A Glimpse into the Early Church
1. Paul had written several letters to be delivered by Tychicus and Onesimus. (4:7-9) [including 3 inspired: Ephesians; Colossians; Philemon]
2. In these verses Paul sends some final greetings to believers in the Lycas Valley region… a tri-city area including the cites of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. (4:13) There were churches established in each of these cities.
3. In vs.15-16 and following, Paul sends special greetings to the believers in the city of Laodicea. And he tells the church at Laodicea to read the Colossian epistle, and likewise for the Colossians to read the letter Paul sent to Laodicea.
4. Application to our daily lives does not instantly jump out at us as we read this passage, but we know that ALL Scripture is for our learning and ALL Scripture is profitable in its own way.
5. This passage DOES give us an interesting little window from which to get a glimpse of life in the early church. That glimpse is priceless!
a. What was the early church like?
b. Does it differ from what we see today in Christendom? If so how does it differ?
c. Does Salem Bible Church differ from the pattern for the local church we see in the epistles addressed to the churches?
d. Have the churches advanced spiritually since those early days?
e. Are the churches improving and getting BETTER or are they DETERIORATING?
f. This passage and others give us a snap shot of the church in the first century.
g. Some folks might be bored silly with this passage, but I find looking at old snap shots fascinating and illuminating!
ONE Church Per City
A. One Church Per City
1. Col.4:16 – “THE church of the Laodiceans.”
a. There was but ONE church in the city of Laodicea.
b. There were not several churches. There was certainly not a church on every corner.
c. There was ONE church in that city.
2. This was the case throughout the entire known world in the days of the apostles.
a. Rom. 16:1 – THE church in Cenchrea
b. I Cor. 1:2 – THE church at Corinth
c. I Thess. 1:1 – THE church of the Thessalonians
d. Rev. 2:1 – THE church at Ephesus (This is about 40 years after Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus—they did NOT start another church in town!)
e. Rev.2:8 – The church in Smyrna
f. Rev. 12 – The church in Pergamos
g. Rev. 2:18 – THE church in Thyatira
h. Rev. 3:1 – THE church Sardis
i. Rev. 3:7 – THE church in Philadelphia
3. Some of these were large cities… yet there was ONE church per city.
a. There was ONE church in Rome. Some have estimated the population of Rome around the first century to be nearly 4 million people! Yet, there were NOT two churches in Rome.
b. There was ONE church in Jerusalem… the starting point of it all.
• On the day before Pentecost, there was NO church there.
• Then suddenly, God sent the Holy Spirit and there was a church in Jerusalem… a very large church.
• Acts 2:41 – Peter preached a sermon and 3000 souls were added to the church!
• Acts 4:4 – the number is now 5000 men (not including women and children?)
• Acts 15:4 – Paul and Barnabus came to Jerusalem with an important question and were received of THE church.
• THE church in Jerusalem had ONE group of men leading the church—the apostles and the elders.
4. As uncomfortable as that might make us feel—one cannot dispute the facts: the New Testament pattern was one church per city.
a. It is probably impossible to tell for sure at what point in history TWO churches appeared in one city.
b. What we DO know is that we never see that in the Biblical pattern of a New Testament church.
c. Folks today might oppose this concept of the church from all different angles: financial; logistics; practicality; transportation; tradition; culture; level of difficulty; etc.
d. But there is one angle one from which one CANNOT argue this point: from the perspective of Scripture.
e. It worked for a very large church in the first century. There is no reason it couldn’t work today.
B. The One Church In Each City Often Met at Various Locations
1. At first the church met in the Temple in Jerusalem.
a. Acts 2:46 – they met in the Temple… and were considered a sect of Judaism.
b. Acts 3:1 – they held prayer meetings there…
c. Acts 8:1 – But eventually, the Hebrew believers in Christ were chased OUT of Jerusalem… and they were forbidden from meeting in the Temple.
2. As churches were planted in Judea and unto the uttermost parts of the earth, believers met in homes.
a. Col.4:15 – an assembly of believers met in the home of Nymphas.
• It is uncertain which city this church was in.
b. I Cor. 16:19 – an assembly met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Mentioned again in Rom. 16:5.)
c. Acts 12:12 – believers in Jerusalem met in the home of Mary—mother of John Mark—for prayer. (Or at least the believers in her part of the city).
3. They had no special BUILDING called a church building.
a. Quote from Lightfoot: “There is no clear example of a separate building set apart for Christian worship within the limits of the Roman Empire before the third century, though apartments in private houses might be specially devoted to this purpose.”
b. The early church existed and functioned WITHOUT a specially designated building.
c. Churches exist today without buildings too.
d. We have grown so accustomed to church buildings that in our vernacular, we often confuse the words “church” and “building” and use them almost interchangeably.
e. It is certainly not wrong to have a church building… but we don’t see such a thing in the original pattern in the New Testament.
4. This was the case because for MANY of those early centuries the churches had to HIDE… because of persecution.
a. Thus, erecting a building dedicated to Christian worship was impossible. It would have been burned down.
b. Therefore, they met in homes… and sometimes secretly for fear of the Jews or of the Roman authorities.
5. Obviously for logistical reasons—and reasons of transportation—in a very large city, the church would meet in various places and in private homes…
a. There were likely strategically located throughout the city.
b. We KNOW they held prayer meetings in separate homes (Mary in Jerusalem).
c. Baptisms would have been held in a river or other body of water.
d. Perhaps they had a regular schedule of Bible studies throughout the week in various locations at various times.
e. Acts 2:46 – Early on, before the persecution in Jerusalem, the Christians met in the Temple.
• But note that they met EVERY day!
• They must have had a schedule for their meetings… they probably did NOT have all 5000 of them meet every day.
• We just don’t know HOW it was all organized in those days.
• Note also that they went from house to house. (vs. 46)
• This was not MANY churches in Jerusalem—but ONE church that met in many locations.
• I Cor. 11:20 – “When ye come together therefore into ONE place…”
» This implies that the church in Corinth met separately at times for certain meetings.
» But for other meetings, they call came together in ONE place.
f. Thus, we see ONE church per city that met in various places for various functions.
• But the fact that they met in various locations occasionally did not mean that they were separate churches.
• They also met IN ONE PLACE on other occasions = for the Lord’s Table.
• They also had (as in Jerusalem) ONE set of men over them as leaders. Each location was not a separate church…
• Perhaps there were elders appointed to oversee each various meeting… and all under one central leadership.
C. Think of the Advantages of This Concept of the Local Church
1. It made finding a church simple! (If you find a Christian church—it was a good one!)
2. Church discipline – (If Tom is disciplined in church, there was no other church in the area to run to. Either he made things right with God and with his brethren in the local church—or he didn’t… and had no church and no fellowship.)
3. Evangelism (Believers worked together—planting, sowing, and reaping; instead of competing—and using the MacDonald’s approach to church planting!)
4. The “business” methodology used today would not have begun—there would be no competition between groups… no need to lower standards in order to attract people… no need to stoop to becoming people pleasers… and becoming man-centered. Instead, they could concentrate on pleasing Christ… being Christ centered!
5. Rom. 15:20 – Paul made his evangelistic method quite clear!
a. The principle is that you don’t build where someone else is already building.
b. That was the pattern for church planting we see in the New Testament.
c. However, that pattern was based on another New Testament principle that no longer exists in our day and age: the churches were all the same!
6. Resolving interpersonal issues (Believers were thus forced to reconcile with their brethren. There was no such thing as making trouble in one church and running to another.)
7. Clear line between truth and error (any “other” church was the wrong one!)
8. The local church would have ALL the members God intended for it to function properly.
a. Since there was one church per city—all the born again people of that city whom God intended to function together WOULD function together—instead of being divided up into 17 different denominational churches.
b. There were no church hoppers… no sermon sippers in those days.
c. There was no option but to stay put where God planted them.
9. Strength in unity (ALL the churches in the first century stood with one another and supported one another—instead of competing and throwing rocks). There truly was strength in unity in those days, because they were united around the truth!
The Churches Were All the Same
1. Paul wrote a letter to the Colossians, but he intended to be read by the OTHER churches as well… and thus the same doctrines.
a. This was also true of his letter to the Laodiceans.
b. It is likely that the epistle to the Ephesians was also circulated in that tri-city region.
c. Cf. I Thess. 5:27 – “I charge thee that this epistle be read by all the holy brethren…”
2. There is a little debate over the letter to the Laodiceans.
a. Fact # 1: we do NOT have a copy of it.
b. Fact # 2: We don’t know for sure who wrote it.
• It is possible that it was a letter written by Paul TO the Laodiceans.
• It is possible that someone ELSE wrote that letter and gave it to Paul to deliver for him… since Paul was sending Tychicus and Onesimus there to deliver letters.
• Some believe that the letter to the Laodiceans is the epistle to the Ephesians—since the early manuscript of Ephesians does not contain the word “Ephesians.”
• It is possible that it was a letter FROM the Laodiceans to Paul—and Paul wanted the Colossian believers to read it… so he sent it back to the region.
• We just don’t know with certainty.
c. Fact # 3: If Paul DID write this epistle, that fact does NOT mean that our Bibles are missing an inspired book.
• There were 13 epistles written by Paul in the New Testament.
• Naturally he wrote MORE than just 13 letters in his whole ministry which spanned many years.
• Not everything Paul wrote was intended by God to be preserved as Scripture.
• Our Bibles are NOT missing a book. We have all God wanted us to have.
3. The important thing to note here is that EVERY church was given the SAME teaching by the apostles.
a. The doctrines Paul recorded in Colossae for the Colossians was also the SAME doctrine he wanted believers in the other churches to read and learn.
b. I Cor. 4:17 – Paul taught the SAME THING in every church. He never worried once about certain doctrines not to mention here or there.
• Doctrines were not broken up into major doctrines and minor doctrines.
• They had no such cry, “United on the major doctrines; liberty on the minor doctrines.”
• That was unthinkable in the early church. They all believed and taught the very same thing.
c. II Tim. 2:2 – the SAME teachings commit to faithful men…
• There was no such thing in the first century—in the apostolic days—as a Christian church having doctrines that were NOT the same as all the other Christian churches.
• When that DID occur in Acts 15, and Paul heard about it (some born again believers were trying to put the Gentiles under Jewish law)… Paul FLEW down to Jerusalem and put his foot down. It was NOT tolerated.
• Believers were to believe the SAME truths everywhere.
d. Rom. 16:17 – If anyone began to teach doctrines CONTRARY to what the churches had been taught by the apostles, those teachers were to be rejected and avoided!
e. I Tim. 6:3-5 – believers were to withdraw themselves from anyone teaching contrary doctrines.
• There was ONE teaching that was the SAME in every church.
• And Christians were to have nothing to do with anyone who taught otherwise.
f. I Cor. 1:10-13 – Division in the early churches was not tolerated!
• The churches were expected to speak the SAME thing.
• They were expected to be perfectly joined together in ONE mind and have the SAME judgment.
• If division arose, the apostles quickly put out that fire…
• The apostles saw any variation from the truth as a dangerous leaven that would potentially leaven the whole lump. Thus, any variations from the truth were to be purged out… to keep the lump holy and pure.
• This is the picture we see of the early church.
g. What a clear testimony to the lost—ONE voice—all speaking the same thing about who Christ is and what we must do to be saved—and no question about which church has the truth!
• One seminary listed 9000 various Christian denominations in their database worldwide.
• How confusing for folks hearing about Christ and Christianity today. With 9000 varieties—all saying different things—no wonder people are confused.
• God is not the author of confusion. God did not divide His Body.
• This is the work of our adversary the devil.
4. Note the perfect UNITY among ALL the churches in the 1st century.
a. There were three churches in the Lycas Valley.
b. They all believed exactly the same thing.
c. They all read the same literature.
d. They all got along with each other.
e. The Body of Christ that God created was perfectly united together—it truly was a BODY!
f. Each independent local church was a manifestation of that same body in different locations.
g. And while the language, the foods, the style of clothing would be different from city to city… the DOCTRINES and the PRACTICE and WORSHIP were exactly the same!
h. I Cor. 7:13-17 – Paul explains to a Christian woman what to do in various situations relating to marriage: if her unsaved husband wants to stay or leave her.
• Note in vs.17 — Paul ordained all of these practices in “all churches.”
• There was no such thing as churches with different marriage practices.
• The SAME practices were ordained in every church.
i. Their unity was NOT a phony organizational unity that ignores truth. Their unity existed because they were united AROUND the truth!
j. They truly were ONE in hope and doctrine… one in charity!
k. The liberals and even the Neo evangelicals have been saying for years that “doctrine divides.” I think of some of them even think that that is a Bible verse!
l. In reality, in the early church, doctrine UNITED the early churches! That was their basis and foundation for unity! And they did not tolerate any departure from the truth.
5. There is STILL perfect unity in the spiritual Body of Christ… the church universal.
a. Eph. 6:4 – ONE body, ONE Spirit, ONE calling, ONE faith, ONE baptism! Perfect oneness in Christ.
b. That unity is not something that we MAKE via an ecumenical compromising spirit… the unity is already there.
c. Col. 3:11 – In Christ there are NO divisions but perfect unity. These are all man made distinctions.
d. John 17:20-21 – In His High Priestly prayer, Christ prayed “they all may be ONE” who “shall believe on me” through the word of the apostles.
e. The UNITY that God built into His church… the Body of Christ… was MANIFESTED on earth in the local churches in the first century… under the leadership of the apostles.
f. That unity existed because the apostles did not tolerate any division—doctrinal or otherwise.
• Problems certainly did arise—often. But they DEALT with them.
• They practiced church discipline and separation to purge out the leaven and corruption to maintain the PURITY of the early church.
• As a result, the purity of the early church was maintained.
» Every local church believed and taught the same things.
» They all practiced the same things.
» There was perfect unity among the churches in the New Testament.
» We read of individuals within one local church having friction with other individuals—but not between churches.
» There was perfect unity as God designed.
» The universal church IS one… united.
• In the first century, the individual local churches actually reflected that unity and oneness. How refreshing!
6. But we sure do NOT see that kind of unity among the local churches today!
a. Two completely different pictures emerge.
• Open your Bible and you see a clear picture of what the church was designed by God to BE—God’s pattern for the New Testament church.
• Then open your window and look outside and what do we see among the churches in Christendom? Nothing that even vaguely resembles it!
b. What DO we see in Christendom today?
• One church per city? (Or do we not see men building on another man’s foundation?—The McDonalds—Burger King approach to church planting.)
• All churches teaching the same thing? (Or do we not see virtually every doctrine in the Bible twisted beyond recognition by one group or another?)
• All churches practicing the same thing? (Or do we see churches filled with their own traditions and practices that have become firmly entrenched and viewed as sacred and unchangeable?)
• All churches working together in perfect unity under the Headship of Christ? (Or do we see 9000 various Christian denominations worldwide?)
c. The degree to which individual local churches reflect the unity of the Universal church has gradually and consistently diminished from the first century until now.
d. The Plague of Denominationalism:
• My oh my how we have departed from the original NT pattern for the church.
e. When we look out our windows, we do NOT see a church that has grown, matured, progressed, advanced spiritually, and has become more Christlike and purer in doctrine and practice… filled with the evangelistic fire and zeal of the early church.
f. On the contrary, we see 2000 years of corruption and distortion taking its toll.
g. Don’t ever look at the early church as undeveloped, unsophisticated, crude, and primitive. Rather, we should see it is pristine, pure, unadulterated, uncorrupted… straight from the Creator’s hand…
h. But that’s not the way it is any more… we are now slouching closer and closer to the harlot form of religious system described by John.
i. Humpty Dumpty has fallen—and we are now dealing with an egg that’s been scrambled for generations… and we will NEVER be able to be put together again.
j. We’re dreaming if we think that Christendom will ever go back to the original pattern of the New Testament.
k. Don’t think for one second that all the denominations are suddenly going to realize where they went wrong, fold up shop, and all the true believers return one united church in town where the TRUTH is taught and practiced in purity.
l. Every one of us sitting here today was born into a Christendom that has been under a gradual process of deterioration for 2000 years.
m. What we see around us in Christendom is looking less and less like God’s original pattern revealed in the New Testament.
n. In Acts and in the epistles we see God’s ideal for the churches.
o. But we are also warned about WHERE the churches are headed spiritually.
p. II Tim.3:1 – we live in PERILOUS times spiritually.
• Vs. 2 – lovers of their own selves (self esteem craze)
• Vs. 4 – lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God
• Vs. 5 – they have an outward FORM of godliness—but are empty, hollow, and powerless within.
• Don’t expect things to get better and better until Christ comes.
• Expect evil men to wax worse and worse!
q. Rev. 17:5-6 – the Lord will return one day soon to take the true believers home to be with Him!
• But the church “organizations” that men devised will merge into one fully corrupt unity… called the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.
• Notice that this religious system FLOURISHES in the world—she is decked with gold and silver… and riding pretty on the beast.
• We should expect to see more and more success to that which is apostate… but there is no such promise or prediction concerning the true bride of Christ.
• Christendom’s super churches may flourish and prosper in these last days… and it shouldn’t be a surprise… and those who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
7. But we are NOT to be discouraged by these facts.
a. God is still on the throne. I’m encouraged by that fact.
b. His plan for this age is coming to pass… and as scrambled as the spiritual scene appears from our perspective, God is still in perfect control.
c. This age will end as all previous dispensations ended: in failure!
d. And the darker things get spiritually—the CLOSER we are to the return of Christ. It is darkest just before the dawning of a new day!
e. Where sin doth abound, grace doth much MORE abound!
f. The church has a most glorious and blessed hope in the coming of the Lord Jesus (Titus 2:13).
g. As we see the spiritual corruption more and more take over in the churches, it ought to cause us to want to dig our heels in even deeper… and to be watchful and strengthen the things that remain… (Rev. 3:2)
h. And we shouldn’t develop an Elijah complex as if we were the only ones. God has reserved a godly remnant for His name’s sake all over the country and the world.
i. And while we will never be able to return to New Testament times spiritually (because the spiritual environment has changed so much around us)… yet we CAN and MUST do what we can to follow the New Testament pattern of a local church as best we can in the environment in which we live.
j. Acts 2:42 – And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
• How simple—pure—and refreshing!
• No lollapalooza meetings… just ordinary believers gathering to worship… and leaving from their worship to manifest Christ and to tell those who know not Him the gospel of the grace of God.
• I feel pressure from one direction or another every day… to change… to get with it… go with the flow… add something a little more fun and attractive to the church… to get rid of the old hymns of the faith and replace them with the cheap and tawdry pop culture music so popular today… to use a methodology that seems more successful…
• Of course some change can be good—IF the end result is an increase in holiness and reverence… and increase in the knowledge of Christ…
• By God’s grace we intend to continue following the pattern of the New Testament as best we can… in the environment in which we live. The air is polluted but we have to breathe. One cannot possibly avoid being affected by what’s going on around us.
• BUT — we don’t have to bow the knee to it all. By God’s grace we intend to magnify Christ… preach the whole counsel of God… function together as a living organism—not an organization of men… and to go from this place spreading the Word… the good news of the gospel of God’s grace… and working together with churches of LIKE precious faith… who have the same goals and purposes.
• This is becoming increasingly difficult in the age in which we live. PRAY for the leaders here. Pray that God would preserve us and the other churches in our little valley as a godly remnant of those who truly seek to bring glory to God.