A Brief Bible History/Section 2/Lesson 14

A Brief Bible History, Section II
J. Gresham Machen
Lesson 14: The Beginnings of the Christian Church


The Beginnings of the Christian Church

The Christian Church is founded on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus; if that fact had not occurred there would be no Church to-day. The disciples of Jesus of Nazareth were evidently far inferior to him in spiritual discernment and in courage. Evidently they could not hope to succeed if he had failed. And with his death what little strength they may have had before was utterly destroyed. In the hour of his trial they had deserted him in cowardly flight. And when he was taken from them by a shameful death, they were in despair. Never did a movement seem to be more hopelessly dead.

But then the surprising thing occurred. Those same weak, discouraged men began, in a few days, in Jerusalem, the very scene of their disgrace, a spiritual movement the like of which the world has never seen. What produced the wonderful change? What was it that transformed those weak, discouraged men into the spiritual conquerors of the world?

The answer of those men themselves was plain. Their despair, they said, gave way to triumphant joy because the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead, and because they were convinced of his resurrection by the empty tomb and by the appearances of Jesus himself. No other real explanation has yet been discovered to account for the sudden transformation of the despair of the disciples into triumphant joy. The very existence of the Christian Church itself, therefore, is the strongest testimony to the resurrection; for without the resurrection the Church could never have come into being.

Acts 1:12-26

After the ascension of Jesus, which was studied in the last lesson, the apostles returned to Jerusalem, and obeyed the command of Jesus by waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But the period of waiting was not a period of idleness; it was spent, on the contrary, in praising God and in prayer. One definite action was taken—the place of Judas, the traitor, who had killed himself in his remorse, was filled by the choice of Matthias. Acts 1:15–26. At that time, certain women and a number of other disciples were gathered together with the apostles, making a total of about one hundred and twenty persons. It was upon that little company of praying disciples, or rather upon the promise of Jesus which had been made to them, that the hope of the world was based.

Acts, Chapter 2

At last, at the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the passover, the promise of Jesus was fulfilled; the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples to fit them for the evangelization of the world. Acts 2:1–13. They were all together in one place; there was a sound as of a rushing, mighty wind; cloven tongues, like tongues of fire, sat upon each one of them; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. When the crowd came together to see the wonderful thing that had happened, Peter preached the first sermon of the Christian Church. Vs. 14–36. At the preaching of Peter three thousand persons were converted; the campaign of world conquest had begun. Vs. 37–42.

The campaign from the beginning was a campaign of witnessing, in accordance with Jesus' command. Acts 1:8. The Christian Church was to conquer the world, not by exhorting men to live a certain kind of life, but by bringing them a piece of news. The Son of God, said the Christian missionaries, died on the cross and then rose again. That was the good news that conquered the world. Christianity from the beginning was a way of life, but it was a way of life founded upon a piece of news, a way of life founded upon historical facts. The meaning of the facts was not revealed all at once, but it was revealed in part from the very beginning, and throughout the Apostolic Age the revelation came in greater and greater fullness, especially through the instrumentality of Paul.

The life of the Early Church in Jerusalem was in some respects like that of the Jews. The disciples continued to observe the Jewish fasts and feasts and were constantly in the Temple. But a new joy animated the company of believers. Their Lord was indeed taken from them for a time, and they did not know when he would return, but meanwhile he was present with them through his Spirit, and already he had saved them from their sins.

Even in external observances the believers were distinguished from the rest of the Jews. Entrance into their company was marked by the sacrament of baptism, which signified the washing away of sin; and their continued fellowship with one another and with the risen Lord found expression in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which commemorated the atoning death of Jesus. There were also common meals. And those who had property devoted it, in a purely voluntary way, to the needs of their poorer brethren. The disciples attended diligently, moreover, to the teaching of the apostles, and engaged constantly in prayer.

Acts, Chapter 3

The preaching of the apostles in Jerusalem was authenticated by miracles. One notable miracle is narrated in detail in the book of The Acts. Ch. 3. As Peter and John were going up into the Temple at the hour of prayer, they healed a lame beggar, who was in the habit of sitting at the gate. The miracle was the means of bringing to the people something better than bodily healing; for when the crowd came together in wonder at the healing of the lame man, Peter proclaimed to them the good news of the salvation which Jesus had wrought.

Acts, Chapter 4

The Sadducees, the ruling class, being incensed at such a proclamation, laid hands upon the two apostles, and brought them before the sanhedrin. Acts 4:1–22. But even when Peter boldly announced to them that the name of that Jesus whom they had put to death was the only name which could bring salvation to men, they were unable to do more than warn the recalcitrant preachers. A notable miracle had been wrought, and they could not deny it. When Peter and John came again to the company of believers, all the company united in a glorious prayer of praise. The answer to the prayer was plainly given. "The place was shaken wherein they were gathered together; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spake the word of God with boldness."


  1. Show how the Christian Church is founded upon the fact of the resurrection.
  2. Describe the choice of Matthias.
  3. Who were gathered together in the "upper room" in Jerusalem?
  4. Describe the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
  5. Was the speaking with other tongues on the Day of Pentecost the same as the gift of tongues described in the First Epistle to the Corinthians? If not, what was the difference?
  6. Why were the Sadducees opposed to the preaching of Peter and John?