(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #16)
The church of Jerusalem, the megachurch that was the world’s first church (Acts 8:1; 11:22), was never intended to be the planet’s only church. God’s plan was always for those believers to launch out from that church, take the gospel to all parts of the globe, and organize churches everywhere (Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:4-8). That dispersal was kick-started in earnest by the persecution that struck the Jerusalem church beginning with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60; 8:1-4).
What follows over the course of the New Testament is the founding of churches all across the Roman empire. Churches were started in cities such as Antioch (Acts 13:1), Cenchrea (Romans 16:1), Smyrna (Revelation 2:8), Pergamos (Revelation 2:12), Thyatira (Revelation 2:18), Sardis (Revelation 3:1), Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7), Laodicea (Revelation 3:14), etc. You get the idea.
The New Testament book of Romans is the apostle Paul’s letter to the church of Rome, the capital city of the empire. 1st and 2nd Corinthians are his letters to the church of Corinth. Galatians is his letter to the churches of the region of Galatia. Ephesians is his letter to the church of Ephesus. Philippians is his letter to the church of Philippi. Colossians is his letter to the church of Colosse. 1st and 2nd Thessalonians are his letters to the church of Thessalonica. As you can see, the emphasis of the New Testament becomes very much the local churches that were, shall we say, “birthed” from the “mother” church of Jerusalem.
The interesting thing, however, about these other churches is that they involved house-church congregations. We know this because house churches are specifically mentioned in: Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; and Philemon verses 1 and 2. Along the same lines, James 2:1-3 speaks of a “footstool” as being part of a local church assembly, and 2 John verse 10 talks about not receiving false teachers into your house.
So what do we make of this? The best interpretation is that all the house churches of a city (such as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.) or a region (such as Galatia) totaled up to be the one “church” of that city or region. In other words, the church of Corinth was not one congregation of hundreds or thousands that met in a big building that sat on the corner of Oak Street and Elm Street. It was, instead, a series of house churches that were scattered throughout that large city.
And what about the pastors (also known as elders, bishops, shepherds, and overseers in the New Testament)? Acts 14:23 says that Paul and Barnabas appointed (“ordained” K.J.V.) elders in every church. But does that mean they appointed pastors in every house-church congregation or in every city? If we go with the old adage that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible, the answer is found in Titus 1:5. There Paul says to Titus concerning the island of Crete, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” (N.K.J.V.).
You see, if we stack Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 beside each other, we find that the words “church” and “city” are used interchangeably in regards to where pastors were appointed (ordained). In one verse the pastors are appointed in every church, while in the other verse they are appointed in every city. This provides even more evidence that the “church” of any given city or region (or island in the case of Crete) was the sum total of all its house churches.
Furthermore, it seems logical to conclude that there was one pastor per house church, which explains how one church (one city) could have multiple pastors. For example, Acts 20:17 talks about the elders (pastors) of the church of Ephesus, and Philippians 1:1 talks about the bishops (pastors) of Philippi. These verses don’t mean that the cities of Ephesus and Philippi each had one huge church congregation, consisting of hundreds or thousands of members, and that each of these congregations was led by a pastoral team that consisted of multiple elders. No, what the verses mean is that there were multiple house churches in each city, and each house church had a pastor. After all, even two pastors, let alone a pastoral team, wouldn’t be needed for a congregation small enough to meet inside a house.
But what about evangelism and church growth? What did a house church do when it outgrew the home in which it was meeting? Did the members establish a building fund for the purpose of building an addition on to the house? Did they look for a bigger house? The best answer is that some of the members simply branched off, started another house church, and found a new pastor to shepherd the new congregation. In this way, each house church was involved in church planting.
As for the church of Jerusalem, it certainly didn’t immediately disappear once all these other churches came into existence. As late as Acts 15:1-29 it was still serving as the home base of Christianity, the place where the religion’s doctrinal disputes got settled. Even as late as Acts 21:20 it still boasted “many thousands” (N.I.V.) of Jewish believers.
However, the leadership of the Jerusalem church did change when the 12 apostles, who were the church’s original pastoral team, began to spend more time away from the city in their roles of authority over the ever-expanding realm of Christianity. The leadership void created by their absence in the Jerusalem church was filled by a team of elders/pastors (Acts 15:1-6; 21:18) who were led by James, the half-brother of Jesus (Acts 15:13; 21:18; Galatians 2:9). In Galatians 2:9, Paul lists the three “pillars” (N.K.J.V.) of the Jerusalem church as being James, the apostle Peter (Cephas), and the apostle John,
Ultimately, however, three factors ended the 40-year era of the original church of Jerusalem. The first two of these factors helped destabilized the church, and the third one finished it off completely. Let’s take these factors one at a time.
Factor #1: Acts 12:1-19 lets us know us that Jerusalem’s Roman leaders eventually chimed in with the church persecution that had been begun by the city’s Jewish leaders. It started with the Roman ruler Herod Agrippa I having the apostle James, the brother of John the apostle, killed (Acts 12:1-2). Following James’ execution, Herod then had the apostle Peter arrested with the intention of executing him after Passover (Acts 12:2-4). By way of an angel, God helped Peter escape from prison and avoid being executed (Acts 12:5-19). For good measure, a short time later God also struck Herod Agrippa I dead (Acts 12:20-24). Still, though, the Romans coming on board to help the Jews persecute the church of Jerusalem obviously made things worse for the church.
Factor #2: The city of Jerusalem (including the church) was hit hard by a time of famine sometime around A.D. 46 during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, who reigned from A.D. 41 to A.D. 54. A Christian prophet named Agabus had prophesied this famine (Acts 11:27-28). Evidently, the famine created such dire conditions in Jerusalem that the apostle Paul felt the church there needed relief help from other churches. Consequently, he spent a considerable amount of time openly asking the churches to which he ministered to contribute to that relief help. This “collection for the saints” is spoken of in: Acts 11:29-30; Romans 15:25-27, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; and 2 Corinthians 8:16-21.
Factor #3: Even though the events aren’t recorded in the New Testament, history tells us that in A.D. 66 Jewish rebel factions in Jerusalem revolted against Rome and actually took control of the city for an extended time. To reclaim the city, the Romans eventually resorted to a long-term siege of it. Finally, in A.D. 70 they destroyed the city and leveled the Jewish temple in the process. Jesus had foretold that this would happen (Matthew 24:1-2; Luke 19:41-44). The Jewish historian Josephus reports that over one million people, most of them Jews, were killed during Rome’s siege and conquering. All this marked the end of the original church of Jerusalem.
Actually, though, we might say that the original church of Jerusalem, in a sense, continues on today. It continues on in all the Christian churches that dot the globe. These churches are the offspring, propagated down through the multiple eras and generations, of the work the Jerusalem church did to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) in its day.
That church accomplished so much in its brief 40-year run. It’s to the shame of our modern churches that so many of them have done so little with so much more time and resources in regards to fulfilling that Commission. In Acts 17:6, the unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica say of the evangelistic efforts of Paul and Silas, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (N.K.J.V.). That’s how the lost people described the Christians of the early church, as people who had turned the world upside down. Unfortunately, if today’s lost people described us modern Christians, I’m not sure they could accuse us of causing the world much more than a hiccup.