Contending Churches

Toward the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He cleansed the temple and reminded the leaders of the church, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). We can remember that at the beginning of His earthly ministry, Christ had done a similar work, “… Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (John 2:16). Notice carefully that in both instances Jesus used the possessive pronoun “My,” “My house,” “My Father’s house.”

However, in the closing days of His ministry Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He no longer said that the Jewish Church was His or His Father’s house but instead that it was the house of the Jews and their leaders! “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37, 38). Why was this so? What had happened?

“Israel as a nation had divorced herself from God. The natural branches of the olive tree were broken off.Hitherto He had called the temple ‘My house’ or ‘My Father’s house,’ but now, as the Son of God should pass out from those walls, God’s presence would be withdrawn forever from the temple built to His glory. Henceforth its ceremonies would be meaningless, its services a mockery.” The Desire of Ages, 620.

Consequently, Jesus established His off-shoot church, the Christian church, the Apostolic church, the Early church. The servant of the Lord wrote the following: “The Jewish leaders thought themselves too wise to need instruction, too righteous to need salvation, too highly honored to need the honor that comes from Christ. The Saviour turned from them to entrust to others the privileges they had abused and the work they had slighted. God’s glory must be revealed, His word established. Christ’s kingdom must be set up in the world. The salvation of God must be made known in the cities of the wilderness; and the disciples were called to do the work that the Jewish leaders had failed to do.” The Acts of the Apostles, 16.

Yet, in spite of the fact that Jesus separated Himself from the then established church and organized His self-supporting church, this action did not abate the wrath of the priests and rulers of Judaism. They did everything in their power to destroy this new church.

That which the Hebrew people were taught, which they had forgotten and failed to practice, was displayed in the life of Jesus while He was among them. His life and teachings formed the bedrock of His new off-shoot church and yet it was not really new.

“In His wandering throughout the country, He urged the people to mend their manner of life. In the spirit of the ancient prophets of Israel, He inveighed (protested) against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the stranglehold which formalism seemed in His eyes to be establishing on religion. He taught the fatherhood of God and human brotherhood, the infinite capacity of repentance to secure forgiveness of sin, the possibility of holiness even for the humblest and least learned, the certainty of life everlasting for those whose faith was complete and unquestioning, the equality of the powerful and lowly before the Divine throne.” History of the Jewish People, Cecil Roth, 142.

The author further states, “When He perished upon the cross, it was to be imagined that His influence would die with Him, as was the case with so many of His contemporaries.” Ibid.

 But the resurrection morning made all the difference for His followers. It validated the reality of His new church. Judaism as God’s true church had faded away in the distant past, and confirmed that there is no other name given among men whereby sinners must be saved but by the name of the risen Lord!

We see that, from its inception, the larger population of Christ’s self-supporting Christian church, was predominantly Jewish. Hence Jewish teachings dominated the Jesus movement. While the term, “Jewish Christianity” carries other meanings, the more significant definition refers to the earliest levels of the Christian church, where Christians were those who had been born Jews but had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah/Christ.

Notice carefully that in order for these Jews to receive salvation they had to separate themselves from apostate Judaism, which had been left desolate, and join the new movement. This church was not an entirely new religion but a reshaping of the old Jewish religious system.

The famous historian Augustus Neander wrote, “Christianity was the new creation which had its germ in Judaism. In common with Judaism, it possessed not only the character of a revealed religion, as opposed to the religion of nature in heathenism, but also the basis of a theocracy, and yet it was something entirely new. It was in short a principle which aimed at the transformation of all that existed. The least among those who shared in this new creation was to be greater than the greatest among the prophets. It was at once the dissolution and fulfillment of Judaism. … It would be requisite to see how, while Judaism was to meet with its fulfillment in Christianity, at the same time the distinct religious principle which Judaism had till now maintained was to be dissolved. Christianity must be rightly understood, both in its close connection with the preparatory elements of Judaism, and also in its opposition to the same.” Neander’s Church History, vol. 1, 469, 470.

Because there were two contending church groups, each saying that they were the True Church, the great struggle for many New Testament Jews was to decide which group was in truth God’s church. Yet, it should not have been that difficult to decide, because one group was a fully established, well-recognized church system while the other was just an up-start. In the minds of both the leaders and the people of Judaism, the Jewish church was the “true church” of God and nothing would ever change that fact! The question that they had to answer was, What do we do about this “off-shoot” group? We will annihilate it!

Yet, within the sphere of this new church there were plans for great expansion. Jesus was working silently to help those who were truly sincere to identify His church and decide accordingly. In the providence of God, a Jewish tent-maker named Saul of Tarsus was selected, chosen for this great work of further laying deep the roots of Christianity in the then known world.

Ellen White wrote concerning Saul, “Saul of Tarsus was a Jew, not only by descent, but by the stronger ties of lifelong training, patriotic devotion, and religious faith. Though a Roman citizen, born in a Gentile city, he was educated in Jerusalem by the most eminent of the rabbis, and diligently instructed in all the laws and traditions of the Fathers. Thus he shared, to the fullest extent, the hopes and aspirations, the lofty pride and unyielding prejudice, of his nation. He declares himself to have been ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless’ (Philippians 3:5, 6). He was regarded by the Jewish leaders as a young man of great promise, and high hopes were cherished concerning him as an able and zealous defender of the ancient faith.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 10.

This man was bitterly opposed to the off-shoot church because he, like many of his contemporaries, was affected by the false teaching which asserted that Judaism was the source and dispenser of salvation. Saul firmly believed that God was obligated to the Jewish people, as well as to their religious system, Judaism. It was a repugnant thought, as far as Saul was concerned that God would reject Judaism and raise up another church to carry on His biddings. Ellen White informs us that “In common with his nation, Saul had cherished the hope of a Messiah who should reign as a temporal prince, to break from the neck of Israel the Roman yoke, and exalt her to the throne of universal empire. He had no personal knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth or of His mission, but he readily imbibed the scorn and hatred of the rabbis toward One who was so far from fulfilling their ambitious hopes; and after the death of Christ, he eagerly joined with priests and rulers in the persecution of His followers as a proscribed and hated sect.” Ibid.

The Holy Scripture states, “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:1–6).

The book, The Acts of the Apostles, pages 123 and 124, brings to our attention this fact: “The news of Paul’s conversion had come to the Jews as a great surprise. He who had journeyed to Damascus ‘with authority and commission from the chief priests’ (Acts 26:12) to apprehend and persecute the believers was now preaching the gospel of a crucified and risen Saviour, strengthening the hands of those who were already its disciples, and continually bringing in new converts to the faith he had once so bitterly opposed.”

It took a direct encounter with Jesus to unshackle Paul’s mind from the false teaching that Judaism was the source of salvation. “With his burning faith, his unquenchable courage, his strong personal fascination, he was an incomparable propagandist. Few Jews have ever influenced the world to the same extent. It was due to him probably more than to any other person that Christianity assumed the form that we now know it, and ultimately swept the world. Paul undertook a succession of missionary journeys to win disciples for the new cause.” History of the Jewish People, 143, 144.

Inspiration tells us that “This wonderful conversion of Saul demonstrates in a startling manner the miraculous power of Christ in convicting the mind and heart of man.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 27.

As we delve deeper into Paul’s experience, it is quite evident that there was a significant change which took place in Paul’s life. Therefore we need to ask this question: What was Paul converted from and what was he converted to? The answer is clear. After encountering Jesus Christ, the Founder of His new church, Paul gave up Judaism entirely and became a committed member of His self-supporting church and a dedicated follower of Christ. Though it is impossible to state exactly what happened, the central feature of Paul’s conversion was certainly his vision of the risen and exalted Christ. It convinced him that Jesus was risen from the dead and exalted as Lord in heaven, as the Christians claimed. It also was proof that Jesus had been crucified wrongfully. Hence the curse, “… he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23) did not apply, and His death could be understood as a sacrifice on behalf of humanity.

As an adherent of this unpopular and unrecognized church, Paul was determined to undo the damages he had done to it by putting all his energies to work to further establish the Christian church. Wherever he went to preach the gospel of Christ, he went with the express purpose of establishing self-supporting churches to the honor of Christ. Dr. Philip Schaff records that “The Pauline epistles are pastoral addresses to congregations of his own founding except that of Rome.” History of the Christian Church, vol. 1, 750.

Ellen White also tells us, “It is recorded that Paul labored a year and six months in Corinth. His efforts, however, were not exclusively confined to that city, but he availed himself of the easy communication by land and water with adjacent cities, and labored among them both by letter and personal effort. He made Corinth his headquarters, and his long tarry and successful ministry there gave him influence abroad as well as at home. Several churches were thus raised up under the effort of the apostle and his co-laborers.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 109.

The apostle Paul established self-supporting churches in Phrygia, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Ephesus, Colossae, and Corinth (Acts 15:36–Acts 18).

The question may be asked, Why is it that Paul and his associates had to separate themselves from the established church and raise up self-supporting congregations? Certainly there were occasions when the apostle and his associates were allowed to speak in the synagogues, but the Jewish priests and leaders were moved by envy and jealousy which led them to oppose the teachings of the apostles and shut them out of the synagogues (Acts 13:14–46).

Ellen White wrote, “The synagogues were closed against the apostles; but private houses were thrown open for their use, and public buildings of the Gentiles were also used in which to preach the word of God.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 51. (See examples of house churches in the New Testament: Acts 8:3; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2.)

Another question we may ask is, Did the leaders of these new churches have the authority to raise up self-supporting congregations? Yes, “To the early church had been entrusted a constantly enlarging work—that of establishing centers of light and blessing wherever there were honest souls willing to give themselves to the service of Christ.” The Acts of the Apostles, 90.

Inspiration informs us that, “The Jewish leaders had supposed that the work of Christ would end with Him; that when His voice was no longer heard, the excitement would die out, and the people would return to the doctrines and traditions of men. But instead of this, they witnessed the marvelous scenes of the day of Pentecost. The disciples, endowed with a power and energy hitherto unknown, preached Christ to the vast multitude that from all parts of the world assembled at the feast. Signs and wonders confirmed their words; and in the very stronghold of Judaism, thousands openly declared their faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified malefactor, as the promised Messiah.” Sketches from the Life of Paul, 10, 11.

The Scriptures reveal that after the ascension of Christ, the early Christian church grew rapidly and the members of this off-shoot church enjoyed great success. The believers were united (Acts 2:1; Acts 5:12). Multitudes were added to the church daily (Acts 5:14). The Holy Spirit was present both in the lives of the members and in the administration of the church (Acts 2:4; Acts 8:29; Acts 6:1–7; Acts 9:31).

The words of Doctor Luke sum it up correctly, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold” (Acts 4:32–34). 

“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:46, 47).

In Testimonies, vol. 5, 166, we read, “In the early church Christianity was taught in its purity; its precepts were given by the voice of inspiration; its ordinances were uncorrupted by the device of men. The church revealed the spirit of Christ and appeared beautiful in its simplicity. Its adorning was the holy principles and exemplary lives of its members. Multitudes were won to Christ, not by display or learning, but by the power of God which attended the plain preaching of His word.”

As we have seen, the Jewish church made a fatal mistake by believing and teaching that their church organization was “the true vine.” Consequently, they rejected the Founder of the church who had declared, “… upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Sadly, this is the very same mistake that the Seventh-day Adventist Church organization is making today!

If you and I were living during the time of the early church we would understand even better the animosity that was cherished by the priests, leaders, and members of Judaism towards the off-shoot churches raised up by Jesus and His followers. The one consuming desire of the leaders of the established church system was to destroy all the new churches by whatever means possible, because as they saw them, they were but a farce, a counterfeit, a nuisance. As a matter of fact, the highest honor that a Jew could do to his church organization would be to covertly destabilize and destroy these fanatical, heretical groups. The question therefore that I would like us to ponder is, Is it any different in our day?

The Jewish leaders and their followers did not cease their diabolical purpose during the ministry of Paul. As they saw the success of these new churches led by Paul and the other apostles, it was their settled desire to destroy these leaders just as they had hoped that by crucifying Jesus, by smiting the Shepherd, the sheep would scatter. The Bible tells us, “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also” (Acts 12:1–3).

The apostle Paul did not understand the psychology of the church system he belonged to. While he was a member, he joined in their destructive work of harming Jesus’ new church, believing he was doing the Lord’s biddings (Acts 9:1, 2). He was an accomplice in the stoning of Stephen, a mighty leader of Jesus’ self-supporting church (Acts 7:58). When Paul finally separated from Judaism, he not only witnessed the animosity and hatred of the Jewish priests, leaders, and people towards the church that Jesus had established, but also towards himself. At times the priests and leaders would relentlessly pursue and do great harm to both its leaders and members. At other times they would prevail upon the civic leaders/officers and citizens to incite them to offend the church of Jesus Christ. (See Acts 9:22, 23; Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5; Acts 21:27–35; Acts 23:12; 2 Corinthians 11:24–26.)

It was Paul who wrote these words: “And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:36–38).

God’s message to our brothers and sisters in the SDA church organization is found in Mark 9:38–41 and The Desire of Ages, 437, 438. “And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in My name, that can lightly speak evil of Me. For he that is not against us is on our part. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mark 9:38–41).

“James and John had thought that in checking this man they had had in view their Lord’s honor; they began to see that they were jealous for their own. They acknowledged their error, and accepted the reproof of Jesus, ‘Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in My name, that can lightly speak evil of Me’ (Mark 9:39). None who showed themselves in any way friendly to Christ were to be repulsed. There were many who had been deeply moved by the character and the work of Christ, and whose hearts were opening to Him in faith; and the disciples, who could not read motives, must be careful not to discourage these souls. When Jesus was no longer personally among them, and the work was left in their hands, they must not indulge a narrow, exclusive spirit, but manifest the same far-reaching sympathy which they had seen in their Master.

“The fact that one does not in all things conform to our personal ideas or opinions will not justify us in forbidding him to labor for God. Christ is the Great Teacher; we are not to judge or to command, but in humility each is to sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn of Him. Every soul whom God has made willing is a channel through which Christ will reveal His pardoning love. How careful we should be lest we discourage one of God’s light bearers, and thus intercept the rays that He would have shine to the world!” The Desire of Ages, 437, 438.

 Pastor Ivan Plummer ministers through the Emmanuel Seventh Day Church Ministries in Bronx, New York. He may be contacted by telephone at: 718-882-3900.