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Expansion of the Church

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
February 21, 2023 12:01 am

Expansion of the Church

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 21, 2023 12:01 am

As the gospel spread beyond its Jewish context, new challenges began to arise for the church. Today, W. Robert Godfrey explains how the early Christians defended their faith throughout the wider Greco-Roman world.

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Today on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. Robert Godfrey makes the case that the early church probably wasn't as doctrinally pure as many have imagined. It didn't all suddenly become wonderful after Paul wrote his letters. There was just a proliferation of heretical movements that tried to claim the name of Christ, insist that they were the true church, and led to this great competition who really speaks for Christ and for the apostles. We know there was false teaching in the early church just based on Paul's letters. Consider the Corinthian church and the struggles they had, and the church in Galatia and its distortion of the gospel.

You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Tuesday as we once again feature Dr. W. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. Let's find out more about what was going on within the body of Christ in those early days. We're returning now to our study of the ancient church with our focus on understanding the emergence of the Catholic tradition of the church, and we were looking at the Jewish context from which the church emerged at its beginning. And we saw the special privileges that Rome had granted to the Jews, and that was the context in which Jesus ministered and in which the early apostles ministered. But we know from our study of the New Testament that the question of exactly how the church would relate to the Jewish past was a major issue in the beginning.

How much of Jewish religious life would be imposed upon Gentiles? And that became a central part of the ministry of the apostle Paul to help the church understand that and help the church come to terms with both its freedom in Christ, its newness in Christ on the one hand, and its continuing connection to its Jewish past. The church did have a profound sense of connection to its Jewish past, and sometimes we have taken it so much for granted we don't even notice it. But think of how much our understanding of Jesus and His work is built on the Old Testament. When we say Jesus is King, Jesus is Priest, Jesus is Prophet, Jesus is Sacrifice, Jesus is Messiah or Christ, all of those things would be almost unintelligible to us if we didn't have the Old Testament. So the Old Testament truly was a preparation for the coming of Christ and is fulfilled in Him.

But it goes beyond just what we understand about Jesus. The early organization of the church was profoundly dependent upon Judaism. The office of the apostle as a representative, an authoritative representative from Christ is really based on Old Testament institutions.

The idea of elders over local congregations is really derived from the synagogue. The early practice of baptism is a ceremony taken over from John the Baptist and perhaps from Jewish ritual washing. The Lord's Supper we know is in many ways dependent on the Jewish practice of the Passover. So in so many ways we see the Jewish heritage being, we believe as Christians, fulfilled in the coming of Christ and in the birth of the church. The worship of the early church was very much patterned on the worship of the synagogue. The synagogue worship revolved around reading, studying, reflecting on the Bible and prayer. And as we'll see as we go along, that was true of early Christian worship as well. So this Jewish background was critical, but also critical was the issue how would the church become separated from the synagogue.

It may surprise us, but literally for centuries there were many people who continued to go to synagogue on Saturday and to church on Sunday. And neither the rabbis nor the Christian preachers liked it. Both sides sought to find ways to separate those whom the rabbis called minim, the heretics, from the faithful Jews and the Christian leaders tried to separate Christians from being involved in the life of the synagogue.

This was done in a variety of ways. A new prayer was introduced in the synagogue that said, we thank you, Lord, that we are not Nazarenes. And the intention was to make it impossible for Christians to offer that prayer. At the same time, in a letter like the Epistle to Barnabas, we find a warning against, quote, those who say the covenant is both theirs and ours. That is, in the days of Barnabas around the year 100, there were people saying, well, you can be a Jew or a Christian, doesn't really matter. And interestingly enough, people are saying that today again, and the church and the synagogue both struggled to create some separation.

That separation, of course, was greatly advanced by political events that took place through a series of wars of insurrection. The Jews mounted against Rome through the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. And then finally, in the 130s, what's usually called the Third Jewish War, one of the great rabbis of the day declared Simeon Bar Kosaba Messiah, and many Jews rallied to the cause of Bar Kosaba as Messiah. And that convinced many Christians at that time that the split between the synagogue and the church was now rather final. So we see continuing influence on the part of Judaism, profound important influence in the church, but also increasing separation. And increasingly, the church will move out into the Greco-Roman world doing its missionary work, as we see on Paul's part, initially often in synagogues, but then moving out to the wider Gentile population. And so the church began to move outside of what we might call a somewhat comfortable Jewish environment, a familiar Jewish environment, into that Greco-Roman world.

And again, part of what made Paul such a key transitional apostle is that he not only knew the Jewish world, but he'd been raised in the Greco-Roman world and knew it too, knew how to communicate to it, knew the strengths and weaknesses that would be confronted there. And part of why I think the study of the ancient church is so valuable for us as Christians is that in a certain sense, Christians in the ancient world were in a situation very parallel to the situation in which we find ourselves. The Christians saw themselves in that ancient world as a small minority facing a culture that was big, powerful, sophisticated, and tremendously proud. The Greco-Roman world saw itself as the civilized world and saw everybody outside of it as barbarians. And so the Greeks before and the Romans still in Paul's day saw themselves as having, we might say, a calling to bring civilization to benighted people, to bring learning, to bring good government, to bring equitable administration of the law to people. And we may look back and say, well, the Roman Empire doesn't look all that wonderful to us, but in the context of the ancient world, in many ways it was. It was a place where the Romans by and large did try to have fair taxation, did try to have fair administration of the law, and really did believe their civilization was enlightened and civilizing. And so when Christians came along, not surprisingly, they had a big job trying to convince people that they had something to say that Rome didn't already know, that they had some insight into truth that the great Greek and Roman philosophers hadn't already gained.

And so it was tough sledding. We find that, I think, today in our culture. We maybe even have a greater problem than they did in that many in our time feel they live in a post-Christian world. And so they think, oh, we've already thought about Christianity, and that's not for us.

We've moved on. The Roman world hadn't moved on, but they really were not convinced that they needed much beyond what they already had. And yet God in His providence had given the church an opportunity in that Rome was passing from its republican days to its imperial days. Increasingly, from the time of Caesar Augustus, he under whom Jesus was born, Rome was governed by an emperor.

Now, Romans hated kings, so the emperors never called themselves kings. And theoretically, the emperor was not automatically replaced by his son, but increasingly the emperor had all authority in his own hands. And he was thought to possess the genius of the empire, the spirit of the empire. He was the one who continued this great civilizing work of bringing justice and enlightenment to the world.

But historians have observed very accurately, I think, that this left a kind of vacuum, intellectual and spiritual almost vacuum in the Roman world. Under the Republic, all citizens felt that part of this task of civilization was theirs. We're a republic. We're all in this together. We're all responsible together.

It's part of the work of all of us to be involved in bringing enlightenment to the world. But as the empire took over from the Republic, increasingly people felt, well, this great task is the emperor's and what's left to us. And it's interesting, in that context, increasingly Romans in various parts of the empire began to look for spiritual satisfaction in new religions.

This I think all part of God's providential plan. Some of them looked to the Egyptian gods and goddesses, Isis and Osiris. Isis became a great object of fascination in many parts of the Roman Empire outside of Egypt.

Some turned to the Persian god Mithras, a god that was very attractive to soldiers. So there was a spiritual longing that was developing. And it's very interesting that part of this spiritual longing was always linked to trying to find ancient truth.

In this regard, the Roman Empire is almost the exact opposite of what we find in our culture today. Today most people are oriented to think, what's new? I think that's partly what science has done for us. Science has sort of convinced us that the newest thing must be the best thing. It's very hard for us old folks to keep up with all these technological changes, you know. I still haven't figured the difference between twittering and tweeting. But these things change so fast, but the new thing is the thing, right?

So people line up for hours to buy some new expensive cell phone. I don't get it, but that's because I'm old. And the new must be more true than the old. In the ancient world it was exactly the opposite. The old must be more true than the new. There was this sense that truth must long have been known. And so you looked back to Aristotle and Plato, already three hundred years old, as great guides to truth.

But that was part of the fascination of Isis, that Egypt was seen to be one of the most ancient of civilizations, and therefore the goddess from Egypt must be more insightful, must be more helpful to us than these newcomer gods that we've come across. And that was part of the fascination of the Roman Empire with Judaism, because Judaism claimed and many non-Jews accepted that Judaism was the oldest religion in the empire. And so Judaism had a special kind of fascination for people, even who weren't Jews, because of its antiquity, because of the way it saw itself as the religion that could be traced back all the way to where?

To the Garden of Eden, to the first creation of mankind, to the very beginning of the world. And for that reason, Judaism in the time of our Lord and the Apostle Paul had become a powerful missionary religion. We often forget that in our day. Judaism is not really a missionary religion today.

But then it was. They were eager, eager to make converts to Judaism. You know, Jesus made that comment, didn't He? The Pharisees will cross seven seas to make a convert.

He wasn't just exaggerating. They were really actively involved in spreading the Jewish religion, and there were many converts. So many had bothered the Romans, because the Romans were willing to give the Jews these special exemptions under Roman law, but they really didn't want to see these exemptions spreading to more and more people. So here is this attractive ancient religion that's being very successful in a missionary way, and then along comes Christianity. And one of the initial problems that Christianity faced was that it was new, or at least that's what it appeared to most people to be. Your founder is Jesus.

He died just a few decades ago. What could we learn from a religion like that? And that's why in much of the early Christian writing, what we find is the effort, you can see it in the New Testament, but in early writing beyond the New Testament as well, the effort to show Christianity is the fulfillment of all that Judaism awaited.

And that's not just a minor intellectual exercise. It's absolutely crucial, you see, to the missionary effort of the church in the Roman Empire. In order for Christianity to have a chance of having a hearing, it has to show it in fact is an ancient religion, even though Jesus lived only a few decades before. And that's why it's so important that the Christians over and over again went back to the Old Testament and said, you see, the whole Old Testament, all of this Judaism that you prize so much for being ancient, all of that was looking forward to the coming of Jesus, and we live in the great day of fulfillment. And so ours is both an ancient religion, but also with this new reality that Jesus has come and Jesus has conquered. And so we would expect then, wouldn't we, that Jesus has come, that the apostles have taught, the apostles have laid a foundation, and then we should expect in the very next generation of writings that we have from early Christians that we'd see real profundity, real insight, real stability, and the truth is we don't.

The earliest Christian writings are really disappointing. If I can sort of graph this, I think our expectation should be that if this is sort of where Jesus and the Apostle Paul are when it comes to truth, that maybe things would go along well and then maybe just kind of gradually decline until Luther. I think maybe that's the sort of mental picture we often have in our minds of how church history must have gone, but I think it's more accurate to have a graph sort of like this, and then actually things went up to Luther.

Now don't hold me to that. I know that's a very sophisticated graph, but in point of fact, what we find is that the church is really weak and kind of unstable, morally and theologically, right after the apostles. But you know, if we go back and read the New Testament, we really shouldn't be surprised. The churches of the New Testament are a mess.

It's kind of Calvinist encouragement, you know, sure things could be worse. Those early Christians didn't get it, did they? They didn't get it morally, all sorts of terrible things going on in Corinth. They didn't get it theologically.

Paul has to write to Galatia and bang him over the head. Well, it didn't all suddenly become wonderful after Paul wrote his letters. There continued to be a lot of confusion, a lot of disagreement, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of competition for what is the real truth. Just as in Paul's day there were Judaizers who misunderstood the relationship of the gospel to Moses, so in the years after the apostles passed from the scene, there was just a proliferation of heretical movements that tried to claim the name of Christ, insist that they were the true church and led to this great competition to try to understand where is the truth, what is the truth, who really speaks for Christ and for the apostles. And that's why the first really big group of theologians that are represented in the history of the church are a group called the apologists. They were early defenders of the faith. They came along against heretics and against pagan criticism to defend the church and to try to make the truth more clear to people, and they were quite good at it, but their focus was fairly limited.

Their focus was particularly against the claims of the rabbis that the Christians had misused the Old Testament and against the claims of pagan philosophers that Christianity was just ridiculous. And so we see in the apologists, and the most famous was probably Justin Martyr from the middle of the second century. His last name wasn't Martyr. He died a martyr, so he's Justin the Martyr. Justin had been a philosopher, trained in pagan philosophy, was then converted, spent a lot of his time as a converted Christian showing how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, but also spent a lot of time answering the pagan critique of Christianity.

And he represents the track that a lot of these early defenders of the faith took. So for example, he would mock the pagan mythology. I don't know how many of you read pagan mythology anymore.

It used to be something all educated people in the Western world had to know, but the apologists were exactly right. When you go back and read that pagan mythology, you are sort of overwhelmed by the immorality and the absurdity of the action of the gods. And so for the apologists, it was rather easy to hold up Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and say, look, are these really the gods you want to follow?

If these claims were true, would these be admirable gods? And so they were able very effectively to critique a lot of the ancient religion. They also critiqued a good deal of the philosophy of the pagans by showing the contradiction of the pagan philosophers. You're so proud of your philosophers, but they contradict one another. Truth is one.

Truth can't be contradictory, so these philosophers are not reliable guides. They attacked idol worship. Interestingly, again in the providence of God, there was a growing interest and a growing conviction about monotheism in the ancient world.

Pagans were beginning to think polytheism didn't really make sense, and so to be able to attack polytheism, to be able to attack idol worship in the name of a more spiritual God and a more spiritual religion actually resonated with a lot of pagans. And so they were able to say, look, our religion isn't full of absurd myths. Look at the life of Jesus and the admirable way in which He lived.

Look at our conception of God, which is monotheistic and makes sense a single God. Look at our theology that has integrity that is not contradicting itself. Look at the morality of the people who have been drawn to Christ and have been changed by Him. Look at what a difference Christ has made. And then look at our worship.

We are not drawn to idols. We are not drawn into a false physicality of worship, but our spiritual God is worshiped spiritually. And this apology, in fact, was remarkably powerful, was remarkably effective. It drew many, many people to Christ because of the contrast they were able to make between the ancient Jewish religion now fulfilled in Christ and manifested in all of its moral and intellectual strength over against the increasingly corrupt paganism of that time. So we see how effectively these defenders of the faith were able to confront the paganism of its time, show its corruption, show its intellectual weakness, and in contrast show the moral superiority as well as the profound intellectual superiority of Christianity, showing how Christianity was an ancient religion in the promise of the Old Testament and then fulfilled in the coming of Christ and in all the blessedness that He gave us. So we'll stop there, and we'll go on next time to look more at defenders and articulators of the faith in this early period.

We can be thankful for those defenders of the faith in the early days of the church. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Tuesday as we continue Dr. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. For your gift of any amount today, we will send you the two-DVD set containing all twelve lessons in Part 1 of the series and provide you with lifetime access to the digital download of the series. We'll also include a PDF of the study guide containing an outline of each message and group discussion questions. You can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can go online to, and we do appreciate your generosity to Ligonier Ministries. This is just one of thousands of resources that Ligonier Ministries offers, covering topics like theology, Christian living, worldview and culture, biblical studies, and church history. We'd love to offer them all for free, but it is costly to publish books and produce video teaching series like the one we're featuring.

So we'd ask that you keep that in mind as you request this series for your gift of any amount. Again, our number is 800-435-4343, and our web address is Another way we equip believers to understand their faith and communicate it effectively is through the preaching of God's Word. That's why we so highly recommend RefNet. It's our 24-hour internet radio station. Not only will you hear great teachers like Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, Stephen Lawson and R.C. Sproul, you'll hear Bible reading, Christian audio books, music, daily news briefs, and much more. You can turn it on and know that your family will be hearing sound biblical teaching throughout the day. You can listen for free right now at, or download the free RefNet app and listen on the go. Well, tomorrow we will learn more about these early defenders of the faith, and I hope you'll join us for Dr. Godfrey's message. It's Wednesday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-21 07:17:42 / 2023-02-21 07:26:46 / 9

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