New Testament Churches

How large were the churches in the New Testament? What was the membership of the church at Corinth? Or at Ephesus? Or at Rome? Or even at Antioch or Jerusalem? Do we know? Do we have any way to know? The Scripture never really gives us that information. We know that there were 3,000 people converted to Christ at the Feast of Pentecost, but they represented many different regions and countries—from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, and Rome. That is a very large geographical area represented by the converts. We know that there were about 120 believers who gathered in the Upper Room after Jesus’ resurrection. There were over 500 people who saw Jesus ascend into heaven 40 days after His resurrection. There were about 5,000 men who believed as a result of Peter’s second sermon in Jerusalem. Many of those were probably Jews who lived in Jerusalem or Israel. In Acts 21, we are told that there were “many thousands. . .  among the Jews. . . who have believed.” So, we know that there were thousands of believers, but beyond that we know very little. The main reason why is because the Scripture is more interested in relating the stories of genuine converts, like Lydia or the Philippian jailer. Also, the Scripture gives us the marks of a true church—the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. The Protestant Reformers taught that the three essential marks of a true church are: the faithful preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the right exercise of discipline. Where those marks exist, a true church also exists. Where those marks do not exist, there is no true church. And, of course, there were many individual congregations or churches, but only one Church. The head of the one true Church is the Lord Jesus Christ. 

There are many churches mentioned in the Scripture. There were the various congregations of believers in Jerusalem—the Mother Church of all others. There was a church in the city of Samaria—probably in the same area where Jesus had evangelized the woman at the well and various men of the city. After the great persecution in Jerusalem, Philip went down to Samaria and “preached Christ to them.” Peter and John followed Philip in Samaria and the Holy Spirit was poured out on that area. Meanwhile, Philip evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch, who was converted, on the road to Gaza. From there, he went to all the cities from Azotus (Ashdod) to Caesarea, preaching to all of those cities. So, there were certainly converts and churches that started in Samaria and the coastal cities of Israel. Further north of Caesarea was the great church at Antioch—the Mother Church of Missions. That was the church that sent out Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys.

Peter was at Joppa at the home of Simon the tanner when three men came from Caesarea, having been sent by Cornelius. Peter had just had his great vision about eating unclean meats when the invitation came to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in Caesarea. Peter followed them there and preached and the Holy Spirit fell on the people and he baptized them. Yet, we do not know how many Gentiles believed and how many were baptized. If it was important, the Lord would have given us the numbers in each case. 

Saul was an early tormenter of the church, “ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women.” When the disciples were scattered, Saul received letters from the Sanhedrin to go to Damascus to hunt down any who were “belonging to the Way.” There were certainly many believers there, including Ananias, but we do not read of particular churches or how many disciples of the Lord lived there. Saul of Tarsus became a disciple as a result of his experience on the road to Damascus. 

Various believers who were scattered as a result of the persecution in connection with Stephen took the gospel to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch so that a large number believed in Christ as the Messiah. The Apostles sent Barnabas to Antioch to help establish that church and it became a very strong church with many prophets and teachers. One person was missing in action at that time—Saul of Tarsus. Barnabas knew him well and went looking for him in Tarsus. When he found him, Barnabas brought him to Antioch. The team of Barnabas and Saul of Tarsus became the most prolific missionary team in the history of the Church. The church sent them out on a missionary journey to take the gospel to the Gentiles. They started in Cyprus and then went to Pisidian Antioch, next to Iconium, Lycaonia, Lystra, and Derbe. They finished at Perga and Attalia before returning to Antioch. In every place, they used the same method. First, they went to the synagogues and preached Jesus as the Messiah, arguing with the Jews from the Scriptures. Sometimes, there were Jews who believed. There were also many Jews who persecuted them. Then, they took the gospel to the Gentiles. Their method was simple. First, attempt to evangelize those who are familiar with the Scripture. Afterwards, they evangelized those who had little knowledge of the Scripture. 

On their second missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas split up over a dispute concerning John Mark—the writer of Mark. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took Mark. Paul and Silas went “through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” We do not even know how many churches there were in those regions. Then, Paul received his Macedonian vision, with a man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul and Silas went to Philippi and a woman named Lydia, a seller of purple goods, believed along with her whole household. Then, Paul and Silas were thrown into jail which led to the conversion of the jailer. Then, they went to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. Certainly, there were churches started in all those places. There was also a church in Rome where Paul wrote a letter. And there were churches in Galatia, Colossae, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Tyre, and Ptolemais, as well as many places we do not know. 

There are a few things that most believers seem to miss in their study of Acts. First, Paul did what Christ told His disciples and followers to do: “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23). A couple of contacts I have received over the past 24 hours illustrate this truth. A friend from Russia who did all the organizing of the Pastors Conferences for us recently had to flee to Turkey. (I am not going to give his name for reasons that you should understand). This friend contacted me by email yesterday and gave me his reasons. Russia has started mobilizing everyone it can—the sick and disabled; former soldiers; anyone under 55, etc. They break into apartments in the morning and take the men away. They either “volunteer” to join the army or they are sent to prison. My friend is against this unjust war and he, like millions of other Russians, has left the country. He knows he will never be able to go back. He wants to start a new church in Turkey with the Russian refugees who are fleeing there and many other places. Having made about 35 mission trips to Russia, I can assure you that there has been an increasing opposition by the Russian government to any form of Christianity that is not Russian Orthodoxy. This war is another step by Russia in the direction of persecuting the true church. My friend is without support in Turkey and needs to start over. He needs help from all of us. If you are inclined to help, please send a donation to: Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. I would have you send donations to Vanguard Presbytery, but I do not have the official permission of the presbytery to raise support for my friend. Without their permission, I do not want to presume on how they will decide in the matter. On the other hand, I have raised support for Russia and Russians through my congregation for 23 years with their permission. Thus, I will make sure that every dollar you send gets to my friend.

Second, I was contacted this afternoon by a friend from a large city who told me about a substantial group that has begun to meet for worship. They simply could not take their denomination anymore for many reasons and they are very interested in Vanguard. I did my best job to tell him the truth about us and to persuade him that we are the right option for their group. The persecution he felt and others felt was not the same as what my Russian friend, but persecution takes many forms. I certainly felt my spirit vexed by what I experienced in my former denomination and I reached the point I could not take it any longer. I think that is the feeling that both my Russian friend and my American friend share in common. 

I have said for a long time, that Vanguard Presbyterian Church will be built up primarily by starting new churches. The Christians in denominations that have become woke will leave—even if the congregations do not—and many of them will start new groups. As I told my friend today, if you are looking for a Scriptural Presbyterian denomination in the US that believes in evangelism, Vanguard is the right choice. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.comPlease send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Thank you for your support. Make sure the check is payable to: Vanguard Presbytery

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