In A.D.58, Claudius Lysias, a Roman tribune serving in Jerusalem, was forced to intervene with a detachment of troops to save a local man from being savagely beaten by an enraged mob. It was difficult to find out what the man had done to incite the crowd; he had been dragged out of the Temple and was being set upon when Lysias arrived on the scene with his cohort of soldiers.
The Roman tribune tried hard to get to the bottom of things, but some excitedly claimed one thing about the real cause of the ruckus, others something else. Jewish religious quarrels were incomprehensible. The rescued man’s own attempts to explain himself under the protection of the Roman soldiers only succeeded in stirring up the crowd further.
Lysias thought of having the man examined by the grim Roman custom of scourging in order to make him confess the truth about why he was being attacked by his fellow Jews, but the Roman tribune drew back and had him imprisoned instead when he learned that the man, who described himself as being from Tarsus in Cilicia (modern southern Turkey), was a Roman citizen.
This man from Tarsus whom the Roman soldiers had rescued from being beaten, perhaps to death, was destined to remain in a Palestinian prison for the next two years. Who he was and what he was doing would subsequently be brought out in several appearances before the Jewish Council, before two different Roman governors, and, finally, before King Herod Agrippa II, scion of the Herod family, who at that time ruled a portion of the Palestinian coast on sufferance from the Romans.
A spokesman for the Jewish high priest and the Jewish Council summarized their case against the prisoner to the Roman governor Felix: “We have found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the Temple . . .” (Acts 24:5-6).
A subsequent Roman governor, Festus, described the man’s case somewhat differently to King Agrippa: “When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed; but they had certain points of dispute with him about their own superstition and about one Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:18-19).
King Agrippa expressed the wish to see and hear this Paul (such was the prisoner’s name; it had originally been Saul), and Festus was happy to arrange a meeting at which Paul could explain himself. In speaking before the king, Paul referred to what he claimed was common knowledge in Jerusalem at that time. He said that he had always lived as a Pharisee, the strictest of the Jewish groups or parties. His crime in the eyes of his fellow Jews, he went on, was nothing else but “hope in the promise made by God to your fathers . . . Why is it thought incredible by any of you,” Paul addressed himself rhetorically to King Agrippa himself, “that God raises from the dead?” (Acts 26:6, 8).
The Pharisees, after all, believed in resurrection as an article of faith, so why not in an actual instance of it in the case of this Jesus of Nazareth, about whom the Jews had been disputing? The prisoner himself, it turned out, had not always viewed the matter in precisely this light. He freely admitted how zealous he had once been in persecuting the followers of Jesus: “I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them . . . in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:10-11).
Then Paul provided to Agrippa a description of how he himself had been changed and had come to believe in Jesus. It is still the world’s greatest conversion story, the prototype of them all. It is also one of the world’s greatest love stories—how one man’s implacable hatred became transformed into burning, life-long, self-sacrificing love. The same story is told three different times in the New Testament. Paul also referred to it from time to time in the letters he later wrote to the churches he founded. But this is how he told the story when he appeared before King Agrippa, some thirty years after the event he was recounting took place:
“Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness . . . that [people] may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me'” (Acts 26:12-18).
It was going to be a tall order: turning people from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the power of God, dispensing forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus, establishing a place among those sanctified by Jesus. Who could even imagine doing such things? None of it was the sort of thing you could simply pick up on and start doing on your own.
The reaction of the Roman governor Festus was predictable, and it was certainly contemptuous—just as the reaction of many a modern reader might be. Festus cried out, “Paul, you are mad! Your great learning is turning you mad” (Acts 26:24).
But Paul rejoined boldly, “The king knows about these things,” he declared, turning to Agrippa. “I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe!”
“In a short time, you think to make me a Christian,” the king retorted, evidently with some nervousness.
“Whether short or long,” Paul replied earnestly, “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (Acts 26:26-29).
Paul’s Good News
For the first generation of Christians in Jerusalem, then, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were “not done in a corner.” It was a well-known fact that people up to and including the Herodian king were being challenged by the apostles to face up to.
Paul knew very well what he thought about it: Quite simply, he wanted to make all who would listen to him become what he had become; he wanted them to become believers in sanctification and salvation in Jesus Christ, the one who had originally caused such a stir in Jerusalem and then, after his Resurrection from the dead as reported by the apostles as his witnesses, had eventually singled out Paul himself and appeared to him in a vision.
Paul had been actively promoting faith in this Jesus for several years prior to his arrest in Jerusalem. He had traveled throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world with his message—through what is today Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Greece, including the Greek islands. Many people were persuaded by his message and were converted. He organized these new believers into small assemblies or communities—”churches”—everywhere he went. The letters he later came to write to many of these same churches were destined to form an important part of what would eventually be called the New Testament, and they continue to be read in churches to this day. They constitute some of the best sources we have for our knowledge of Jesus Christ and of the beginnings of Christianity.
Paul himself was no stranger to persecution, prisons, or appearing as the accused before judges. He had to flee Damascus itself not long after his conversion (Acts 9:23-25). He was variously “stoned” (Acts 14:19) and at least three times “beaten with rods” (2 Cor. 11:25). He wrote of “far more imprisonments” (2Cor. 11:23), and we know that he was on trial before Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17) as he was also imprisoned in Philippi in northeastern Greece (Acts 16:23-39), just as he was imprisoned at Ephesus on the Aegean Sea in what is today Turkey (2 Cor. 1:8-11).
Shortly after Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa in Jerusalem, he was sent, still a prisoner, to Rome. As a Roman citizen he had appealed to Caesar and hence was sent to Caesar to be judged. He was to be confined within still other prison walls in Rome, and, according to tradition, finally lost his head there as a martyr to Jesus Christ in the Neronian persecutions that took place around A.D. 64.
What was the message which Paul had preached so effectively, so fervently, and for so long by the time he got to Rome? This is how he recounted it in the first sermon of his that is preserved in the Acts of the Apostles, a sermon he preached in the city of Antioch:
“Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen. . . . God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised . . . [T]o us has been sent the message of salvation. Those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled those utterances by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem—who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus” (Acts 13:16, 23, 27-33).
What Paul preached was the “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ, whom God had raised, signifying victory over human sin and death. “Salvation” was the essence of the message Paul preached (though he went on to specify considerably more than just “salvation”). That God had sent Christ into the world to raise us up and save us was the incredible “good news” that never allowed Paul to rest until he had proclaimed it to everybody he could reach.
Our English word “gospel” was originally derived from the Greek word meaning “good news.” The four Gospels of the New Testament are nothing else but four distinct but similar extended accounts of the words and acts of Jesus which constituted this “good news.”
Even today Christian faith is nothing else at bottom but belief in that “good news.” It has been reflected upon and elaborated and enriched over the course of two thousand years, but it remains the same faith Jesus personally asked of those who heard him in the flesh. The end result of his message was not just that we could have a better world by doing good, but that sin and death can be overcome in us, just as they were in him (and if sin can be overcome in us, we are going to be able and highly motivated to do good as well).
The difficult question was what it continues to be today: How can anyone really believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Jesus literally had to knock Paul down (like the farmer who had to take after his donkey with a two-by-four in order to get the latter’s “attention”) and then come before him in a vision with explicit instructions before Paul could believe. So how could anyone believe simply on Paul’s say-so, then or now?
Paul thought people could be brought to belief by the preaching of those who had been witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. “Faith comes from what is heard,” Paul confidently declared (Rom. 1 0:7). He was not only successful in his preaching, but he was prepared to go to great lengths to prove his point. Millions of people manifestly have been convinced by the preaching of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ since that day. But is that all? Is that enough?
No Lone Ranger
There is more—quite a bit more, in fact. When Paul left off persecuting the disciples of Jesus at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus and actually joined them instead, he became an active member of an already existing body of believers in Christ. In view of his evident abilities and the fact that he had, after all, a special call from Christ, he was surely not going to play an inconspicuous role within the infant society he entered.
He was a man of high destiny virtually from the moment of his conversion. Nevertheless, it is made clear in the New Testament that Paul was never merely an independent operator or some kind of “lone ranger.” At the time of the vision, Jesus instructed Paul quite unmistakably: “You will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:6).
When Paul assumed a prominent leadership role in the early Church, it was only after he had been commissioned to do so by the Church leaders already in place: “After fasting and praying, they laid their hands upon them”—upon Paul and upon his first missionary companion, Barnabas—”and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
Eventually, perhaps even quite soon, Paul was able to claim the title of “apostle,” a word taken from the Greek meaning one “sent out” as a messenger. Even though Paul had been selected by Jesus himself, the testimony of the New Testament is clear that he was actually “sent out” by the early Church.
During his lifetime Jesus had “sent out” twelve such apostles, the number selected at that point no doubt intended to represent symbolically the twelve tribes of Israel: “He called the twelve together and gave them power and authority . . . and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:1-2). After the Resurrection, Jesus sent the apostles out on an even more improbable mission: “Go . . . 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 to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The original apostles had been the followers of Jesus during his earthly life. After his death and Resurrection they remained together as witnesses to his Resurrection (Acts 1:22). Even though their number was not going to be limited to twelve—as is proved by the fact that Paul also became an apostle, as did others—the original group found it necessary to choose by lot a successor to Judas, the one of the twelve who had betrayed Jesus and turned him over to his executioners. Other followers of Jesus, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, formed a small community gathered around the apostles and devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14).
The apostles were the leaders of this community of the followers of Jesus. They were the leaders of it by virtue of the special relationship they had had with Jesus and by virtue of specific appointment by him. One of them, the apostle Peter, again by the choice of Jesus, was the leader of the other apostles and hence of the whole community. While he was still with them, Jesus had instructed them exhaustively, according to the testimony of the four Gospels—but to no particular purpose, it seemed immediately after his death, and even, for a while, after his post-Resurrection appearances to them.
Then something extraordinary happened. The apostles, with the whole community gathered around them, became changed, transformed, empowered. Jesus had taught them that God would send them in his name a “counselor, the Holy Spirit,” who would “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
It is a good thing that Jesus did not depart from this world without making some such provision for carrying on his words and his work. His chosen followers had not shown themselves to be zealous or even reliable at the time of his arrest and crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark records that “they all forsook him and fled” (Mark 14:50). The outlook for the long-term survival of his teachings and his community was not bright unless something was intended to happen to galvanize the members of his group who were familiar with his life and teachings.
Something did happen: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). Extraordinary things accompanied this coming of the Holy Spirit to the assembled followers of Jesus: “They began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Such phenomena were no doubt an entirely appropriate way to signal what was, after all, an absolutely unique occurrence: the conferral of the Holy Spirit individually and collectively upon a conscious, organized body of believing worshipers. Some outside observers, though, thought these first Christians were simply drunk.
These phenomena were far from being the most significant things about this first Christian Pentecost. The most significant thing was that the Spirit of God had come to dwell in a special way in the community of his followers that Jesus had left behind him.
With the coming of the Spirit, the apostles, the leaders of the small assembly, suddenly became effective witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus and of the graces which would henceforth flow as a result of it. They began to preach with utter conviction and to bear witness to the point—in the case of at least most of them, as tradition holds—of giving up their very lives. What they began then has not ceased; it is still going on.
Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them. “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day” (Acts 2:14).
What were the words which Peter thought it was so important for everybody to give ear to and hear? They were almost exactly the same words we have already seen Paul using when he appeared over twenty years later before King Agrippa II in Jerusalem. The preaching of the apostles was nothing if not consistent.
On the day of Pentecost Peter described Jesus as “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs . . . crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. … This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:14-15, 22-23, 32-33).
As a result of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and following the apostolic preaching about the death and Resurrection of Jesus, “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Moreover, “the Lord added to their number, day by day, those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church, since it was upon the believers in Jesus assembled in prayer that the Holy Spirit originally came down. What further careful examination of the New Testament evidence reveals is that the Church upon which the Holy Spirit originally descended in Jerusalem was the same Church we attend today—the Church which, each Sunday in reciting the Creed, we profess to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ the Savior.
To Be Is to Do
It was Jesus Christ in person who called the apostles to be the leaders of his infant Church, the organized assembly or community of his followers. It was Jesus who sent them out to preach his gospel, the “good news” of the sanctification and salvation available in him.
Once the Holy Spirit had descended upon the infant Church at Pentecost, the preaching of the apostles quickly proved remarkably effective. Few who heard it remained indifferent; it demanded some kind of response by its very nature, and many responded positively. More than once, evidently, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The result was belief in the saving message of Jesus and active commitment to his cause, which, from the beginning, always entailed becoming a member of his Church.
Those who heard Peter’s first preaching, for example, “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter, and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?'” (Acts 2:37). Although Jesus had always asked for faith in himself, he had never been content with a merely passive acquiescence in his teachings. He had always had words of high praise for “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). Jesus did not teach any merely speculative philosophy; the truth he claimed to bring from God was supposed to affect one’s whole life. What one did after accepting his word was one of the essential tests of whether one really believed. This is a fundamental fact about Christianity which has always distinguished it from other philosophies of life and, indeed, from most other religions.
At the very beginning of the life of the Church, we find that those who heard the word were immediately anxious about what they should do. Peter said to them: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Just as the Holy Spirit had come down upon the whole Church, and each member of it individually, at Pentecost, so the Spirit was to come to each new believer added to his Church.
From the beginning, becoming a Christian required a conversion, or change of heart, a turning away from wrongdoing and preoccupation with self (“Repent!”). It required participation in a communal sacred act carried out by those who were already members of the community of the followers of Jesus (“Be baptized!”). The “forgiveness of sins” which Peter had also spoken of, by the way, was a consequence of the baptism which had to be undergone. The Holy Spirit entered the soul of the new Christian as a consequence of the rite of baptism enjoined by Jesus; it was through this baptism that he became a member of the Church.
What were the consequences and benefits of incorporation into the already-existing Church of Christ? These first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We should take careful note of this brief description of the activities of the early Christians. We can deduce from it that those Christians who first adopted the faith of Jesus Christ under the headship of Peter and the other apostles subscribed to a specific doctrine about what they must believe and do in order to be saved (“the apostles’ teaching”); belonged to a definite, organized community (“the Church”), which was precisely the one led by the same apostles (“the apostles’ . . . fellowship”); and participated in a sacred rite which included a meal that was regularly enacted (“the breaking of the bread”).
The sacred rite celebrated by the early Church was believed to be one of the special ways in which Jesus continued to remain substantially present in the Church which he had founded. Had h e not taught the disciples that “the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51)? The sacred rite celebrated by his Church from the beginning, the Eucharist (or, as it has more popularly been called in the West for many centuries, the Mass), was believed to consist in the sacramental confecting, offering, and consuming of Christ’s own flesh and blood. The organized worship carried out in the Church from day one (what Peter in Acts called “the prayers”) therefore included the substance of what today we call “the Mass.”
One of the most remarkable things recorded in the Acts of the Apostles concerns what happened to those who responded to the call issued by Peter, underwent baptism, had their sins forgiven, received the Holy Spirit, were thereby incorporated into the Church, and then partook of the consecrated bread that was really the promised flesh of Christ himself. What happened is that they became changed, just as the apostles themselves had become changed at Pentecost: They no longer acted or reacted entirely as human nature would have led one to expect.
For one thing, they distributed their goods “as any had need” (Acts 4:32); for another, “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Their new ideal of conduct was no longer that of mere human nature, but was based upon the words and example of none other than their risen Lord, who had taught them that “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The Lord himself had been known for “going about doing good” (Acts 10:38), and so the test and proof of authentic Christianity was henceforth to be nothing else but “going about doing good” themselves.
It is, of course, true that history has recorded many instances since apostolic times when the professed followers of Christ have failed to do the good they should have done; there have been many instances of their doing the contrary. Christians do not always respond as they should to the graces that are available to them through the Church; with free will and under the effects of original sin which still remain with them, Christians are often untrue to the promises of their baptism. Nevertheless, what the apostles set in motion through an organized institution, the Church, has abundantly resulted in “doing good”—good that would almost certainly not have been done if Jesus Christ had never come into the world or had not left disciples behind him to perpetuate his words and his works and to lead still others to discipleship. This is the legacy not only of the saints, it is the legacy also of the numberless Christians in every age who, with the graces given to them, have tried to be better themselves while “doing good.”
“Unless You Eat . . .”
What kind of thing is it, concretely, the actions of which are outlined so clearly in the Acts of the Apostles and from which we have taken only a few of the more salient and dramatic points? What kind of thing is it that the apostles of Jesus set in motion as an organized institution that has lasted until now? What we can discern is nothing less than the coming to life of the Church. What Jesus left behind him to carry on with his work and his words was no abstract scheme, outline, plan, or book as such, but an organized community of believers. Jesus wrote down nothing, except with his finger on the ground when the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to him to judge (John 8:6).
It is one of the strangest paradoxes in history that some of the sincere followers of Jesus have imagined that he is chiefly to be encountered in a book. Even though the book in question, the New Testament, is inspired, and even though Jesus is indeed to be encountered there, where his words and deeds are recorded for all time, the New Testament is nevertheless not the only place Jesus is to be encountered. Far from it.
We shoul d not forget that the New Testament was not always written by direct disciples, but in some cases by their disciples; it was handed on. What was written down has been similarly handed on in the Church. Jesus committed his teaching to living men, who handed it on to other living men—not merely to the pages of a book. Even the great apostle Paul, chosen by Jesus for the special mission of carrying the faith to the gentiles and the recipient and beneficiary of a special revelation from the risen Jesus, even Paul wrote that he “delivered … what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:3), that is, what he received from the living tradition of the Church.
It is true that Jesus sent his Spirit to Paul and to the other New Testament writers in a special way in order to insure that they would, in fact, “deliver” his message accurately. That is what we mean by the inspiration of the New Testament. Its books constitute an inspired record of what Jesus said and did among us, but this is primarily because they are the record of what the living Church continued to teach and preach about him after he ascended into heaven. The Church already existed and was operating before the books of the New Testament were written down.
One of the reasons Jesus committed his message to a living Church in the way that he did is that he also committed other essential things to that same Church. We see that the first Christians were involved in carrying out rites and actions in addition to hearing the words of the apostles’ teaching. These rites or actions, later to be called the sacraments (another ancient name for them was “the mysteries“), could be passed only from one living person to another; they could never be gotten out of the pages of the New Testament, no matter how inspired and holy that book in fact is.
In addition to demanding adherence to his words of life Jesus also said that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Thus necessarily there had to be a living Church to dispense this flesh and blood of Jesus which, he said, had to be eaten; otherwise sharing in his divine life in this way would have been impossible of fulfillment. So it was that Jesus, in addition to committing his saving message into the hands of his chosen apostles, gave them the power to carry out sacred actions instituted by him which he indissolubly linked to the sanctification and salvation that he had come into the world to bring.
Jesus not only commanded the apostles to “teach all nations” he also commanded them to “baptize them” (Matt. 28:19-20) and to “do this [the Eucharist] in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). To put it another way, Jesus founded not only a Church of the word, but a Church of the sacraments as well.
What was the essential nature of this Church? It was the “assembly” (Greek, ekklesia), or community, of those “called out” to be his followers. Paul habitually employed the word “Church” to designate the entire body of Christians, and he explicitly called this collectivity nothing else but “the body of Christ” itself: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
This Church was not merely a voluntary association of like-minded people who had come to accept the message of Jesus. It functioned under hierarchical leaders who had been appointed by Jesus himself and had been given sacred powers and authority by him. Jesus transmitted the Spirit to the apostles in a special way (apart from Pentecost), and, along with the Spirit, there came special powers: “He breathed on them and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven'” (John 20:22-23). The apostles exercised these powers in dramatic ways. We read that when Paul laid his hands upon some converts at Ephesus in Asia Minor, “the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6). Indeed, more than once it was recorded that “they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).
Along with the regular powers that they had received, the apostles occasionally made use of even more extraordinary gifts. Peter cured a man crippled from birth by invoking the name of Jesus (Acts 3:1-9). So great did the prestige of the head apostle become that people put their sick out where Peter would pass by so that his shadow might fall on them and cure them (Acts 5:15). He even raised a woman from the dead (Acts 9:36-43).
Paul did the same thing at Troas, bringing back to life a young man who had fallen from a third-story window (Acts 20:7-10). “God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them” (Acts 19:11-12). Just as Jesus had done miracles to elicit faith and to demonstrate that he manifested God’s power, so the apostles were able to perform miracles to demonstrate the powers that Jesus had committed into their hands.
When the apostles assembled at the Council of Jerusalem in A.D.49 and made the momentous decision that Christians were to be exempted from the ritual Mosaic Law that had bound the Jews, they represented their decision as one equivalent to the working of the Holy Spirit: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden” (Acts 15:28).
What is clear from all of this is that, already in New Testament times, the Church was consciously carrying out a definite mission as a formed and organized body, a community of believers in Jesus Christ possessing the Holy Spirit and living under appointed leaders dispensing both word and sacrament with an authority which they understood they had derived from Christ and which they also unhesitatingly understood that they could pass on to others (“They laid their hands on them and sent them off”).
There was nothing vague or ill-defined about what kind of organized, visible, hierarchical community the early Church was from the very beginning. After they had been commissioned by the Church, for example, Paul and Barnabas in their turn ordained presbyters in every Church they established in Galatia (Acts 14:22).
No doubt this primitive Church did not resemble in every particular of its organization, life, and practice the complex, developed, worldwide organization that is the Catholic Church today, but the New Testament shows that apparent differences involve appearances only—just as the face of an old man differs from the face he had as a child at the same time as it resembles it in essentials and is recognizable as the same face.
Four Marks of the Church
We can show how the Church of the apostles resembles in all essentials the Church of today by showing how the early Church already bore the marks, or “notes,” of the true Church of Christ which are still professed today in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed declares the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
Thus, the Church of the apostles was definitely one: “There is one body and one spirit,” Paul wrote, “just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:4-5). Paul linked this primitive unity to the Church’s common Eucharistic bread: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Jesus had promised at the outset that “there would be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
Similarly, the Church of the apostles was holy. When we say that, we mean among other things that it had the all-holy God himself as author. We do not mean that all of its members have ceased to be sinners and have themselves become all-holy. On the contrary, the Church from the beginning, on her human side, has been co mposed of sinners: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The Church was founded for no other reason than to continue Christ’s redemptive and sanctifying work with them in the world.
One of the things implicit in the appellation “holy” as applied to the Church, then, is that the Church from the beginning has been endowed with the sacramental means to help make holy the sinners who are found in her ranks. The Church has been given the sacraments along with the word precisely in order to be able to help make sinners holy.
It was in this sense that Paul was able to write, “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). The holiness of the Church, of which the creed properly speaks, has always had reference to her divine Founder and to what the Church was founded by him with the power and authority to do, not with the condition of her members.
The third great historic mark or note of the one true Church was that this Church was Catholic. “Catholic” means “universal.” It refers as much to the fullness of the faith which it possesses as it does to the undeniable extension in both time and space which has characterized it virtually from the beginning. At the very beginning, of course, it was no doubt difficult to see how the “little flock” (Luke 12:32) of which the Church then consisted could by any stretch of the imagination qualify as “universal.” Still, just as the embryo contains in germ the whole human being, so the Church already contained the universality that would quickly begin to manifest itself.
It is not without significance that the Holy Spirit came down upon the Church at Pentecost at a time when “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). It was to them that the Holy Spirit temporarily enabled the apostles to speak in the languages of all these various nations—a powerful sign that the Church was destined for all men everywhere, represented at that first Pentecost in Jerusalem by those of many nations who had come there from afar. Many accepted the faith then and there and presumably began forthwith carrying “the Catholic Church” back to the four corners of the earth.
The Catholicity of the Church in any case resides as much in the fact that the Church is for everybody at all times as it does in the fact that it was indeed destined to spread everywhere throughout the whole world. Within a few years of the foundation of the Church, Paul was writing that “the word of truth . . . in the whole world . . . is bearing fruit and growing” (Col. 1:5-6).
Finally, the Church that issued from the commission of Christ to the apostles was necessarily apostolic. Christ founded the Church upon the apostles and in no other way: “Did I not choose you, the twelve?” he asked them (John 6:70). The apostles of all people understood perfectly well that they did not set themselves up in their own little community, as we sometimes today see “gospel churches” set up in store fronts or in the suburbs. The New Testament teaches, “One does not take the honor upon himself” (Heb. 5:4).
Nothing is clearer, then, that the Church started out as “apostolic.” The question is whether the apostles had the power and authority to pass on to others what they had received from Christ. We have already seen that they very definitely did have this power and authority; the New Testament evidence is clear about that. The subsequent historical evidence is equally clear that they did pass it on to successors (the bishops). Indeed there are already references in the New Testament itself to the appointment of bishops by the apostles, as well as to the appointment of further bishops by them (Titus 1:5-9).
When we ask where, if anywhere, is to be found the same Church which the New Testament tells us Christ founded, we have to reformulate the question to ask: What Church, if any, descends in an unbroken line from the apostles of Jesus Christ (and also, not incidentally, possesses the other essential notes of the true Church of which the creed speaks)? Further, to introduce a point we have not dwelt upon at all up to now, What Church, if any, is headed by a single recognized designated leader, just as the apostles of Jesus plainly functioned, on the evidence of the New Testament, under the headship of Peter?
To ask these questions is to answer them: Any entity or body claiming to be the Church of Christ would have to be able to demonstrate its apostolicity by demonstrating an organic link with the original apostles on whom Christ manifestly established his Church. Nothing less than this could qualify as the “apostolic” Church which Jesus founded.
As much for our instruction as for the assurance he intended to give to the apostles to whom he was actually speaking, Jesus said, “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16). Do we take these words seriously today? Do we listen to the teachings of the successors of the apostles of Jesus, the bishops, in union with and under the successor of the apostle Peter, the pope, as if these teachings were the words of Christ himself?
If we do, we are properly members of the Church which Jesus Christ founded on the apostles and which has come down to us from them. If we do not, how can we pretend that we take anything seriously that Christ said and taught?
He said nothing more solemnly and categorically than these words, in which he declared that the apostles and their successors would speak for him in the serious business of gathering in and sanctifying his people and leading them toward the salvation he offers. Jesus intended that the fullness of his grace should come to his people in a Church that, from the beginning, was what the creed still calls it today: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.