The beginning of the Christian Church is reckoned from the great day on which the Holy Ghost came down, according as our Lord had promised to His Apostles. At that time, |Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven,| were gathered together at Jerusalem, to keep the Feast of Pentecost (or Feast of Weeks), which was one of the three holy seasons at which God required His people to appear before Him in the place which He had chosen (Deuteronomy xvi.16). Many of these devout men there converted by what they then saw and heard, to believe the Gospel; and, when they returned to their own countries, they carried back with them the news of the wonderful things which had taken place at Jerusalem. After this, the Apostles went forth |into all the world,| as their Master had ordered them, to |preach the Gospel to every creature| (St Mark xvi.15). The Book of Acts tells us something of what they did, and we may learn something more about it from the Epistles. And, although this be but a small part of the whole, it will give us a notion of the rest, if we consider that, while St. Paul was preaching in Asia Minor, Greece, and at Rome, the other Apostles were busily doing the same work in other countries.
We must remember, too, the constant coming and going which in those days took place throughout the world, how Jews from all quarters went up to keep the Passover and other feasts at Jerusalem; how the great Roman empire stretched from our own island of Britain as far as Persia and Ethiopia, and people from all parts of it were continually going to Rome and returning. We must consider how merchants travelled from country to country on account of their trade; how soldiers were sent into all quarters of the empire and were moved about from one country to another. And from these things we may get some understanding of the way in which the knowledge of the Gospel would be spread, when once it had taken root in the great cities of Jerusalem and Rome. Thus it came to pass, that, by the end of the first hundred years after our Saviour's birth something was known of the Christian faith throughout all the Roman empire, and even in countries beyond it; and if in many cases, only a very little was known, still even that was a gain, and served as a preparation for more.
The last chapter of the Acts leaves St. Paul at Rome, waiting for his trial on account of the things which the Jews had laid to his charge. We find from the Epistles that he afterwards got his liberty, and returned into the East. There is reason to suppose that he also visited Spain, as he had spoken of doing in his Epistle to the Romans (ch. xv.28); and it has been thought by some that he even preached in Britain; but this does not seem likely. He was at last imprisoned again at Rome, where the wicked Emperor Nero persecuted the Christians very cruelly; and it is believed that both St. Peter and St. Paul were put to death there in the year of our Lord 68. The bishops of Rome afterwards set up claims to great power and honour, because they said that St. Peter was the first bishop of their church, and that they were his successors. But although we may reasonably believe that the Apostle was martyred at Rome, there does not appear to be any good ground for thinking that he had been settled there as bishop of the city.
All the Apostles, except St. John, are supposed to have been martyred (or put to death for the sake of the Gospel). St. James the Less, who was bishop of Jerusalem, was killed by the Jews in an uproar, about the year 62. Soon after this, the Romans sent their armies into Judea, and, after a bloody war, they took the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple.
Thirty years after Herod's time another cruel emperor, Domitian, raised a fresh persecution against the Christians (AD 95). Among those who suffered were some of his own near relations; for the Gospel had now made its way among the great people of the earth, as well as among the poor, who were the first to listen to it. There is a story that the emperor was told that some persons of the family of David were living in the Holy Land, and that he sent for them, because he was afraid lest the Jews should set them up as princes, and should rebel against his government. They were two grandchildren of St. Jude, who was one of our Lord's kinsmen after the flesh, and therefore belonged to the house of David and the old kings of Judah. But these two were plain countrymen, who lived quietly and contentedly on their little farm, and were not likely to lead a rebellion, or to claim earthly kingdoms. And when they were carried before the emperor, they showed him their hands, which were rough and horny from working in the fields; and in answer to his questions about the kingdom of Christ, they said that it was not of this world, but spiritual and heavenly, and that it would appear at the end of the world, when the Saviour would come again to judge both the quick and the dead. So the emperor saw that there was nothing to fear from them, and he let them go.
It was during Domitian's persecution that St. John was banished to the island of Patmos, where he saw the visions which are described in his |Revelation.| All the other Apostles had been long dead, and St. John had lived many years at Ephesus, where he governed the churches of the country around. After his return from Patmos he went about to all these churches, that he might repair the hurt which they had suffered in the persecution. In one of the towns which he visited, he noticed a young man of very pleasing looks, and called him forward, and desired the bishop of the place to take care of him. The bishop did so, and, after having properly trained the youth, he baptised and confirmed him. But when this had been done, the bishop thought that he need not watch over him so carefully as before, and the young man fell into vicious company, and went on from bad to worse, until at length he became the head of a band of robbers, who kept the whole country in terror. When the Apostle next visited the town, he asked after the charge which he had put into the bishop's hands. The bishop, with shame and grief, answered that the young man was dead, and, on being further questioned he explained that he meant dead in sins, and told all the story. St John, after having blamed him because he had not taken more care, asked where the robbers were to be found, and set off on horseback for their haunt, where he was seized by some of the band, and was carried before the captain. The young man, on seeing him, knew him at once, and could not bear his look, but ran away to hide himself. But the Apostle called him back, told him that there was yet hope for him through Christ, and spoke in such a moving way that the robber agreed to return to the town. There he was once more received into the Church as a penitent; and he spent the rest of his days in repentance for his sins, and in thankfulness for the mercy which had been shown to him.
St. John, in his old age, was much troubled by false teachers, who had begun to corrupt the Gospel. These persons are called |heretics|, and their doctrines are called |heresy| from a Greek word which means |to choose|, because they chose to follow their own fancies, instead of receiving the Gospel as the Apostles and the Church taught it. Simon the sorcerer, who is mentioned in the eighth chapter of the Acts, is counted as the first heretic, and even in the time of the Apostles a number of others arose, such as Hymenaeus, Philetus, and Alexander, who are mentioned by St. Paul (1 Tim. i.19f; 2 Tim. ii.17f). These earliest heretics were mostly of the kind called Gnostics, -- a word which means that they pretended to be more knowing than ordinary Christians, and perhaps St. Paul may have meant them especially when he warned Timothy against |science| (or knowledge) |falsely so called| (1 Tim. vi.20). Their doctrines were a strange mixture of Jewish and heathen notions with Christianity; and it is curious that some of the very strangest of their opinions have been brought up again from time to time by people who fancied that they had found out something new, while they had only fallen into old errors, which had been condemned by the Church hundreds of years before.
St. John lived to about the age of a hundred. He was at last so weak that he could not walk into the church; so he was carried in, and used to say continually to his people, |Little children, love one another.| Some of them, after a time, began to be tired of hearing this, and asked him why he repeated the words so often, and said nothing else to them. The Apostle answered, |Because it is the Lord's commandment, and if this be done it is enough.|