If you belong to a typical mainstream church today and could somehow be transported back nearly 2,000 years to the time of the New Testament Church, wouldn’t that be exciting?
Actually, you might find it rather disturbing! If you talked with anyone then about your religious doctrines and practices of today, they would quickly characterize you as a heretic! You would be lost, confused, out of place and considered, well … odd!
On the other hand, if members of the early Church could be resurrected and placed into a conventional church today, they, too, would find it completely foreign. That’s because the practices of Christianity today have virtually nothing in common with those of Jesus and the Church He founded.
Continuing your imaginary trip back to the first century, the people of the New Testament Church would be perplexed if you brought up the Trinity, immortal soul, rapture, baptizing infants or baptizing by sprinkling, going to heaven or hell when you die, or a myriad of other doctrines commonly accepted today.
And perhaps your first surprise would be when you showed up on Sunday to worship with them—no one would be there! Easter services—what are you talking about?
Why would the Church of the first century seem so bizarre? It’s because the core teachings of Jesus and the apostles were systematically dismantled and replaced over time with other ideas.
What happened? And why?
Jesus knew that His adversaries would first kill Him, and then others would follow trying to obliterate or reinterpret His teachings and practices.
In Matthew 24 He spared no words, warning, “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (verses 4-5) and, “Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (verse 11).
It didn’t take long. A common theme in Paul’s, Peter’s, John’s and Jude’s writings is their fight against the heretical changes assailing the early Church. Ironically, in some instances they found their own words were being distorted by these deceivers!
Note Peter’s stunning statement about Paul’s epistles: “Speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
Paul wouldn’t recognize the teachings and practices of most churches today, and it’s easy to think he’d be appalled to see how his words have been twisted to justify many of today’s doctrines. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t be surprised.
After all, he’d seen it already. He wrote the Galatians: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).
Jude faced the same battle. He found it “necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
How the faith slipped away
History is clear on how the faith once delivered was quickly slipping away. Less than a hundred years after Christ, Bishop Sixtus of Rome pushed the Church to rid itself of “Jewish” customs and substitute new ones.
Bishop Victor of Rome sparked a huge controversy by pressing the Church to switch from observing the Passover to Easter Sunday. Victor's agenda eventually prevailed as the Council of Nicea settled the issue in A.D. 325.
On his heels Bishop Victor of Rome sparked a huge controversy by pressing the Church to switch from observing the Passover (to commemorate Christ’s death) to Easter Sunday (to commemorate His resurrection). He ran into a strong opponent in Polycrates of Ephesus.
The historian Eusebius cites Polycrates’ brave defense in which he lists many names of people faithful to Christ’s teachings. “All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith,” he wrote. “And I also, Polycrates … and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven [the biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread]. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’”
Victor’s agenda eventually prevailed as the Council of Nicea settled the issue in A.D. 325.
Behind the scenes
But why would anyone even be interested in fomenting upset by forcing such doctrinal change in Church practice? Here’s where it gets ugly. Something far more sinister than just new doctrinal ideas was working behind the scenes.
Another driving force had begun heavily influencing people: anti-Semitism. Of course, Jesus was a Jew, as were the apostles! They never thought of the Passover and other biblical holy days as Jewish—they were God’s! But anything related to what some viewed as Jewish would now be targeted.
Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, brought his hatred of anything Jewish with him, as he revealed in his letter to the delegates at Nicea:
“It was decreed unworthy to observe that most sacred festival [Passover] in accordance with the practice of the Jews; having sullied their own hands with a heinous crime, such bloodstained men are as one might expect mentally blind. … Let there be nothing in common between you and the detestable mob of Jews! We have received from the Saviour another way. … Let us with one accord take up this course … and so tear ourselves away from that disgusting complicity. For it is surely quite grotesque for them to be able to boast that we would be incapable of keeping these observances without their instruction” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.18.2-3).
Constantine was wrong. They had not “received from our Saviour another way.” Paul had written in detail about the observance and meaning of the Passover, stating, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). But these church leaders preferred to receive their direction from a Roman emperor rather than a New Testament apostle, and thus institutionalized Easter as “Christian” and marginalized Passover as “Jewish.”
The Sabbath suffered a similar fate, from a similar motive, as church leaders changed to Sunday observance.
Out of the Council of Laodicea in A.D. 365 came Canon 29, stating: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day, and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema [accursed] from Christ.”
Really? To worship on the same days Jesus did would now make you accursed?
This raises a troubling question: Does doctrinal change of any kind, but especially that of fundamental belief and practice, have any legitimacy when it has been dictated by anti-Semitism?
It is true that certain Jews were a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, and certain religious factions of the Jews were persecuting Christians (thousands of whom, it should be noted, were Jews!). But if we allow our animosity toward some group to influence our integrity with interpreting the Scriptures, that puts us in conflict with God!
The Sabbath was not the Jews’—it was God’s! Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man [not just the Jews], and not man for the Sabbath.” Furthermore, He “is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
And centuries earlier, when God gave Israel His holy days, He said: “The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts” (Leviticus 23:2, emphasis added throughout). These are the same feasts we find from both history and the Bible that the New Testament Church kept. They were never “Jewish feasts” or the “Jewish Sabbath”—they were, and are, God’s!
So when did He legitimize changing His holy days? Is it okay with Him if humans discard the Fourth Commandment, substituting Sunday for the Sabbath that He created, sanctified and hallowed? Does He care if we trade His holy days and adopt others from non-Christian religions?
History shows that as the years passed there were always small groups of people who said, “Yes, it matters!” Their numbers were small, especially in the face of sometimes horrific persecution, but they steadfastly held to the biblical doctrines and practices of Christ and the New Testament Church. Some even gave their lives, displaying a courage of conviction that would not allow them to compromise the truth.
They recognized when doctrinal changes were unbiblical and when the motives behind them were wrong.
Daniel Augsburger, a professor of historical theology at Andrews University, wrote this in The Sabbath in Scripture and History: “But also, all throughout that period there were groups of people who, either through the example of the Jews or because of their study of the Scriptures, attempted to keep the day that Jesus and the apostles had kept. For obvious reasons we know little about their number or their names, but their presence shows that in every age there were some who attempted to place the Word of God above the traditions of men” (1982, p. 210).
It’s a matter of authority
All religious practices derive their authority from somewhere. Who molded and shaped what you believe today? If it differs from what the Bible says and what the New Testament Church practiced, does anyone have the authority to make such changes?
Most people just accept what they have been taught. Some try to read meaning into Scripture that justifies their doctrinal position. Others are more honest with history and admit they just changed things. Thomas Aquinas, for example, one of history’s most influential theologians, wrote, “In the New Law the observance of the Lord’s day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath, not by virtue of the precept but by the institution of the Church and the custom of Christian people.”
The Catholic Virginian offered this admission: “All of us believe many things in regard to religion that we do not find in the Bible. For example, nowhere in the Bible do we find that Christ or the Apostles ordered that the Sabbath be changed from Saturday to Sunday. We have the commandment of God given to Moses to keep holy the Sabbath Day, that is the 7th day of the week, Saturday. Today most Christians keep Sunday because it has been revealed to us by the Church outside the Bible.”
It’s refreshingly honest, but honesty still doesn’t substitute for godly authority.
Today Easter is the holiest time of the year for Christianity, but most worshippers are unaware that their only authority for that day and doctrine is the word of men, not God. Jesus and His apostles’ warnings came true—men did “rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves,” as Paul told the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:30).
Some of them changed the days Jesus and the Church kept, but they couldn’t fully eradicate them.
So, does it matter? It comes down to this: Can we claim to worship the Savior who gave His life for us if we follow those who tried to kill His doctrines and practices?
The apostle John said it well:
“He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6). And, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it” (2 John 1:6).
For more on God’s festivals and their meaning to Christians today, watch our video series “Feasts of the Lord.” This series of 10 short videos explores God’s plan and what it means for you.