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), 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 2:1-4).
This fulfilled the promise Jesus had earlier made to His disciples: "On this rock [referring to Himself—see 1 Corinthians 10:4] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
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).
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).
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).
Gradually, as the apostles died out, these "false brethren" (2 Corinthians 11:26) 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, 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).
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, NRSV). Paul also wrote that Christ came not to abandon but "to confirm the promises made to the fathers" (Romans 15:8).
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; Deuteronomy 16:1-16; 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, 44; 18:4; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8). (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, 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 24:5, Matthew 24:11; Acts 20:29-31; 1 John 4:1).
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, 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). 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).
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). 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). 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 Builtand 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 20:6; Micah 4:1-2).
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 19:9, Acts 19:23; Acts 22:4; Acts 24:14, 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; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). Revelation 12:17 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).
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.