Learning From First-Century Christians
“Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.”
THAT was how the apostle Paul warned first-century Christians about the dangers of blindly following human philosophy. They could either stick to the dependable guidance given by Jesus and his apostles, teachings that had already brought them immense benefits, or become prey to the ever-shifting theories of men, a course that had already brought pain and misery to millions.
Living “According to Christ”
The crusaders of about a thousand years ago missed the point that living “according to Christ” means much more than simply professing allegiance to Jesus Christ. (Matthew 7:21-23) It means living in complete harmony with the teachings of Jesus as found in God’s inspired Word, the Bible. (Matthew 7:15-20; John 17:17) “If you remain in my word,” said Jesus Christ, “you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31) “All will know that you are my disciples,” he said, “if you have love among yourselves.”
In truth, those crusaders had fallen prey to “empty deception according to the tradition of men.” And it is little wonder that ordinary people were deceived, when their religious leaders, their very bishops, “became renowned as military men.” A “warlike spirit became so common among the clergy,” says the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, by McClintock and Strong, “that whenever anything was to be gained [by it], they were ever ready for war.”
What led to this sad situation? Following the death of the first-century Christian apostles, apostate church leaders increasingly deviated from Christ’s teachings, just as God’s Word had foretold. (Acts 20:29, 30) A corrupted church eventually became more and more entangled with the secular state. In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Then, says the Cyclopedia, “the exchange of the idol standards for the banner of the Cross laid every Christian under obligations to serve as a soldier.”
Of course, Christians really had no such obligation. But the “persuasive arguments” of human philosophy led them into gross violations of all that Christ stood for. (Colossians 2:4) Some very deceptive arguments have long been used to justify human wars and conflicts. Really though, for a humane or godly person to get involved in “the diabolism of war, as systematically practiced in ancient or modern times,” says the Cyclopedia, “cannot for a moment be reconciled with . . . the principles of Christianity.”
The religions outside Christendom have also resorted to war down through the centuries. Just like the churches of Christendom, they have slaughtered members of their own religion as well as others because of national, political, and religious differences. They have used violence or the threat of it to convert others to their own beliefs. To try and gain their ends, some of them have participated in the bloodbaths of history. They are no different from the religions of Christendom.
Separate From the World
Why were first-century Christians able to keep clear of the bloody wars and politics of their time? Two basic principles helped them. First, there was the command of Jesus to the apostle Peter when Peter used a sword to defend him: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Second, the words of Jesus to Pilate when he asked about the nature of Jesus’ kingship: “My kingdom is no part of this world. If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought that I should not be delivered up to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from this source.”
How did first-century Christians apply those principles? They kept themselves completely separate from the world, maintaining strict neutrality when it came to political and military affairs. (John 15:17-19; 17:14-16; James 4:4) They refused to take up arms against their fellowman. It is clear from history that first-century Christians joined neither the Jewish nationalist movements nor the imperial armies of Rome. At the same time, they did not try to tell the political leaders what to do, as that was the responsibility of those governmental leaders.
Justin Martyr, in the second century C.E., wrote about Christians’ having ‘beaten their swords into plowshares.’ (Micah 4:3) In response to those who raised objections about the Christian position, Tertullian asked: “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword?”
“Obey God as Ruler Rather Than Men”
Refusing to go to war did not make things easy for the early Christians. It went against the accepted beliefs of the day. Celsus, an enemy of Christianity, mocked their position. His belief was that everyone should go to war when those in power demanded it. Despite immense hostility, early Christians refused to follow any human philosophy that contradicted the teachings of Christ. “We must obey God as ruler rather than men,” they said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern times have followed their example. In Nazi Germany, for instance, they resolutely refused to be drawn into Hitler’s murderous wars. They were willing to endure savage persecution, even die if necessary, rather than violate their Christian neutrality. It is reported that “one-half of their number was imprisoned and one-quarter executed” by the Nazis for their adherence to Bible principles. (Of Gods and Men) Thus, of the tens of millions killed in World War II, not one was killed by a Witness of Jehovah. Rather than kill others, Witnesses were willing to sacrifice their own lives, as many of them did.
A Lesson We Can Learn
What lessons can history teach us? Surely one is this: Human philosophy has constantly led to hatred and bloodshed among nations and peoples. Ecclesiastes 8:9 rightly states: “Man has dominated man to his injury.” And the underlying reason for this is found at Jeremiah 10:23, where God’s Word says: “To earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” No, God did not create humans to run their affairs successfully, independent of him. They were not given this capacity. All history has proved that.
Now, as individuals, we cannot change what the leaders of the nations do as they repeat the tragedies of the past, nor are we authorized to try to persuade them to take a certain course. But we do not have to be swept up into their conflicts and become part of them. Jesus said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14) To avoid becoming part of this world’s conflicts, we must let God’s Word, the Bible
A Marvelous Future
God’s dependable Word does much more than shed light on the past and the present. It provides sure guidance for the future. (Psalm 119:105; Isaiah 46:9-11) It also gives a clear picture of what God’s purpose is for this planet. He will not allow humans to destroy the earth by insanely misusing the immense powers that science and technology have given them. He will make sure that this earth reaches the Paradise condition he originally purposed for it.
In this regard, God’s Word states: “The upright are the ones that will reside in the earth, and the blameless are the ones that will be left over in it. As regards the wicked, they will be cut off from the very earth; and as for the treacherous, they will be torn away from it.” (Proverbs 2:21, 22) This will take place soon, as these troubled times give evidence that we are living in “the last days” of this present wicked system of things. (2 Timothy 3:1-5, 13) And for a certainty, these last days are numbered; they are running out. Bible prophecy teaches us: “The world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.”
Soon God will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth” and will replace this present violent world with a new world in which “righteousness is to dwell.” (Revelation 11:18; 2 Peter 3:10-13) Then, for those who remain, “he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.” (Revelation 21:1-4) Wars and violence will be gone forever, as the prophecy at Isaiah 2:4 will be realized to the full: “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” You too can enjoy that marvelous, everlasting future if you learn from the lessons of history.
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Jehovah’s Witnesses have learned from first-century Christians
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Jesus said that his Kingdom is no part of this world
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God’s Word promises everlasting life in perfection on a paradise earth