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Following in the Footsteps of the Apostles

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As noted earlier, it is the small but faithful Church described in the book of Acts that those of us in the United Church of God, an International Association, look to as our model and spiritual ancestor. To fully appreciate why the Church described in Acts serves as the sole model for our beliefs, mission and organization, one must understand at least some of the little-understood history of Christianity.

For that reason we include here a brief overview of what happened to the Church Jesus built and to the religion that bears His name.

Acts 2 records the beginning of that Church. From relatively few people, the Church spread from first-century Judea to the far corners of the Roman Empire and beyond. Yet it remained relatively small in numbers (see Luke 12:32 Luke 12:32Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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), partly because it resolutely refused to be drawn into the compromising, corrupt mixture of paganism that dominated religious belief in the Roman Empire.

The Church of God began on the biblical Feast of Pentecost. On that day God poured out the power of His Spirit on the disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem in obedience to His law and Christ's personal instructions (see Acts 1:4-5 Acts 1:4-5 4 And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, said he, you have heard of me. 5 For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.
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; Acts 2:1-4 Acts 2:1-4 1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
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).

This fulfilled the promise Jesus had earlier made to His disciples: “On this rock [referring to Himself—see 1 Corinthians 10:4 1 Corinthians 10:4And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.
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] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 Matthew 16:18And I say also to you, That you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
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).

Here was a dual promise. Jesus would build a spiritual body of believers that would continue to exist down through the ages, even to the end of the present age and His return to earth. No human force of the physical world, or evil power from the spirit world, would ever be able to destroy His Church.

The book of Acts, written by Luke, tells the story of how the Church, from its beginning in Jerusalem, spread the gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world of the Roman Empire. Luke filled the pages of this history with the work of Peter, Paul, Barnabas and others who figured prominently in the early Church.

In Luke's brief historical sketch we see the Church faithfully dedicated to proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God, with Jesus Christ as its head. Luke's account describes the overriding goal and purpose that united this early body of believers.

Paul informs us of an important characteristic of the Church that Christ built. With Jesus as its foundational cornerstone, the Church's foundation also rests on the teachings of the apostles and—not to be overlooked—the prophets of the Old Testament (Ephesians 2:19-20 Ephesians 2:19-20 19 Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20 And are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;
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).

A breach in beliefs and practices

Yet only a few decades after Jesus Christ ascended to heaven following His crucifixion and resurrection, the Church began to change. Heretical teachers started reinterpreting Scripture to suit their own ideas. In the centuries that followed, greater divisions arose over doctrine.

As a result, the message preached by Christ and His apostles became subtly transformed. As time passed, this altered message came to be almost exclusively about the person of Jesus, at the cost of neglecting the vital heart and core of His teachings.

Among a growing number of people, a distorted and in some ways fictionalized account of the Messenger of the Kingdom replaced the original message He brought. This transformation was well under way even in the days of the apostles, when Paul denounced those who were teaching “another Jesus” and “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. 4 For if he that comes preaches another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if you receive another spirit, which you have not received, or another gospel, which you have not accepted, you might well bear with him.
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).

The result was a clever masking of the gospel's most central message —the return of Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God on earth and the all-important nature of that Kingdom. This abandonment of the gospel's central message was greatly abetted by far-reaching events occurring in the Roman Empire at the close of the first and the beginning of the second centuries of the Christian era.

During the early part of the first century the Jewish religion was accorded remarkable deference by the Roman government. And for a short time, Roman officials even regarded Christians as merely another sect of the Jews, meaning Christians received the same deference accorded to those of the Jewish faith.

But in the latter half of the first century a major change occurred. It was inevitable that Roman paganism and idolatry (which had come to include emperor worship) would come into conflict with the strict faithfulness of the Jews and Christians to the true God. It wasn't long before both Christians and Jews fell out of favor with the Romans. In A.D. 66 many of the Jews living in Judea rebelled against Roman rule, and in 70 the Roman legions captured Jerusalem and razed the temple.

For many decades after this event the very word Jew became a racial and religious epithet among Roman citizens. (A second Jewish revolt from 132 to 135 made matters even worse; Jerusalem was destroyed and no Jew was allowed to set foot there on pain of death.)

As these events unfolded and anti-Jewish sentiment spread throughout the empire (resulting in the deaths of Peter, Paul and many of the original Christians), many who professed to be Christians began distancing themselves from anything that even appeared to be Jewish. Since the beliefs and practices of the original Church had much in common with the Jews, this rejection of everything Jewish also led to major alterations in—and abandonment of—major aspects of the original teachings of Christ and His apostles.

What followed was a proliferation of groups and teachers calling themselves Christian, but whose traditions and teachings did not originate with Christ and His apostles. Some chose to retain many of the pagan traditions they had formerly practiced and began blending those beliefs and practices with their newly acquired belief that eternal life was accessible through Jesus Christ. Some simply fell prey to a growing deception that involved “false apostles [and] deceitful workers” who “transform[ed] themselves into apostles of Christ” but in reality were, however unwittingly, ministers of Satan the devil (2 Corinthians 11:13-15 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
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).

Gradually, as the apostles died out, these “false brethren” (2 Corinthians 11:26 2 Corinthians 11:26In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers;
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) either abandoned or altered biblical teachings and traditions that they feared would associate them with the Jewish religion. In the process they also gutted critical aspects of the message and way of life taught by Jesus and His apostles.

God's law: center of controversy

Historians generally recognize that the Church described in the New Testament is considerably different from that which emerged as historical Christianity after the apostles passed from the scene. Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century chronicler of the Roman Empire, wrote of a “dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church” ( The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776, chapter 15, section 1).

Later historian Jesse Hurlbut wrote: “We name the last generation of the first century, from 68 to 100 A.D., ‘The Age of Shadows,' partly because the gloom of persecution was over the church, but more especially because of all the periods in the [church's] history, it is the one about which we know the least … For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” ( The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33).

At the heart of this breach in Christianity was controversy over God's law—how, or whether, it should set the standard for Christian conduct. Those who wanted to avoid any association with the Jews were determined to abandon everything that might identify them with the Jewish religion, including any direct obligation to obey God's law.

They ignored or reasoned around the fact that Jesus had already given a definitive answer to this issue when He said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them [or fill them full, in His teaching and example]. I tell you the truth, 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 Matthew 5:17-18 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
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, NIV).

Accordingly, when one asked Jesus, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” He answered, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17 Matthew 19:16-17 16 And, behold, one came and said to him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said to him, Why call you me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.
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).

Paul expressed the same support of God's law, stating: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7:19 1 Corinthians 7:19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.
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, NRSV). Paul also wrote that Christ came not to abandon but “to confirm the promises made to the fathers” (Romans 15:8 Romans 15:8Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers:
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).

Therefore, we find the Church described in Acts faithfully keeping the Ten Commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath. The Church of that era also observed the same sacred festivals as the Jews (see Exodus 20:8-11 Exodus 20:8-11 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: why the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
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; Deuteronomy 16:1-16 Deuteronomy 16:1-16 1 Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover to the LORD your God: for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you forth out of Egypt by night. 2 You shall therefore sacrifice the passover to the LORD your God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the LORD shall choose to place his name there. 3 You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for you came forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. 4 And there shall be no leavened bread seen with you in all your coast seven days; neither shall there any thing of the flesh, which you sacrificed the first day at even, remain all night until the morning. 5 You may not sacrifice the passover within any of your gates, which the LORD your God gives you: 6 But at the place which the LORD your God shall choose to place his name in, there you shall sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that you came forth out of Egypt. 7 And you shall roast and eat it in the place which the LORD your God shall choose: and you shall turn in the morning, and go to your tents. 8 Six days you shall eat unleavened bread: and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your God: you shall do no work therein. 9 Seven weeks shall you number to you: begin to number the seven weeks from such time as you begin to put the sickle to the corn. 10 And you shall keep the feast of weeks to the LORD your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give to the LORD your God, according as the LORD your God has blessed you: 11 And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite that is within your gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the LORD your God has chosen to place his name there. 12 And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt: and you shall observe and do these statutes. 13 You shall observe the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that you have gathered in your corn and your wine: 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates. 15 Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the LORD your God in the place which the LORD shall choose: because the LORD your God shall bless you in all your increase, and in all the works of your hands, therefore you shall surely rejoice. 16 Three times in a year shall all your males appear before the LORD your God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles: and they shall not appear before the LORD empty:
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; Leviticus 23). As the original Church expanded to include gentiles (non-Israelites), we see that they, too, were taught to observe these biblically established festivals (Acts 13:42 Acts 13:42And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles sought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath.
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, 44; 18:4; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
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). (Be sure to read “What Did the Early Church Believe and Practice? “.)

Yet when we look at the history of the publicly prominent form of Christianity of later centuries, we find that it has abandoned those festivals, celebrating instead an entirely different set of days—Christmas, Easter and Sunday, the first day of the week. Those who faithfully continued keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, Passover and the other scripturally commanded festivals were gradually marginalized as heretics.

As new leaders with different views gained more control over congregations, they progressively expelled those who faithfully held to apostolic beliefs and practices. Late in his life, near the end of the first century, the apostle John tells of one such incident: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us … And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (3 John 9-10).

Persecuted not only by authorities of the Roman Empire but also by those who had falsely assumed a Christian identity, these ostracized but faithful brethren often had to retreat into hiding. The true Christianity and Church of Jesus and the apostles began to disappear from public view.

Shortly before the apostle John died, he received a revealing message, in a vision from Christ, to pass on to the beleaguered faithful remaining in Ephesus: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Revelation 2:2-3 Revelation 2:2-3 2 I know your works, and your labor, and your patience, and how you can not bear them which are evil: and you have tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars: 3 And have borne, and have patience, and for my name’s sake have labored, and have not fainted.
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, NIV).

But one might ask, how could this have happened to the Church Christ Himself built?

Warnings from Christ and His apostles

Outside of the New Testament, few sources have survived to convey any details of what happened to the Christian religion during that time. Yet the New Testament record is clear. A major breach had occurred within Christianity. In fact, Jesus and His apostles had continually warned that this would occur (compare Matthew 7:15 Matthew 7:15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
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; Matthew 24:5 Matthew 24:5For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
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, Matthew 24:11 Matthew 24:11And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
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; Acts 20:29-31 Acts 20:29-31 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
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; 1 John 4:1 1 John 4:1Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
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).

Jesus gave this warning: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance” (Matthew 24:24-25 Matthew 24:24-25 24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. 25 Behold, I have told you before.
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, NASB).

In the early decades of the Church, the apostles vehemently opposed attempts to corrupt the truth they had personally received from Christ (1 John 2:24-26 1 John 2:24-26 24 Let that therefore abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning. If that which you have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, you also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he has promised us, even eternal life. 26 These things have I written to you concerning them that seduce you.
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). Paul warned some of the very elders he had ordained that “from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:30-31 Acts 20:30-31 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31 Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
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).

Peter proclaimed: “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies … And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Peter 2:1-2 2 Peter 2:1-2 1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privately shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.
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). John also warned that “many deceivers” had already gone out into the world with their heresies masquerading as Christianity (2 John 7).

How could this happen? Jesus explained in a parable that, amid the “wheat” (His true people), God would allow “tares” to grow (Matthew 13:37-43 Matthew 13:37-43 37 He answered and said to them, He that sows the good seed is the Son of man; 38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; 39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. 40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. 41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; 42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
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). At first they would appear to be indistinguishable from the wheat, but, in the end, they would bear no heads of grain, no fruit to prove them genuine. On the surface they would look like real disciples, but in reality they would be far different. They would have within them no depth of commitment to the true gospel and Christ's teachings.

Thus out of the apostolic period of the Church emerged two distinct “Christian” religions. One, small and almost invisible on the world scene, remained faithful to Christ's message. The other appropriated Christ's name even as it incorporated ideas and practices from other religions—a process known as syncretism —as was common in the Roman Empire of the day. Traditions of men replaced the commands of God and became entrenched in what would become the predominant form of Christianity known to the world.

(To learn more about this corruption of Christ's gospel and its effect on the Church He established, read the Bible study aid booklets The Church Jesus Built and Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?  )

The gospel of the Kingdom today

In spite of such difficulties and the rise of this counterfeit Christianity, Jesus Christ has remained true to His promise that His true Church would never die out. At His return, those Christians faithfully serving Him, steadfastly loyal to God's commandments, will be ready for their role in the next phase of God's plan of salvation. They will become kings and priests of God, assisting Christ in teaching the entire world the same obedience to God's law (Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
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; Revelation 20:6 Revelation 20:6Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
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; Micah 4:1-2 Micah 4:1-2 1 But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. 2 And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
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).

Interestingly, in the apostolic era of the Church the apostle Paul described the manner of life of its members as “the Way” and “this Way” (Acts 9:2 Acts 9:2And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
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; Acts 19:9 Acts 19:9But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spoke evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus.
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, Acts 19:23 Acts 19:23And the same time there arose no small stir about that way.
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; Acts 22:4 Acts 22:4And I persecuted this way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.
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; Acts 24:14 Acts 24:14But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
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, 22). He plainly identified it as a way of life. We must never lose sight of the fact that Christianity isn't merely a set of beliefs; it is the way we live.

The Church that Jesus built never perished. Through the centuries its members held firmly to the truth, and today it is still diligently and faithfully proclaiming Christ's gospel of the Kingdom of God just as His original disciples did. While times and cultures have changed, the basic eternal truths of God have not changed (compare Malachi 3:6 Malachi 3:6For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.
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; James 1:17 James 1:17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no ficklenss, neither shadow of turning.
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; Hebrews 13:8 Hebrews 13:8Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
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). Revelation 12:17 Revelation 12:17And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
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clearly describes the end-time Church of God as still “keep[ing] the commandments of God and hav[ing] the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Today, the United Church of God, an International Association, is striving to practice “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). To accomplish this we have committed ourselves to living, as Jesus taught, “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
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).

We strive to live by the same divine instruction that Jesus, His apostles and the early Church followed, very aware that this sharply distinguishes us from most of what is today called Christianity, which no longer follows the Church described in the book of Acts as its model.

Like the members of that early Church, we remain fully committed to proclaiming the message of the coming Kingdom of God and Christ's pivotal role in it. Likewise, we remain fully committed to preparing a people to serve as Christ's helpers in that Kingdom.

We sincerely encourage you to examine in much greater detail the message Jesus taught. If you are interested, read our Bible study aid booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom .

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