The emperor Nero used Christians as human candles to light up his garden parties. It must have been a gruesome sight. Why pick on Christians?
Everybody knew that Nero had ambitious plans for a part of Rome that burned down. Naturally, some people started to point their fingers at Nero, and so Nero pointed his finger at Christians—the new kids on the block.
The Great Fire happened in AD 64. By this time, the church had been going for over thirty years, but Christianity was still not an official religion. As far as the Romans were concerned, real religions have temples and priests. Any citizen worth his salt, they thought, will make offerings at the local temple and join in with the wild celebrations of Roman gods. Christians did none of that. They stood out, and they were misunderstood. Nero knew that no one was going to come to their defence.
As bad as all of that may have been for Christians, it tells us that the church already had its own beliefs and its own way of doing things. It did not take centuries to develop. It could not be confused with any other religion.
So, what is the church? Who or what are Christians? And how did they end up in Rome? To answer those questions, we need to go back to the beginning—to the day the church began. Let’s pick up the story in the second chapter of Acts…
The Church that Jesus Built
Thousands of Jews are staying in Jerusalem to observe a harvest festival known as the Day of Pentecost. In a house close to the thronging crowds, the Holy Spirit descends on the twelve apostles—men chosen by Jesus to take His message into the world (Mark 3:14). People hear a loud noise coming from the house, but what happens next will change the world forever.
As the apostles go down into the street below, they start preaching in many different languages. People from Rome can hear the message in Latin. People from Greece can hear the message in Greek. Some people are disgusted. They think that the apostles are drunk in the middle of the day. Others are confused. They just want to know what on earth is going on.
Peter starts to share a message about Jesus with the whole crowd. This is the same Jesus, he reminds them, who was crucified only fifty days before. Peter goes on to make three powerful points to his audience:
- What you are seeing around you right now is a direct fulfilment of ancient prophecy.
- Many of you witnessed the miracles of Jesus first hand. You have heard His teaching. Everything you know about Jesus of Nazareth matches up with all those prophecies about the Christ—the One chosen by God to be the Saviour of the world.
- The bones of Jesus are missing from His tomb because God the Father has raised Him bodily from the dead. He now sits in glory on His throne, at the right hand of His Father in heaven. This makes Jesus both Lord and Christ.
Until this point, the people of Jerusalem have done nothing but reject Jesus. As the sermon comes to an end, they realize that they have made a terrible mistake. They ask Peter and the other apostles for help. “What shall we do?” Peter tells them that they should repent and be baptized.
To repent means to turn around. God wants people to turn around from their old life of sin and start living a new life. To be baptized is to be fully immersed in water, believing that our sins need to be forgiven and that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus promised that he would build his church. In Matthew 16:16, we find Peter confessing that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said this in response:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. – Matthew 16:17-18
So, Jesus’ church would be built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Everyone who believes this about Jesus, and is baptized into His name, will be added to His church.
The Apostles’ Teaching
The people who were added to the church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). In other words, they learned what it meant to be a part of the church. Eventually, they came to be known as Christians (Acts 11:26), which means “followers of Christ.”
When Christians left Jerusalem, they took the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they went. By the time of Nero, Christians and the church stood out .
- Christians were known for their beliefs. As we have seen already, they believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
- Christians were known for the way they worshiped. They met together on Sunday—the first day of the week—and listened to the word of God (Acts 20:7). They ate a simple meal, called the Lord’s Supper, to remember the death of Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). They prayed and sang hymns (Acts 16:25). They donated money to help in the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3).
- The church was known for its work and organization. Christians recognized Christ, and Christ alone, as the head of His church (Colossians 1:18). He left the apostles to start and grow the church (Ephesians 2:19-21). He arranged for evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to lead the church in the right direction (Ephesians 4:11-12). Shepherds or elders looked after the Christians in their own congregations (1 Peter 5:1-4). The church had no supreme ruler or headquarters, except in heaven. Finally, Christians tried to be good to everyone, especially to each other (Galatians 6:10).
Finding the Church
This should be an easy task, right? There are buildings all over the place with the word “church” written on their signs. Some of them even use words like “Christ” and “Christian.” But is this enough?
Remember that Jesus died to build His church. We need to find a church that follows the teaching of Christ and the apostles. For instance, does the church around the corner observe the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day? Do they immerse believers for the forgiveness of their sins?
We need to find this church, because this is where Christians belong. People who love Christ will want to work together and worship together with other Christians.
Some people have described the church as a hospital for sinners. There is a lot of truth to that statement. If we are not in the church, we face a kind of spiritual emergency. If you want to read more about that emergency, please see Introductions 3: The Plan.
Copyright © 2012 Trevor Major. All rights reserved.