Calling a “Church” in religious history
In the first century of our era, a Jewish group arose under the spread of the Good News of Christ, in which the Jews wished to adhere to the doctrine of Jeshua ben Josef or Jesus Christ. Under the leadership or guidance of the apostles and their faithful, small groups called ecclesia were formed here and there. In the Gospels, ekklesia occurs only twice (Matt. 16: 18 and 18: 17). In religious history, one calls the Church: an independent and organised form of existence of a religion, whether local or general. Since there is little coherent organisation in world religions other than Christianity and Christendom, the word Church is virtually restricted to Christian groups. In fact, we are faced with a divided Christianity, with many “Church formations” or “denominations“, whereas all are more or less clearly convinced that there must be only one true and real Church of Christ. Thus everyone faces the problem of the relationship between the one Church and the many “Churches”, the problem of the traces of the one Church in the many others.
The term Church is usually wrongly understood meaning that visible community founded by Christ Jesus, but Jesus never intended to create any other kind of organised religious group than the one to which he himself belonged (the Essenes) or any other Jewish group. For him, there was only one faith in the one true God and all people should be gathered under that one true faith in only one God, the God of the Jewish community who is the God of Israel and God of Abraham, who is the One Eternal Invisible God who is above all other gods, lords, and above all nations. That God has provided his prophets, whom Jesus is one of the many, to tell about this invisible God, being the Divine Creator and Sovereign Maker God.
The Nazarene Jewish master teacher Jeshua, today better known as Jesus, wanted his disciples to go out into the world to tell about his heavenly Father, making them all see and understand that they only may worship that One True God and have to do away of their many false gods. Jesus faithfully carried out his assignment and became Jehovah’s greatest witness ever on earth.
Jesus all the time in his life used the Tanakh to tell about the character God, His Wishes and His commandments and how we do have to relate to Him. With the Word of God written in the scrolls, Jesus explained who his heavenly Father is, what this God expects from us and how we have to behave to each other. From his point of view and his many stories and parables, the apostles learned and started using those teachings also in their teaching, adding new writings onto the ancient Judaic writings, by which the Second Writings or Messianic Writings (New Testament) came to see the light. Jesus his followers made it clear to the goyim or gentiles that they too could learn from those sacred writings which showed Who is behind everything we see here on earth. Those biblical texts were read publicly and in the same tradition the followers of Christ did that as well, first on squares and public places and in the synagogues and temples, but from the moment they were not welcome anymore in the temples they read from those scriptures in public and private places where they explained them and showed how they were important for mankind to build up a good relationship with Jehovah God, the Divine Creator.
Faithful followers throughout the Roman Empire
As “the Faithful Witness,” Jesus was outstandingly a proclaimer of God’s Kingdom. He emphatically said:
“I must declare the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this I was sent forth.” (Luke 4:43)
He proclaimed that heavenly Kingdom throughout Palestine, covering hundreds of miles on foot. He preached wherever there were people who would listen: at lakeshores, on hillsides, in cities and villages, in synagogues and the temple, in the marketplaces, and at the people’s homes. But Jesus knew that there was a limit to the area he could cover and the number of people to whom he could witness. (Compare John 14:12.) So with a view to covering the world field, Jesus trained and sent out his disciples to be proclaimers of the Kingdom.—Matt. 10:5-7; 13:38; Luke 10:1, 8, 9.
Jesus’ disciples were given an unprecedented privilege — that of being witnesses of both Jehovah and Jesus. As faithful Jews, Jesus’ early disciples were already witnesses of Jehovah. (Isa. 43:10-12) But now they were to witness also concerning Jesus’ vital role in sanctifying Jehovah’s name by means of His Messianic Kingdom. Their thus bearing witness to Jesus was with Jehovah’s glory in view. (Rom. 16:25-27; Phil. 2:9-11)
With their preaching, the Apostles attracted Jews and Gentiles alike, who were eager to join the group of preachers in order to form a new community of believers. That union of people, united by the profession of the same faith in that Only One God was considered to be the “B’ney Jeshua” or “Body of Christ“.
In the previous chapter, we saw that those first-century disciples took up their task seriously, wanting to tell others about their master and his God. Jerusalem was the place from where everything started and grew out. (Acts 1:8) They took care that everyone took up a direction to reach other communities, villages, cities up to regions across the sea. That way the good news of the kingdom of God and of the name of Jesus Christ was spread all over and people became baptised.
Starting in 36 C.E., with the conversion of Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, the good news began to spread to non-Jewish people of all nations. (Acts, chap. 10) In fact, so rapidly did it spread that by about 60 C.E., the apostle Paul could say that the good news had been “preached in all creation that is under heaven.” (Col. 1:23) Thus, by the end of the first century, Jesus’ faithful followers had made disciples throughout the Roman Empire—in Asia, Europe, and Africa!
No place for discrimination in the Body of Christ
Already on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were “devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles,” indicating that they began with a unity based on teaching. From that first day, they met together “with one accord.” (Acts 2:42, 46) As the disciple-making work spread, congregations of believers began to form, first in Jerusalem and then outside Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1; 9:31; 11:19-21; 14:21-23) It was their custom to assemble together in public places as well as in private homes. — Acts 19:8, 9; Rom. 16:3, 5; Col. 4:15.
In the first century of our era, it was no different than it is today, how people looked at each other and stood against each other. Then, too, there were palpably unbridgeable differences and exclusionary feelings towards others. But among those who wanted to follow Jesus there was no place for such exclusionary feelings or hatred towards others. They wanted to share with others the love that Jesus had for them, and behave like brothers and sisters and be in the community of people who spread love.
Prior to Jesus’ day, Gentiles were welcomed when they came to Israel because of their interest in true worship. (1 Ki. 8:41-43) Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had told the apostles to “go, preach,” but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:1, 6, 7) Now they were commanded to go to people of all nations.
Those who accepted Christ’s teaching and became disciples thus became Christian witnesses of Jehovah. Becoming a witness of or for Jehovah was a matter no longer of birth — into the Jewish nation — but of choice. Those who became witnesses did so because they loved Jehovah and sincerely wanted to submit to his sovereign rule. — 1 John 5:3.
But, like in all families, those brothers and sisters did not always agree with each other. As such in those fresh communities sometimes some difficult debates were stirring up tempers.
The one who had first violently attacked the followers of Jesus and even had them killed had now himself become a convert and a follower of Jesus. But his ideas did not always agree with the former disciples of Christ, which sometimes caused fierce discussions in the group. The apostle Luke cites several such disputes from the first century in the Acts of the apostles. This book, therefore, best describes the ups and downs of the emergence and development of the ‘church’.
The first disciples of Jeshua, the Christ, were originally simple, uneducated people who earned their living by fishing, except Luke, who was a scholar and medic. It was only some time after Jesus had died and risen that the Jewish scholar and Pharisee Saul of Tarsus was called by Christ himself, to follow in the footsteps of the other apostles, and was even given the opportunity to become one of the chief spokesmen and defenders of the faith, and became known as the great apostle Paul.
Together, the new disciples of the apostles formed new communities of like-minded people. Their meetings were organised by volunteers and could take place in public squares or places as well as in private homes. Through the knowledge and the teaching of Christ, those coming together in his name, distinguished themselves for temperance and righteousness, for patience in life and manly virtue, and for a profession of piety toward the one and only God over all. Everyone was seen as equal and there was no hierarchy at all, opposite to what would be seen in the later churches.
Next: Religion and believers #8 Groups following one or another apostle
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- Today’s thought “The Eternal One going to wipe the face of the earth clean” (December 15)
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