Christian Witnesses of Jehovah in the First Century
“YOU will be witnesses of me . . . to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) With those parting words, Jesus commissioned his disciples to be witnesses. But witnesses of whom? “Witnesses of me,” said Jesus. Do these words mean that they were not to be witnesses of Jehovah? Far from it!
Actually, Jesus’ disciples were given an unprecedented privilege—that of being witnesses of both Jehovah and Jesus. As faithful Jews, Jesus’ early disciples were already witnesses of Jehovah. (Isa. 43:10-12) But now they were to witness also concerning Jesus’ vital role in sanctifying Jehovah’s name by means of His Messianic Kingdom. Their thus bearing witness to Jesus was with Jehovah’s glory in view. (Rom. 16:25-27; Phil. 2:9-11) They testified that Jehovah had not lied, that after more than 4,000 years he had at last raised up the long-promised Messiah, or Christ!
Christian witnesses of Jehovah in the first century were also given a unique responsibility—one that rests upon genuine Christians to this day.
“Go . . . Make Disciples”
After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, he appeared to his disciples who had gathered at a mountain in Galilee. There, Jesus outlined their responsibility: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you. And, look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matt. 28:19, 20) Consider what was involved in this weighty commission.
“Go,” said Jesus. But to whom? To “people of all the nations.” This was a new command, especially challenging for Jewish believers. (Compare Acts 10:9-16, 28.) Prior to Jesus’ day, Gentiles were welcomed when they came to Israel because of interest in true worship. (1 Ki. 8:41-43) Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had told the apostles to “go, preach,” but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:1, 6, 7) Now they were commanded to go to people of all nations. For what purpose?
“Make disciples,” commanded Jesus. Yes, his disciples were commissioned to make disciples of others. What does this involve? A disciple is a learner, a taught one—not just a pupil, however, but an adherent. A disciple accepts Jesus’ authority not just inwardly by believing in him but outwardly by obeying him. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the Greek word rendered “disciple” (ma·the·tesʹ) “implies the existence of a personal attachment which shapes the whole life of the one described as [a disciple].”
“Teaching them,” added Jesus, “to observe all the things I have commanded you.” To develop a personal attachment to Jesus, a person must be taught to “observe all the things” Christ has commanded, including his command to preach the “good news of the kingdom.” (Matt. 24:14) Only in this way can he become a disciple in the true sense of the word. And only those who accept the teaching and become genuine disciples get baptized.
“I am with you,” Jesus assured them, “all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.” Jesus’ teaching is always relevant, never outmoded. On that basis, Christians to this very day are under obligation to make disciples of others.
A responsible commission was thus conferred upon Christ’s followers, namely, to do a disciple-making work among all nations. To make disciples of Christ, though, they had to witness concerning Jehovah’s name and Kingdom, for that is what their Exemplar, Jesus, had done. (Luke 4:43; John 17:26) Those who accepted Christ’s teaching and became disciples thus became Christian witnesses of Jehovah. Becoming a witness of Jehovah was a matter no longer of birth—into the Jewish nation—but of choice. Those who became witnesses did so because they loved Jehovah and sincerely wanted to submit to his sovereign rule.—1 John 5:3.
But did the Christian witnesses of Jehovah in the first century fulfill their commission to serve as witnesses of God and Christ and to ‘make disciples of people of all nations’?
“To the Most Distant Part of the Earth”
Shortly after giving his disciples their commission, Jesus returned to the heavenly courts of his Father. (Acts 1:9-11) Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E., the extensive disciple-making work got under way. Jesus poured out the promised holy spirit upon his waiting disciples. (Acts 2:1-4; compare Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4, 5.) This filled them with zeal to preach about the resurrected Christ and his future return with Kingdom power.
True to Jesus’ instructions, those first-century disciples started their testifying about God and Christ right there in Jerusalem. (Acts 1:8) Taking the lead, at the Festival of Pentecost, the apostle Peter “bore thorough witness” to thousands of Jewish celebrators from many nations. (Acts 2:5-11, 40) Soon the number of believing men alone was about 5,000. (Acts 4:4; 6:7) Later, to the Samaritans, Philip declared “the good news of the kingdom of God and of the name of Jesus Christ.”—Acts 8:12.
But there was much more work to be done. Starting in 36 C.E., with the conversion of Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile, the good news began to spread to non-Jewish people of all nations. (Acts, chap. 10) In fact, so rapidly did it spread that by about 60 C.E., the apostle Paul could say that the good news had been “preached in all creation that is under heaven.” (Col. 1:23) Thus, by the end of the first century, Jesus’ faithful followers had made disciples throughout the Roman Empire—in Asia, Europe, and Africa!
Since the Christian witnesses of Jehovah in the first century accomplished so much in such a short time, the questions arise: Were they organized? If so, how?
Organization of the Christian Congregation
From the time of Moses onward, the Jewish nation was in a unique position—it served as the congregation of God. That congregation was highly organized by God under older men, heads, judges, and officers. (Josh. 23:1, 2) But the Jewish nation lost its privileged position because it rejected Jehovah’s Son. (Matt. 21:42, 43; 23:37, 38; Acts 4:24-28) On Pentecost 33 C.E., the Christian congregation of God replaced the congregation of Israel.a How was this Christian congregation organized?
Already on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were “devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles,” indicating that they began with a unity based on teaching. From that first day, they met together “with one accord.” (Acts 2:42, 46) As the disciple-making work spread, congregations of believers began to form, first in Jerusalem and then outside Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1; 9:31; 11:19-21; 14:21-23) It was their custom to assemble together in public places as well as in private homes.—Acts 19:8, 9; Rom. 16:3, 5; Col. 4:15.
What kept the expanding Christian congregation from becoming a loose association of independent local congregations? They were united under one Leader. From the beginning, Jesus Christ was the appointed Lord and Head of the congregation, and he was recognized as such by all the congregations. (Acts 2:34-36; Eph. 1:22) From the heavens, Christ actively directed the affairs of his congregation on earth. How? By means of holy spirit and angels, put at his disposal by Jehovah.—Acts 2:33; compare Acts 5:19, 20; 8:26; 1 Pet. 3:22.
Christ had something else at his disposal for maintaining the unity of the Christian congregation—a visible governing body. At first, the governing body was made up of the faithful apostles of Jesus. Later, it included other older men of the Jerusalem congregation as well as the apostle Paul, even though he did not reside in Jerusalem. Each congregation recognized the authority of this central body of older men and looked to it for direction when organizational or doctrinal issues arose. (Acts 2:42; 6:1-6; 8:14-17; 11:22; 15:1-31) With what result? “Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day.”—Acts 16:4, 5.
The governing body, under the direction of holy spirit, supervised the appointment of overseers and assistants, ministerial servants, to care for each congregation. These were men who met spiritual qualifications that applied in all the congregations, not merely standards set locally. (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-3) Overseers were urged to follow the Scriptures and submit to the leading of holy spirit. (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:9) All in the congregation were encouraged to ‘be obedient to those taking the lead.’ (Heb. 13:17) In this way unity was maintained not only within each congregation but within the Christian congregation as a whole.
Even though some men held positions of responsibility, there was no clergy-laity distinction among the first-century Christian witnesses of Jehovah. They were all brothers; there was but one Leader, the Christ.—Matt. 23:8, 10.
Identified by Holy Conduct and Love
The testimony of the first-century witnesses of Jehovah was not limited to “the fruit of lips.” (Heb. 13:15) Discipleship shaped the entire life of a Christian witness. Hence, not only did those Christians proclaim their beliefs but their beliefs transformed their lives. They put away the old personality with its sinful practices and endeavored to clothe themselves with the new personality created according to God’s will. (Col. 3:5-10) They were truthful and honest, as well as hardworking and dependable. (Eph. 4:25, 28) They were morally clean—sexual immorality was strictly prohibited. So were drunkenness and idolatry. (Gal. 5:19-21) For good reason, then, Christianity became known as “The Way,” a way or manner of life that centered around faith in Jesus, following closely in his footsteps.—Acts 9:1, 2; 1 Pet. 2:21, 22.
One quality, though, stands out above all others—love. The early Christians demonstrated loving concern for the needs of fellow believers. (Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10) They loved one another not as themselves but more than themselves. (Compare Philippians 2:25-30.) They were willing even to die for one another. But this was not surprising. Was not Jesus willing to die for them? (John 15:13; compare Luke 6:40.) He could tell his disciples: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:34, 35) Christ commanded that his followers show such self-sacrificing love; and this command his first-century disciples closely observed.—Matt. 28:20.
“No Part of the World”
To fulfill their responsibility to make disciples and to be witnesses of God and Christ, first-century Christians could not allow themselves to be distracted by worldly affairs; they had to keep their commission in clear focus. Jesus certainly had done so. To Pilate he said: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) And to his disciples he plainly stated: “You are no part of the world.” (John 15:19) Like Jesus, then, the early Christians kept separate from the world; they did not get involved in politics or wars. (Compare John 6:15.) Neither did they get caught up in the ways of the world—its eager pursuit of material things and its overindulgence in pleasure.—Luke 12:29-31; Rom. 12:2; 1 Pet. 4:3, 4.
Because they kept separate from the world, the first-century Christian witnesses were a distinctive people. Notes historian E. G. Hardy in his book Christianity and the Roman Government: “The Christians were strangers and pilgrims in the world around them; their citizenship was in heaven; the kingdom to which they looked was not of this world. The consequent want of interest in public affairs came thus from the outset to be a noticeable feature in Christianity.”
Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake
“A slave is not greater than his master,” warned Jesus. “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Before his death on the torture stake, Jesus suffered severe persecution. (Matt. 26:67; 27:26-31, 38-44) And true to his warning, his disciples soon experienced similar treatment. (Matt. 10:22, 23) But why?
It did not take long for the early Christians to be noticed by others. They were people with high principles of morality and integrity. They carried out a disciple-making work with outspokenness and zeal; as a result, literally thousands of persons abandoned false religious systems and became Christians. These refused to get involved in worldly affairs. They would not join in worship of the emperor. It is not surprising, then, that they quickly became the target of vicious persecution instigated by false religious leaders and misinformed political rulers. (Acts 12:1-5; 13:45, 50; 14:1-7; 16:19-24) These, though, were only the human agents of the real persecutor—“the original serpent,” Satan. (Rev. 12:9; compare Revelation 12:12, 17.) His objective? The suppression of Christianity and its bold witnessing.
But no amount of persecution could shut the mouths of the first-century Christian witnesses of Jehovah! They had received their commission to preach from God through Christ, and they were determined to obey God rather than men. (Acts 4:19, 20, 29; 5:27-32) They relied on Jehovah’s strength, confident that he would reward his loyal witnesses for their endurance.—Matt. 5:10; Rom. 8:35-39; 15:5.
History confirms that persecution by authorities of the Roman Empire failed to stamp out the early Christian witnesses of Jehovah. Says Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century C.E.: “And the tribe of the Christians, so called after [Jesus], has still to this day [about 93 C.E.] not disappeared.”—Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 64 (iii, 3).
The record of the testimony of the Christian witnesses of Jehovah in the first century thus reveals several clearly identifiable characteristics: They boldly and zealously fulfilled their commission to witness concerning God and Christ and to do a disciple-making work; they had an organizational structure in which all were brothers, with no clergy-laity distinction; they held to high principles of morality and loved one another; they kept separate from worldly ways and affairs; and they were persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
By the end of the first century, though, the one united Christian congregation was threatened by a grave and insidious danger.
a In the Christian Greek Scriptures, “congregation” is at times used in a collective sense, referring to the Christian congregation in general (1 Cor. 12:28); it may also refer to a local group in some city or in someone’s home.—Acts 8:1; Rom. 16:5.
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New disciples were to be, not mere passive believers, but obedient followers
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Becoming a witness of Jehovah was a matter no longer of birth but of choice
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By the end of the first century, the Christian witnesses of Jehovah had made disciples in Asia, Europe, and Africa!
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There was no clergy-laity distinction among the first-century Christians
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Christianity Spread Through Zealous Preaching
Fired by a zeal that could not be quenched, the early Christian witnesses of Jehovah exercised the greatest vigor in giving the good news the widest possible proclamation. Edward Gibbon, in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” notes that the “zeal of the Christians . . . diffused them through every province and almost every city of the [Roman] empire.” Says Professor J. W. Thompson in “History of the Middle Ages”: “Christianity had spread with remarkable rapidity over the Roman world. By the year 100 probably every province that bordered the Mediterranean had a Christian community within it.”
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‘The Triumphs of Christianity’
Extra-Biblical sources confirm the fine conduct and love that characterized the early Christians. Historian John Lord stated: “The true triumphs of Christianity were seen in making good men of those who professed her doctrines. . . . We have testimony to their blameless lives, to their irreproachable morals, to their good citizenship, and to their Christian graces.”—“The Old Roman World.”
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A central governing body helped to provide direction for the congregations, but they all looked to Christ as their one Leader
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Early Christians were the target of vicious persecution