Huge amounts of writing survives from the Early Church. A lot of it is unhelpful, some of it downright false. But some of it displays a Gospel-centered church keeping on at the mission of the New Testament: to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in God’s name and teaching them in the truths of the Gospel.
But how was the church to do this as it took its first steps without the Apostles at the helm? By the end of the first century the disciples of Jesus were dead or dying and the church faced the question: how do we keep on, how do we take our first steps by ourselves?
Well the wonderful truth is that they weren’t by themselves. And the historical record shows that their faithful God kept them faithful to the Gospel.
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
Thought the first generation of human leadership had passed away, the Early Church could take confidence in knowing they were not alone. Unlike any other religion, cult or sect in the Roman world, the church had something so much more. In the verses from John’s Gospel above, Jesus promises that those who trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will live inside the believer, transforming them from the inside, helping and equipping them to live for Christ in a hostile world.
Their human leadership was dead, but their God was far from it. Their God was as with them as he had ever been. The Spirit is promised to every believer, then and now, and not only is he with us, but as Jesus reminds us above, he advocates for us.
The Spirit advocates for the believer, he fights the case of the believer, he intercedes for us. When we pray, it is through the Spirit, our advocate, that we can be confident that God hears and receives our prayers.
The Early Church knew this. So they were not alone. As they took their first steps in the hostile and powerful pagan world, their God was with them and their God was for them.
So what happened? The great disappointment in studying the first few centuries of the church is that so much of it is lost. We know so little about so many faithful brothers and sisters who held out the word of life in a hostile Roman world. But the wonderful encouragement of studying Early Church history, is that from what survives to us, we can see the Gospel going out and going on.
As the church continued and as history moved further away from the ministry of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles, the church continued in the Gospel.
The quote below is from the first letter by a man named Clement of Rome, to the church in Corinth. Written around 96 AD and imaginatively known as ‘1 Clement’ today, this letter is one of the first examples of post-canonical Christian writing. And in it? The Gospel is spoken.
“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”
Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32:4.
The great rediscovery of the sixteenth century reformation was that we are justified by faith alone. Works cannot help us. Religious devotion and holy deeds have no saving power. But here is that truth, clear as day, in the writings of this Early Church leader.
Or how about this, an extract from the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesian church, written in the first decades of the second century.
“Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”
Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5.
Here is Ignatius, reminding his readers that the Gospel they believe in is one of grace. Glorious grace. They have no merit before God themselves, it is only through the saving work of Christ on the cross that the Christian can have the hope of Heaven. And this is something that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and famous for his well-recorded martyrdom, writes in a letter to the church at Philippi.
“…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ”
Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1:3 (c.140 AD)
This is the church taking its first steps. With the end of the Apostolic Era comes the need to move forward after the deaths of this first generation of Christian leaders. And how is it the church does this? By looking back. By looking to the cross. By clinging to the truth of the Gospel, in the knowledge that God is with them, and in the Spirit he works for them. The Early Church were God’s representatives here on earth, and their first steps were taken by clinging on to, and teaching, the Gospel they were saved by.