We see much today of men going back to the early days of the Church hoping to reshape their beliefs to be more in line with what they perceive the truth to be. They take great pleasure in quoting 1st and 2nd Century writers like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome and Origen. Some even search out the writings of the Gnostics, thinking that perhaps they held a purer form of the truth.
Rather then being content with the writings assembled for us in the Bible, they feel the need for a second opinion. Of course we have nothing against a second opinion, we only fear it came too late. Polycarp (A.D. 69?-155?) was one of the earliest of the so-called "Church Fathers" yet at the close of his life his concern was dating Easter, which reconciled our Lord's resurrection with a pagan holiday. His more famous contemporary, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100?-165?), indeed sought to "reconcile Christian doctrine and pagan culture" (Encyclopedia Encarta). It was his view that "Christianity was the final revelation toward which Greco-Roman philosophy had gradually been moving" (Ibid).
The first Christian to use Greek philosophy in the service of the Christian faith was Justin Martyr (martyred c. 165), whose passionate rejection of Greek polytheism, combined with an open and positive acceptance of the essentials of Platonic religious philosophy and an unshakable confidence in its harmony with Christian teaching, was to remain characteristic of the Christian Platonist tradition. This was carried on in the Greek-speaking world by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215), a persuasive Christian humanist, and by the greatest of the Alexandrian Christian teachers, Origen (c. 185-254).
It would appear that the Apostle's teachings had already at this early date been set aside, so as to reconcile Greek pagan culture with early Christianity. If that is true, then even the Church Fathers had erred from the truth. Of course, the apostle Paul expected this development many years before.
2 TIMOTHY 4:3-4 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
To get a better idea of how all this came to pass, we will need to read a number of passages from Luke's account of the early Church as recoded in the book of ACTS.
Who were the first leaders of the early Church?
In the 16th chapter of the Gospel of MATTHEW we conclude that it was Peter unto whom Yeshua (Jesus) gave "the keys to the kingdom of heaven". It was to Peter that He promised "whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". A few days later He took Peter with the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, into a high mountain and was transfigured before them. It was there where a voice thundered out of an overshadowing cloud saying, "This is my beloved Son, here ye Him!" These three Apostles were being groomed as the leaders amongst the other disciples.
When Yeshua went to raise the ruler of the synagogue's daughter from the dead, it is written in the Gospel of MARK that,
...he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James.
We are therefore led to believe that these three were called out from the rest for some special purpose. Even during Yeshua's most trying hour, when He said that His soul was "exceedingly sorrowful unto death" it was only Peter, James and John who He wanted to have with Him (MATTHEW 26:37).
Then, after Yeshua's ascension into heaven Luke writes in ACTS that "when they were come into an upper room, where abode Peter, and James, and John..." These three as the leaders of the Church are mentioned first. Then it is Peter who speaks saying, "Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled...". There is no question that Peter became the spokesman of the twelve Apostles, with John and James rounding out the leadership, the true pillars of the Church.
On the day of Pentecost it was Peter who gave the first message, when he, "standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them...hearken to my words". The first recorded miracle of healing by the disciples was when Peter and John "went up together into the temple" and raised the lame man who was laid daily at the gate. Then after being cast in prison because they "taught the people, and preached through Yeshua the resurrection from the dead," it was Peter who, "filled with the holy ghost" boldly said,
ACTS 4:10-11 Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.
These are the men GOD had selected to be separated out from the rest. This is what Yeshua had trained them for. This was their commissioning. Thus, after Yeshua's ascension, these three were distinguishing themselves as the foremost leaders of the early Church. Understandably, the enemy was frustrated, not finding how to silence them because of their boldness.
ACTS 4:18-20 And they [the religious leaders] called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.
Later, in ACTS chapter 5 it was Peter who confronted Ananias and his wife Sapphira for lying to the Holy Ghost, which resulted in the couple's death. It is also in this chapter where we are amazed to learn that the believers "brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them". Yeshua had promised His followers that these things would come to pass and now under Peter's ministry they were. He was a powerful man of GOD fearlessly doing signs, miracles and wonders.
JOHN 14:12 Verily, verily, I [Yeshua] say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
Then, in ACTS chapter 8 after Philip had won converts in Samaria, it was Peter and John who the apostles sent "that they might receive the holy ghost". Less then ten years after Yeshua's ascension all seems well in the early Church, but it is at this point when two new players are introduced at the table. The first was Saul (also called Paul), who had been relentlessly persecuting the believers, but now becomes a convert. In his early epistle to the Galatians he recounts his conversion and his first visit with Peter.
GALATIANS 1:15-19 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.
But before this meeting with Paul, during those three years between Paul's conversion and his visit to Jerusalem, Peter did probably his most important works in the early Church. He healed Aeneas who had kept his bed eight years and was sick of the palsy and he also raised Tabitha from among the dead. But most impressive was what happened in chapter 10 of ACTS. It is here that GOD reveals to him through a vision that he should call nothing common or unclean, meaning that the Gentiles who believed should be welcomed into the faith.
ACTS 10:34-45 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him....To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.
This was quite an astounding change for the Judean Church to accept. They accused Peter of wrongdoing but as he had wisely taken with him witnesses, "they held their peace, and glorified GOD, saying, Then hath GOD also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (ACTS 11:18). So the Judean Church accepted the Gentiles into the faith, but many felt that somehow it was not quite right. The Judean Christians continued to observe the Law of Moses and if the Gentiles were to also become Christians then why shouldn't they likewise keep the Law of Moses? This contention would have lasting consequences, eventually causing a great rift in the Church.
When Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians he summed up his first meeting with Peter at Jerusalem by stating, "But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother". Two questions arise here. First, where were all the other apostles? And second, where did this James (the Lord's brother) come from? So far in the record of ACTS this James has not even been mentioned and now his place seems to be with that of the great apostle Peter.
What is also intriguing, is that in what is left of the book of ACTS, Peter and Zebedee's two sons, James and John, soon fade away. It is then that the apostle Paul and this James, the Lords brother, become the new leaders of the two assemblies of the Church. It all appears to turn in chapter 12, around A.D. 44.
In the first verse we learn of Herod the king "stretching forth his hands to vex certain of the church". As one might expect, the "certain of the church" were the apostles Peter and James, John's brother. Herod first killed James with the sword, and then he imprisoned Peter intending to bring him forth to the people after Easter. Fortunately GOD sent HIS angel to rescue Peter from jail, and being free he went to John's mother's house where many were praying.
ACTS 12:17 But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James [the Lord's brother], and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place.
"Go shew these things unto James!" Somehow the Lord's brother had risen to great prominence among the Church, while the three apostles chosen by Yeshua each seem to fade away. After the twelfth chapter in the book of ACTS John is not mentioned again, his brother James has been killed by Herod and Peter is only mentioned one final time. As we shall read, the focus of the rest of Luke's book becomes the apostle Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles, with James being the leader among the Judeans.
At the close of the previous chapter Barnabas and Paul had been sent from Antioch to Judea with relief for the present famine. As coincidence would have it, Paul was probably right there in Jerusalem to witness Herod's vexing certain in the Church and the disciple's reaction to it. This might remind one of a later age when Martin Luther visited the Vatican, and after having seen all that went on there began the great Reformation. The last verse of chapter 12 states,
ACTS 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry...
The timing here is quite interesting. Right after their returning from Jerusalem, witnessing all the was going on there, we read in 13:2 how "the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them". During the next few years the chapters of ACTS are concerned with that work. No mention is made of the other apostles. All is focused on Barnabas and Paul until we come to chapter 15 where there resurfaces the great dissension between these new apostles and certain men from Judaea. They all agreed to take the question unto Jerusalem to the other apostles and elders.
Luke records for us that after much disputing Peter rose up and spoke a few sentences. Then all kept silence as Barnabas and Paul declared what GOD had wrought among the Gentiles by them. But the final word, the last of the matter was to be heard by James, the Lord's brother. In his closing comments he began, "Wherefore my sentence is...". His sentence? James had evidently become the leader, the new spokesman of the Mother Church.
A. E. Knoch in his "Concordant Commentary on the New Testament" gives an interesting commentary on this most infamous gathering of the early Church.
...The object of the decree seems to have been to make it possible for the Jews to have social intercourse with the believers among the nations without offending Jewish prejudices. A Jew, even if a believer, could not eat at the same table with a gentile if he should serve an idol sacrifice, or strangled meat, or blood. Had Peter's advice been followed, they would have cast off the yoke of the law, which they never were able to bear, and so could have had free and joyful fellowship with the Uncircumcision. James' plan keeps the Jews under the divine law and puts the nations under a human law. Instead of loosing all from bondage, he binds both.
Already at this early date (around A.D. 52) it appears that the teaching of the apostles was being corrupted by those within the Church. The Apostle Peter spoke the truth at this meeting, but as was becoming the norm, he was overruled by the legalists. Peter exits the book of ACTS with these words as his last recorded attempt to get the leadership of the Church to see their error.
ACTS 15:10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
But it was James, the Lord's brother, who had the final word. The great apostle Peter now disappears from the page, not even once again referred to. And when Paul returns to Jerusalem a few years later we read that "Paul went in...unto James". There is no Peter, no John; not one of the apostles which our Lord had chosen was there. Only Yeshua's brother James and of course his "many thousands of Jews...which believe; and they are all zealous of the law".
And what of these Judean believers? How well did they receive Paul during his last visit? Luke writes that "the brethren received us gladly [with gratification]". Why were they glad? Not because of the truth Paul taught, because they rejected that. It appears they were only glad because of all the tithes Paul had brought to Jerusalem from the other believers? (ROMANS 15:26 2 CORINTHIANS 8,9 ACTS 24:17). After having received that money, they then had a more pressing concern.
They were understandably troubled that the other believers would think Paul was teaching contrary to their customs. So they instructed him, "Do therefore this that we say to thee...". The result of him following their desires was that the Judeans "took Paul, and drew him out of the temple...and went about to kill him". His life was only barely saved because word of this uproar came to the Gentile chief captain who at once sent soldiers in to rescue Paul. This is perhaps a partial answer to Paul's previous prayer in his epistle to the Romans.
ROMANS 15:30-31 Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; that I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints.
Many of these Judeans who sought Paul's extinction were no doubt believers of James' assembly. This is evident because when Paul is making his defense before them a few minutes later, his references to Yeshua as lord are met by the crowd with only silence. If these who tried to kill him were anti-Christian they would have interrupted him with shouts of disdain. It is only and not until his mention of being sent unto the Gentiles, that the crowd in unison screamed for his death.
Following, is a declaration to them of his conversion:
ACTS 22:21-23 And he [Yeshua] said unto me [Paul], Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. And as they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air...
These who were "zealous toward GOD" loved their customs over the purposes of GOD. As Yeshua had been rejected by the religious Judeans with the phrase "away with Him" (JOHN 19:15) so now Paul is also. One may wonder how these in Jerusalem could accept the ministry of Yeshua's brother James yet reject the ministry of the apostle Paul. But knowing the nature of the enemy's stratagem, it is really quite simple. His seed, his children, were assuming "the form of Godliness", as Paul warned in his letter to Timothy (2 TIMOTHY 3:5).
Perhaps of his final private meeting with Peter in Jerusalem, Paul writes in GALATIANS 2.
GALATIANS 2:1-9 Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.
But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: but contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter [not James]; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter [not James] to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:)
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.
It is interesting that Paul mentions James ahead of Cephas (Peter) and John. The legalistic Judeans with James (the Lord's brother) as their leader had evidently seized control of the Church at Jerusalem. While men slept, the enemy had came and sown his seed.
One might be tempted to suppose, along with the legalists that Yeshua's brother was a natural choice to lead the 1st Century Church. Who better to teach the new believers about who Yeshua was, then His own brother? James may even of looked and talked like his half brother Yeshua. But logic demands, why then didn't Yeshua choose His brother to lead His Church? Why didn't Yeshua give James, His brother, the keys to the kingdom?
"a man's foes shall be they of his own household" (MATTHEW 10:35).
The Gospel accounts of MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE and JOHN say nothing of Yeshua's family supporting His ministry. Rather, His family reportedly said, "He is out of His mind!" (MARK 3:21 NIV). So one wonders just when did James become a convert? When did he become this great spokesman for the Church, full of all this wisdom? We are reminded of something else Paul wrote in GALATIANS.
GALATIANS 4:29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
Yeshua had prophesied that because of their unbelief, Jerusalem would be compassed about and destroyed. This is exactly what happened a few short years later when the Romans had the city leveled and many of its survivors carried off to slavery. This is an indication, perhaps even an evidence, that they didn't repent, but rather continued "as their fathers had done" to corrupt the truth.
Luke writes of Paul's ministry in ACTS 19 that around the period of A.D. 53-57 "all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks". While James was gathering his thousands of legalistic believers in Jerusalem, Paul had been broadcasting the grace of GOD throughout the known world.
The Church outside of Judea was thriving to such an extent that in ACTS 16 Luke wrote "And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily". Yet perhaps just a decade later the apostle Paul writes to Timothy "...that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me..." What happened to cause this turning away?
During his last missionary journey through the region, Paul calls the elders at Ephesus unto him, warning them of the days ahead.
ACTS 20:28-31 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
"Therefore watch and remember..." and "Take heed unto yourselves." Why? Because "grievous wolves" and "of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things...". In like manner, if we today don't watch, and remember, and take heed then we also may be drawn away after false teachers.
"Speaking perverse things" means not what it appears to mean in the King James Version. "Perverse things" is the Greek word diastrepho which has the sense "to turn aside" from the right path. Paul was warning them that men from among their own ranks would soon be turning the believers away from the truth he had taught them. Thought possibly to be written around the autumn of 58, some have already turned away from the truth Paul taught. He gives Timothy abundant examples;Then he warns of "profane and vain babblings" and how their word is as gangrene, of whom is Hymeneus and Philetus (2:17). When gangrene sets in the only chance for the body's survival is to cut off the infected limb. Paul continued warning Timothy of those who have the "form of godliness" but like Jannes and Jambres, they "resist the truth" (3:8).
2 TIMOTHY 1:15 This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes.
Paul prays for Timothy to come unto him for even "Demas hath forsaken" him, "having loved this present world" (4:10). He continues in warning Timothy to beware of "Alexander the coppersmith" who "did me much evil" (4:14). Then he finishes as he began, exclaiming all have forsaken him.
2 TIMOTHY 4:16 At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.
This short but final epistle from Paul to his "beloved son" in the faith says much to us about the decline of the 1st Century Church. First we find them turning away from Paul (1:15). Perhaps they were ashamed of his chain. Maybe they simply wanted to harmonize this new Christian doctrine with their Greek culture. Or it could have been that they loved their own selves and despised those who are good (3:2-3). Whatever is the beginning, the end is always the same.
Next they erred or swerved from the truth (2:18). A believer doesn't normally believe the truth today and then reject the truth tomorrow. What they frequently do however, is that as GOD is unfolding an understanding of HIS purposes to them, they "swerve from the truth". Something acts as a "stumbling stone" and causes them to have a prejudice or bias to that revelation, so they "resist the truth" (3:1-8, 13-17).
Finally we find them turning away from the truth (4:1-4). Legalistic believers are especially suited for this place as they possess great fervor for their cause. This is a sad place of decay, where the truth they once pursued they now question, water down, even turn away from.
And how does Paul instruct Timothy to arm himself against this apostasy?
2 TIMOTHY 2:1 Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
He doesn't encourage Timothy with his "unfeigned faith" to be strong in his own abilities. He doesn't encourage this one with a "holy calling" to be strong in the size of his congregation. He instructs his son to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus", realizing that GOD has "HIS own purpose" (1:9). How wonderful it would be to see this instruction today in the apostate Church. Instead we find apologetics, exegesis and the art of harmonizing all into one glorious Church.
And further, Paul commands him to commit what he has heard to faithful men, who shall pass these things on to others.
2 TIMOTHY 2:2 And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
"...the things that thou hast heard of me...the same, commit thou to faithful men." It was the things Timothy had heard from Paul that he was instructed to teach to others. Paul commands Timothy to "hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me" (1:13). He reminds Timothy that he has "fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith..." (3:10).
Now he was charged to "preach the word" (4:1) which had been "committed to his trust" (1 TIMOTHY 6:20). Truth is on occasion heard and even learned once and a while, but rarely is it entrusted. Paul reveals that this truth which was first committed unto himself and then to Timothy, now was to be committed unto faithful men who would in turn teach it unto others. It wasn't committed unto Yeshua's brother James, or one of the "Church Fathers", or even the Pope. It was to be "placed down" before faithful men, men of GOD,
"the good seed".
Our times are at a distance from the times Yeshua saw when He spoke of the Son of man sowing seed on good ground and it bearing fruit, "some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" in contrast with the seed sown among thorns being choked and becoming unfruitful. But the principle He taught then remains just as true today.
The Church Fathers are a group of writers that rose to prominence after the gathering together of the original disciples. None of us really know the hearts of these men. Many of them truly suffered for their beliefs, which is of course disheartening. We must realize though that martyrdom isn't equal to truth. If the vast majority of believers had turned away from Paul's teaching as early as A.D. 58, then why would we expect that the Church Fathers a hundred years later still possessed that truth? Rather, we should hold suspect anything written after the close of Paul's ministry. We may chance upon truth now and again from another's pen, but we err assuming the holy church marched out of ACTS carrying the truth with them unto this present day.
The point here is not to know the hearts of the post Biblical writers. The point is to be aware that the tares are sown among the wheat. Always measure the words that emanate from the pulpit by the words revealed from the Book, even more carefully then you would measure the words of the vilest criminal.
2 TIMOTHY 3:14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;