The following information is adapted from Glimpses of Church History (Issues #8, #9, and #217), published by Church History Institute.
The New Testament tells of the fate of only two of the apostles: Judas (Iscariot), who betrayed Jesus and then went out and hanged himself, and James the son of Zebedee, who was executed by Herod about 44 A.D. (Acts 12:2). As to the rest of the apostles, reports and legends abound, though not always reliable, but still giving us some clue as to what might have happened. An early legend says they cast lots and divided up the world to determine who would go where, so all could hear about Jesus. They suffered greatly for their faith and in most cases met violent deaths on account of their bold witness.
PETER and PAUL were both executed in Rome about 66 A.D., during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Paul was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down, at his request, since he did not feel he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.
ANDREW went to the “land of the man-eaters,” in what is now the Soviet Union. Christians there claim him as the first to bring the gospel to their land. He also preached in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and in Greece, where it is thought he was crucified.
THOMAS was probably most active in the area east of Syria. Tradition has him preaching in India, where the ancient Marthoma Christians revere him as their founder and claim that he died there when pierced through with the spears of four soldiers.
PHILIP possibly had a powerful ministry in Carthage in North Africa and then in Asia Minor, where the wife of a Roman proconsul accepted the gospel. In retaliation the proconsul had Philip arrested and cruelly put to death.
MATTHEW the tax collector and writer of the Gospel bearing his name, ministered in Persia and Ethiopia. Some of the oldest reports say he was not martyred, while others say he was stabbed to death in Ethiopia.
BARTHOLOMEW (also known as Nathaniel) had widespread missionary travels attributed to him by tradition: to India with Thomas, back to Armenia, and also to Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. There are various accounts of how he met his death as a martyr for the gospel.
JAMES the son of Alphaeus, is one of at least three James referred to in the New Testament. This James is reckoned to have ministered in Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that he was stoned and then clubbed to death.
SIMON THE ZEALOT, so the story goes, ministered in Persia and was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god.
Little is known of Thaddaeus (also known as Judas, not Iscariot).
MATTHIAS was the apostle chosen to replace Judas. Tradition sends him to Syria with Andrew and to death by burning.
JOHN is the only one of the company generally thought to have died a natural death from old age. He was the leader of the church in Ephesus. During Domitian’s persecution in the middle 90’s, he was exiled to the island of Patmos. There he wrote the last book of the New Testament—Revelation. An early Latin tradition has him escaping unhurt after being cast into boiling oil at Rome.
How did the early Christian church survive? Humanly speaking, the odds were all stacked against it. It was unthinkable that a small, despised movement from a corner of Palestine could move out to become the dominant faith of the mighty Roman Empire, an empire steeped in fiercely defended traditional pagan religions. The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all of human history. The church was considered a religio prava, an illegal and depraved religion. Wave after wave of persecution was unleashed to squash it. At least two of the persecutions were empire-wide and intended to destroy the church. So how did this young fledgling movement make it?
The earliest Christians did not have church buildings. They typically met in homes. (The first actual church building to be found is at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, dating about 231.) They did not have public ceremonies that would introduce them to the public. They had no access to the mass media of their day. So how can we account for their steady and diverse expansion over the first three centuries?
After the Apostle Paul, we do not run across many “big names” as missionaries in the first few hundred years of Christian history. Instead the faith spread through a multitude of humble, ordinary believers whose names have been long forgotten.
Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believers close-up, on a daily basis.
And what kind of lives did they lead? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius in A.D. 153 and described the believers:
“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.”
In another place Justin points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their extraordinary forbearance when cheated and their honesty in business dealings.
Christians became known as those who cared for the sick. Many were known for the healing that resulted from their prayers. Christians also started the first “Meals on Wheels.” By the year 250, they were feeding more than 1500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.
When Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) wanted to revive pagan religion in the mid-300s, he gave a most helpful insight into how the church spread. This opponent of the faith said that Christianity “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”
On the surface, the early Christians appeared powerless and weak, they were an easy target for scorn and ridicule. They had no great financial resources, no buildings, no social status, no government approval, and no respect from the educators. And after they became separated from their first-century association with the Jewish synagogues, they lacked institutional backing and an ancient tradition to appeal to.
But what finally mattered is what they did have. They had a faith. They had a fellowship. They had a new way of life. They had a confidence that their Lord was alive in heaven and guiding their daily lives. These were the important things. And it made all the difference in laying a Christian foundation for all of Western civilization.
What was a typical worship service like in the century after Christ and the apostles died? In a letter to the emperor around A.D. 153, Christian philosopher and layman Justin Martyr explained what Christians believed and what they actually did when they gathered. From Justin’s account, we learn that the central elements of worship have for the most part remained consistent from the earliest days of the church until today: the Word of God (both read and preached), corporate prayer (including the Psalms), Communion (using bread and wine), and an offering (so the church could care for the poor).
The early Christians gathered on Sunday (the pagan name of the first day of the week), which they usually called the “Lord’s Day.”
“We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed 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 [Saturday], and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught these things, which we have offered for your consideration.” (From the First Apology of Justin Martyr)
They read Scripture aloud, usually the writings that became the New Testament and/or the Old Testament. The reader read as long as time permitted. The average person could not read so these readings provided the main opportunity for Christians to learn the Bible.
The congregational leader—the “presiding brother” who was bishop, overseer, or pastor—gave a sermon. The sermon was based on the Scripture reading of the day and made a practical application, urging the congregation to imitate “these good things.”
The congregation stood and prayed together. In the early church, a person kneeled or prostrated himself to express humility, repentance, and confession of sin. Standing was a sign of joy and boldness. They stood when they prayed because they believed that as God’s children they had the freedom and privilege to come boldly into His presence through Christ. As Justin describes it, their prayer began with an address to God as Father and Creator, glorified Him for His mighty acts, moved from giving thanks to asking for God’s help, and closed with praise—all in the name of Christ.
Besides singing the Psalms as prayer, early Christians also sang other poetic sections of the Bible and composed their own hymns. Our earliest Christian “hymnbook” is The Odes of Solomon from the second or third century.
They kissed each other. At least on occasions when there was a baptism, Justin wrote, “we salute one another with a kiss.” The “holy kiss” was an expression of brotherly love, a sign of being in fellowship with one another. It welcomed newly baptized believers into the family of God.
They set apart bread and wine. The bread and wine may have been ordinary, but they were now set apart and given new meaning. In the first century, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as part of an entire meal.
The leader gave thanks to God. The New Testament usually refers to communion as “the breaking of bread,” but second century Christian writers called it the “thanksgiving” (Latin, Eucharist). Unlike the bloody sacrifices of pagan religions, Christians offered the spiritual sacrifice of prayer and thanksgiving. The leader sent “up praise and glory to the Father through the name of his Son and of the Holy Spirit and makes thanksgiving at length for the gifts we were counted worthy to receive from him.”
The congregation said “Amen.” The word amen is Hebrew for “may it be so.” Just as in the Jewish synagogues, the early Christians gave their amen after the prayer or doxology to show their assent to what had been said. This was an acclamation—shouted out, not mumbled.
The bread and wine were distributed by the deacons. Sharing the bread and wine expressed the fellowship of the believing community. The deacons even carried them to those who were sick at home or unable to be present physically.
Everyone who wanted to gave money. Unlike the “dues” of clubs and private associations that were so common in the Roman Empire, the Christians’ offerings were entirely voluntary—a free gift. The money benefited orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, and strangers.
Worship was balanced. In the first part of the service (focused on the Word), God speaks to human beings through Scripture, and humans speak to God through prayer. In the second part of the service (focused on the Lord’s Supper), the bread and wine represent God’s gift to His people, and the offering represents the people’s gifts to God.