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In part 3 of our series we return to Rome and see how the early Christians survived persecution. Looking at how the church responded to the arrest of Peter in Acts 12, we that the early church continued the practice of gathering together when persecution came and encouraging one another in prayer and the Word of God. Not being able to meet in public places or in private homes, the believers met in the one place the citizens of Rome would never go, the Catacombs.

Under Rome lies a network of catacombs into which the Romans buried their dead. But the Romans hated death and so they outsourced this work to slaves. No upstanding Roman would be found in the catacombs, so the Christians could meet freely. When Christianity became the faith of the Empire under Emperor Constantine the Christians then were buried also in the Catacombs. Their gravestones tell of their faith and strong belief. One doctrine that was important to them was that of the Trinity.

This doctrine had been one of great controversy through the first centuries of the church and wasn’t settled until 325 and the Council of Nicaea. But in the first century it was Pope Clement I who began the development of the Trinity and how it works. Being the Bishop of Rome it then makes sense why this was so important to the early believers and a doctrine developed for our benefit today.

The Life of the Church – Learning our Church History is a teaching series from Annalong Presbyterian Church. For videos and handouts visit

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David McCullagh:

So we're in part three of this series that we've been thinking about, um, a series looking at the life of the church and what we can learn from our church history. And tonight it's entitled Into the Depths. So it's not necessarily a person, but it's a place that was used by God at a particular time in history. to preserve the saints. And so, as we've been looking over these past two weeks, we can't escape persecution. It was right there from the outset of the church. Persecution was rife, and the church endured it. From really the first, the second, and into the third centuries, and even at the start of the fourth century, the church was under persecution. In reality, the church in every generation has been persecuted in some place in the world. But a significant thing happened in the 4th century, that was the Emperor Constantine. We'll come to him in due course, whether by a good luck charm or whether by genuine faith, he established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. And of course that changed everything. You can't persecute the official religion. And so safeguards were put in place for the Christian community. But up until then, persecution happened. We saw that at the beginning with Ignatius and Polycarp. We saw it with Ernest last week and the people that were there in Smyrna. And we see it again, this time in Rome. And we're actually jumping back a little bit in time, just a couple of years to see how that tracked its way to what we find ourselves. So the question is, as we've looked at persecution, how does the Church, how does it preserve itself? You might say, well, that, that's a very good question. Open doors could answer that for us. Uh, indeed they could, and they would, and in due course they will, um, at our missionary weekend. But, how did the early church survive? Well, to survive persecution, they had to do it in two ways. Because there was two things they had to do. First of all, they had to preserve the faith. How could they preserve the gospel message? And secondly then, how did they preserve their fellowship? How did they preserve the physicality of the church? New Christians coming into the church would have had to face many issues. Either coming from Judaism or coming from Roman God worship. It was a wonderful time because they couldn't get enough of what they were learning. They couldn't get enough of Jesus Christ. And there was an excitement and an energy that perhaps we only see for a short period in our own lives. Maybe just like them, but it was a moment when they were on fire, when they couldn't get enough. But of course, they didn't have a Bible. They might have had some text from the Old Testament, but there was no New Testament as such yet. It was coming little by little with some things written down. And so they couldn't wait to see and hear more, particularly of how the Old Testament pointed us to the Saviour of the new. And one way of saying this, and what we're going to look at tonight and into the depths, is to read Acts chapter 12 and verses 1 to 19, a longer passage, but one that's familiar and it's about Peter's imprisonment and his release. So turn to it there, Acts chapter 12 and verses 1 to 19, and I'll read it for us this evening. So beginning in verse 1, we read, About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of unleavened bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer was, for him, was made to God by the church. Now, when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. And centuries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, Get up quickly. And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, Dress yourself and put on your sandals. And he did so. And he said to him, Wrap your cloak around you and follow me. And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. When Peter came to himself, he said, Now I am sure that the Lord has sent this, his angel, and rescued me from the hand of Herod, and from all that the Jewish people were expecting. When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Ruda came to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy, she did not open the gate, but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, you are out of your mind, but she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, it is his angel. But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, He described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison, and he said, Tell these things to James and to the brothers. Then he departed, and went to another place. Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea, and spent time there. Amen. This is the Word of God. I want you to notice two things that are happening in this, uh, passage. First of all, Herod is mentioned. This is Herod Agrippa I. Uh, he is the grandson of Herod the Great. And in verse one, we're told that he was persecuting the church. So we've gone back even further, back into Acts, to really those first months or year of the church. And persecution is right there, and it's coming from Herod. Herod wanting to do it because it's pleasing the Jews, it's pleasing the people. Remember, he was a puppet king. He was a young boy raised in Rome, and so all his contemporaries were the Caesars and those in high officials. And so, perhaps it was to please them, but more likely to please the people, so that Herod could control the people under his care. But he wasn't a real king. He was only there as long as the Romans allowed him to. But he is the persecutor of this moment. The church is under persecution. First, it's to John, and then it is to Peter. who's put in prison. But of course Peter isn't martyred for his faith. He escapes in that miraculous way. So the first thing in this passage is that persecution. It's very clear, it's very blatant, it's very physical. It's done for motives, not out of fear, but out of strength, because as Herod does one thing, it gives him a boost. And so he thinks this is the way to go, and that's what he does. But the second thing to notice that when the church is under persecution, their response is to gather and to pray. They gather and they pray for the situation. They want to be together. You would think it would be the most natural thing for them to separate, to go out and to hide so that they wouldn't be found. You would have thought that the most dangerous thing for them to be was together. But that's what they chose to do because they were trusting in the Lord. And yes, they were gathering and they were fearful, there is no doubt of that, but they were praying. And this is something that Christians under persecution have done. Last Friday, I attended the conference that I had been advertising for the past few weeks, the Church in Egypt. And the lady that was speaking from the Evangelical Seminary there in Cairo, was saying that there is, and Open Doors have told us of this as well, and I think perhaps Joan, you might have been in this place at one time as well, the Kiev Church. The Kiev Church seats 20, 000 people. It's not an underground church as a church in China, it's quite literally an underground church in a cave. And it's in moments that the church has gone to. And if you remember back to the Arab Spring. There was great joy and delight when Mubarak went out, and that was the first uprising. But then they got, um, I can't remember his name, but for a year the Muslim Brotherhood ruled and there was the second uprising, Muhammad Morsi, and they wanted him out as well because they were so disappointed with all the promises that were made that were never fulfilled. And in the second uprising, the church that was more and more under persecution than it had been under Mubarak. Gathered, hoping that there would be 20, 000 people wanting to come and pray in this second revolution. They got 70, 000. What happens when the church is under persecution, back in biblical times, as now, they gather. They may gather in fear, but they gather to seek the Lord. And we've preached on this in our series on Acts. But. It always surprises me that they were surprised and amazed that their prayers were answered. But yet, that's what happens when a people come and when a people pray. Be it in one large group or in small groups, however it may be, the Lord hears and knows the gathered presence and fellowship of his people and that is what comforts and sustains. Those who have looked into this. And no, the habit and practice of the early church would even go as far to suggest it wasn't simply a prayer meeting. This was a moment where they were quoting scripture and scripture leading them to prayer. And so they were trying to come near to the Lord through his word and opening their hearts before him. So this is what they do. The first thing that they do to survive is to gather to come before the Lord, to preserve the faith. to keep one another going, to keep the truth of the gospel alive and its hope alive. And the second thing they do is, what is this, what is this story that they gather? And that's what the early church had to do, particularly in Rome whenever there was great persecution. And so during the different waves that there were in the second and third centuries The church joined together in the one place that the Romans would not go to. And so, they head down to the catacombs of Rome. If you've ever been to Rome, you'll have seen the Colosseum, you'll have seen the Vatican, you'll have seen different stages of the history of Rome itself, and the Circus Maximus, and everything like that, and all that. One of the places you might visit is called the Appian, or the Appian Way. Um, this is holiday photos again, I'm afraid. Andrew Mullen and I had a week in Rome in 2009, and we decided we would walk along the Appian Way and visit some of the catacombs that the early Christians went into. What's happening with them now is, uh, churches have been built over these catacombs where Christians were known to have gathered. And this is just one of them along that way, quite close to the center of what old Rome would have been. Um, but now with the spread of Rome, it's, it's just surrounded by, by modern buildings. But these catacombs played a key part. It was this place that preserved Christianity in Rome. The Romans had a funny dealing with death. When death happened, they wanted nothing to do with it. Whenever you think of Rome, you think of the strong men. You think of Olympics and the Circus Maximus. You think of the gladiators in the Colosseum. Rome was all about strength and the look and appearance of strength. And whenever you go after those things, the last thing you want to think about is frailty and death. So when death came, the Romans actually turned a blind eye to it. There was no period of mourning or grief. It happened and they were wanting quickly to move on with life again. And so they seconded work out, really, to slaves who would dig down under the city so that there wasn't even any any sign of death into these catacombs. So the only people who would go down to these places were the slaves who were tasked to, to dig them and prepare them for different burials. Well, what a perfect place to go for the Christians to avoid the Roman authorities. And if you go today, you can go down into those catacombs and you can see wonderful things. Um, technology wasn't such, we didn't have cameras back in 2009 that could take good pictures in the dark so I wasn't able to take any pictures that you could see of what's written and inscribed. But whenever you went into these places, these chambers under the streets, there would even be seats carved into the stone so that the Christians would come and sit. And you always knew it was one of their places of worship because they would have that fish, the Ichthys. that was developed around this time. Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour. That's what Ichthys, whenever it's, uh, in its Greek, is spelled out to mean. The Ichthys was there as a sign to say, this is where we are, and this is where we meet. Of course, the Romans never saw it. And to any slave, they didn't know what it meant, just thought it was a, another image of the Roman pantheon of gods. And so deep down, Christians gathered. Deep down, Christians gathered to teach and instruct and mature in the faith. Disciple, sing and pray. And one of the things we do have from that time is actually a hymn that was written from the catacombs. And that's what you have across on your next page. And it's really a testimony to the practice of worshipping in the catacombs. And so it's an early Christian hymn that's entitled, Oh, Glad Some Light. So, you have to think of this, you're sitting down in the darkness. You might have a torch. You might have lit a, a small fire. Um, and so this is how you're, you're dwelling. And this is what they sing, Oh, glad some light in the darkness. Oh, glad some light, oh grace, of God the Father's face, the eternal splendor wearing, celestial, holy, blessed. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, joyful in thine appearing. And that early hymn continues, The day falls quiet and we see the evening light. What they were doing in writing this hymn was to communicate their physical experience as well as knowing what it means spiritually. That although they may be in the catacombs of darkness with minimal light, the greater light, the light of the world, was shining bright into those spaces because the word was preserved as the people gathered as they faced untold persecution. It truly was gladsome light. And actually after Christianity was legalized under Constantine, it was a wonderful moment because those catacombs where they had worship were no longer the places that they had to go and they themselves then started to bury their dead in Christian burial ceremonies. And the further you go out along the Appian Way, the more Christian, and indeed Jewish, uh, those catacombs become, uh, with now different churches built on top of them. Um, as over the years the Christians built what would have been above their family burial ground in many ways, uh, as they moved along family by family. They're, they're an amazing place. Some small, some big, some caverns. As big as this and some small, some as small as a small store or under your, your stair cupboard kind of thing. A place that we would never imagine, but yet a place that kept the faith alive. And one of the things that struck me on one of these, and this has been quoted in different places. Is one particular, uh, headstone or one particular inscription in the catacombs. And it's to, uh, an early Christian called Quintilian. And it says, here lies Quintilian, a man of God, a firm believer in the Trinity, who loved chastity and rejected the allurements of the world. Imagine that on your headstone. I don't think any of us would think about that. We might think about the last bit, uh, the allurements of the world was not given to those, but So, would we ever think of writing about the Trinity? Why would he need to say that he believed in the Trinity? He's not the only one that did it. You can go past, uh, gravestone after gravestone in the catacombs. And the same thing of this time comes up again and again. The Trinity. There's something that happened at this period in history that, that defined our understanding of the Trinity. And it all comes from the next man on your page. It's Pope Clement the Third, or the First. Now, don't get too excited. Put aside our cultural thinking here. We're talking about a church that was truly a church. Gregory the Great will come years later, and he was the last true Pope, as John Calvin says. So we're talking about gospel hearted, gospel minded, leaders of the church in the shadow of the Apostles. There's no sense of modern day Catholicism that we know in this man. But what he does is something that defines the church for us, and it is to do with the Trinity. In fact, there he is there, it's the best we have of him. He lived between A. D. 35 and actually he himself was martyred. in A. D. 99, and we'll come to that just by a little bit of information at the end. If I were to ask you, where in the Bible do we get for sure and certain a teaching of the Trinity? You'll find it hard. That might surprise you, but you will find it hard to find a place in Scripture that explains fully what the Trinity is. And for the first three to six hundred years, there were debates and there was Trying to understand what this trinity was. Oh, they believed in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But how were they connected? How could they be one yet three? Our human minds today, if you think too long about it, it will baffle you how it works. But yet it does. And so coming into this new faith, trying to understand God the Father, which would have been known from a Jewish perspective, to all of a sudden God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It took years of thinking, years of prayer, years of discussion, years of discernment to try and understand. I turn to one of my heftier books, I'd like to say I've read this from cover to cover, I have not. But I turn this week to what it actually says about the Trinity because I thought it was helpful and it's a book on systematic theology. So in other words, a teaching, a concise teaching thematically of what we believe. And there's three parts in this book about the Trinity. Where Trinity is in the scriptures, how it was developed, and what are the problems for us today in continuing to understand the Trinity. And this is what he writes, he says, The doctrine of the Trinity was formally developed in the 4th century. It followed decades of controversy and confusion. The problem was how to conceive of God as one while according to the Son and the Spirit, the status given them in the Bible. It required the forging of linguistic tools to express what the church had believed and confessed. And eventually, at Constantinople I, the Church confessed that God is one indivisible being, three irreducible persons. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each fully God, equal in power and glory, indivisible and inseparable in all their works. While the Father generates the Son from eternity, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Generation and procession demonstrate that God is infinite, uh, superabundance of life and vitality, and are the basis from which he freely and sovereignly creates. Now that's a textbook way of saying, we have an understanding of the Trinity, but it took years. And the first record we have of it written down, in any way of understanding, is by Pope Clement the Third. And it all comes from this idea of him talking about the persons of the Godhead. There wasn't just one, nor he argued was there two, but there were three persons of the Godhead. Something we take for granted today. And in fact, it was Ignatius of Antioch, who we looked at two weeks ago, who took further what Clement said. And developed it that it eventually arrived at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where they then, uh, later would write. The Nicaean Creed and adding this to the bottom that says and I believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord and Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son who with the Father and the Son together is Worshipped and glorified who spoke by the prophets and again someone else has written very well on this a guy called Chad van Dixhorn And I want to read to you what he said about this. Because he said the creed was issued as a brief statement at the Council of Nicaea, while the First Council of Constantinople, which I quoted just a moment ago, later provided a substantial addition concerning the Holy Spirit. Thus historians termed this creed the Nicaean Constantinoplean Creed. Even later, a line in the creed was changed in the Western Church only. to capture the significant teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Son as well. And that then becomes what we know as the Athanasian Creed, which was written in 633. So even until 633, we were developing what we believed about the Holy Spirit, and how the Holy Spirit linked in with the Godhead of the Father. But it all began with Pope Clement, the first in room, and that teaching went from up here and down to the catacombs. So much so that these early Christians depended on the Father, and on the Son and on the Holy Spirit, and was so important for them that they had it inscribed on their headstones. In many ways, it's like what we put by hymns, perhaps safe in the arms of Jesus. Or, are my own father's headstone, absent from the body, present with the Lord? What is important to us that we want to leave a marker? So the catacombs played a key part in our understanding of the Trinity and its importance in what we believe. We take it for granted, but yet for almost 700 years, the church was still trying to work out what this meant. And so, from very humble beginnings. With Clement, who was not like any pope we would know today or have known in previous centuries. He was a humble man who simply discipled and taught, with no regalia and no seat. But he taught on the Trinity the persons of the Godhead, and that sustained God's people as they looked into his word. to discover what this meant. Well, at the end of the first century, Clement was banished from Rome and he went to, uh, that place there, which I'd never heard of, but if you're wanting to pronounce it, uh, just go with my confident pronunciation, which is Chersonesus, uh, during the reign of Emperor Trajan. And he was set to work in a stone quarry. And when he got there, he discovered, as you would expect, the conditions to be And the prisoners were running out of water or had no water at all. And he immediately prayed to the Lord. And as he looked up, he saw on a hill a lamb. And he went to where the lamb was. And when he got there, he went to the place where the lamb had stood. And he struck his pick or his axe and out gushed water. Well, this didn't go down too well with the authorities. And immediately, they tied him to an anchor and threw him into the sea. There, uh, sorry, that place is up in the Crimea. And so in the Black Sea, he was plunged to the depths, tied to that anchor. A man faithful in his witness, faithful in his worship. And his contribution has led us to our understanding of the Trinity today. And that's his legacy. That's the legacy of the catacombs. That's why we think about them, because They kept something for us that we now take for granted. But we're thankful, because it has been fully thought out for us. That in the second and the third centuries, these people in the catacombs, who worshipped in darkness, because there was no light down there, but who worshipped in truth, defended the faith. And what they did is what Psalm 145 verse 4 says, One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. That's what they taught each other, that's what they told each other, that's what they learned together of what it meant to, to survive persecution and to pass on this goodness as, as Paul writes to Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. That's exactly what they did so that today we would stand in their shoes and in their footsteps to be the next generation that guards the deposit entrusted to us so that the church will continue. Down to the depths. We don't think of much of good coming out of the ground. But yet here. The faith was maintained in those catacombs so that today we can worship well. We have a deposit and we have the freedom to offer it widely. We can offer it to those around us, but yet we don't. We shy back because we're afraid, because we don't perhaps trust the Lord to be with us. The problem when we look at church history, it becomes an indictment against us. And I want to say thank you to you for what you did do for last weekend. As I stood up in the pulpit and as I looked out, not only was Sunday morning full, but Sunday evening was full as well. You will have seen as well as I will have seen faces that perhaps we haven't seen in a while, and indeed faces that we've never seen. We're to give thanks to God for that, but we're not just to stop because of a particular weekend. We're to keep going, because we have been given a deposit. We are to be like those people in John Mark's house who prayed, who gathered, and who continue to gather so that we can proclaim the goodness of God. And that's what our questions this evening are going to help us think about. Because in our discussion we want to think of in times of great difficulty the early church met in the catacombs to find comfort in God's word, and in fellowship, where and how do we find comfort in times of trouble today? That's not maybe simply a place. But it may be scriptures that you want to share that you find particularly helpful so that you can help others and encourage others around your table. Secondly, we take for granted the teaching of the Trinity because we are so accustomed to it. Do we risk being so familiar with scripture that it loses its sense of awe? How can we prevent this? And then thirdly, who in the past invested in you so that you can be mature in faith today? Who are you passing faith on to, so that they likewise can grow in the faith? And that question comes from not only the catacombs of passing that faith on, where young and old would meet, but also in what has been given to Timothy, so that he could guard that deposit, so that it would be passed on to the generations after him, as we have seen with Ignatius and Polycarp. So let me pray as we finish this part of our evening and then let you get to think about these things. Our Father God, we thank you for your goodness and how you have preserved your church. And in many times it looked as if the church was going to fall, but you have promised that it will not because you will build your church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it. So Father, we thank you that we do not stand on our own strength and forgive us when we, when we sometimes perhaps do and think that we know better. Father, may we be a church and a people who stand firm on Christ and know that He is the one who builds us. He is the one who, who calls sinners to repentance, who calls us believers to grow and mature in faith and be confident in faith so that like the generations that have gone before us. We will not only guard the deposit, but we will meet, and we will share, and we will see lives won for Christ. So be with us as we talk about these things, and not just talk about them, but live them out, and we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

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