by glen | December 31, 2017 1:11 am
(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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