THE TRIALS OF PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANITY

This entry is part of 50 in the series article 26

(Acts 2:36; 7:51-53; 8:1-4; 12:1-5; 28:22.) 

IN this first discourse we will discuss the trials of 
primitive Christianity while in the process of forma- 
tion, or during the personal ministry of Christ. In 
the discourse that follows we will discuss the trials 
of primitive Christianity as an organized and estab- 
lished system, or during the ministry of the apostles. 

Jesus of Nazareth made His appearance upon the 
record of human transactions at a time of social, 
political and religious unrest. Already the first rum- 
blings of the barbarian invasions had been heard in 
the far northeast of Asia. Roman authority had been 
spread out over so much territory, including a multi- 
tudinous number of discordant races and nationalities, 
that gradual decay and ultimate collapse were inevi- 
table. The mythologies of Greece and Rome had 
about serving their day. Socrates had proclaimed the 
doctrine of immortality. The Greek systems of phi- 
losophy showed a marked advance in ethical and 
religious thought. In fact, there was a general reach- 
ing out after the truth, a common expectation of the 
appearance of a great religious leader, and a universal 
longing for a system of religion that would satisfy 
the spiritual instincts of the race. 

The Jews, as a people, were particularly unsettled. 
For many years they had been looking for the coming 
of the Messiah. They were expecting Him to deliver 
them from the galling Roman yoke, to lead them into 
conquest and victory, and establish an earthly king- 
dom that would rival the ancient glory of the kingdom 
of Solomon. This anticipation was strengthened by 
the sudden appearance of John the Baptizer. 

No wonder that Jesus soon became very popular! 
The second year of His ministry marked the climax 
of His popularity. He had delivered wonderful dis- 
courses; He had healed their physical bodies of all 
manner of diseases and infirmities; He had fed them 
with loaves and fishes. At this time the multitudes 
were following Him blindly, and were clamoring 
to make Him their earthly king. But Jesus withdrew 
into the mountain to commune with God, and came 
back with a higher conception than a petty Jewish 
throne. And on the next day, when He talked to 
them of spiritual things, they failed to comprehend. 
Many of them murmured against Him, and many 
turned away and walked with Him no longer (John 
6). From that time, His popularity began to wane, 
until finally He was despised and rejected of men 
(Isa. 53:2-5; Luke 9:22; Matt. 27:27-50). 

Why was Jesus persecuted and finally crucified? 
Why was the church persecuted in the days of the 
apostles? Why did all the warring sects of Judaism 
unite in opposing the spread of the gospel? Why 
did the different sects of philosophers unite against 
the spread of Christianity? Why did imperial Rome 
oppose the teachings of Christ with such blind fury 
and passion, in a last attempt to blot the church out 
of existence? The same conditions that resulted in 
the persecution of the early Christians, bring about 
similar opposition to the spread of primitive Christian- 
ity to-day. 

1. The teachings of Christ antagonized the re- 
ligious autocracy. Jesus uttered no words of flattery 
to the scribes, the priests, the rabbis, or the doctors 
of the law. He wore none of their long robes; He 
patronized none of their pretensions; He indulged in 
none of their sanctimonious displays. Instead of 
catering to their wishes, as He would have done had 
He been an impostor, He scathingly denounced their 
hypocrisy (Matt. 23:1-15). Consequently, these men 
who scrupulously observed every ceremony of the 
law, but who were inwardly corrupt, hated Him. 
They charged Him with violation of the traditions 
of the fathers, with impiety, with heresy. His lan- 
guage insulted their dignity, laid bare their iniquity, 
and filled them with hatred (Matt. 23:15-35). Con- 
sequently, they were the first to plot His ultimate 
downfall, and the principal actors in the drama of 
the crucifixion. 

The first class to be insulted to-day by the primi- 
tive gospel is the same religions autocracy. These 
men have spent centuries in wrangling over theologi- 
cal nonentities, and in keeping the followers of Christ 
divided into warring factions. The plain preaching 
of the gospel antagonizes them by its very simplicity. 
The church of the living God will never prosper until 
she can free herself from the baneful ecclesiasticism 
of this self-constituted clergy. The theory of "the 
divine right of priests" is just as ridiculous and harm- 
ful as that of "the divine right of kings. "Ecclesias- 
ticism in religion is just as injurious as ecclesiasticism 
in government. 

2. The teachings of Christ antagonized the social 
aristocracy. Jesus did not recognize any social dis- 
tinction. The poor woman of Samaria occupied the 
same position in His sight, and received the same 
amount of attention from Him, as Nicodemus the 
aristocrat. He came to seek and save that which is 
lost (Matt. 18:11). He taught humility as the road 
to true greatness (Matt. 18:1-4; 23:12). He de^ 
nounced pride and self -righteousness (Mark 12:38- 
40). He did not overlook the poor widow, and at the 
same time did not flatter the rich (Mark 12:41-44). 
While He did not openly condemn material prosperity, 
He showed that wealth usually blinds people regard- 
ing their responsibility to God, creates covetousness 
and pride, and consequently deprives them of eternal 
happiness (Luke 16:1-13; 18:18-27; 16:19-31). Such 
teaching naturally incurred the displeasure and hatred 
of the wealthy classes. 

The same conditions prevail to-day. The social 
teachings of Christ, which place the laborer on the 
same plane as the king or the millionaire, antagonize 
the so-called aristocracy. The wealthy classes are, as 
a rule, hostile to the primitive gospel, and prefer to 
follow after fads and fancies. The preaching of 
Christian liberality often incurs the displeasure of the 
wealthy classes, who are fundamentally selfish at heart. 
Nevertheless, this one item of Christian service should 
be especially stressed from the pulpit in this age of 
commercialism! Christianity is divine in the very fact 
that it recognizes neither caste nor class. 

3. The teachings of Christ finally antagonized the 
masses. He first condemned their procedure in the 
temple (Matt. 21:12-16). This action served as a 
pretext for the priests in stirring up the people 
against Him. He predicted the overthrow of Jeru- 
salem and the destruction of the temple, as well as 
the captivity of the Jews among all nations (Matt. 
23:37, 38; 24:1, 2). When He tried to turn their 
minds away from "loaves and fishes " to the "bread 
of life," they turned away and followed Him no 
longer (John 6:66). Being carnally minded, they 
could not appreciate His spiritual teachings. They 
were disappointed when He did not establish an 
earthly kingdom, and deliver them from Roman rule 
(John 18:36). Thus the way was opened for His 
ultimate rejection and crucifixion by the infuriated 
mob (Matt. 27:27-50). 

The masses of the people are rejecting Jesus Christ 
(Matt. 7:13, 14). Multitudes are so engrossed with 
material pursuits that they have no time for the con- 
sideration of spiritual matters. The denominational 
world is so subservient to tradition, ceremonial and 
creed that the preaching of the primitive gospel often 
stirs up bitter opposition from sectarian ranks. The 
great majority of professed Christians have an exceed- 
ingly small conception of Christian service. It is 
doubtful if there ever was a more ungodly age in the 
world's history than the present century. It is un- 
safe to walk in the footsteps of the multitude, for 
most of the people are walking in the broad way that 
leads to destruction. However, we must always look 
for the darkest hour before the dawn. There must 
be a crucifixion before there can be a resurrection. 

So we optimistically prophesy that the present chaos 
in human affairs will usher in the brightest period of 
all time, nothing less than the millennial reign of 
Jesus Christ in the hearts of men. 

With this point, we close the first part of the dis- 
cussion. The great conflict between Jesus Christ 
and His enemies was merely repeated on a larger 
scale in the conflict between the church and her ene- 
mies. When the infuriated mob beheld Jesus on the 
cross, they thought their work was accomplished. The 
scribes and high priests and doctors of the law gloated 
over the destruction of their common enemy. Imagine 
their surprise and astonishment when the report began 
to be circulated that this same Jesus had risen from 
the dead and had appeared, in His spiritual body, to 
different parties on various occasions. Imagine their 
consternation when this doctrine was preached at 
Jerusalem for the obedience of faith, accompanied by 
marvelous manifestations of supernatural power, and 
the multitudes began to forsake Judaism to follow in 
the footsteps of the Nazarene! Little did they realize 
that Jesus of Nazareth had won the greatest victory of 
all ages in the sublime transactions of the cross; that, 
in the realms of Hades, He had grappled with, and 
overthrown, the powers of evil; that, by His death, 
burial and resurrection, He had merely laid the foun- 
dation for the true system of religion that would 
ultimately evangelize the world! 

Had Jesus been an impostor, He would have 
catered to the religious autocracy, He would have 
flattered the social aristocracy, He would have petted 
and cajoled the multitudes in the manner of a dema- 
gogue, and accepted the earthly crown which they 
offered Him. But He came to do greater things than 
rule over a Jewish principality! He came to estab- 
lish and build up a spiritual kingdom for eternity as 
well as time! His teachings were perfect, as well as 
His example. All of these facts go to prove that He 
is indeed the Son of God. 

SAUL of Tarsus, while a Pharisee of the "strictest 
sect" (Acts 26:5), was one of the most relentless 
enemies of the primitive church. He is introduced in 
the divine record as the young man who assisted in 
the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He wrought 
havoc with the church at Jerusalem, going from house 
to house, seizing the disciples, and committing them 
to prison (Acts 8 : 1-4) . He gave his voice against 
them in the Sanhedrin, compelled them to blaspheme 
the name of Christ by different methods of torture, 
and even persecuted them "unto strange cities" (Acts 
26:9-11). While on the way from Jerusalem to 
Damascus, clothed with authority from the chief priest 
to seize the disciples in the latter city and bring them 
back to Jerusalem for persecution, he was visited by 
Jesus Christ in person. As the company drew near 
the gates of Damascus at midday, a dazzling light 
shone around them. Saul, falling to his knees blinded, 
heard a voice saying to him in Hebrew: "Saul, Saul, 
why persecutest thou me?" Terror-stricken, he trem- 
blingly inquired the identity of the divine Personality 
and the voice replied: "I am Jesus whom thou perse- 
cutest" (Acts 9:1-6; 26:12-15). It was then for the 
first time that Saul realized that, in persecuting the 
church, he had been persecuting the Christ, for the 
church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23). 

Therefore, as our previous discussion dealt with the 
persecutions of Christ while He was in the flesh, this 
discussion will deal with the persecutions of the 
ascended Christ, as the supreme head over, and the 
animating spiritual influence of, His body, the church. 
As the former sermon treated of the trials of primi- 
tive Christianity while in the process of formation, 
this sermon will treat of the trials of primitive Chris- 
tianity as an organized and established system. There 
were three distinct and successive conflicts in the his- 
tory of the early church. 

1. The conflict with Judaism. The church was 
born with this enemy. Pharisaic Judaism had hounded 
Jesus to the death of the cross because He had de- 
nounced its ostentation and hypocrisy. But scarcely 
had the blind fury of Calvary subsided in the hearts 
of the Jewish leaders until it was again aroused by 
the wonderful happenings of Pentecost, in which Chris- 
tianity reappeared as the true system of religion, ac- 
companied by demonstrations of supernatural power. 
Thousands of Jews began to turn from Judaism to 
Christ. Consequently, the Jewish leaders hated this 
new doctrine. They did not stop to consider the truth 
of it, but they hated it because they feared it, and 
because it was destroying their power and breaking up 
their established systems. It appeared not as a rival 
sect, but as the only true system, to the exclusion of 
all sects. It claimed to set aside the Jewish law 
altogether (Acts 15:24; Eom. 3:20; 10:4; Gal. 3:24, 
25; Col. 2:13-17), and narrowed the matter of salva- 
tion down to one name — the name of Jesus (Acts 4: 
11, 12). Consequently, the warring sects of Judaism 
united in opposition to the common enemy of all. But 
Chrisitanity triumphed over all opposition. 

The primitive gospel to-day first comes in conflict 
with the denominational world. The preaching of 
Christianity, not merely as a way, but as the way 
(Acts 16:17; John 14:6), incurs the displeasure of 
those who maintain that there are many different ways. 
The refusal to wear any name but the name of Christ 
(Acts 4:12) incurs the displeasure of those who per- 
sist in wearing human names. The refusal to accept 
any rule of faith and practice but the Bible (2 Tim. 
3:16, 17) incurs the displeasure of those who are 
governed by creeds. The Bible teaching of unity is 
offensive to those who are determined to maintain 
partyism (John 10:16; 17:20, 21; 1 Cor. 1:10-15; 
3:1-5; Eph. 4:4-6). The plea for the unity of Chris- 
tians in the one body of Christ (Eph. 4:4; Col. 1: 
18), under the authority of Jesus Christ alone (Eph. 
1:22, 23), naturally means the overthrow of denomi- 
nationalism with its self-constituted clergy, and incurs 
the hatred of the denominational world. As a logical 
consequence, the warring sects of denominationalism 
forget their differences in common opposition to the 
primitive gospel, an opposition that becomes more bit- 
ter as they see men and women forsake partyism for 
the unity of the one body. They do not stop to con- 
sider the truth of the system, and of such a plea for 
the restoration of the primitive faith, but unite 
against the system and the plea, because they happen 
to conflict with ancient traditions, established prece- 
dents and man-made ceremonials. The modern denom- 
inational clergy constitute an exact reproduction of 
the early leaders of Judaism, in their opposition to the 
primitive gospel. 

2. The conflict with Greek philosophy. This was 
not quite so long and bitter as the conflict with Juda- 
ism. It was heralded when Paul encountered the 
philosophers on Mars' Hill (Acts 17). Because the 
teachings of Christ opposed asceticism, they alienated 
the Stoics. Because they were positive and optimistic, 
they alienated the Cynics. Because they taught 
sobriety and chastity, they alienated the Epicureans. 
Jesus was not a hermit, much less a voluptuary. 
Therefore He did not appeal to any of the philosoph- 
ical extremists. Again, the Greeks, as a people, were 
exceedingly egotistic and self-centered. To them, all 
other peoples were "barbarians." Hence the Chris- 
tian system, which recognizes neither race, color nor 
condition of servitude, but teaches that God has made 
of "one blood all nations of men to dwell upon the 
face of the earth" (Acts 17:26), was a death-blow 
to the narrow pride of the Greek people. So they 
opposed the spread of Christianity — but in vain! The 
end of the first half of the first century saw Mace- 
donia and Greece dotted with churches of Christ. 

Primitive Christianity encounters similar opposi- 
tion to-day. The preaching of a system of religion 
that makes social fellowship an element of godliness 
antagonizes those who can see nothing to Christianity 
outside of long faces, long-tailed coats and doleful 
platitudes. On the other hand, since Jesus teaches 
that man can not serve God and mammon at the same 
time, that His followers must forsake the world alto- 
gether, must crucify the lusts of the flesh, He natu- 
rally antagonizes those who attempt to bring about a 
collaboration of the church and the world (Luke 16: 
13; Eom. 12:2; Gal. 6:14; Jas. 1:27). As Chris- 
tianity is opposed to sanctimony, and does not com- 
promise with worldliness, it naturally encounters these 
two extreme elements of human society. 

3. The conflict with paganism. This was merely 
the conflict with Judaism, repeated on a larger scale. 
It was inevitable that the spread of the gospel would 
bring it into a conflict with imperial Rome herself. 
And this conflict was long and bitter. The Christians 
were compelled to suffer all manner of torture and 
persecution. Thousands of them were thrown to the 
wild beasts in the gladiatorial arenas of Antioch, Con- 
stantinople and Rome. Multiplied hundreds were 
burned at the stake to illumine the gardens of Nero. 
Those apostles who escaped martyrdom at the hands 
of the Jews suffered a like fate at the hands of the 
Romans. The Christians constituted the "sect that 
was everywhere spoken against " (Acts 28:22). 

"Why such persecutions? In the first plac#, the 
gospel claimed to be the true system. This ushered in 
the conflict with paganism. It denounced the idols 
of Rome, declared they were no gods at all. It stated 
that there was no way but through Christ, no truth 
outside of Christ, and no life outside of Christ (John 
14:6); no true system but that which Christ estab- 
lished, no salvation outside of the name of Christ 
(Acts 4:12). In the conflict that followed, the pagan 
gods were overthrown and the pagan temples desolated. 
In the second place, Rome ruled the world. But 
Jesus Christ claimed all authority in heaven and upon 
earth (Matt. 28:18), and demanded absolute allegi- 
ance on the part of His subjects. This was regarded, 
by the authorities of Rome, as nothing short of treason. 
In the third place, Eome loved power. But Jesus 
taught humility and service as the road to true great- 
ness, and emphasized the doctrine of peace on earth 
and good will among men. This teaching antagonized 
the Roman rulers. They craved power, gloried in con- 
quest, extended their dominion by war. Hence they 
regarded the doctrine of Christ as traitorous in the 
extreme, and united in an effort to overthrow it alto- 
gether. There were different periods of intense perse- 
cution under the rule of Nero and his successors. 
But all in vain! The Christians gloried in persecution 
and martyrdom. Christianity spread, in the face of 
all opposition, over the entire Roman world. And 
when Constantine embraced the new religion and made 
it the authorized religion of the empire, the church 
triumphed. But the victory was obtained at a fearful 
cost! That cost was the union of church and state, 
the subsequent apostasy and the formation of the 
man-made hierarchy known as the "Holy Catholic 
Church"! 

Primitive Christianity encounters like opposition 
to-day. The primitive gospel does not claim to be 
a form, nor one of the forms, of Christianity, but it 
claims to be Christianity itself. It teaches that Jesus 
is the Way, to the exclusion of all other ways offered 
by other religious teachers. It teaches that Jesus gave 
the system of truth, to the exclusion of all other sys- 
tems offered by other teachers. It teaches that Jesus 
is the Life, to the exclusion of the claims of all other 
teachers. Such exclusiveness alienates those who per- 
sist in rallying around human leaders, who have no 
eternal life to give. 

It teaches that there is no salvation outside of 
Christ. This alienates a certain class who are resting 
easily upon their morality. They term such teaching 
"legalism," and those who preach it "narrow" and 
"radical." 

It teaches that Jesus has absolute authority in 
heaven and upon earth; not a portion of it, but all 
of it. This alienates a certain class who crave author- 
ity in the religious and political realms. They term 
such claims " arrogant" and "preposterous," without 
even stopping to consider the authenticity of them. 

It still teaches the same old doctrine of universal 
peace. Such doctrine is especially obnoxious to those 
who seek to build up systems of militarism. They 
call it "vague" and "theoretical," and the one who 
preaches it a "dreamer," a "visionary," an "idealist." 

Thus we see that the primitive gospel is compelled 
to contend against all the discordant elements of human 
society that are out of harmony with its teachings. 
It is compelled to overcome these obstacles by sheer 
force of the divine power within itself; to draw from 
all of these different elements; and blend the findings 
into a regenerated people, socially, morally and spirit- 
ually — the citizenship of the kingdom of God. 

How do we account for the marvelous growth of 
Christianity in the face of such terrific opposition? 
Within the handful of converts at Jerusalem was con- 
tained the power that was destined to overcome the 
Jewish traditions, the Greek philosophical systems, and 
even imperial Rome herself! How do we account for 
this remarkable development, in view of the fact that 
most of the early Christians were people of the lower 
strata of society, common working men and women of 
the middle classes? How do we account for this re- 
markable growth in view of the fact that there was 
no ecclesiastical organization to stand behind it? We 
must admit that the spread of Christianity during the 
Holy Spirit was the great inspirational factor in pro- 
mulgating it; and that the ascended Christ was lead- 
ing His army to a great spiritual victory that was 
destined to overcome the kingdoms of this world! We 
must admit that the spread of Christianity during the 
first three centuries following Christ is a positive 
demonstration that it is a divine system, divinely 
inspired, divinely given to mankind, and established 
by manifestations of divine power!
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