It had to be one of the most trying times in the history of mankind. For decades, Jesus and the apostles had lived and worked among those in the first century. The ascension of Jesus and the martyrdom of almost every apostle must have created a great void in the early church. Its future lay in the balance. What would happen now that those great men were no longer there?
The reality was that in almost every way the church flourished more in the absence of these great leaders than it did in their presence. I have read that by the end of the first century there were 6,000,000 New Testament Christians. Beginning with a dozen men, the church became known in every place. How could this happen? What factors caused the church to continue to grow even without the leadership it had in the beginning? Finding the answer to this question could be of such great benefit to the church today.
The church flourished because the leaders made provision for future leaders. The writings of Peter and Paul both reflect this. We know Peter saw his death approaching for he said, “Knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus showed me” (2 Pet. 1:14). However, he made provision. “Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Pet. 1:15). When Paul wrote to young Timothy, he saw that the time of his departure was at hand (2 Tim. 4:6). He wrote, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). The torch was being passed to others!
The church flourished because its faith and life were built upon the Lord and His teachings and not upon men. Paul had established the church in Corinth, but he was no longer there in a leadership role. “I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it” (1 Cor. 3:10). What was this foundation? “For no other foundation can anyone lay than . . . Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). He said, “Your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).
The church flourished because the new members willingly stepped forward to assume leadership roles. Paul’s description of the Macedonian Christians was, “They first gave themselves to the Lord” (2 Cor. 8:5). This is why the change in leadership did not change the direction of the church. Their spirit readily created new leaders.
The torch of past leaders has been handed to us. Seeing what happened in those early days can help us receive the torch and pass it on to others.