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History of the 2nd Century Church: Part 1

Oct 12, 2007

As the second century began, the Age of the Apostles was ending. John was an old man, recently released from his exile at Patmos by Roman Emperor Nerva, under whose benevolent rule many of the injustices of Domitian had been rectified. Nerva's rule, however, was very short, ruling only from 96-98, when he was succeeded by Trajan [98-117].

And so, as the second century arrived, Trajan ruled Rome, Clement was the bishop in Rome, Ignatius in Antioch, Cerdo in Alexandria, and Symeon son of Clopas was bishop in Jerusalem. Symeon was the son of the son of the Lord's uncle Clopas (or Cleopas) mentioned in Luke 24:18, to whom Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus. (Luke was his companion, so he wrote this account from first-hand knowledge.) Eusebius tells us in his Eccl. Hist., III, 22,

"At Antioch, where Evodus had been the first bishop, Ignatius was become famous at this time; his contemporary Symeon was similarly the next after our Saviour's brother [James] to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem."

 John himself functioned as the head of the churches in Asia, many of which Paul had founded four decades earlier. In the next generation of church leaders, Irenaeus [120-202] wrote of him in his second volume of Against Heresies, XXII, 5, "And he [John] remained among them up to the times of Trajan."

Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of Irenaeus, wrote a brief story about an incident in John's life in a book called The Rich Man Who Finds Salvation, 42.1-15. Eusebius quotes it in Eccl. Hist. III, 23:

"Listen to a tale that is not just a tale but a true account of John the apostle, handed down and carefully remembered. When the tyrant [Domitian] was dead, and John had moved from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to go when asked to the neighbouring districts of the Gentile peoples, sometimes to appoint bishops, sometimes to organize whole churches, sometimes to ordain one person to those pointed out by the Spirit.

"So it happened that he arrived at a city not far off, named by some [Smyrna], and after settling the various problems of the brethren, he finally looked at the bishop already appointed, and indicating a youngster he had noticed, of excellent physique, attractive appearance, and ardent spirit, he said, 'I leave this young man in your keeping, with all earnestness, in the presence of the Church and Christ as my witness.' When the bishop accepted him and promised everything, John addressed the same appeal and adjuration to him a second time.

"He then returned to Ephesus, and the cleric took home the youngster entrusted to his care, brought him up, kept him in his company, looked after him, and finally gave him the grace of baptism. After this he relaxed his constant care and watchfulness, having put upon him the seal of the Lord as the perfect protection. But the youngster snatched at liberty too soon, and was led sadly astray by others of his own age who were idle, dissolute, and evil-livers.

"First they led him on by expensive entertainments; then they took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery; then they urged him to take part in even greater crimes. Little by little he fell into their way and like a hard-mouthed powerful horse he dashed off the straight road, and taking the bit between his teeth, rushed down the precipice the more violently because of his immense vitality.

"Completely renouncing God's salvation, he was no longer content with petty offences, but, as his life was already in ruins, he decided to commit a major crime and suffer the same fate as the others. He took these same young renegades and formed them into a gang of bandits of which his was the master mind, surpassing them all in violence, cruelty, and bloodthirstiness.

"Time went by, and some necessity having arisen, John was asked to pay another visit. When he had dealt with the business for which he had come, he said, 'Come now, bishop, pay me back the deposit which Christ and I left in your keeping, in the presence of the Church over which you preside as my witness.' At first the bishop was taken aback, thinking that he was being dunned for money he had never received. He could neither comply with a demand for what he did not possess, nor refuse to comply with John's request. But when John said, 'It is the young man I am asking for, and the soul of our brother,' the old man sighed deeply and shed a tear.

" 'He is dead'.

" 'How did he die?'

"He is dead to God; he turned out wicked and profligate, in short, a bandit; and now, instead of the Church, he has taken to the mountain with an armed gang of men like himself.

"The apostle rent his garment, groaned aloud, and beat his head. 'A fine guardian,' he cried, 'I left of our brother's soul! However, let me have a horse immediately, and someone to show me the way.' He galloped off from the church, then and there, just as he was. When he arrived at the place, and was seized by the bandits' sentry-group, he made no attempt to escape and asked no mercy, but shouted: 'This is what I have come for; take me to your leader.'

"For the time being the young man waited, armed as he was; but as John approached, he recognized him, and filled with shame, turned to flee. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his years, and calling out, 'Why do you run away from me, child--from your own father, unarmed and very old? Be sorry for me, child, not afraid of me. I will gladly suffer your death, as the Lord suffered death for us; to save you I will give my own life. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.'

"When he heard this, the young man stopped and stood with his eyes on the ground; then he threw down his weapons; then he trembled and began to weep bitterly. When the old man came up, he flung his arms round him, pleading for himself with groans as best he could, and baptized a second time with his tears, but keeping his right hand out of sight.

"But John solemnly pledged his word that he had found pardon for him from the Saviour; he prayed, knelt down, and kissed that very hand as being cleansed by his repentance. Then he brought him back to the church, interceded for him with many prayers, shared with him the ordeal of continuous fasting, brought his mind under control by all the enchanting power of words, and did not leave him, we are told, till he had restored him to the Church, giving a perfect example of true repentance and a perfect proof of regeneration, the trophy of a visible resurrection."

Such was the character of John, the apostle, and how he cared for the Churches in Asia. John's gospel was written much later than the other gospels, and it is said that his reason for writing it was to share certain details that the others had left out. For this reason, his gospel is quite different.

John was also concerned with Gnosticism and wrote against their views. Gnosticism was started by Simon Magus, and when Simon died, he was succeeded by another Samaritan named Menander, who claimed to be the Saviour of mankind sent from heaven. Gnosticism adhered to the Greek idea that spirit was good and matter was evil. As a consequence, they denied that Christ had come in the flesh, but only appeared to do so. So 1 John 4:2 says,

" (2) By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, (3) and every spirit that does NOT confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world."

John's Gospel begins with a statement that the Gnostics would have agreed with, but when he said in verse 14, "and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," it slapped them in the face.


This is the first part of a series titled "History of the 2nd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 2nd Century Church


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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