The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE HISTORY OF
MANKIND AND THE
10th January 2008
FROM THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
TO ST. CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
Now fifty days after the Resurrection on the day of Pentecost, they were all gathered together again in that same upper room and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. We have seen this phenomenon of speaking in tongues at a previous talk so we won’t concern ourselves with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit but with what the event means for the Church. Christ promised that after his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven he would send another Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who would abide with us for ever. This new covenant was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Holy Apostles and other disciples in the form of tongues of fire. Since that day The Holy Spirit abides in the Church and leads her into all truth, it performs and sanctifies the divine mysteries and through these it sanctifies the faithful. Christ established the Church when he chose His Twelve Disciples, but this was only the nucleus of the Church. The Church as a divine institution was founded by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost so in fact we can say that Pentecost is the celebration of the Church’s Birthday. From that day the Apostles began baptizing people in the Holy Trinity and laying their hands upon them to transfer the gifts of the Holy Spirit to each member. The miracles associated with the event of Pentecost must have been so convincing because we are told that on that one day three thousand souls were baptized. So now with the Church truly established, everyone continued in prayer and in the daily celebration of the Eucharist. A new community was formed where everyone who believed came together and they had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods and divided them among the people. It says that no one thought of the things that he had belonged to him but that they belonged to everyone. Many who had lands and houses sold them and brought the money and laid it down at the Apostles’ feet, and the Apostles distributed to everyman according to his need. St. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus also sold his land and laid it down at the Apostle’s feet. Of course they were not obliged to do this, they had the free will do it by chose. We see this with the story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They sold a possession and kept back part of the price secretly for their own use. When Ananias brought the money to the Apostles, Peter knew what he had done and said to him: “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” For lying to God, Ananias died there and then and they took his body and buried it. After three hours his wife came not knowing that her husband had died and Peter asked her how much they got for the land. She told them the same as did her husband. Peter then said to her: “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.” The first Church was very different from what we have today, who today, except monks and nuns, would sell everything they possess and give it to the Church trusting that she would give them according to what they need? I think we would all end up as Ananias and his wife.
As the Church grew in numbers, the Apostles couldn’t continue their preaching and at the same time deal with the increasing needs of the daily administration so the office of the diaconate was established. Seven men were chosen to be ordained deacons: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas. Ordination was established with the laying on of the Apostles hands. Now at this time there was a great persecution against the church at Jerusalem. Stephen was arrested for preaching about Christ and was stoned to death, becoming the first martyr for Christ. Among those present at his stoning and who also consented to the stoning was a man called Saul who was later to become the Greatest of the Apostles to the Gentiles and be known as Paul. After Stephen’s Martyrdom, the Apostles began to preach outside of Jerusalem. Philip went into Samaria and preached there and was soon followed by Peter and John. Saul in the meantime continued his persecution of the New Church, entering into houses and casting people into prison. Having received authority from the high priest to arrest any man believing in Christ, he headed for Damascus to continue his persecution. On the way he saw a vision of a bright light from heaven and heard the Lord asking him why he continued to persecute him. He was blinded by the light for three days until he came to a place which the Lord told him and was met by a man called Ananias. This Ananias laid his hands upon him and he was filled with the Holy Ghost and received his sight. Saul was immediately baptized and with all the zeal he had for persecuting Christ he now opening preached him in the synagogues.
Acts continues to tell us of the Apostles’ preachings and miracles and the continuing persecution of the Church. Peter and John were arrested and after being flogged were set free and Paul was stoned and left for dead. The Acts of the Apostles mentions how the members of the new religion came to be called Christians first in Antioch. Before this they were probably called Nazarenes or just disciples of Jesus Christ. It continues with King Herod’s persecution of the Christians and how he killed James the brother of John with the sword and because it pleased the Jews, he had Peter arrested and cast into prison bound with chains. God sent an angel and miraculously freed Peter from the chains and from prison.
In chapter 15 of Acts we are told of the first Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem. A question arose about whether the Gentiles who came to believe in Christ should also fulfil the Law of Moses and be circumcised. After much discussion it was decided that as God had put no difference between the Gentiles and themselves and had given them the gift of the Holy Spirit, then circumcision was not a necessity for salvation, but all who believe will be saved through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ. This Synod of the Apostles established the way for future synods in the Orthodox Church. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church where the Pope is infallible and has the last word, Peter who was probably the acting chairman of the synod did not say he had decided what was to be acceptable, neither did James the Lord’s brother who was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, but all the Apostles being of one accord said “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” (Acts 15:28). During their consultations the Holy Spirit was present and directed the thoughts of the members of the synod who sat and conversed as equals. This is how the Orthodox Church conducts her synods to this day. There is a Chairman but he does not make the decisions. All the bishops are equal whether they be Patriarch, Archbishop, Metropolitan, or just an assisting Bishop. The Apostolic Council dealt with other matters of Church life. We have in the Book called the Rudder, a collection of Church canon laws from all the Ecumenical Councils, some Local Councils and from certain individuals, also 85 canons supposedly From the Apostolic Councils. A great many must have originated from the Apostles, but others were probably added at a later date. They deal mainly with who can become a bishop, a priest or a deacon, how they should be ordained and for what reasons they should be deposed from office.
rest of the Acts of the Apostles tells mainly of Paul’s three apostolic
journeys to the gentiles, the first bringing him to Salamis in Cyprus and
then to Paphos. It finishes with Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea and then
in Rome. Paul is not called the Great Apostle to the Gentiles for nothing,
he spread the word of the Resurrected Christ among many nations of the
Gentiles like no other Apostle did. He would go to one city and stay there
long enough for him to teach them the Christian faith and establish a
Church there before moving on to another city. Later he would write to the
established Church to support their faith. At other times, he would
receive letters from them asking him to intervene when problems arose that
caused scandal or schisms within the Church. His letters are a wealth of
God-inspired spiritual instructions and at the same time a great source of
information on the life of the early Church. They combine a dogmatic and
ethical teaching without the dryness of formality, but with love and
warmth in a way a brother would write to a brother and a father to his
son: sometimes with tears, and at other times with joy, advising,
comforting, thanking, but also drawing one’s attention to the seriousness
of what he has written.
paints Nero as an evil madman and is perhaps most famous for the great
fire of Rome in 64AD. It started in the Circus Maximus the great arena in
Rome for chariot races and games. The fire spread quickly and for several
days consumed much of the city, including Emperor Nero's palace.
Immediately, the rumor spread that Nero himself had caused the great fire
to clear space for a grand new city and palace that he had designed. Nero
probably didn’t start the fire himself because he is said to have been in
Antium at the time, but whether he gave the order is another matter.
Nevertheless, the suffering people of Rome believed he was guilty so Nero
desperately needed a scapegoat to blame the fire on and save his own skin
from the mob. He quickly pointed the finger at the small religious sect
called the Christians. They were unpopular with the common people of Rome
who believed various rumours about them. Some thought Christians practiced
cannibalism because the sacrament of the Eucharist called for believers to
eat the flesh and blood of Christ. Others believed that Christians
practiced incest because they preached loving their brothers and sisters.
Others believed Christians hated humanity because they kept secrets and
withdrew from normal social life. These rumours helped Nero shift public
opinion to blaming the Christians rather than himself for the great fire.
Since the Christian religion was still illegal, it was easy to order mass
arrests, trials, and executions. The second period of persecutions began
and a great number of Christian martyrs suffered horrible deaths. Many
were killed by wild animals before crowds of spectators in the arena,
other were crucified, while others were tied to posts, covered with
flammable material, and used as human street lamps for Nero's gardens.
Among those arrested were Sts. Peter and Paul. Peter was ordered to be
crucified. When he saw the cross before him, he asked the executioner to
crucify him upside down, because he felt himself to be unworthy to die in
the same way as his Lord. Paul was beheaded.
were other reasons too for choosing the underground diggings. The
Christians felt a lively community sense: they wished to be together even
in the "sleep of death". But also, such out-of-the-way areas, especially
during the persecutions, were the ideal place for community meetings and
for the free displaying of the Christian symbols. Here the Christians
gathered to celebrate their funeral rites, the anniversaries of the
martyrs and of the dead. For centuries it was believed that they were
secret hiding places of the early Christians during the persecutions, but
this is probably fictional because the early Christians did not bury their
faith nor their lives in the underground. They lived like most common
people with their families in society, participating in all activities,
jobs and professions. The Christians of the first centuries testified
their faith everywhere and bore a wonderful witness to Christ; many of
them even by the shedding of their blood, so that martyrdom had become a
glorious mark of the Church. They did gather regularly at the underground
catacombs, not to hide, but to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The martyrs’
tombs were used as Holy Altars where the Body and Blood of Christ were
consecrated. It was in the catacombs that those heroic Christians found
the strength and support to face the trials and persecutions, as they
prayed to God through the intercessions of the martyrs. The practices of
the Early Christians have come down to our modern day practices in Church.
When a new Holy Altar is consecrated by the Bishop, he places in the
centre of the Altar a small silver container with small pieces from the
relics of martyrs. Another custom we have from the days of the catacombs
are the candles and vigil lights. Originally they were used in the
catacombs to give light in those dark underground tunnels. Today with
electricity, we don’t need the candles for practical use and instead we
use them in prayer giving them symbolic meanings for various uses.
Emperors that persecuted the Church were Marcus Aurelius 161-180AD. Under
his persecution suffered the Hieromartyr Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna,
and the Christian martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, two cities in France.
Septimius Severus 193-211 AD. This persecution extended to northern
Africa, which was a Roman province. Maximinus, Gaius Julius Verus 235-238
AD). Decius 249-251 AD. In this persecution Fabian was martyred; Cyprian,
bishop of Carthage, was forced into exile; and Origen imprisoned and
tortured. Valerian 253-260 AD). Aurelian 270-275 AD).
After Constantine became the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire, he met with Licinius the Eastern Emperor in Milan. During this meeting, the emperors agreed on the so-called Edict of Milan which officially granted full tolerance to all religions in the Empire. The document had special benefits for Christians, legalizing their religion and granting them restoration for all Church property seized during Diocletian's persecution. Licinius in the east didn’t grant full tolerance and towards the end of his rule again began to persecute the Christians. When Constantine became the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire in 323, he extended the provisions of the Edict of Milan to the Eastern half of the Empire. After three hundred years of persecution, Christians could finally practice their faith without fear. Thus began a new era for Christians. The Emperor himself renounced paganism and favoured Christianity even though he was not as yet baptized. His next move as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire was to transfer the capital of the empire from Rome to the east. Rome was the former centre of the pagan realm and was unsuitable for the Christian capital he visualized. He rebuilt the ancient city of Byzantium and called it the New Rome which after his death was renamed Constantinople the New Rome, and laid down that no pagan rite should ever be performed there. He continued his support for the Church in every way recalling Christian confessors from banishment, by building churches including the Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople and the Church of the Resurrection at Jerusalem, and by showing concern for the clergy. In time, he gave rights to the Bishops and Priests, and the right for the Church to inherit property. He was responsible for the Church, becoming, from the Church of the Catacombs to the Church of the Empire.
age of persecution was over and the Church was free to now concentrate her
efforts on matters concerning the true faith. Under persecution the Church
couldn’t defend the faith from the many heresies that had sprung up. Now
with the freedom of religion, these heresies were becoming widely known
throughout the Empire. The main heresy at the time came from an
Alexandrian priest called Arius. He taught that the Son was inferior to
the Father denying him the Divine Nature of God, and taught that Jesus
Christ was a mere creature. Constantine’s vision of New Rome as the
capital of a Christian Empire firmly based upon the one Orthodox faith had
to be defended against the new heresies. He summoned and presided at the
First Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 325. The
main work of the Council was to prove that Christ was equal and
consubstantial to the Father, that he was truly God and not a creation.
Arius’ teaching was officially condemned by the Church as heresy. The
Council summing up the Christian faith gave us the Nicene Creed, the
statement of faith which was then completed by the Second Ecumenical
Council of Constantinople in 381AD. The Creed has remained unchanged from
then until the present day.