“But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18)! This passage gives an idea of the fervor and vitality with which the saints of God assaulted the citadels of Satan in the first century. A risen Lord had given the charge: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), and they did! They went everywhere preaching the Word (Acts 8:4) until every nook and cranny of the Roman world had heard the good news that a Savior had come into the world.
The portrayal of the first century church of Christ in the book of Acts is stimulating, to say the least. The joy and zest with which they lived their religion, encouraged, and motivated brethren in every age. By virtue of a new birth, people who would have considered themselves insignificant were changed into fearless soldiers of Christ. They gave their very lives and often all they had in the service of Christ. They walked in His footsteps with a holy zeal seldom seen in our time.
While the divine pattern given in the New Testament for the plan of salvation; the work, organization, and worship of the church; and the standard of morality is perfect, the historical church of the first century was not. The word translated church means the assembly of those called out of the world by God (cf., 1 Pet. 2:9). The church always refers to people, and people—even the saints of God—are not perfect. Some are less perfect than others.
The church of Paul’s time had its share of sinning brethren just as we do. Ananias, Saphira, Demas, Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus; Phygelus, Hermogenes, Diotrophes, et al., would be a disgrace to any church. Some were worldly (Phi. 3:18f; 2 Tim. 4:10) and immoral (1 Cor. 5:1); some were puffed up with pride and a feeling of their own importance (3 John 9). Others gloried in worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1-3).
The church was plagued by people who defrauded their brethren (1 Cor. 6:1-8), committed fornication (1 Cor. 6:13-20), gossiped and slandered (1 Tim. 5:13), and abused their liberties (1 Cor. 8:1-3). Some were factious (Tit. 3:10), smooth-talking infidels (Rom. 16:17f; Tit. 1:15-16) who taught every kind of false doctrine (1 Cor. 15:12; Gal. 6:12f; Col. 2:16-23). But that is only part of the story.
The church of the first century has been unparalleled in history in its faithful dedication, commitment, and sacrifice. The patient, persevering steadfastness of those faithful saints, so many of whom will never be known this side of eternity, still electrifies and animates us to greater service for our wonderful Master. So many times faithfulness demanded a greater gift than we are called to make. Peter and John endured the cutting lash of the whip, but they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for that holy name by which they were called (Acts 5:41).
Rejected by those to whom he had preached, Stephen died at their hands, and, while dying, prayed for his murderers (Acts 7:59f). James was beheaded so his murderer could curry favor with the ungodly (Acts 12:1f). Brethren were driven from their homes with only what they could carry on their backs (Acts 8:1). Some were thrown into prison; others were murdered; and those who escaped were hunted down like animals (Acts 26:10f). Yet, those who “were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
Some were destitute, so more prosperous Christians sold their property to provide what was needed (Acts 4:34f). The churches of Macedonia, upon hearing that brethren they had never seen were suffering physical privation, begged for the opportunity to help; and out of their deep poverty, their gift far surpassed what they were able to give. Yet, they rejoiced in the privilege to participate (2 Cor. 8:1-5). No wonder one heathen observed the Lord’s church and commented, “Oh, how they love one another!”
Have you wondered why they had a measure of dedication, commitment, and sacrifice unknown in any other group in any age? The answer is in an often overlooked passage: “first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:5). They were simply following the teaching of their Master (Mat. 16:24f; Rom. 12:1f) by (1) submitting to the will of God as it was revealed by the apostles and (2) giving themselves as a living sacrifice to their Savior.
This is the same commitment to which we are called. A host of them died for Christ (cf., Acts 21:13), and, of course, there were some who would not (2 Tim. 4:10, 16). We thrill when we think of their bravery, faith, and courage; we shed tears for the price they paid for faithfulness. Their story is unique in the annals of history. How succinct and apropro are Paul’s words: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phi. 1:21). Whether our lot is to live or die, it is imperative that we have Paul’s attitude (Phi. 3:7-12).
We live in a time and place where, more often than not, we are required to live for Christ. This can sometimes be more difficult than dying for Him. Many would die for the Lord who will not faithfully live for Him. In a time of prosperity—especially if the church is not being persecuted, it is all too easy to be lazy, pleasure-loving, and overly concerned with worldly affairs and things. Christians face enormous pressure to prostrate themselves at the feet of the god, mammon, and many find the temptation irresistible.
Yet, these things are deadly to our spiritual life and destiny (Mat. 6:24; 13:22; Luke 8:14). Surely, the most pressing need of twenty first century saints is to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye [we] are called” (Eph. 4:1). While refraining from evil is important, a worthy walk also involves the renewing of our minds and the sacrifice of our lives in the service of God (Rom. 12:1f)—a commitment so thorough-going that we will allow nothing to come before our Lord.
Whether we imitate the commitment, faithfulness, and fervor or those spiritual giants of the first century, the despicable worldliness of Demas, or something in-between, we need to be aware that this is the gospel we are preaching to the world (cf., 2 Cor. 3:3; 4:1f). Is your life an epistle of Christ?