Word study: What does it mean?
The apostles’ teaching is the first element to which the early church devoted themselves. That the apostles’ teaching is listed first among the four elements in Acts 2:42 is no mistake. Indeed, the priority of Christian worship and living has always been receiving instruction in the truth of God. There are two terms that require our attention: “apostle” and “teaching.” We will look at each of them in turn to better understand the concept as a whole.
The word “apostle” (Gk. apostolos) most basically means “sent one.” In Matthew 10, Jesus sent the Twelve to preach and teach throughout Galilee, saying, “I am sending [apostellō] you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). In this most basic sense, we can see why Jesus’ disciples were called apostles—they were literally “sent ones” of Christ.
The New Testament apostles occupied a unique place in church history. To be one of Jesus’ apostles, there were certain criteria one had to meet. In Acts 1, after Jesus had ascended and the apostles were searching for Judas’ replacement, we are told an apostle must have been with Jesus during his earthly ministry and have been an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection. Why did the apostles have to meet these criteria? Scripture tells us it is because the apostles were the foundation on which the church was built (Eph. 2:20). And if the apostles are the spiritual foundation of the church, then their lives and teaching must be trustworthy to the highest degree of certainty. The apostles had to have received their instruction directly from Christ himself in order to be a sure foundation for the church throughout history. Since the apostles were eyewitnesses to Christ and personally commissioned by Christ, we can trust their teaching. It is to the concept of teaching that we now turn our attention.
The word “teaching” (Gk. didache) means “instruction.” In the New Testament, instruction (didache) is contrasted with evangelistic preaching (kerugma). Instruction is teaching directed toward believers, where evangelistic preaching is aimed at nonbelievers. The early church did both. Similarly today, we distinguish between evangelism and discipleship and understand the necessity for practicing both in the church. Worth noting is that we get our English word “doctrine” from the Greek didache. For example, Paul prays for the Ephesian church to grow up into Christ so that they would not be “carried about by every wind of doctrine [didache]” (Eph. 4:14). The early believers were a people marked by their devotion to apostolic doctrine—truth concerning God, the gospel, and godly living.
In light of the biblical witness, we define the apostles’ teaching as the true instruction about God, the gospel, and godliness that has been passed down from the apostles to later generations—the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Biblical usage: What does the Bible say?
We already looked at the meaning of the apostles’ teaching. But what was the content of their doctrine? What did the apostles teach? The New Testament is not silent on this issue. The apostles spoke and wrote as men inspired by the Holy Spirit for a time beyond their own—for the instruction of generations throughout church history. The content of apostolic doctrine included the following.
The Teachings of Jesus
Having spent three years learning from their teacher, Jesus’ own instruction became the basis for the apostles’ doctrine. When Jesus commissioned the Twelve, he charged them with the task of teaching new converts all that he had taught them (Matt. 28:20). The apostles did not invent new doctrine, but faithfully taught and expounded upon what they had received from Jesus.
In Acts especially, we see the apostles preaching “the word” (Acts 4:31). In one account, the apostles appointed deacons to take care of the various ministries in the church so that they could remain devoted to the word and to prayer (Acts 6:1-7). In the New Testament, “the word” is a broad term which refers to God’s revelation of himself to man. It implies that God has spoken. The apostles were carriers of revelation—God spoke to men, through men, in the apostles (see 2 Pet. 1:21).
The apostles’ teaching was gospel-centered. The Apostle Paul describes the doctrine he taught the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
According to the apostles, Jesus is the gospel. His substitutionary death and bodily resurrection were the foundation of their doctrine. The gospel of Christ, which literally means “good news,” was the lens through which the apostles viewed the world and interpreted all of Scripture.
Various Specific Doctrinal Instruction
If you have ever read a systematic theology textbook, you will notice it treats individual theological topics in turn by looking at what the entire Bible has to say about that given subject. For example, a systematic theological treatment of Christ—referred to as Christology—will consider all of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation on the subject and formulate a doctrine accordingly. The apostles’ teaching included this kind of specific doctrinal instruction, too. Paul formulated a precise Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and taught on the nature of Scripture (Bibliology) in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. Or, Peter gave instruction on the organization of the church (Ecclesiology) in 1 Peter 5:1-5. Providing specific doctrinal instruction was essential for equipping the early believers to guard against false doctrine (1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-8). This kind of teaching remains essential today.
It is also important to recognize that God’s Word—the Scriptures—was the supreme basis of authority for apostolic doctrine. How do we know this? Paul tells us in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching [didaskalia]…” (2 Tim. 3:16). This means the apostles did not teach contrary to what had already been revealed in the Old Testament, nor did the revelation given them in writing the New Testament Scriptures contradict with previous revelation. The apostles used all Scripture as the authoritative basis for their doctrine and instructed the next generation (i.e. Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-17) to do the same.
In church history: How did it get to where it is today?
Early Church Era
The apostles’ teaching was directly tied to the establishment and spread of early Christianity. Wherever local churches were planted, the apostles’ teaching accompanied it. The Book of Acts records this phenomena. Beginning in Jerusalem, the apostles preached the word and established the first local church (Acts 1–6). Persecution then became severe, scattering the apostles across Palestine as far north as Samaria and Antioch (Acts 7–11). From Antioch, the Apostle Paul would carry the gospel throughout the known world in three distinct missionary journeys (Acts 13–21). The pattern of Paul’s ministry in the cities he visited would include evangelistic preaching to nonbelievers (kerugma) as well as teaching believers apostolic doctrine (didache).
False teaching posed a great threat to the early church. As the apostles taught truth concerning God, the gospel, and godliness, false teachers attempted to undermine them. In fact, many of the New Testament letters were written by the apostles themselves to correct and guard against false teaching that had infiltrated various local churches. Against the heresy of Gnosticism, Paul wrote Colossians and John wrote 1 John. Peter wrote his second epistle against false teachers in general. Jude wrote his short letter because he felt burdened to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). And toward the end of the New Testament era, Paul wrote his Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) to instruct the next generation of pastors in right doctrine and guard against false doctrine.
The transition between the early church and patristic eras was crucial to the issue of the the apostles’ teaching. The twelve apostles had all been martyred by the end of the first century. How would their authoritative doctrine be preserved in the churches? In the last letter Paul wrote, he instructed the young pastor, Timothy, to preserve and pass on the apostles’ teaching in the church: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). This pattern of preserving and passing on apostolic doctrine continued throughout church history.
In the centuries following the early church, two important developments occurred concerning the apostles’ teaching: the formation of the New Testament canon and the convening of church councils. The New Testament is the apostles’ teaching in written form. The term “canon” simply means “rule.” It is a term of authority. To say we have a “biblical canon” means Scripture is the authoritative rule for faith and practice in Christian living. The biblical canon reached its final form in the late fourth century. Contrary to popular belief, the Church did not create the canon; it affirmed the canon. That is to say there were certain apostolic writings that were recognized as containing an inherent, divine authority, whereas other manuscripts from the same era were not. In the late fourth century, the church came to a virtually unanimous consensus on the apostolic writings that were to be included in the canon of Scripture. These are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we have them today. God has been faithful to preserve the apostolic witness to Christ and teachings in written form—the New Testament canon.
In addition to the formation of the New Testament canon, the convening of church councils helped preserve apostolic doctrine. The two most crucial councils in this era—and perhaps in all of church history—were Nicaea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD). The council of Nicaea hosted hundreds of bishops throughout the Roman Empire to defend the apostles’ teaching against the false teaching of Arianism, which rejected the full deity of Christ. Chalcedon was the largest church council in history and convened to reject three widespread heresies concerning the nature of Christ. Chalcedon affirmed the apostolic teaching of the two natures of Christ united in one Person. Between the canon and the councils, the apostles’ teaching was preserved through the patristic era.
The two key issues concerning the apostles’ teaching in the medieval era were the issues of authority and accessibility. The Roman Catholic Church was the dominant religious and social force in the middle ages—so much so that Christianity was virtually synonymous with the institution of the Catholic Church during this time. Roman Catholicism in the middle ages taught that it was the sole repository of truth, the infallible interpreter of Scripture, and the final authority on all issues pertaining to Christian life and practice.
With this context in mind, we can look more closely at the issues of authority and accessibility in relation to the apostles’ teaching. First, the Catholic Church taught that Scripture was an authority, but not the final authority, for believers. By way of analogy, the Roman Catholic view of authority is like a three-legged stool which included Scripture, tradition, and the papacy. In taking this view, the Catholic Church undermined the authority of the apostles’ teaching. It was against this view of authority the Protestant Reformers recovered the doctrine of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone is the final authority for the believer.
Further, the issue of accessibility to the apostles’ teaching was prominent in this era. The idea of every household having a printed copy of the Bible was unthinkable due to high cost and low literacy. Consequently, believers relied on their bishop and the papacy to read, interpret, and apply Scripture for them. Toward the end of the medieval era, translating and distributing Bibles in the language of the people was a crime punishable by death in Roman Catholicism. Though Rome thought it had effectively bound the Word of God, a generation of Reformers who loved the Word and had a vision for recovering the true gospel—the faith once for all delivered to the saints—proved indeed that the Word of God is not bound (2 Tim 2:9).
The Reformation and Modern Eras
The Protestant Reformation recovered a biblical view of the authority of Scripture. The Word of God alone is the final authority for the believer. Concerning the interpretation of Scripture, Protestants argued against the principle of papal authority and instead taught that the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself. The believer, filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped with the written Word of God, is fully able to read, interpret, and apply Scripture. The Reformation era freed the Word of God from the institution of Rome.
Perhaps the greatest result of the Reformation recovery of biblical authority was the effect it had on the accessibility of Scripture. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (mid-1440s) was the foundation on which Martin Luther stood in distributing biblical teaching during the Reformation in Germany. The innovation allowed for biblical teaching to be distributed at a historically unprecedented rate. Even before the invention of the printing press, men like William Tyndale painstakingly wrote and distributed translations of the Hebrew and Greek biblical texts, making Scripture accessible in the language of the people. In the centuries following the Reformation, Protestant missionaries rapidly spread the work of Bible translation in languages around the world.
Today, we are experiencing a modern crisis with regard to the apostles’ teaching. Despite the fact that the Bible is more accessible to modern believers than at any point in history, biblical literacy is at a near all-time low. Many believers are content leaving their Bibles on their bookshelves and relying on their pastor to be the primary source of their biblical instruction. Many desire a word from God without ever opening the Word of God. And when believers do approach Scripture to study on their own, most have never been taught principles for sound interpretation and application. God has given all believers the gift of his Holy Spirit and, to this generation in particular, an unprecedented gift of accessibility to the written Scriptures. May we treasure this gift and steward it well.
In practice: How can we recover the biblical vision for this element?
The heart to recover a biblical vision for the apostles’ teaching can be summarized in one biblical command: “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This faith—taught in the Old Testament, fulfilled in Christ, entrusted to the apostles, and preserved by generations of faithful believers—needs no modification or embellishment. The faith was delivered “once for all” to us as the entirely sufficient revelation of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Today, we contend for this faith by devoting ourselves to reading, interpreting, and obeying Scripture well.
First, we should read the Word. We become biblically literate only by saturating ourselves in the text of Scripture. When we read and re-read the text, its worldview begins to become our own worldview. We begin to think and feel and act according to the truth. It was said of the seventeenth-century Baptist pastor John Bunyan that he could be “pricked anywhere” and would “bleed the Bible.” Read Scripture morning and evening. Read for depth and breadth. Read doctrinally and devotionally.
Second, we should pursue sound interpretation of Scripture. We interpret the Bible soundly through humble reliance on the Holy Spirit and active use of our minds to read and understand the text well. One pastor calls this the “natural act of reading the Bible supernaturally.” Studying theology in its various forms helps in this effort. Biblical, systematic, and historical theology act as guardrails for making sense of what we read in Scripture. Further, learning good biblical interpretative principles is essential. Do not neglect the study of historical, textual, and cultural contexts underlying the text. We also recommend having a good study Bible on the shelf.
Finally, we should devote ourselves to obeying the Word. James instructs us to be “hearers and doers” of the Word (James 1:22). Obeying the Word is hard work because it is heart work. Scripture always calls us to believe or do something in response to what we have read. We are made holy by the truth of the Word when we read and interpret it rightly, and then come under its authority in obedience.
Resource by: Chase Selcer
- Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.
- Martin, Ralph P., Davids, Peter H., eds. Dictionary of the Latter New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
- Woodbridge, John D., James, Frank A III. Church History Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.