Exploring the First Century Church: Instruction & Teaching

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The last post talked about the Bible proper. This post is going to be exploring how the early church went about making instructions and teaching from what they had. As was already mentioned, completed New Testaments took some time to be compiled, copied and circulated as a whole for the churches in the ancient world.


So questions arise like what did the early Christians who only had a copy of Matthew or Galatians do? What about the 20 years between Jesus’ resurrection and the first written documents? What did they know and how did they know it?


One could start by pointing out the things we have that they didn’t as if the early Christians were at a major disadvantage compared to our knowledge today. After all, the New Testament letters and gospels weren’t even completed for several decades after Jesus’ ascension and after that it took them another 200 years to put things together into something in line with the New Testament.


However, I would like to point out that they had several things that we don’t have today:

  1. Oral tradition: The collected stories recorded in the four Gospels were probably not all the stories they had of Jesus. The Gospel writers had to be selective and before the recorded it on paper the stories were certainly being circulated by oral tradition. The early Christians, I would assume especially the early Jewish Christians around Judea, Galilee and Jerusalem knew more of the Jesus story than we do (maybe even some Samaritans around Sychar or some Gentiles in the Decapolis had heard a little something about Jesus!). Remember, Luke got his account by finding witnesses and gathering information. What did he leave out? What did he not write down? You can be sure he heard more than we received in his Gospel account.
  2. Inspired apostolic teaching: The apostles spent their time teaching. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” In Acts 6 when the seven were chosen to help feed the widows, here is how that decision was explained, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’” (6:2-4). Peter considered Paul’s writings to be inspired (2 Peter 3:16). Paul knew that what he taught to the early Christians he had first received from Christ (1 Cor 15:3). As the apostles traveled and taught I am sure those congregations got more than we currently have in the epistles. If Paul stayed with you for two years and you heard him teach on a regular basis (even daily?) I think you would get what you needed!
  3. Letters that we have not yet discovered: There are letters mentioned in the New Testament that have never been discovered. The most easily recognizable example is the letter to the Laodiceans (Col 4:16). Paul also mentions a previous letter to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 5:9 that we do not have. It is entirely possible that someday we find other letters from Paul. The question would be what to do with them if that ever happens.
  4. The gift of prophesy: The early church possessed spiritual gifts that helped inform and instruct the church including prophesy and speaking in tongues. Prophets are mentioned in Acts and Paul’s letters:
    1. Prophets that came down from Jerusalem, including Agabus, who warned of a famine – Acts 11:27-30, Acts 21:10
    2. Paul and Barnabas are selected and sent on a missionary journey by a group of prophets and teachers who heard from the Holy Spirit – Acts 13:1ff
    3. When the letter is sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to help settle the Gentile convert controversy they sent the letter to Antioch with Silas and Judas who were prophets. They were sent to encourage the Christians there and share the letter with them.
    4. Philip, one of the seven chosen back in Acts 6, had four daughters who were prophets.
    5. The Corinthian church had members who had the gift of prophesy as it is regulated for both men and women in 1 Cor 11:1-12 and chapter 14


So the early church had a message from God through his apostles, prophets, scriptures (particularly the Old Testament – 2 Tim 3:16 and whatever gospels or letters they had copies of locally – see 1 Thes 5:27), and oral tradition that was also attested to them by miracles and other gifts of the spirit (healing, raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc). They were not at any disadvantage at all for not being able to piece things together across the New Testament to develop some sort of comprehensive doctrine. In fact, I would say they had every advantage. How much could we iron out today if we had just an hour with Paul?


Singing as instruction/teaching:
Instruction also came through singing. Ephesians 5:15-20 has traditionally been a passage about worship but it is equally a passage about instruction. Paul says that if you want to know God’s will, don’t fill yourselves with wine but instead fill yourselves with the Spirit…”speaking to one another…” (5:19). There is instruction that goes on when we sing. These verses demonstrate that they used the scriptures for song, particularly the psalms.


The same is true in our other most frequently used verse on singing, Colossians 3:16. If you turn to these verses to find singing you may miss the primary message is not about singing but about instruction, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.


Their singing was instruction. That means their singing had a horizontal (person to person – intercongregational) purpose. We typically thinking of singing as worship to God (vertical) but the verses we do have also encourage us to teach each other through song.


Lord’s Supper as instruction/teaching:
The Lord’s Supper also provided a time of instruction in the early church. I am not going to get into that as much now but will cover it later on a post or two on the Lord’s supper in the early church.


Formal teachers & informal teachers:
There were certainly people who had a more formal teaching role than others. In 1 Corinthians 14 (especially verse 26), we get a very communal teaching setting where each person has a part to play in the service, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” However, we also see in other verses that there were some people who were designated as people gifted by God to teach (1 Cor 12:29 & Eph 4:11). So it seems that there were official, gifted, teachers but then also a responsibility on the part of Christians at large to encourage each other with scripture, sing together (even singing scripture) to instruct each other and use their gifts (speaking in tongues, prophesy, etc) in a way that informed the others in the congregation. We also see in the qualifications of elders that they had to be able to teach (1 Tim 3:2) and certainly did so in the early church.


Public scripture reading:
Paul charged Timothy to teach and to read the scriptures publicly,

“Command and teach these things. 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” (1 Tim 4:11-14)


That also tells us that the scriptures were read publicly in the churches. The scriptures mostly in play here are the Old Testament scriptures, particularly the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) that Paul quoted from and used in his work. The synagogue also had the reading of scripture and it is entirely possible that that practice bled over into the early church gatherings. This would certainly be the case when Paul’s letters arrived and were circulated but would also be true of reading the Greek Old Testament to the congregation.


What about the sermon & the preacher?
The early church did not come together (assembly) for the main purpose of hearing a sermon. The gathering was centered on a meal, the Lord’s Supper, and instruction and worship happened around that context. There are times Paul and others delivered more length periods of instruction (like Acts 20 where Paul preaches for a very lengthy period of time) but we don’t find it in the quite the structured, predictable format that we find in most churches today or someone designated for the role on a permanent basis for a particular congregation. For instance, it is common to see that they met together to pray or break bread (eat/Lord’s supper) but we don’t get verses that have them gathering on a Sunday for the sole purpose of the sermon. Teaching obviously happened but it seems to have at times been more spontaneous and participatory (1 Cor 14).


I would like to make one last point that I think we can learn much from for ministry today. One of the things that is interesting about the early church and the apostolic ministry of people like Paul was that they had two different types of teachings. They had their public outreach, when they would go to a synagogue and teach/proclaim to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles the good news about Jesus. Then there were times of instruction to those who were already disciples (done in the semi-private house church setting). The two probably didn’t sound very similar. Talking to outsiders were more apologetic, a defense of Jesus as the Messiah raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Talking to insiders would have a different function – building up the body, instructing them in discipleship, encouraging them, remembering Jesus, etc. Today, our message is almost 100% geared to and spoken to insiders rather than outsiders. I believe they weren’t as imbalanced in that then as we are today. We miss something for not doing more to imitate that component of the early church’s mission and message.

One Response

  1. “How much could we iron out today if we had just an hour with Paul?”

    Why do I have this feeling that Paul would be run off or stoned for his answers?

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