Near the end of his life and ministry, with martyrdom looming before him, the apostle Paul dictated a letter for one of his closest ministry assistants—a young man named Timothy. In that letter, Paul encouraged Timothy to hold on to what he had been taught, to guard believers from harm, to stand firm against temptations, and to persevere through trials. Paul presented Timothy with the following charge:
“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:12)
That solemn charge to Timothy echoed into the silence of history, lighting the darkness of the church’s unknown future. Paul gave Timothy a rich legacy—Scripture, doctrine, a godly example, a position of authority, and most important, the gospel message that salvation comes through Christ. He did not pass these things to Timothy in some dark corner like they were smuggled wares or spiritual contraband. He gave them to Timothy in the open; in the presence of all who cared to see. This legacy was no “secret teaching” or “mystery religion” of the Gnostic heretics; nor was it part of some alleged underground society like the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code or the Knights Templar. Paul’s legacy was openly and freely given.
What was Timothy to do with these things? Was he supposed to simply believe and live them? No, Paul charged him with the task of passing them on—not indiscriminately, not in the form of books or articles, not merely to his physical children. Timothy was to hand them down in the same form he had received them, to individuals who would be faithful to pass them along in turn. These were to be “trustworthy men,” people who were qualified—like Paul and Timothy—to preserve and pass on the faith. They needed to be “able to teach others,” rather than just hoarding the truth for themselves.
Have you ever wondered whether Timothy succeeded in his mission? What happened after Paul, Peter, James, and John passed into history, leaving their disciples to carry on the work of the Holy Spirit in the church and the world? Did they succeed at passing on true doctrine and new life to “faithful men” who were able to teach others? Or did they drop the ball, leaving the world without a witness? Did the flame of the Spirit continue to burn brightly in the first centuries following the apostles, or was the light extinguished by false prophets, politics, and persecution? Did the gates of hell prevail against the church, or did the Spirit lead it into all truth? To be blunt, after Paul penned those words to Timothy, and after the rest of the original apostles and prophets passed off the scene, did Christ break His promise that He would be with the church even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)?
Christians are often surprised to learn that we don’t have to scratch our heads and wonder what happened after the New Testament. We have access to the writings of second- and third-generation believers; they are known as the apostolic fathers and apologists. Without God working through the radical faith of these early Christians, New Testament writings would have been lost like ashes in the wind, and the gospel would have suffocated under a smothering heap of heresy.
Remember Clement, in Philippians 4:3? He became the pastor of the church in Rome and wrote a long letter to the church at Corinth around AD 90. Polycarp, the pastor of the church in Smyrna, was ordained by the apostle John himself. And Ignatius, the pastor of the church in Antioch until AD 110, probably knew the last living apostles. After these men, we have writings of the next generation of leaders, including Justin Martyr, a famous teacher in Rome around AD 150, and Irenaeus, the pastor of the church in Lyons, France, around AD 180. Both of these men knew Polycarp, John’s protégé. We can explore for ourselves the writings of the faithful men (Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp) who were able to teach others (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus). Paul’s solemn charge to Timothy was fulfilled (2 Timothy 2:2).
These early heroes of the faith kept the torchlight of the gospel burning through some of the most difficult periods of persecution and false teaching the church has ever known, fueling the flames with their own heroic martyrdom. Clement of Rome was martyred during the great persecution of Domitian in AD 96. The Romans threw Ignatius of Antioch to the wild beasts around AD 110. Polycarp suffered on the fiery pyre in Smyrna around AD 155. Justin Martyr was executed in Rome after waging a war of words with powerful philosophers. They stood their ground against dangerous heresies and suffered severely, preserving Scripture and the fundamentals of the faith against formidable foes.
In stark contrast, very few heretics bothered to seal their deceitful doctrines with martyrdom. In fact, these false teachers often mocked true Christians for going to such extremes. “After all,” they reasoned, “Jesus didn’t have a real body, and He didn’t really suffer and die as you believe, so why should we?” They altered their theology to fit their philosophies and experiences.
The reality of the early church is not popular among critics and liberal historians today. In fact, many laugh at it. Some historians say that our Bibles, our version of church history, and the fundamentals of our faith were all parts of an underhanded conspiracy to cover up the “truth” about the real, “historical” Jesus. They say He was just a famous moral teacher, not God incarnate who died and rose again.
In light of the popular book and film, The Da Vinci Code, you’ll likely see interviews with “experts” on the early church from impressive universities. Some of them promote a version of early church history in which the heretics are heroes and the heroes are villains. Many are driven by a rejection of the resurrection, an advocacy of religious pluralism, and a radical feminist ideology. Their views bring to mind the words of Isaiah thousands of years ago: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness . . . Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:20-21).
When we hold the Bible in our hands and hold to the truths of Jesus Christ in our lives, we stand firmly in a long tradition we can trust. Our beliefs may not be popular. Scholars and critics may tease and taunt. But God’s ancient tradition of truth—preserved through the lives and deaths of godly men and women—remains the same.
Practically, what does this mean for us? How should we respond when the critics glory in the media spotlight? That’s easy. We must faithfully carry on the work begun by the heroes of old—entrusting the gospel to faithful believers, who will be able to teach others.