Was the Church of Jerusalem a Single Congregation or a Presbytery?

presbytery_jerusalemThe church of Jerusalem in Judea contained in it more congregations than one. This may be convincingly evidenced divers ways, particularly from, 1. The multitude of believers in that church. 2. The multitude of church officers there. 3. The variety of languages there. 4. The manner of the Christians’ public meetings in those primitive times, both in the church of Jerusalem, and in other churches.

1. From the multitude of believers in the church of Jerusalem

For it is palpably evident to any impartial reader that will not willfully shut his eyes, and subject his reason unto the groundless dictates of men, against the clear light of the Scripture, that there were more believers in the church of Jerusalem, than could ordinarily meet in one congregation, to partake of all the ordinances of Christ. And this may fully appear by these many instances following.

1. Christ after his resurrection, and before his ascension, “was seen of above five hundred brethren at once” (1 Cor. 15:6).

2.After that of James, then of all the apostles” (verse 7).

3. At the election of Matthias, and before Christ’s ascension, there were disciples together, the “company of their names together was as it were one hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15).

4. At Peter’s sermon, “they that gladly received his word, were baptized. And that day were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:1, 4).

5. And “The Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved” (verse 27).

6. Afterwards at another of Peter’s sermons, “Many of them that heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).

7. After that, “Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14).

8. Furthermore, the disciples multiplying, and the work of the ministry thereupon much increasing, the apostles were necessitated to appoint seven deacons for serving of tables, that they might wholly “give themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer” (Acts 6:1-7); whence some have thought, that there were seven congregations in Jerusalem, a deacon for every one. Certainly there were rather more than fewer, (saith the author of the Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland) though we cannot determine how many. However this, the Holy Ghost clearly testifieth that “The word of God increased, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly.

9.And a great company of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7); and probably the example of the priests drew on multitudes to the Gospel. All these aforementioned were in a short time converted, and became members of this one church of Jerusalem, and that before the dispersion occasioned by the persecution of the Church (Acts 8:1). Now should we put all these together, viz. both the number of believers expressed in particular, which is 8,620, and the multitudes so often expressed in the general (which, for aught we know, might be many more than the former), what a vast multitude of believers was there in Jerusalem! and how impossible was it for them to meet all together in one congregation, to partake of all the ordinances of Jesus Christ!

10. In like manner, after the dispersion aforementioned, the word so prospered, and the disciples brought into the faith by it, so multiplied, that it was still far more impossible for all the believers in the church of Jerusalem to meet in one congregation to partake of all the ordinances of Christ, than before. For it is said, “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea” (and the church of Jerusalem in Judea was doubtless one of those churches) “and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied” (Acts 9:31).

11. Again, “the word of the Lord increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24).

12. Furthermore, when Paul, with other disciples, his fellow-travelers, came to Jerusalem, and “declared to James and the elders, what things God had wrought by his ministry among the Gentiles—They glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many” myriads (or ten thousands) “of believing Jews there are, and they are all zealous of the law“—Acts 21:20. Our translation seems herein very defective, rendering it how many thousands; whereas it should be, according to the Greek, how many ten thousands: and these myriads seem to be in the church of Jerusalem, seeing it is said of them, “The multitude must needs come together, for they will hear that thou art come” (verse 22). Now considering this emphatic expression, not only thousands, but ten thousand: not only ten thousand in the singular number, but ten thousands, myriads, in the plural number: nor only myriads, ten thousands, in the plural number, but how many ten thousands; we cannot in reason imagine but there were at least three ten thousands, viz: thirty thousand believers, and how all they should meet together in one congregation for all ordinances, let the reader judge. Thus far of the proof, from the multitude of believers in the church of Jerusalem.

Objection. But the five thousand mentioned in Acts 4:4 are no new number added to the three thousand, but the three thousand included in the five thousand, as Calvin and Beza think.

Answer. 1. Then it is granted that five thousand one hundred and twenty, besides an innumerable addition of converts, were in Jerusalem; which if such a number, and multitudes besides, could for edification meet in one place, to partake of all the ordinances, let the reader judge.

2. Though Calvin and Beza think the three thousand formerly converted to be included in this number of five thousand (Acts 4:4), yet divers both ancient and modern interpreters are of another mind, as Augustine. There came unto the body of the Lord in number three thousand faithful men; also by another miracle wrought, there came other five thousand. These five thousand are altogether diverse from the three thousand converted at the first sermon: so Lorinus, Aretius, and divers others.

3. Besides a great number of testimonies, there are reasons to induce us to believe, that the three thousand are not included in the five thousand, viz: 1. As the three thousand mentioned in Acts 2:41, did not comprehend the one hundred and twenty mentioned in Acts 1:15, so it holds in proportion that the three thousand mentioned there, are not comprehended here in Acts 4:4. Besides, 2. This sermon was not by intention to the church, or numbers already converted, but by occasion of the multitude flocking together to behold the miracle Peter and John wrought on the “man that was lame from his mother’s womb;” as Acts 3:10-12; so that ’tis more than probable that the five thousand mentioned Acts 4:4 are a number superadded besides the three thousand already converted.

Objection. But suppose such a number as three thousand, and afterwards five thousand were converted in Jerusalem, yet these remained not constant members of that Church, for the three thousand were not dwellers at Jerusalem, but strangers who came out of all countries to keep the feast of Pentecost: yea, Acts 2:9, they are said expressly to be “dwellers of Mesopotamia, Cappadocia,” etc., and so might erect churches where they came.

Answer. 1. ‘Tis said, Acts 2:14, “Peter standing” (when he began to preach this sermon wherein the three thousand were converted) “said, Ye men of Judea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, hearken to my voice” intimating that these he preached to dwelt at Jerusalem.

2. But grant that some of these men that heard Peter’s sermon were formerly dwellers in Mesopotamia and Cappadocia, what hinders but that they might be now dwellers at Jerusalem?

3. The occasion of their coming up to Jerusalem at this time was not only the observation of the feast of Pentecost (which lasted but a day), but also the great expectation that the people of the Jews then had of the appearance of the Messiah in his kingdom, as we may collect from Luke 19:11, where it is said, “They thought the kingdom of God should immediately appear;” so that now they might choose to take up their dwellings at Jerusalem, and not return, as they had been wont, at the end of their usual feasts.

4. The Holy Ghost makes mention that in the particular places mentioned, (verses 9-10), that of all those nations there were some that dwelt at Jerusalem; read Acts 2:5, “There were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men out of every nation under heaven;” if out of every nation, then out of those nations there specified; and even there dwelling at Jerusalem.

5. Those who were scattered by reason of persecution into Judea and Samaria, and other parts of the world, did not erect new churches, but were still members of that one church in Jerusalem; so saith the Scripture expressly, that “they” (of the church of Jerusalem) “were all scattered abroad throughout the region of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).

Objection. Although it should be granted that before the dispersion mentioned (Acts 8:1-2), the number was so great that they could not meet together in one place, yet the persecution so wasted and scattered them all, that there were no more left than might meet in one congregation?

Answer. After the dispersion there were more believers in Jerusalem than could meet together in one place for all acts of worship, as appears by Acts 9:31, “The churches had rest throughout all Judea,” etc., “and were multiplied;” Acts 12:24, “The word of God grew and multiplied;” and Acts 21:20, James saith of the believers of this church, “how many thousands of the Jews there are which believe, and are zealous of the law;” or, as it is in the Greek, thou seest how many ten thousands there are of the Jews which believe; this text will evince, that there were many thousands in the church of Jerusalem after the dispersion, as hath been observed: and if this number were not more after the dispersion than could meet together to partake of all ordinances, let the reader judge.

Objection. But the text saith expressly, all were scattered except the apostles.

Answer. All must be understood either of all the believers, or all the teachers and church officers in the church of Jerusalem except believers; but it cannot be understood of all the believers that they were scattered: and therefore it must be understood that all the teachers and church officers were scattered except the apostles. That all the believers were not scattered will easily appear:

1. ‘Tis said that Paul broke into houses, “haling men and women, committed them to prison,” (verse 3), and this he did in Jerusalem (Acts 26:10); therefore all could not be scattered.

2.They that were scattered, preached the word” (verse 4), which all the members, men and women, could not do; therefore by all that were scattered must of necessity be meant, not the body of believers in the church, but only the officers of the church.

3. If all the believers were scattered, to what end did the apostles tarry at Jerusalem—to preach to the walls? this we cannot imagine.

Objection. But can any think the teachers were scattered, and the ordinary believers were not, except we suppose the people more courageous to stay by it than their teachers?

Answer. It is hard to say that those that are scattered in a persecution are less courageous than those that stay and suffer. In the time of the bishops’ tyranny, many of the Independent ministers did leave this kingdom, while others of their brethren did abide by it, endured the heat and burden of the day, “had trial of cruel mockings, bonds and imprisonments:” now the Independent ministers that left us would think we did them wrong, should we say that they were less courageous than those that stayed behind, enduring the hot brunt of persecution.

2. From the multitude of church officers in Jerusalem

From the multitude of church officers in Jerusalem, it may further appear, that there were more congregations than one in the church of Jerusalem. For there were many apostles, prophets, and elders in this church of Jerusalem, as is plain, if we consider these following passages in the Acts of the Apostles. After Christ’s ascension, “the eleven apostles returned to Jerusalem, and continued in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:12-14). Matthias chosen by lot, was also “numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26). “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1). “Peter standing up with the eleven, lift up his voice and said…” (Acts 2:14). “They were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). “And the same day there were added about three thousand souls, and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). “As many as were possessors of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:34, 35, 37). “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them” (Acts 6:2). “Now, when the apostles which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:14). “They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders; and the apostles and elders came together” (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 11:30). And “in those days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch” (Acts 11:27).

In all which places, the multitude of apostles, elders, and prophets in this church of Jerusalem is evident. And it is further observable, that the apostles devolved the serving of tables upon the seven deacons that they might wholly “give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2); which needed not, nor would there have been full employment for the apostles, if there had not been divers congregations in that one church of Jerusalem.

Objection. ‘Tis true, the apostles were for a time in Jerusalem, yet when in Judea or elsewhere any received the gospel, the apostles went abroad to erect other churches.

Answer. Touching the apostles going abroad, there can be given but one instance (Acts 8:14) where the whole twelve went not forth, but only two were sent, viz. Peter and John: but suppose it were granted, that upon some special occasions the apostles went out from Jerusalem, can it be imagined that the apostles’ ordinary abode would be at Jerusalem, to attend only one single congregation, as if that would fill all their hands with work?

Objection. The apostles were well employed when they met in an upper room, and had but one hundred and twenty for their flock, and this for forty days together; now if they stayed in Jerusalem when they had but one hundred and twenty, and yet had their hands filled with work, the presence of the apostles argues not more congregations in Jerusalem than could meet in one place for all acts of worship.

Answer. 1. From Christ’s ascension (immediately after which they went up to the upper chamber) to the feast of Pentecost, there were but ten days, not forty; so that there is one mistake.

2. During that time betwixt Christ’s ascension and the feast of Pentecost (whether ten or forty days is not very material), the apostles were especially taken up in prayer and supplication, waiting for the promise of the Spirit to qualify them for the work of the ministry: now, because the twelve apostles, before they had received the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, did continue for a short time in Jerusalem with a small number in prayer, will it therefore follow that after they had received these extraordinary gifts, that they were bound up within the limits of one single congregation?

Objection. The argument that there were many teachers in Jerusalem, proves not that there were more congregations in Jerusalem than one, because there were then many gifted men, which were not officers, which yet occasionally instructed others, as Aquila did Apollos; therefore it seems they were only gifted persons, not officers.

Answer. 1. Grant that in those times there were many gifted men, not in office, which might occasionally instruct others, as Aquila did Apollos; yet it is further to be noted, that,

2. This instructing must be either private, or public; if private only, then the objection is of no force (because these teachers instructed publicly); if in public, then if this objection were of force, it would follow that women might instruct publicly because Priscilla, as well as Aquila, instructed Apollos.

3. The current of expositors say that the seventy disciples were at Jerusalem among the one hundred and twenty (Acts 1:16), who were teachers by office.

3. From the variety of languages among the disciples at Jerusalem

From the variety of languages among the disciples at Jerusalem, it is evident there were more congregations than one in that one church: the diversity of languages among them is plainly mentioned in divers places, “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men out of every nation under heaven. Now every man heard them speak in his own language” etc. (Acts 2:5, 8-12). Now, of those that heard this variety of languages, and Peter’s sermon thereupon, “They that gladly received his word, were baptized, and the same day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41), which diversity of languages necessitated those members of the church of Jerusalem to enjoy the ordinances in divers distinct congregations in their own language. And that they might so do, the Spirit furnished the apostles, etc., with diversity of languages, which diversity of languages were as well for edification of them within the Church as for a sign to them that were without.

Objection. Though the Jews being dispersed were come in from other countries, yet they were all generally learned, and understood the Hebrew tongue, the language of their own nation, so that diversity of tongues proves not, that of necessity there must be distinct places to meet in.

Answer. 1. It is easier said than proved, that the Jews were so generally skilled in the Hebrew tongue, when, while they were scattered in Media, Parthia, and other places, they had no universities or schools of learning. Besides, it is not to be forgotten that the proper language or dialect in those days in use among the Jews was Syriac; as appears by divers instances of Syriac words in the New Testament as of the Jews’ own terms: (Acts 1:19), which “in their proper tongue, is called Aceldama;” (John 19:13, 17), Gabbatha, Golgotha, etc.; (Mark 15:34), “Eloi, Eloi, lama-sabachthani;” with divers other pure Syriac terms. Grant they did; yet,

2. There were in Jerusalem proselytes also, Romans, Cappadocians, Cretians, and Arabians (Acts 2:10-11); how could they be edified in the faith, if only one congregation, where nothing but Hebrew was spoken, met in Jerusalem; if so be there were not other congregations for men of other languages, that understood not the Hebrew tongue?

4. From the manner of Christians’ public meetings

From the manner of Christians’ public meetings in those primitive times, both in the church of Jerusalem and in other churches. It is plain that the multitudes of Christians in Jerusalem, and other churches, could not possibly meet all together in one single congregation, inasmuch as they had no public temples, or capacious places for worship and partaking of all ordinances (as we now have), but private places, houses, chambers, or upper rooms (as the unsettled state of the Church and troublesomeness of those times would permit), which in all probability were of no great extent, nor any way able to contain in them so many thousand believers at once, as there were: “They met from house to house, to break bread” (Acts 2:46). “In an upper room the apostles with the women and brethren continued in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:12-14). We read of their meetings in the house of Mary (Acts 12:12). In the school of one Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). In an upper chamber at Troas (Acts 20:8). In Paul’s own hired house at Rome (Acts 28:30-31). In the house of Aquila and Priscilla, where the church met, therefore called the church in his house (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19). In the house of Nimphas (Col. 4:15), and in the house of Archippus, (Phil. 2). This was their manner of public meetings in the apostles’ times: which also continued in the next ages, as saith Eusebius, til by indulgence of succeeding emperors they had large churches, houses of public meeting erected for them.

To sum up all:

1. There were in the church at Jerusalem greater numbers of believers than could possibly meet at once to partake of all Christ’s ordinances.

2. There were more church officers than one single congregation could need, or than could be fully employed therein, unless we will say that they preached but seldom.

3. There was such diversity of languages among them that they must needs rank themselves into several congregations, according to their languages, else he that spoke in one language to hearers of many several languages would be a barbarian to them, and they to him.

4. Finally, their places of ordinary meeting were private, of small extent, incapable of containing so many thousands at once as there were believers.

And by all these, how evident is it that there must needs be granted that there were more congregations than one in this one church of Jerusalem!



Excerpt from The Divine Right of Presbyterian Church Government (Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici) by the London Provincial Assembly of 1646.

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