ELDER NEIL PHELAN JR.
The Apostles' Doctrine
"And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" -Acts 2:42
In just one verse of scripture, the Holy Ghost has moved Luke to record four identifying marks of the New Testament church in its infancy. All four of these marks identify fundamental areas of practice and worship enjoyed by the infant church as a body of believers. We might call these identifying marks the "birthmarks" of the infant church. These four areas of Christian participation and worship fulfilled their spiritual appetite and became the meat and drink of the Christian church. This accurate record immediately follows the great outpouring of God's spirit on the day of Pentecost, the day in which there were added unto the church about three thousand souls. According to Luke, the New Testament church, in its very awakening, "continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."
This activity of the New Testament church seems to be of great importance to God, since He moved Luke to record these facts. Should the activity of the New Testament church of 1995 be any different? I believe the Holy Ghost moved Luke to record this observation, and God has been faithful to preserve his words for this purpose: that the church in every age would, to the best of their ability, retain their identity and fulfill their Christian experience by continuing "stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."
All four of these areas were of vast importance to the New Testament Church in its very beginning and are of no less import today. We should never diminish from the magnitude of even one. But in this article I want to focus our attention to only one of these birthmarks: "The Apostles' doctrine."
THE APOSTLES' DOCTRINE
The word 'doctrine', as found in our text, is translated from the Greek word "didache" which means 'instruction'. Therefore, when we speak of the "apostles' doctrine", we refer to that 'instruction' which was delivered unto the New Testament church by the apostles; those men that Jesus personally chose, ordained and gave the gift of apostleship to. Unto the apostles was given a very important and monumental task: to teach the 'instruction' of Jesus Christ to the New Testament church and spread it unto all nations. Jesus commanded them to "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." -Matthew 28:19-20. Within this verse we observe church perpetuity, a continual cycle of teaching and baptizing. Until the world ends, until all nations are taught, this is the commandment of Jesus unto the New Testament church. The New Testament church has been commanded by Jesus to teach and baptize people in our communities, in other communities, in other cities, states and countries; people "out of every kindred, and tongue, and nation, and people".
The apostles doctrine was not only taught and believed in the days of the apostles, but it is still taught today and will continue to be in existence until our Lord returns to take his people home with him. Jesus said unto Peter "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." The gates of hell shall never prevail against the church and the apostles' doctrine will be taught as long as the church is in existence. If we were looking for the New Testament church today, this would be the first and most prominent birthmark to look for: "the apostles' doctrine".
Jesus said "upon this rock I will build my church" and that rock is Jesus Christ. It is from this source that the apostles received their knowledge. The apostles were chosen men, vested with many special gifts and graces, many of which are no longer available to the church today. Among those was the special gift to comprehend, interpret and teach the principles that Jesus taught them. Zodhiates, a Greek scholar, has made several observations concerning the word "doctrine" as found in our text. He wrote "in an absolute sense, it (the word doctrine) denotes the teaching of Jesus". Where did the apostles get their doctrine? From Jesus!
The apostles were the revelators of all that Jesus said and did. They were Jesus' most ardent followers during His earthly ministry. They walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, listened to his sermons and his teachings, as well as the many parables that Jesus set forth. They were with him more than any other people. They personally witnessed his way of life as well as his way of death. They were the witnesses of his resurrection. They had eyes to see and ears to hear the many things that Jesus taught and preached. Jesus told them "What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops" -Mat. 10:27. Among all of the religious professors living in that day, these men were the ones that were the most qualified to testify of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as document and spread His doctrine because Jesus called them to the office and gave them the power and the authority to carry out His bidding. They fulfilled their ministry and thus their instruction was referred to as "the apostles' doctrine".
WHERE CAN THE APOSTLES DOCTRINE BE FOUND TODAY?
If we were looking for "the apostles' doctrine" today it would have to be found in the New Testament church, "which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" -1 Tim. 3:15. But where and how would the church receive and maintain this doctrine today since the apostles are dead? By the design and purpose of God, the apostles, as well as other men, have left he church some hard copies of their doctrine for the church to draw from in ages to come. When we read the pages of the New Testament cannon of scripture, which have been preserved for us by God, we are viewing "the apostles' doctrine". Some of the apostles were not only gifted to interpret and teach "the apostles doctrine" to the infant church, but many of them were moved by the Holy Ghost to write about this doctrine and deliver their instruction to the various churches. Most scholars agree that fourteen of the books of the New Testament were written by the apostle Paul, five by the apostle John, two by the apostle Peter, and one by the apostle Matthew. The other books of the New Testament were written by men who were either closely associated with the apostles themselves or with Jesus. It seems that James and Jude were half brothers to Jesus, having the same earthly mother. Mark was the cousin of Barnabus. Peter referred to Mark as "Marcus my son". Mark was the companion of Barnabus and Saul on some of their journeys. Luke was a close associate and traveling companion of Paul. He was with Paul during his first Roman imprisonment, and Paul referred to him as "Luke, the beloved physician." It was from his pen that we received not only the gospel of Luke, but also the monumental account of the "Acts of the Apostles", the book from which our text is taken. Therefore all of the New Testament scriptures were either written by an apostle or by one influenced by their lives. But let me add this: the apostles, nor Jesus, nor any of the writers of the New Testament, taught any principle that would conflict with the writings of the Old Testament. All scripture, both Old and New Testament is divine, coming from the mind of God. When the Jews marvelled at the doctrine that Jesus taught He said unto them "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me." It would be accurate to say that "the apostles' doctrine" came down from heaven.
On the Isle of Patmos, John viewed the apostles' doctrine in its purity as "a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb" -Rev. 22:1. Its divine source ensures it clarity and purity. The preacher is not to add any thing to this doctrine. His job is to keep it pure; learn from what has been written and preserved; preach and teach it for the edification of the New Testament church; and publish it for the conversion of the elect.
DIFFUSION OF THE APOSTLES' DOCTRINE
The spreading of the gospel unto the uttermost parts of the earth was best illustrated by Jesus when he spoke in parable and said: "The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof" -Matthew 13:31-32. The spreading of "the apostles' doctrine" began as a tiny seed, planted in the areas of Jerusalem, a remote corner of the world. But as we view it today, it has spread like the branches of a great tree. It grew from Jesus unto the apostles and their hearers. On the day of pentecost "the apostles' doctrine" began to branch out rapidly with the conversion of about three thousand. Since that time, the branches of this tree have spread from person to person, family to family, city to city, nation to nation, country to country and continent to continent. For almost two-thousand years, many of God's children have found a resting place in the branches of the glorious gospel of our resurrected Christ. Even today, the branches of this tiny seed continue to grow and spread its branches upward. We rejoice in the spreading of "the apostles' doctrine" in the areas of the Philippines and pray that many more of God's elect will find a resting place in the kingdom of heaven and the truths of "the apostles' doctrine".
THE BEDROCK OF THE CHURCH
The apostles' doctrine is the bedrock of the New Testament church. After all, what would the church be without "the apostles' doctrine". It would be a name without a face. It is "the apostles' doctrine" which gives the church her identity and that identity is found in Jesus Christ. It is doctrine which separates the denominations of the world. It is doctrine which clearly identifies the church from worldly organizations. Even though there are many groups and organizations that are developed and maintained for charitable causes, the purpose of the church is to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ and spread His doctrine. The church in every age is verily built upon "the apostles' doctrine". According to Paul, the church is built "upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" -Ephes. 2:20. The foundation of the New Testament church is "the apostles' doctrine."
According to the apostle John, as he viewed the framework of the New Testament church in his vision on Patmos, "the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" Rev. 21:14. The apostles' labors, which was the doctrine that they taught concerning Jesus, was, and is, the superstructure of the New Testament church. As John further measured the city, every line was plumb and square; every principle and doctrine agreed perfectly with all other truths of the Bible. And notice the man that all of this must agree with: "And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel" -Rev. 21:17. This angel is the angel of Rev. 20:1, who came "down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand." This is that man, "Christ Jesus", the "chief corner stone" of all that we believe and practice. All that we believe and practice today as the New Testament church revolves around Jesus Christ. We can not accurately preach the written word without preaching the living word and we can not accurately preach the living word without preaching the written word. He is "the apostles' doctrine".
POINTS OF DOCTRINE
The apostles' doctrine is multifaceted, including every area of instruction and practice which was ordained of God and given to men. These doctrines would include the apostles' instruction concerning salvation, practical godliness, the divine ordinances of the church and many other areas, areas too numerous to mention in this short letter. The utmost respect should be given to every word preserved of God and published by the apostles. Many of these men signed their testimony in blood for the honor of God and the perpetuity of the church.
According to our text, the infant church continued "stedfastly" in the apostles' doctrine. Steadfastly means 'earnest towards'. They were earnest and aggressive; unmovable in their doctrine and practice. They were not interested in changing the doctrine of Jesus for the purpose of drawing crowds and building their congregations. They were looking for those children of God that were touched by God's spirit in such a way that they would be submissive to Jesus Christ and His doctrine. Should we not be just as faithful today?
When I came to the Primitive Baptist Church, I rejoiced in the simplicity which was found in "the apostles' doctrine". Things were spoken very plainly. The message of salvation was not encumbered by several ideas which could only be properly understood by the clergy. Jesus Christ was magnified as the only savior of sinners. The simple message of God's grace given freely to sinners was a message that I could understand. There were no programs, classes, drives, and secret labors that I had to move up the ladder to participate in. These people did not avoid "the apostles' doctrine". They didn't avoid doctrines such as "election" and "predestination". They taught all that they knew about each subject with honesty and integrity. They did covered and taught areas that are seldom mentioned in many pulpits today. There was a seat on the pew for a sinner to hear the sweet message of God's sovereign grace and "the apostles' doctrine". That is all I needed then and that is all I need today and I am convinced that will be all that I will need for the rest of my life.
Many denominations handle subjects such as "election" and "predestination" like a hot potato: don't pick it up and don't handle it too long. But to the Primitive Baptists, it was doctrinal areas such as these, that were their meat and drink.....and so it was with the apostles.
Paul wrote "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren" -Romans 8:29. That is a portion of "the apostles' doctrine". According to Paul, God does not choose his children when they attend a particular church; they were chosen before the foundation of the world. Paul wrote "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love" -Ephes. 1:4. This, too, is a portion of "the apostles' doctrine".
Some people have wondered why Primitive Baptists do not have a Sunday school program. The reason is because "the apostles' doctrine" does not teach us to have one. You may search "the apostles doctrine" and you will not find a single mention of the infant church as having one. The apostles taught not only by commandment and commission, but they also taught by omission. It would have been verily impossible for them to list every thing that we should not do. What they omitted we should never add. If we ever begin to add principles and precepts that Jesus nor the apostles taught, our superstructure will begin to weaken and or testimony of "the apostles' doctrine" will be weakened. The infant church did have something special for their children. They gave them "the apostles' doctrine". What better instruction could we give our children than "the apostles' doctrine" in its purity. Let us truly maintain our identity and fulfill our Christian experience by continuing steadfastly in "the apostles' doctrine".