AD to 53 AD, it’s important to remember that he did his least amount of writing and his greatest amount of evangelizing. It was the work of church founding that he first gave himself too, and it was much more needed at that time than any written encouragement, as there was not yet very many that needed that encouragement.
Had Paul’s writings came first, it’s likely people would not have understood what he was talking about. He had to first lay the foundation, lead people to accept Jesus and repent and be baptized, and then to gather together as Jesus had said.
To understand the conflicts that Paul would face early on, we first have to realize what his own conversion had meant. It firstly negated the very Jewish principals that he had long studied and an outreach to the Gentiles was the next step. He did so, not only boldly, but with a great deal of success and was certainly not received well in Jerusalem.
The old ways were surely in danger and they could not be defended without direct imposition.
However, for the church, it wasn’t so much a question of whether or not the Gentiles should be allowed access to the church. Peter had made that abundantly clear already. The question now that met with boldness on both sides what, what would the terms of their admittance be?
What Were The Terms?
It is a question that rings in many churches today, but with much more decisive division, and all denominations believing that theirs is the only way. Let’s get back to Paul, though, for the moment, and take a look at some of the questions he had to answer.
If Gentiles were to be allowed, would they first have to be a Jew to be considered a Christian? Ever since Abraham had received Word from God, the only way to become a “member of the family” was by circumcision, as a physical token of their spiritual change.
It was a long battle that would raise more questions than it would answer. For instance, if Gentiles received faith and privileges without it, what then would happen to the Jews? Would they still have advantage over other uncircumcised nations, or would they all become alike?
In the same way, if the Gentiles had to be circumcised, would their faith in Jesus then be enough to be saved? The question then was, what was all Jesus’ work and preaching for and was it still valid?
Creating a Chasm
With the debate now raging between Jews and Gentiles, Paul is now pushing for Christian freedoms never before seen. The disciples are overshadowed by the controversy, each of them hoping for some type of reconciliation between the two here at the dawn of the new church age.
Those Christians who had come down to Antioch from Judaea had plainly told the Gentiles that if they wanted to be saved, they would have to submit to circumcision (Acts 25:1) and they figured they had the disciples who would support the law of Moses. However, Paul had received a revelation about the issue and how to carry out an end to the argument. In addition to this revelation, he had the disciples would not support the idea of forced circumcision and Titus who himself refused to be circumcised.
The church authorities of the day chose not to add anything to what Paul had proposed. They even chose and set apart Paul and Barnabas to continue with the Gentile churches.
The disciples, on the other hand, had to try to keep peace among the Jews to whom they were preaching. They knew that it was the Jewish nation that would be the first to enter the new covenant, and had to do their best not to allow any worse divisions because of these new Gentile converts.
Every New Struggle
There are volumes written about the ongoing struggles that the early church faced. Paul was one of the first to address these early church divisions, and they way in which he did it should be line by which we measure our own disputes of the day: by lining each one up with the Word of God to see what should hold true.
Paul constantly pointed people back to Jesus, and taught that we should be imitators of Him. First to believe in Him, then to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Ghost. Guidelines for ongoing life and living were also held up to things that Jesus had said and the way He, Himself, had walked. We would do well to also continue to line up our faith with the Word, and walk accordingly.
Be sure to stay tuned for Part 3 of our Early Church History Series, in which we continue to look at the way the earliest church leaders shaped and molded the early church.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name be the glory
Because of Your love and your faithfulness!