Soon after the ascension of Jesus, the early church had the challenge of teaching new Christians to ‘obey all that Jesus commanded’, in obedience to the Great Commission the Risen Christ Jesus gave to the Apostles:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20.
Then, as now, there was a great deal of religious confusion. The Church had to bring clear teaching to its converts to start them well on their Christian life.
Converts are those who put their trust in Jesus. As Jesus said:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John3:16.
The question was, how to teach converts to live as Christians. Where to start? Over time, the Church formulated the ‘catechism’, literally ‘oral teaching’, to instruct new converts on the principal content of Christian teaching.
The Catechism, at its most basic, consisted of four main points:
The Apostles’ Creed, a summary of Biblical truth;
The Lord’s Prayer, an example of how to pray;
The Ten Commandments, God’s summary of His moral Law
The Sacraments – the rites of the Church, of which the essential ones taught by Christ are Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) and Baptism following repentance.
While the Apostles’ Creed went through a process of refinement and clarification, the Creed never changed much from its earliest formulation:
I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,
who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,
descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day,
ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of
God the Father almighty, who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy, catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostles’ Creed is called this because it represents a faithful summary of the Apostles’ teaching in the New Testament.
(In the Creed, the word catholic means universal; hell means place of the dead rather than eternal punishment).
The second section is the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
In English speaking churches it is commonly said using an archaic style as published in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which lends a certain poetry and gravitas to the prayer and aids in its memorisation:
“Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.
Amen.” Matthew 6:9-13.
This prayer enables the most tongue-tied believer to address God. Obviously, it can be translated into any language.
(The word trespass means to cross a moral line, as understood by the praying individual. The expression ‘daily bread’ means our daily essential needs.)
In the third section of the catechism, the convert is introduced to The Ten Commandments, which were given by God through Moses to the people of Israel after God had rescued them out of slavery into freedom from Egypt through the Red Sea. God first spoke the words audibly. Then he wrote this Law on two stone tablets, and they are God’s Covenant of Law with the people which, if the people obeyed the Commandments, would keep them free:
“And God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Exodus 20:1-17.
These Ten Commandments apply also to believers in Jesus, as Jesus said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Matthew 5: 17-18.
These Ten Commandments summarise how a Christian can love those around him.
The Law can be summarised in the two greatest Commandments, which Jesus quotes:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments [in the whole Law of Moses], which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31.
The whole Law of Moses is worth studying for its moral law makes specific commands that clarify much more precisely what the word ‘love’ means in terms of practical action, rather than mere moral sentiment or inclinations of the heart. A study of the Jewish prophets also can tell us much about the foundational concepts that underlie the Law, such as justice, mercy and righteousness.
To these two greatest commandments Jesus added a third for his disciples, and therefore all believers:
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:13-14.
Jesus kept the whole Law of Moses, including the moral law, being a righteous Jew. So, we can learn much about love through a careful examination of the Gospel accounts of Jesus life and also read the letters of Paul and the other Apostles to appreciate their understanding of the teaching and person of the Messiah Jesus.
How much of the Law of Moses the gentile Christians should keep became an issue for the early church, which the Council of the church in Jerusalem resolved in this way as recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts:
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:
“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord,
who does these things—things known from long ago.’ [Amos 9:11-12].
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.” Acts 15:1-31.
It is worth noting two subtleties about James’ recommendation and the letter that can easily escape our notice. First, James pointed out that “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times” and so the gentile Christians would be familiar with the Ten Commandments. These Ten Commandments say nothing about circumcision or other Jewish rites and customs, for the Ten Commandments are moral law – a summary of God’s moral law arising from His perfect moral character, and therefore expected of the gentile Christians, for being God’s moral Law, they are universal for all human beings, not for Jews only.
James also recommends that the gentile Christians “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”
He is quoting from verses in the Book of Leviticus found in chapters 17, 18 and 19, which contain more detailed moral commandments that clarify some of the commandments of the Ten Commandments. Most relevantly for the Church in the West, Leviticus chapter 18 clarifies what constitutes ‘sexual immorality’, and is therefore, without doubt, a requirement placed upon all gentile Christians by the authority of the Holy Spirit, expressed through the Council of Jerusalem.
Finally, the early church taught converts what baptism (by immersion, ideally) was for:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 3:21.
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Galatians 3:27.
The Church also taught the sacrament, or rite, of Holy Communion:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Cor 11:23-26.
This simple four part teaching, or Catechism, enables the Christian who has put their faith in Jesus Christ, to start living the Christian life. They might be on their own, yet they can now begin to live the Christian life. With only one or two other believers, they may now be a local church, for, as Jesus promised:
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The Lord be with you,
Jesus Christ for Muslims