Whilst the division within the church on matters concerning the end times remains, I thought it would be useful to explore what the early church believed in the years that followed the Lord returning to Heaven. Fortunately, there are many historical documents, letters and papers written within the first couple of centuries, and in some cases only a few years after the ascension, which actually give great insight into eschatological viewpoints held at the earliest time of church history. Ultimately it is only the Bible that we uphold as scripture, even so, I think it is still relevant to at least have an awareness and understanding of what the early church believed. I won’t give my own interpretation here, but instead simply quote the text and allow the writing to speak for itself.
Didache (c 50 – c 120).
The Didache is also known as the “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”. It is believed to be the earliest Christian document other than the Bible, and serves as a treatise over a number of belief and practices within the very earliest church history. More information about the Didache can be found online, but as a summary here, the document is broken down into three main sections. The first section expounds upon the two ways, that is the way of life (chapters 1 to 4), and the way of death (chapter 5) , and gives numerous instructions directly from Scripture and the words of Jesus. The second section (chapters 6 – 15) gives instruction of the ordinances within the church, that of baptism, the Lord’s supper, church organisation etc. Then the third section (chapter 16) is on the things to come. The following is chapter 16
[ms_promo_box style=”boxed” border_color=”#fdd200″ border_width=”2″ border_position=”left” background_color=”#f5f5f5″ button_color=”” button_link=”” button_icon=”” button_text=”” button_text_color=”#ffffff” class=”” id=””] 16:1 Be watchful for your life; 16:2 let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded, but be ready; 16:3 for you do not know the hour in which our Lord comes. 16:4 And you shall gather yourselves together frequently, seeking what is fitting for your souls; 16:5 for the whole time of your faith shall be of no use to you, if you are not perfected at the last. 16:6 For in the last days the false prophets and destroyers shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate. 16:7 For as lawlessness increases, they shall hate one another and shall persecute and betray. 16:8 And then the world-deceiver shall appear as a son of God; 16:9 and shall work signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands; 16:10 and he shall do unholy things, which have never been since the world began. 16:11 Then all created mankind shall come to the fire of testing, and many shall be offended and perish; 16:12 but those who endure in their faith shall be saved through the Curse itself. 16:13 And then the signs of the truth shall appear; 16:14 first a sign of a rift in the heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; 16:15 yet not of all, but as it was said: 16:16 The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. 16:17 Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.
Didache Chapter 16
I said I wouldn’t give my own interpretation here, but only to point out in particular the sequence of events as stated above:
- False prophets and destroyers multiplied v6
- Lawlessness increases v7
- The anti Christ appears v8
- The great tribulation v9-11
- Those who endure in the their faith shall be saved v12
- The signs of truth, (a rift in Heaven, voice of a trumpet, resurrection of the dead) v 13-14
- When the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds with all His saints v16-17
The Epistle of Barnabas (c 70 – c 130)
[ms_promo_box style=”boxed” border_color=”#fdd200″ border_width=”2″ border_position=”left” background_color=”#f5f5f5″ button_color=”” button_link=”” button_icon=”” button_text=”” button_text_color=”#ffffff” class=”” id=””]”The final stumbling-block approaches, concerning which it is written, as Enoch says, ‘For this end the Lord has cut short the times and the days that His Beloved may hasten; and He will come to the inheritance. And the prophet also speaks thus: “Ten kingdoms shall reign upon the earth, and a little king shall rise up after them, who shall subdue under one three of the kings.” In the like manner Daniel says concerning the same, “And I beheld the fourth beast, wicked and powerful, and the more savage than all the beasts of the earth and how from it sprang up ten horns, and out of them a little budding horn, and how it subdued under one three of the ten horns. … We take earnest heed in these last days; for the whole time of your faith will profit you nothing, unless now in this wicked time we also withstand coming sources of danger, as becometh sons of God. That the Black One may find no means of entrance, let us flee from every vanity, let us utterly hate the works of the way of wickedness.”
Epistle of Barnabas 4[/ms_promo_box]
The Shepherd of Hermas (c 70 – c 100)
[ms_promo_box style=”boxed” border_color=”#fdd200″ border_width=”2″ border_position=”left” background_color=”#f5f5f5″ button_color=”” button_link=”” button_icon=”” button_text=”” button_text_color=”#ffffff” class=”” id=””] Stand steadfast, therefore, ye who work righteousness, and doubt not, that your passage may be with the holy angels. Happy ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy they who shall not deny their own life. For the Lord hath sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life in despair, for even now these are to deny Him in the days that are coming.
The Shepherd of Hermas Second Vision Chapter 2[/ms_promo_box]
Justin Martyr (c 100 – c 165)
[ms_promo_box style=”boxed” border_color=”#fdd200″ border_width=”2″ border_position=”left” background_color=”#f5f5f5″ button_color=”” button_link=”” button_icon=”” button_text=”” button_text_color=”#ffffff” class=”” id=””]O unreasoning men! understanding not what has been proved by all these passages, that two advents of Christ have been announced: the one, in which He is set forth as suffering, inglorious, dishonoured, and crucified; but the other, in which He shall come from heaven with glory, when the man of apostasy, who speaks strange things against the Most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against us the Christians, who, having learned the true worship of God from the law, and the word which went forth from Jerusalem by means of the apostles of Jesus, have fled for safety to the God of Jacob and God of Israel
Justin Martyr – Dialogue with Trypho Chapter CX
Irenaeus (c 130 – c 202)
[ms_promo_box style=”boxed” border_color=”#fdd200″ border_width=”5″ border_position=”left” background_color=”#f5f5f5″ button_color=”” button_link=”” button_icon=”” button_text=”” button_text_color=”#ffffff” class=”” id=””] He teaches us what the ten horns shall be which were seen by Daniel, telling us that thus it had been said to him: “And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet, but shall receive power as if kings one hour with the beast. These have one mind, and give their strength and power to the beast. These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, because He is the Lord of lords and the King of kings.” It is manifest, therefore, that of these [potentates], he who is to come shall slay three, and subject the remainder to his power, and that he shall be himself the eighth among them. And they shall lay Babylon waste, and burn her with fire, and shall give their kingdom to the beast, and put the Church to flight.
Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXVI
And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, “There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.”(2) For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.
Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXIX
3. It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfilment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved. For if there are many names found possessing this number, it will be asked which among them shall the coming man bear. It is not through a want of names containing the number of that name that I say this, but on account of the fear of God, and zeal for the truth….
Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXX 3
4. But he indicates the number of the name now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is: the name, however, is suppressed, because it is not worthy of being proclaimed by the Holy Spirit.
Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXX 4
For all these and other words were unquestionably spoken in reference to the resurrection of the just, which takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule; in [the times of] which [resurrection] the righteous shall reign in the earth, waxing stronger by the sight of the Lord: and through Him they shall become accustomed to partake in the glory of God the Father, and shall enjoy in the kingdom intercourse and communion with the holy angels, and union with spiritual beings; and [with respect to] those whom the Lord shall find in the flesh, awaiting Him from heaven, and who have suffered tribulation, as well as escaped the hands of the Wicked one.
Against Heresies Book V Chapter XXXV 1