THE PENTECOSTAL CHURCH
FROM THE ASCENSION OF CHRIST, 30 A.D; TO THE PREACHING OF STEPHEN, 35 A.D.
(The Christian Church in every age, past, present, and to come, consists of all who believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, who accept him as their personal Savior from sin, and who obey him as the Christ, the Prince of the Kingdom of God on earth)
The Church of Christ began its history as a world movement on the Day of Pentecost, in the late spring of the year 30A.D; fifty days after the Resurrection of our Lord, and ten days after his Ascension. During the ministry of Jesus, his disciples believed that he was the long-looked-for Messiah of Israel, the Christ. These two words are the same, “Messiah” being Hebrew, and “Christ” being Greek: and both meaning, “The Anointed One” the Prince of the Heavenly Kingdom. But although Jesus accepted this title from his immediate followers, he forbade them to proclaim this truth to the people in general until after he should rise from the dead; and during the forty days following his resurrection he commanded them, before beginning to preach his gospel to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit; after which experience they were to be his witnesses throughout the world.
On the morning of the Day of Pentecost, while all the followers of Jesus, in number one hundred and twenty, were assembled in their place of meeting, and praying, the Holy Spirit came upon them in a marvelous manner. So vivid was the manifestation that tongues like flame were seen to fall from above and to rest upon the heads of all present. The effect of this experience was three-fold; it illuminated their minds, giving them a new view of the Kingdom of God, that it was not a political empire, but a spiritual realm, with their ascended Lord as its invisible yet active ruler over the hearts of those who accept him by faith.It empowered them, bestowing upon every member a fervor of spirit and a power of utterance which made their testimony convincing to those who heard it. And this divine spirit has dwelt in the church from that day as an abiding presence; not in its organization or machinery, but as the personal, individual possession of every true believer according to the proportion of each member’s faith and consecration. From the outpouring of the spirit on that day, the birthday of the Christian Church, the fellowship of those earliest years has been rightly named The Pentecostal Church.
The Church began in the city of Jerusalem, and apparently was limited to that city and its immediate surroundings during the earliest years of its history. Throughout the land, and especially in the northern province of Galilee, were groups of people who believed in Jesus as the Messiah-King, but no record has reached us of their organization and recognition as branches of the church. The upper room on Mount Zion, and Solomon’s porch in the Temple were the headquarters of the church throughout its earliest epoch.
All the members of the Pentecostal Chuch were Jews; and, so far as we can perceive, none of the members, or even of the apostolic company, at dreamed that Gentiles would ever be admitted to membership. They may have supposed that the heathen world at some time first became Jewish, and then accept Jesus as the Christ. The Jews of that age were of three classes, and all were those whose ancestors for generations had dwelt in Palestine, and were of pure Israelite race. Their language was called “the Hebrew tongue,” which in the process of the centuries had been changed from the classic Hebrew of the Old Testament into what has been named an Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic dialect. The Scriptures were read in the synagogues in the ancient Hebrew, but were translated by an interpreter, sentence by sentence, into the popular speech. The Grecian Jews or Hellenists were Jews descended from ” the diaspora or dispersion”; that is Jews, whose home or whose ancestry was in foreign lands. Many of these had settled in Jerusalem and Judea, and synagogues had been established for their varied nationalities. After the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great, the Greek language became the prevailing tongue among all the lands east of the Adriatic Sea, and to a large degree even Rome and throughout Italy, and on this account the Jews of foreign ancestry were called “Grecians” or “Hellenist,” the word “Hellen” meaning “a Greek”. The Hellenist as a People, especially outside of Palestine, were by far the more numerous, the more wealthy, the more intelligent, and the more liberal branch of the Jewish race. Proselytes were people of foreign blood who had renounced heathenism, embraced the Jewish law, and entered the Jewish Church by receiving the rite of circumcision. Although a minority among the Jewish people, they were to be found in many synagogues throughout the cities of Roman empire, and enjoyed all the privileges of Jews. The proselytes are to be distinguished from “the devout” or “God-fearers,” who were Gentiles and had ceased to worship idols, and attended the synagogue, but had not undergone circumcision, did not undertake to observe the minute requirements of Jewish rules, and were not counted among Jews though friendly to them.
A reading of the first six chapters in the Book of Acts will show that during this early period the apostle Simon Peter was the leader of the church. On every occasion Peter comes to the front as the planner, the preacher, the wonder-worker and the defender of the infant church. This was not because Peter was the divinely appointed pope or ruler; but as the result of his promptness in decision, his readiness of speech and his spirit of leadership. By the side of Peter the practical we see John the contemplative and the spiritual, rarely speaking yet ever held in high honor by the believers.
In a church of comparatively small numbers, all in one city, all of one race, all absolutely obedient to the will of their ascended Lord, and all in fellowship with the Spirit of God, little government was needed; but that little was given by the twelve apostles as a body, Peter being their spokesman. A sentence in Acts 5:13, intimates the reverence in which the apostles were held, both by the believer and the people.
At first, the church had a simple theology or body of belief. Systematic doctrine was developed later in the mind of St.Paul. But we can see in the discourse of peter three doctrines standing out prominently, and held as essential. First and greatest was the Messiahship of Jesus; that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Christ, long-expected by Israel, and now reigning over his kingdom though invisible in the heavens; to whom each member of the church was expected to give personal loyalty, reverence, and obedience. Another essential doctrine was the Resurrection of Jesus; that he had been crucified, had risen from the dead, and was now living, the head of his church, to die no more. The third of this cardinal doctrines was that of the Return of Jesus; that he who had ascended to heaven was in due time to come back to earth and reign over his church. Although Jesus had told his disciples that of the time of his return to earth no man, nor angel, not even the Son himself. but only the Father knew; yet the expectation was general that his coming would be soon, even to that generation.
The weapon of the church through which the world was to be won, was the testimony of its members. As we have on record reports of several discourses by Peter, and none during this period by other disciples, we might suppose that Peter was the only preacher. But a close reading of the history shows that all the apostles, and all the church gave their testimony to the gospel. When the church gad one hundred and twenty members, and the spirit descended upon them, all became preachers of the Word. As the numbers were multiplied, the witnesses multiplied, for every member spoke as a messenger of Christ, there being no distinction between clergy and laity. Toward the close of this period, we find Stephen rising to such eminence as a preacher, that even the apostles are less prominent. This universal testimony was a potent influence in the rapid increase of the church.
In the beginning of this mighty effort, a handful of plain people, without arms or social prestige, and with all the powers of the national church and state arrayed against them, undertaking to transform a nation, – some supernatural help wa needed; and it came in the form of “mighty works.” The apostolic miracles have been named “bells to call the people to worship.” We read of a work of healing wrought at the beautiful Gate of the Temple, immediately followed by a multitude of people listening to Peter and submitting to Christ. There is the record of a miracle of judgment, the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s rebuke, as a warning against selfishness and falsehood. We read again of an efflorescence of divine power, in the cure of many diseased people. Nor was this power limited to Peter or the apostles; there is mention of “wonders and signs” wrought by Stephen. These mighty works attracted attention, awakened inquiry, and opened the hearts of multitudes to faith in Christ.
The love of Christ glowing in the hearts of these people called forth also a love for their fellow-disciples, a unity of spirit, a joy in fellowship, and especially a self-denying interest in the needy members of the church. We read of a surrender of property on the part of the richer disciples so general as to suggest the extreme of socialism in a community of goods. But concerning this aspect of the Pentecostal Church it should be noted that it was entirely voluntary, not under the compulsion of law, not the poor demanding the property of the rich; but the rich of their own accord giving to the poor. It was tested in a small community, all dwelling within one city; and in a highly selected people, all filled with the Holy Spirit, in character aiming to reproduce the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. It arose in the expectation of a speedy return of Christ, at whose coming earthly possessions might be no longer needed. As a financial experiment it was a failure, soon abandoned, and left the church in Jerusalem so poor that for a generation collections were taken abroad for its relief. Also, the system developed its own moral evils, as the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira. We are still on the earth, and need the spur of self-interest and of necessity. The spirit of this liberal giving is to be commanded, but its plan may have been unwise.
In almost every aspect the church of the first days was faultless. It was strong in faith and testimony, pure in character, and abundant in love. But its one defect was its lack of missionary zeal. It stayed at home, when it should have gone abroad with the gospel to other lands and other people. It needed the stimulus of sharp persecution to send it forth on its world-wide mission; and that stimulus it soon received.