Early Christians Speak Concerning Assembling

by Ron Halbrook

The early saints speak to us in both word and deed regarding their assemblies. Their narrative is rich with lessons for us today if only we have hearts to hear. Let us review and reflect upon the record of their meetings in the book of Acts in the first century, and a few additional references by writers in the years which followed.

At the Beginning: From Twelve to Three Thousand

On Pentecost Day after Christ arose His church was born in an assembly that began with His twelve Apostles preaching the gospel, swelled to hundreds and thousands of attentive listeners, and resulted in 3,000 baptisms! Not only did the Lord’s church begin on this Sunday with an assembly, but also the first believers immediately were taught to assemble every Sunday. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Furthermore, for some period of time they met every day for intensive follow-up teaching: “continuing daily with one accord in the temple” (Acts 2:46). Aside from the meetings of the church, individual Christians extended hospitality to each other and they benefitted from sharing food “house to house” (Acts 2:46). For a time there were daily conversions as the saints continued “praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).

All such meetings reflect the instruction Christ gave to His Apostles in the Great Commission. After baptizing people into a right relationship with God, they were to continue “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Christ ordained that His saints should meet, not merely to perform some occasional ceremony or ritual, but on many occasions in order to consistently worship God, to receive regular teaching and edification, and to constantly proclaim the gospel of Christ. Saints everywhere were taught not only to assemble each first day of the week but also to hold additional assemblies from time to time further advancing the cause of Christ.

Many Meetings, Many Occasions, Many Purposes

Throughout the book of Acts, these early Christians met on many occasions for various spiritual purposes, and especially they met every Sunday to remember the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. When these saints suffered severe persecution, “their own company” “assembled together” to fervently pray “that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (Acts 4:23, 31, 29). Discipline was meted out by God Himself on an occasion when brethren were taking the collection and a man and his wife acted in hypocrisy. “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many, as heard these things” (Acts 5:11).

The twelve called the multitude of the disciples” into an assembly in order to deal with a disruption occurring among the saints. The church was instructed to select seven special servants or deacons to distribute benevolence in a manner that would heal the breach (Acts 6:1-7). When Saul was converted and later came to Jerusalem, there was a meeting to determine whether he should be received as a genuine disciple in view of his reputation for zealously fighting against Christ and His followers. By the intervention of Barnabas, the brethren were convinced to receive him so that he was united “to the disciples” and joined in working and worshiping “with them” (Acts 9:26, 28).

As “devout men” had gathered to bury and lament over the martyred Stephen, “the disciples” gathered in an upper room recounting the good deeds of deceased Dorcas, and they sent for Peter to join them (Acts 8:2; 9:38). After Peter raised her, he “called the saints” together with her present, and we can only imagine the songs and prayers of praise which went up to heaven (Acts 9:41).

The Gospel Goes to the Gentiles

Peter and six brethren met with a group including Cornelius and his “kinsmen and near friends” in order for Peter to teach them the gospel (Acts 10:24; 11:12). To counter objections from Jewish brethren, Peter later met with “the apostles and brethren that were in Judea” to explain and defend his preaching to and baptizing Gentiles. “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:1-18; see v. 18). Meanwhile, both Jews and Gentiles were converted at Antioch, and Barnabas and Saul joined hands to labor among these saints. “And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

When Herod Agrippa imprisoned Peter at Jerusalem, “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). After an angel delivered him from prison, he came to the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, “where many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:12). There was a joyful reunion, and Peter told them to share the good news with James and “the brethren” (Acts 12:17).

The church at Antioch was strong and active. The Holy Spirit revealed the time had come to send out Barnabas and Saul, which the church did with “laying ... hands on them,” “a method of solemnly commending a man to God for the ministration to which he was being set apart” (Acts 13:1-3; see J.W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, II:5). McGarvey notes, “Doubtless the ceremony of laying on hands was in the presence of the congregation; and after the command of the Spirit was received, there was doubtless time given for the apostles to prepare for the journey, and for the congregation to be notified.” What a privilege for the church to send out such strong and sacrificial preachers! What a privilege to be a member of a congregation dedicated to such work and ready to gather for such occasions! Upon their return the church gathered together and “they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).

In Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas debated Judaizing teachers at Antioch and the church sent them to Jerusalem to counter these false teachers there. Another debate was held there and the church as a whole there stood with the Apostles in upholding the truth. “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church,” to send Paul and Barnabas out to educate brethren on this dangerous concept that the Law of Moses is binding today (Acts 15:1-35; see v. 22). Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, assembled the saints, read the Jerusalem epistle, and explained all that had transpired at the debate.

As the Jews conducted special schools of rabbis to discuss difficult points of the Law of Moses, Gentiles commonly conducted schools of rhetoric for the disputation of their philosophies. In Acts 19 Paul converted twelve disciples at Ephesus, separated them from the Jews who resisted the truth, and met for daily disputation “in the school of one Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9). These debates and discussions were productive for two years, so that we read of seven churches in the region later (Acts 19:10; Revelation 1-3). As the Ephesian church grew it met in other places such as the home of Aquila and Priscilla (I Corinthians 16:19). Paul later met with the elders of this good church to review their work and to admonish them to be faithful in their duties (Acts 20:17-38). His work at Ephesus included both public gatherings and “house-to-house” meetings (Acts 20:20).

We read of Paul participating in the worship of the saints at Troas: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7). The presence, participation, and approval of an inspired Apostle at this service provides divine authority for eating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. During this lengthy session on the third floor of the house, a man sitting in a window went to sleep and was killed when he fell to the ground. Paul raised him from the dead and continued his discourse with the disciples until daybreak. He was not remembered with resentment as “that long-winded preacher who killed a poor man” but was so dearly beloved that there was much weeping, embracing, and kissing when they parted company for the last time (Acts 20:37).

After Paul met with the saints at Tyre, the whole church including women and children accompanied him to the seashore where he would take a ship, and kneeled together and prayed (Acts 21:3-5). Arriving at Caesarea, Paul and his companions went to the house of Philip the evangelist. Agabus prophesied he would be arrested in Jerusalem, yet Paul would not heed the pleas of the brethren to not go there. When he left for Jerusalem some of the saints at Caesarea went with him in spite of the danger (Acts 21:8-16). The brethren at Jerusalem received him gladly, and he met with James and the elders to explain how God had used him to spread the gospel among the Gentiles (Acts 21:17-19).

Without examining all the other passages available in the New Testament, we learn many valuable lessons from the record of saints assembling in the book of Acts. In addition to meeting to eat the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, the early saints met on occasions that included special prayers, the discipline of unruly members, solving conflicts among saints, deciding whether to receive professed brethren, lamentations over the faithful dead, special teaching sessions, examining the appropriateness of preachers’ activities, sending out preachers, hearing reports by preachers, public debates with false teachers, informing brethren about truth and error on current issues, reviewing past labors to draw lessons, and farewell meetings. Similar meetings are referred to directly and indirectly in the remaining books of the New Testament.

Assemblies After the First Century

The record of Christians assembling in the second and third centuries looks very much like the first century. Regular meetings on the first day of the week or Sunday are prominently discussed. The Didache, meaning “The Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles),” written about A.D. 100 in Syria, speaks of Christians meeting “each Lord’s day” for worship (14:1; quoted in Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak [Austin, TX: Sweet Publ. Co., 1971]:67). Ignatius, martyred A.D. 117, speaks of those who embrace the new hope “no longer observing the Sabbath but living according to the Lord’s Day,” the day he arose (“The Epistle to the Magnesians,” Shorter Version, IX; accessed 3-8-2011).

Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) writing about A.D. 145 explained that Christians gather to worship on the day after Saturday, on the day the risen Savior “appeared to his apostles:”

We are always together with one another. And for all the things with which we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through his Son Jesus Christ and through his Holy Spirit. And on the day called Sunday, there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a city or a rural district. . . .We all make our assembly in common on the day of the Sun, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and taught his disciples these things (Apology I, 67:1-3, 7, quoted in Ferguson, 67-68).

A number of early Christians began to speak of the first day of the week as “the eighth day,” i.e., the next day after the Sabbath. “The Epistle of Barnabas,” a tract written about A.D. 130, spoke of God removing the Sabbath observance in order to make the eighth day “the beginning of another world.” “Wherefore also we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens” (“The Epistle of Barnabas,” 15:8-9; translated by J.B. Lightfoot, accessed 3-8-2011).

Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) noted in A.D. 197 that critics “suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians” because of their observance of that day, but he retorted, “You who reproach us with the Sun and Sunday should consider your proximity to us. We are not far off from your Saturn and your days of rest” (i.e., both pagans and Jews worshiped on Saturday which is near Sunday!) (Ad Nationes, I:13; transl. by Dr. Holmes; accessed 3-8-2011). Bardesanes (A.D. 154-222) emphasized one name and one day were unique to Christians: “Wherever we are, we are all called after the one name of Christ – Christians. On one day, the first of the week, we assemble ourselves together” (On Fate, Ferguson, p. 69).

Worship and Godly Living

Unbelievers as well as believers have left descriptions of the conduct and worship of the saints. Pliny, Roman Governor of the Province of Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan in A.D. 112 asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. Pliny complained that “the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms” so much so that “many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes” were involved. He devised the following test to clearly identify who were and who were not truly Christians: He offered to release them “when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do.” In spite of all investigative methods including torture he learned “that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so” (“Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan,” Letters 10.96-97; accessed 3-8-2011).

The Didache admonished, “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled” (14:1-2, in Apostolic Fathers, J.B. Lightfoot, transl. & ed.; accessed 3-8-2011).

Justin elaborates, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” This was followed by a sermon exhorting everyone to apply the Scriptures in their lives. “Then we all rise together and pray,” and the Lord’s Supper was observed (Apology I.67; accessed 3-8-2011). This memorial should be received only by “the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.” Justin further explained,

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone (Apology I.66).

As prayers of thanksgiving go up for this memorial feast, “the people assent, saying, ‘Amen’”

Sermons Based on Sacred Scripture

The Scriptures were treated as sacred in these services and sermons emphasized the necessity of serious and sincere application. About A.D. 200 Tertullian said that “we assemble to read our sacred writings,” and “with the sacred words we nourish our faith” and urge proper conduct by inculcating “God’s precepts.”

In the same place also exhortations are made and rebukes and sacred censures are administered. For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when anyone has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation and in all sacred intercourse. The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character (Apology, XXXIX; transl. by S. Thelwall; accessed 3-8-2011).

In other words, the proclamation of truth was reinforced by the practice of discipline under the oversight of godly elders.

Having surveyed sermons of the second through the fourth centuries, Everett Ferguson observes, “The preaching was based on the Scriptures read in the assembly. . . .Early Christian preaching seems to have been predominantly expository” (Ferguson, 87). For instance, Clement of Alexandria’s “Who Is the Rich Man that Will Be Saved?” discussed and applied Mark 10:17-31, “directing the text against attachment to wealth but not against the possession of wealth” (Ferguson, p. 88). Many sermons preceded by readings on the exodus focus on the Passover as a type of the death of Christ.

Meetings on Many Occasions

Like first-century saints, Christians in the second and third centuries met on many occasions, not limited to the first day of the week. The Didache admonished the study of God’s Word “day by day,” but the average person depended on public reading, not having his own copy of the Bible, and therefore the Didache urged “ye shall gather yourselves together frequently, seeking what is fitting for your souls” (Didarche; 4:3; 16:4; accessed 3-8-2011). Ignatius said, “Do your diligence therefore to meet together more frequently for thanksgiving to God and for His glory. For when ye meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are cast down; and his mischief cometh to nought in the concord of your faith” (“To the Ephesians,” XIII.1, in Apostolic Fathers, Lightfoot & Harmer, 1891 transl.; ; accessed 3-8-2011). Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236) urged saints preparing for work each day to first consider whether there may be an assembly for Bible instruction and prayer on that day. “If there is a teacher there, let none of you be late in arriving at the assembly at the place where they give instruction.” “And if there is a day on which there is no instruction,” he advises each Christian to have his own devotions at home (Apostolic Tradition XXXV; Ferguson, p. 70).

In a series of general exhortations, Ignatius wrote to Polycarp, “Let your assembling together be of frequent occurrence: seek after all by name” (Epistle To Polycarp IV; accessed 3-9-2011). In other words, he encouraged frequent assemblies and that all brethren individually should be admonished to attend all of these assemblies in order to strengthen their faith.

Brethren met in homes, in open places, or wherever they could. Sometimes a wealthy Christian would construct a room on his house for assemblies. It is rare to find references to buildings built especially as meeting places until the time of Emperor Constantine who recognized Christianity as legal in the Edict of Milan of A.D. 313. Before that time period, persecutions often prevented Christians from conducting open services and resulted in the confiscation or destruction of houses in which worship was conducted. They were accused of treason and atheism for refusing to worship the emperors. Constantine did not find Christians worshiping on the Sabbath and suddenly make a law to force them to worship on Sunday, as claimed by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but he simply legalized their worship.

Polycarp (A.D. 69 – 155), a bishop who lived in Smyrna, one of the seven churches of Asia Minor, illustrates the tenacious faith of the early saints. He had been taught by John the Apostle. His friend Irenaeus wrote an account of his death which was copied and handed down. At the age of 86 he was arrested and threatened with death by the proconsul: “But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ,’ Polycarp said, ‘Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’” A herald proclaimed, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” Gentiles and Jews alike of Smyrna clamored for his death, shouting, “This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the puller down of our gods, who teaches multitudes not to sacrifice nor worship.” He was tied rather than nailed to the stake because he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that has granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, even without the security which you seek from the nails.” This was his prayer preceding his execution:

"O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Your presence; I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God? For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen. (“The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” or “The Letter of the Smyrnaeans,” transl. by J.B. Lightfoot, rev. by Richard Neil Shrout; ; accessed 3-9-2011)

His brethren lovingly gathered and buried his bones.

Conclusion: What Can We Learn?

Many early Christians were very devout in worship, pure in life, and sacrificial in taking time for regular worship and additional meetings on various occasions. It is also true that others fell away, some recanted their faith rather than face persecution, and still, others were lukewarm. So it has been from the beginning of the church. Each of us would do well to reflect on our own faith and life.

Can we imagine these early saints whining about all their various assemblies? “Well, I might ‘have’ to come on Sunday, but no one can prove I ‘have’ to meet to pray for persecuted saints, or to settle problems involving friction, or to witness discipline of wayward members, or to weep and pray over deceased saints, or to sit through a debate, or to attend Bible classes.” Can we imagine the first Jerusalem saints complaining to the Apostles about “daily” meetings for instruction which were conducted for a time (Acts 2:46)? Can we imagine Hippolytus’ brethren complaining about his admonition to attend meetings each day before work, and if there are no meetings to conduct family devotions? Can we imagine telling Stephen or Polycarp, “It is hard enough to attend on Sunday? Don’t you fellows know I get tired at work and my children are busy with school activities and sports events? We just don’t have time for gospel meetings, mid-week classes, debates, singing, prayer meetings, and all the rest.” “Anyway, all these other meetings are just somebody’s tradition and I don’t see the need for them.”

Truly, there are great lessons to learn from the early records of our brethren’s assemblies.

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