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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Are the Right Books in the New Testament?

Don Stewart :: What Were the Various Sources of Authority for the First Christians?

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Question 1

What Were the Various Sources of Authority for the First Christians?

What was the ultimate authority for those who believed in Jesus Christ? What sources guided them? Where did they go for the final word on all matters of faith and practice?

The First Christians Had Four Sources of Authority

The early Christians had four separate sources of authority that led and guided them. This included the Old Testament Scripture, the actual words of Jesus, the interpretation of Jesus’ words by His Apostles, and the writings of the Apostles. The evidence is as follows:

  1. The Old Testament Scripture Was Authoritative for Christians

    The first generation of Christians did not possess a New Testament canon, but they did have a Bible, or a canon of Scripture. The Bible, for the early Christians, was the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament. Since the first Christians were Jews, they inherited the Old Testament as their sacred Scripture. To them it was the ultimate authority on any matter to which it spoke. Appeal to the Old Testament Scripture was always decisive.

    For example, we find that Jesus appealed to the Old Testament at the very beginning of His public ministry. Mark records the following:

    After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the gospel.’ (Mark 1:14 REB)

    This would remind the people of that which was written by the prophet Daniel. It says:

    In the times of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom which will never be destroyed, nor will it ever pass to another people; it will shatter all these kingdoms and make an end of them, while it will itself endure for ever. (Daniel 2:44 REB)

    Therefore, Jesus’ ministry began with a reference to the everlasting kingdom of God coming to the earth.

    We also read in the gospel of Luke how God the Father was pleased to give the kingdom to believers. Jesus said:

    Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32 HCSB)

    The kingdom of God, promised in the Old Testament, was to be given to those who believed in Jesus.

    When tempted by the devil, Jesus answered him with Scripture. Matthew records Jesus saying the following at His temptation:

    It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’… Jesus said to him, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’”… Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:4,7,10 NET)

    The New Revised Standard Version translates these verses in this manner:

    But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ … Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’”… Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:4,7,10 NRSV)

    After Jesus’ resurrection, we again find Him appealing to Scripture to back up His claims. Luke writes:

    Then he [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44 RSV)

    Obviously, to Jesus, the Hebrew Scripture was the authoritative Word of God.

    The same is true for Paul. In writing to the church at Rome, Paul cited the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture. He said:

    Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 TNIV)

    The Apostle Peter also accepted the divine authority of Scripture. He said:

    Because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16 NKJV)

    The phrase, “it is written” speaks of an authoritative group of writings that can be cited to settle all matters of belief and practice. Therefore, those who lived at the time of Jesus had a closed canon of authoritative Scripture.

    Furthermore, the Hebrew Scriptures, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were still considered to be God’s Holy Word. They were continually cited as authoritative Scripture.

  2. The Words of Jesus Held Absolute Authority

    Along with the Old Testament Scripture, the words of Jesus held absolute authority for the first Christians. His words settled the matter on any issue. While Jesus accepted the absolute authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, He claimed that He had authority that went beyond them. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, the Bible says:

    And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29 NKJV)

    The early church treated the words of Jesus as having equal or superior authority to that of the Old Testament. When Jesus spoke on a particular subject, His words were regarded as the final word on the matter. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:

    For we tell you this by the word of the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15 NET)

    The word of the Lord would be the ultimate authority.

    On one occasion, Paul told the believers to remember the words of Jesus:

    And I have been a constant example of how you can help the poor by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35 NLT)

    Jesus’ words were to be remembered and obeyed. Consequently, along with the Old Testament Scripture, the words of Jesus held absolute authority.

  3. The Preaching and Teaching of the Apostles Had the Same Authority as Jesus

    The apostles were the official representatives of Jesus. After His ascension into heaven, they interpreted His words and deeds. Their interpretations were considered to be absolutely authoritative. When the apostles taught, it had the same authority as Jesus’ teaching. They carried on His teaching and added further explanations to the meaning of His ministry.

    The Apostle John wrote:

    Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5 NET)

    The apostles heard the message from Jesus and announced it to others. The first Christians recognized this unique authority of Jesus’ apostles. They obeyed their commands and accepted their teachings about Jesus.

  4. The Writings of the Apostles and Their Associates Were Absolutely Authoritative

    Along with the Old Testament, the words of Jesus, and the authoritative interpretations by the Apostles, the apostolic writings were also given unique authority. They were accepted with the same authority as their oral teachings. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about his authority. He said the following:

    Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions, just as I passed them on to you. (1 Corinthians 11:1-2 TNIV)

    Those who believed in Jesus knew that He had authorized His chosen apostles to do His work. This occurred during His public ministry as well as after He ascended into heaven; they were His living voice. Whether they spoke about Jesus or wrote about Him, their words were the words of Christ.

    For example, Paul, as an apostle, had the authority to communicate God’s truth to congregations that he had not even visited, such as the church in Rome and the church in Colosse. His authority was such that he could instruct them without ever having been physically present with the believers.

    Even those who were critics of Paul recognized the power in his writings. They said:

    His [Paul’s] letters are weighty and forceful. (2 Corinthians 10:10 NET)

    The believers, therefore, were expected to obey the writings of Jesus’ hand-picked representatives. This would be true for all the people who lived after the time of the apostles; they were also required to accept their teachings and obey their commands. Consequently, the words of the apostles needed to be carefully preserved.

    Thus, we find the early church had four sources of divine authority which they were to obey; the Old Testament, Jesus’ words, the spoken words of the apostles, and the written words of the apostles and their associates.

Summary - Question 1
What Were the Various Sources of Authority for the First Christians?

The first generation of Christians looked to four different sources of ultimate authority from which they could derive truth. First, they had the written authority of the Hebrew Scripture. From the first day of their existence, they had a canon of Scripture that was authoritative. In these Scriptures, they saw the predictions of the coming of Christ.

The words of Jesus were of the highest authority for those in the early church. His teaching on any subject was the last word; there was no greater authority than Him.

Jesus specifically called and commissioned a number of men to be the infallible interpreters of His message. They orally spread His teachings. These teachings of these apostles, with respect to the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, were held with the utmost authority.

Finally, the writings of the apostles and their immediate associates were considered on the same level as their teachings—they were absolutely authoritative. Those who had been given Jesus’ authority expected their writings to be understood and obeyed.

These, therefore, were the four sources which the first Christians accepted as divinely authoritative.

Are the Right Books in the New Testament? ← Prior Section
What Do We Learn from the New Testament Itself about the Need for a New Testament Canon? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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