VIGOROUSLY CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH by Bishop Dr. J. Akin Atere

PRE-CHRISTMAS CLERGY RETREAT FOR THE DIOCESE OF ETSAKO HELD BETWEEN DECEMBER 12-14, 2011 AT EKPOMA

 THEME:    VIGOROUSLY CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH

 TEXT:       JUDE 3

 TALK II:   CHURCH LEADERS AND OFFICES IN THE EARLY CHURCH. THEIR COMMITMENT, ASSIGNMENTS AND DEDICATION

During his earthly life and ministry, Jesus gathered many “disciples” around himself, some of who he also called “apostles,” sending them out to preach, teach, and heal others (acc. To the Synoptic Gospels). These apostles, especially Peter and a core group known as “the Twelve,” would seem to have been the natural leaders of those who continued to believe in Jesus after his death and resurrection. Yet his “brothers” James and Jude, members of Jesus’ own family, evidently also became influential leaders of the early Church, as did Barnabas and Paul and several others who also came to be called “apostles.”

Soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, however, the early Christians also began using a variety of other titles for those who led and served the community of believers, as seen in various texts of the New Testament. Some of these titles were used for itinerant preachers who spread the Christian message throughout the Roman empire, while others designated the resident leaders of local communities. At first, the most prominent leaders seem to have been called apostles, prophets, and teachers, among various other titles. Yet by the mid-second century, the church has developed a fairly uniform structure of leadership, consisting of three different “orders” called bishops (overseers) presbyters (elders) and deacons (ministers), despite some ongoing regional variations. In all of this, however, the emphasis was not on the authority or status of the leaders as rulers, but remained on their responsibilities to serve and care for the people in their communities.

Some Foundational New testament tests: In 1 Corinthians 12:4-31, Paul stresses that the unity of the  Christian community (the one “body of Christ”) is served by a variety of spiritual gifts and activities, including the speaking of wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of  tongues (12:8-10) He continues by rank-ordering some leadership roles: “God has appointed in the church fits Apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all  apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (12:28-30).

In Romans 12:6-8, Paul again stresses the unity of the community, despite the variety of roles and activities of its leaders and members: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith,; ministry, in ministering, the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” Acts 31:1 names five “prophets and teachers” as leaders of the Christian community in Antioch. Several other Christians are also called “prophets” in Acts 11”27,15:32 and 21:10.

The letter to the Ephesians uses architectural imagery to describe the church “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (2:20; cf. 3:6). It also stresses both the  importance of church unity and the diversity of ministries: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one  hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one  baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift… The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and  teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of  the full stature of Christ.” Eph.4:4-7,11-13).

Acts 6:1-6 tells of how the apostles “appoint” and “lay hands on” seven men “to serve” (GK. Diakoneo) the practical needs of the community; these men (Stephen, Philip, and five others) are generally regarded as the first “deacons”, even though Acts does not directly use the noun “diakonos” in this text. This list includes Stephen, who becomes the  first  Christian martyr (Acts 6-7), and Philip, who is later also called an “evangelist” (Acts 21:8).

Paul begins his letter to the Christian community in Philippi by greeting “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil.1:1). Yet interestingly, the only individual explicitly called a “deacon” (diakonos) in the entire New Testament is not Stephen or Philip (Acts 6-7), but a woman named Phoebe (Rom.16:1, where she is called “deacon” not a “deaconess”)!

Pauline First Letter to Timothy further expands upon two-tiered structure of local Christian community leadership: the qualifications and responsibilities of bishops are discussed first (1 Tim.3:1-7; cf. Titus1:7-9), followed by a very similar passage focusing on  deacons (1 Tim.3:8-13). This letter also describes some community leadership responsibilities of elder women or widows (5:3-10) as well as elder men or presbyters (5:17-22).

The closely related Letter to Titus also discusses the appointment of elders (1:5-6) and the qualities required of bishops (1:7-9; possibly referring to the same leaders)

The Letter of James also mentions the role of the elders or presbyters in leading community prayer: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).

The First letter of Peter uses pastoral imagery to describe the leadership of the presbyter-bishops: “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – nit for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders” (5:1b-5a).

THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF MINISTRY:

Ministry- This English word derives etymologically from Latin ministerium, which is equivalent to Greek diakonia. Both are often also translated as “service.” The word diakonia is used in the New testament referring to a wide variety of practical and spiritual tasks that many different people, not just the first apostles of Jesus, do in service to the Christian communities. Paul stresses that “there are varieties of services (diakonion), but the same Lord” ( 1Cor.12:5); he continues by listing a substantial number of examples of different ministries. see the full test of 1 Cor.12:4-31.

MINISTER/DEACON –GK diakonos “to serve” “serve at table” Used 29 times in the new Testament, only rarely for community leaders who were officially ordained as “deacons” but mostly for people who preferred ordinary  types of work as “servants.” Interesting, the masculine noun diakonos is used not only for them, but also for women (e.g. Phoebe, a deacon in Cenchrae; Rom.16:1)

TO SERVE; TO MINISTER – Gk. Diakoneo most often in the Gospels, where Jesus stresses that he himself “came not to be served but to serve” Mar 10:45; Matt.20:28), his ministers must also do the same (Luke 22:26-27; John 12:26; etc) In the early community of believers in Jerusalem, seven Hellenistic Jews (Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Niclaus) were appointed to assist with the daily distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:1-6).

RELATED VERBS: to shepherd, pastor, teach, preach, exhort, care for, pray for, assist, administer, etc.

ANALYSIS OF OTHER LEADERSHIP TITLES IN EARLY CHRISTIAN

APOSTLE – Gk apostolos “missionary, ambassador, one who is sent out” “out, away, forth” “to send”

PROPHET- GK prophetes “spokesperson” “for, on behalf of” “to speak”. Most of the New Testament references are to the Old testament prophets, either generically as a group or often explicitly naming individual prophets (esp. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah, but sometimes also Jonah, Daniel, Elisha, Joel, Moses, Samuel , and even King David)!. Some New Testament passages speak of the role of prophets in general (e.g. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward”; Matt.10:41). All four Gospels use “prophet” to refer to John the Baptist (Mark11:32; Matt.21:46; Luke 1:76; 7:26;20:6cf. John 1:21) as well as Jesus (Mark 6:15;8:28; Matt.14:5;16:14;21:11,46; Luke 7:16,39;9:19; 24:19; John4:19;6:14;7:40; 9:17). Paul mentions “prophets” immediately after “apostles” in his listing of early Christian leadership categories (1Cor. 12:28-29; cf. 14:29-37). Acts names five men as “prophets and teachers” of the church in Antioch (13:1), mentions Christian prophets named Judas and Silas (15:32) and Agabus 21:10), and asserts that the four daughters of the evangelist Philip “had the gift of prophesying” (21:8). Finally, several passages of the Book of revelation mention saints, apostles, and /or prophets together (11:18; 16:6; 18:20-24, where the references are most likely not (or not only) to Old Testament prophets but mostly  to early Christian leaders.

Prophetess(n) – Gk prophetis – The equivalent feminine noun occurs only twice in  the New testament; an old “prophetess” named Anna encounters the Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus in  the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:36); and a women named Jezebel is denounced as a false “prophetess” in the letter to the church in Thyatira (Rev.2:20).

Prophecy (n) – Gk prophetia – In several letters, Paul speaks on “prophecy” as one of the gifts given to some Christians for the benefit of the community (Rom.12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2,8; 14:6,22; 1 Thess.5:20;cf. 1 Tim.1:18;4:14).

Prophesy (v) – Gk propheteuo – Paul also refers to praying and “prophesying” and other spiritual practices as normal parts of the worship services of his early Christian communities (1 Cor.11:4-5; 13:9; 14:1-40).

Teacher – Gk didaskalos = “to teach” Acts 13:1 names five men as “prophets and teachers” of the church in Antioch; Rom.2:20 warns that “a teacher of children”  should also teach himself; 1 Cor.12:28-29 and Eph.4:11 mention “teachers” after apostles and prophets as community leaders; Heb.5:12 asserts that the readers “by this time ought to be teachers,” while James 3:1 warns, “Not many of you should become teachers,” due to the great responsibility they  have; and the Pastoral Epistles refer to Paul as “ a herald and an apostle and a teacher” (1 Tim2:7; 2 Tim.1:11).

Evangelist/Preacher – Gk. euangelistes “messenger of good news” The noun “evangelist”  is used only 3 times in the New Testament, in reference to the deacon Philip (Acts 21:8), to Paul’s assistant Timothy (2 Tim.4:5), and to  Christian leaders in general  (Eph 4:11). Only later, after the New Testament period, are the authors of the four canonical gospels also referred to as the four “Evangelists.”

Pastor/Shepherd – Gk piomen (“one who cares for sheep”) – In the Gospels “shepherd” either refers literally or metamorphorically to someone who pastures sheep, or to Jesus himself (“I am the good shepherd”, John 10:11); similarly, Hebrews 13:20 calls Jesus “the great shepherd of the sheep,” while 1 Peter 2:25 calls him “the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

Only once is the title “shepherd” (or “pastor”) used for a category of Christian leaders. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers (Eph.4:11). This later became one of the most common titles for Christian leaders, especially because of Jesus’ repeated charge to peter at the end of John’s Gospel: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

Bishop/Overseer – Gk episkopos =”overseer, supervisor” (epi = “over, above” + skopeo = “to look, watch, see”) – In the second century,  “bishop” becomes the most widely used term for the one main leader of the whole Christian church in a particular city or region.  Bishops and deacons are mentioned together twice (Phil.1:1; 1 Tim.3:1-13). Interestingly, when  1 peter 2:25 mentions “the shepherd and guardian (episkopos) of your souls,” it refers to Jesus!

More significantly, the term “episkopal/bishops” often seems to refer to the same people who are also called “presbyteroi/elders,” and shepherding imagery is applied to both. Speaking to all the elders (presbyteroi) of the church of Ephesus, Paul says, “Keep watch over yourselves and  over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has  made you overseers (episkopoi), to shepherd the  church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” (Acts 20:17,28). Similarly, Titus1:7-9 mentions the blameless life a bishop (episkopos) should lead, yet this short passage begins with Paul instructing Titus to “appoint elders (presbysteroi) in every town,” choosing men of blameless character (1:5-6).

Moreover, the related verb episkopeo is also used in connection with elders in some texts of 1 Peter 5:1-2: “Now as an elder myself,… I exhort the elders (presbyteroi) among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight (episkopountes), not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it…”

Position of Overseer/Office of Bishop – These two phrases are used one each in the NRSV translation of the New testament for the related Greek noun episcope; the first refers to the  selection of Mathias to replace Judas as an apostle: “Let another take his position of overseer” (Acts 1:20, quoting from Psalm 109:8); in the second, Paul tells Timothy, “The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of Bishop desires a noble task” (1 Tim.3:1).

Presbyter/Elder – Gk presbyteros=”older respected men”; they teach and preach, and sometimes formed a type of “community council” (1 Tim.5:1,17-22; cf. Titus 1:5) Widow – “older women who do not remarry”; younger widows normally remarried, while older widows were often cared for by the churches, yet they in turn also helped care for their communities, especially teaching the younger women (1 Tim. 5:3-16; cf. Titus 2:3-5) Orders – Priest – Gk hiereus = “cultic officials, those who offer sacrifices” – In  the New Testament, the word “priests” refers only to the Jewish priests (members of the tribe of Levi who offered the sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple); no Christians are called “priests” in the entire new testament; only in the letter to the Hebrews is Jesus himself called a “ great high priest” (even though he did not belong to the tribe of Levi)! The term “priest” was applied to Christian leaders only later, beginning in the 2nd century.

But today as we shall examine later priest, Deacon and Bishop in Anglican Church, serve as all that are mentioned, until we begin to encourage our lay members to identify their gifts and  freedom to exercise them, but all the above are leaders and offices in the early church and we should assume their position today.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EARLY CHURCH UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF THE CHURCH LEADERS ACCORDING TO ACTS 2:42-47

When we notice the characteristics of the  early church, we are better able to see what we should be doing today in order to further that growth as ministers of the gospel.

  1. The early church continued in the apostles’ doctrine Acts 2:42-43
  2. To continue in the apostles’ doctrine is to say that they did exactly what the apostles instructed them to do.
  3. The apostles had authority on this earth.
  4. Mt.16:19 (Christ to Peter) – “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of haven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed ion heaven.”
  5. Mt.28:18-20 (Christ to all the apostles) – And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them o observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
  6. Christ had given this authority to the apostles in that he taught them what they should do.
  7. The things that they taught were the things of God.
  8. When we read of “the apostles’ doctrine,” we are reading of the doctrine of Christ.
  9. Notice exactly what they continued to do.
  10. Apostles’ Doctrine – They did what the apostles commanded them to do because they knew that it was a command from Christ.
  11. Fellowship
  12. To have “fellowship” is to have partnership with one another only in Christ.
  13. 1 Jn.1:6-7 – “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
  14. Breaking of Bread
  15. This is a reference to the Lord’s Supper, or Communion
  16. This is done on the first day of the week.
  17. Acts 20:7 – “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.”
  18. Prayers
  19. The church continued in prayers
  20. We have many examples throughout the book of Acts where the church was praying
  1. Acts 4:29 (prayer for boldness) – “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word,”
  2. Acts 12:5 – “Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.”
  3. 1 Thes. 5:17 – “pray without ceasing,”
  4. From the context, we also know that they preached Jesus as the Christ.
  5. This is exactly what Peter and the other apostles had done.
  6. Throughout the book of Acts, we see where the early church preached Christ to others.
  1. Acts 3 – Peter preaches to the crowd at Solomon’s Porch.
  2. Acts 7 – Stephen preached to those who were about to stone him.
  • Acts 10 – Peter preaches to the household of Cornelius.
  1. 1 Cor.2:1-5 – “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring  to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weaknesses, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and for power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
  2. The early church continued in benevolence.
  3. Notice how the early church went helping one another.
  4. The early church was willing to sell what they had in order to help those in need.
  1. Notice that it does not say “all of their possessions and goods.”
  2. They sold what was necessary for others to have what was needed.
  3. Remember: many who were there at Pentecost were away from their home; and they would need extra support while they were in Jerusalem.
  4. Evangelism in the early church was done to help the brethren as they had need (not just anyone off the street).
  5. Acts 4:32-37
  6. Acts 11:27-30
  7. It is also important to remember that this was not something that they had to do.
  8. remember Ananias an Sapphira (Acts 5)
  9. Their sin was not that they kept some money for themselves; their sin is that they lied about it.

iii.  The early church sold what they had because it was their strong desire to fulfill the needs of the saints.

  1. The main idea is that they were willing to give up all they had so that others (their own family in Christ) would not have to go without
  2. We are commanded as leaders to teach our members to help those who are in need.
  3. Pr.3:27-28 – “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so. Do not say to you have it with you.”
  4. We are to help especially those of our family (other Christians).
  5. Rom. 12:13 – distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
  6. Gal.6:9-10 – “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
  7. Whether it is giving of our possessions or giving encouragement to others, we need to help one another.

III.    The early church continued in fellowship (togetherness)

  1. Notice the fellowship of the early church.
  2. They continued daily with one another.
  3. They met daily in the temple.
  4. They wanted to spend time together and looked forward to this time.
  5. Sometimes, we have trouble getting people to give up one week or night in order to worship God.
  6. They ate meals together regularly.
  7. The indication from the text is that this “breaking bread” was the eating of full meals.
  8. This was not the Lord’s Supper that was done on the first day of the week.
  9. They also praise God regularly.
  10. When they came together, they would praise God.
  11. Worship was very important to the early church, and something that they did often.
  12. This was extremely valuable time for the early Church
  13. Remember some of the problems of the early Christians.
  14. On many occasion, their very lives were at stake.
  15. Many Christians were killed because of their belief in Christ.

They needed this encouragement and fellowship to remain faithful.

  1. We need this kind of encouragement today; this is a challenge to the clergy and bishops
  2. our soul and that of our members is at stake.
  3. Even though we may not be threatened with death, we still have to remain faithful in order to obtain that home in heaven.
  1. To see this great need of fellowship and encouragement, notice the example of Elijah.
  1. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah has defeated the 450 prophets of Baal.
  2. However, in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is depressed because he feels that he is alone in this world.
  3. 1 Kings 19:4 – “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, it is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my father’s!”
  4. 1 Kings 19:10 – So he said, I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I am left alone; and they seek to take my life.”
  5. Notice God’s response – 1 Kings 19:18 – “yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
  6. Elijah needed this encouragement to continue.
  7. One of the main purposes of the church meeting together is to edify (encourage) one another. We must lead them to discover this.
  8. Rom.14:19 – “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.”
  9. 1 Cor. 14:26 – “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, and has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
  10. 1 Thes.5:11 – “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.”
  11. Heb. 10:24-25 – “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good work, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
  12. We encourage one another when we meet together and worship the Lord
  13. It is impossible to encourage one another when some refuse to obey God by worshipping with the saints.

Conclusion:

Because of what early church did, they grew. All these would not have been achieved if not for the faithful, committed, disciplined leadership of the leaders of the church. They were bold and courageous; everyone took their offices as God’s commanded. Eph.4:11-16 must be taken seriously if we want to make impact in the leadership of the Church.

They obey the prescribed laws and at the same time, they surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men but are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death, but (will be) restored to life. They are poor yet they make many rich. They possess few things; yet, they abound in all. They are dishonoured, but in their very dishonor are glorified.

A second century elder exhorted his congregation, “Brothers, let us willingly leave our sojourn in this present world so we can do the will of Him who called us. And let us not fear to depart out of this world…deeming the things of this world as not belonging to us, and not fixing our desires upon them… The Lord declares, “No servant can serve two masters.’ If we desire, then, to serve both God and Money, it will be unprofitable for us. ‘For what will it profit if a man gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?’ This world and the text are two enemies… We cannot therefore be the friends of both.”

Cyprian, the respected overseer of the church in Carthage, stressed a similar theme in a letter he wrote to a Christian friend: “The one peaceful and trustworthy tranquility, the one security that is solid, firm,, and never changing, is this: for a man to withdraw from the distractions of this world, anchor himself to the ground of salvation, and lift his eyes from earth to heaven… He who is actually greater than the world can crave nothing, can desire nothing, from this world. How stable, how unshakable is that safeguard, how heavenly is the protection in its never-ending blessings to be free from the snares of this entangling world to be purged from the dregs of earth, and fitted for the light of eternal immortality.”

CHILDLIKE TRUST IN GOD

The early Christian, trusting God meant more than a teary-eyes testimony about “the time I came to trust the Lord.” It meant believing that even if obedience to God entailed great suffering, God was trustworthy to bring a person through it.”A person who does not do what God has commanded shows he really does not believe God,” Clement declared. To the early Christians, to claim to trust God while refusing to obey Him was a contradiction (1John2:4). Their Christianity was more than verbal. As one early Christian expressed it, “we don’t speak great things we live them!” One distinguishing mark of the early Christians was their childlike, literal obedience to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They didn’t feel they had to understand the reason for a commandment before they would obey it. They just trusted that God’s way was always the best way. Clement asked, “Who then is as irreverent as to disbelieve God, and to demand explanations from God as from men?”

The supreme example of their absolute trust in God was the acceptance of persecution. From the time of the emperor Trajan (around A.D. 1000) until the Edict of Milan was issued in 313, the practice of Christianity was illegal; within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Being a Christian was a crime punishable by death. But the Roman officials didn’t generally hunt out Christians. They ignored them unless someone formally accused a person of being a Christian. As a result, persecution was intermittent. Christians in one town would suffer horrible tortures and death while Christians in a nearby area would be untouched. It was totally unpredictable. Yet, every Christian lived daily with a death sentence hanging over his head. The very fact that Christians were willing to suffer unspeakable horrors and to die rather than disown their God.

In many places where our Bibles use the word “witness,” the early Christians were reading “martyr.” For example, in our Bibles, revelation 2:13 refers to “Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city.” The early Christians understood the passage to say, “Antipas, my faithful martyr.” Although most Christians tried to flee local persecution when possible, they rejected any mass exodus from the Roman Empire. Like little children, they believed their Master when He said His Church would be built on a rock and that the gates of Hades could not overpower it (Matt.16:18). They realized that thousands of them might die monstrous deaths. Experience excruciating tortures, and suffer imprisonment. But they were absolutely convinced that their Father wouldn’t let the church be annihilated. Christians stood before the Romans with naked hands, letting them know that Christians would not use human means to try to preserve the church. They trusted God, and God alone, as their protector.

As Origin told the Romans: “when God gives the Tempter permission to persecute us, we suffer persecution. And when God wishes us to be free from suffering, even though surrounded by a world that hates us, we enjoy a wonderful peace. We trust in the protection of the One who said, ‘Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.’ And truly he has overcome the world. From His victory we take courage. Even if He should again wish us to suffer and contend for our faith, let the enemy come against us. We will say to them, ‘I can do all things through Christ Jesus our Lord who strengthens me.” Origen had lost his father to persecution when he was a teenager, and he himself eventually died from torture and imprisonment at the hand of the  Romans. Yet, with unshakable confidence he told the Romans; “Eventually, every form of worship will be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which alone will stand. In fact, it will one day triumph, for its teachings take hold of men’s minds more and more each day.”

A LOVE WITHOUT CONDITION

Clement, describing the person who has come to know God, wrote, “He impoverish himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out his own poverty, he does not complain.”

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christian was the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected men of their own families into streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.

As one Christian told the Romans, “We love one another with a mutual love because we do not know how to hate.” If Christians today made such a statement to the world, would the world believe it?

The love of the early Christians wasn’t limited simply to their fellow believers. Christians also lovingly helped non-believers: the poor, the orphans, the elderly, the shipwrecked even their persecutors. Jesus had said, “Love your enemies… and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matt.5:44).

Thanks for listening.

 

Rt. Rev’d Johnson Akin Atere Ph.D

Bishop, Diocese of Awori