The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation
4a. The Canon of the Earliest Church
The Christian church began during the Jewish feast of Pentecost
following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Apostle Peter
stood in the Temple precincts and addressed a huge assembly of Jews from
all parts of the Empire. Three thousand of his hearers acknowledged
Jesus as the Messiah and were baptized in his name for the forgiveness
of sins and for the gift of the Spirit of God.
The earliest church in Jerusalem had two things in their possession:
(1) They had knowledge of the historical events involving Jesus of
Nazareth as these were announced in the gospel, and (2) they had the
literature of Israel—the Old Testament—to show them that these events
were the redemptive work of God.
To put it another way, they had a story and a literature. They had
the story of Jesus as it was told by people whom Luke called
“eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). And they had the
large collection of texts which had already served for hundreds of years
to summon God’s people to holy life and holy worship, and which has
given the world the astonishing conception that God moves in events of
history and sends spokesmen to tell the meaning of these events.
Peter’s address is recorded in Acts 2:14–40. Or rather, some of it
is. We are told that he said more that is not recorded (v. 40). We
might summarize the contents of his address as follows:
These things took place according to the deliberate intention of God.
They were not random or happenstance. They were not chaotic and
meaningless events produced by history happening on its own. They were
the culmination of God’s work of redemption begun in Israel and announced by the
prophets. They are understandable when you see them by the light of Israel’s
literature. And now here is the fundamental fact: Jesus was crucified by
the hands of sinful men, but God raised him up. Jesus of Nazareth had
come on a divine mission from God. This is clearly seen through the
“miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him.” Although the
people killed him, God raised him up. This shows that Jesus was the
Messiah spoken of by King David when he said that God would not allow
his Holy One to decay in the grave. God raised him to his right hand,
where he is addressed as Lord, where he received the Holy Spirit
promised by God and poured it out upon his people. Thus according to
Scripture, Jesus who was crucified is both Lord and Messiah. Therefore
repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah and receive
forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the
promised Spirit is for you and coming generations and those who are far
away. It is for everyone whom the Lord calls to himself.
The Oral Gospel
To say it in a single word, that which Peter presented to the
thousands was the gospel. The English designation “Gospel” is our word
for what is called in Greek euangelion. The word euangelion
did not originally mean the good news; it was the little gift you gave to the messenger who brought you the good news, or it
was an offering you gave to the gods when you heard good news—for the
gods had better be thanked before they change their minds! From this original meaning, the word passed over to mean the good
news itself, and that is the meaning of the word in the New Testament.
We can recover the gospel preached by the earliest church. It is not
only in Peter’s address in the Temple to the crowd of Jews that were in Jerusalem for Pentecost .
It is also in Peter’s sermon to the household of the Gentile Cornelius
(10:34–43), which by the way looks a great deal like an outline of the
Book of Luke.
In addition we have it in the passages in Paul’s writings where he is
in debt to received tradition:
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord
Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread . . . (1
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 . . . (1
gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in
the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was
descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be
Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by
resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans
(You will find further examples at Romans 4:25; 10:8-9; 1 Thess.
1:10; Phil. 2:6-11.)
If that is the content of the kêrygma, the church’s
proclamation of the gospel, the similarity is clear between that and the contents of the
four books called Gospels. Like the early sermons, these written
documents have an interest in the fulfillment of Scripture; they present
Jesus of Nazareth as son of David and Messiah; they tell how he
performed works of power attesting his divine mission, took upon himself
the suffering and death of the cross, and was raised to the right hand
of God. And like evangelistic sermons, they seek to produce or
strengthen faith in the reader.
Thus the eventual contents of the written gospels were in the
possession of the church from the start in its oral preaching and
teaching. Together with the Old Testament, the oral accounts of
eyewitnesses and ministers of the word functioned effectively as the
canon of the earliest church.
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