Question: "What was the apostolic age?"
Answer: The apostolic age is the initial formation, growth, and development stage of the early church. It is directly tied to the leadership of the twelve apostles. The apostolic age was characterized by great signs that validated the message of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 6:8; 8:6, 13; 14:8–10; 15:12; 20:7–12; 28:3–6). The apostolic age began after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and closed at the end of the first century AD, with the death of the apostle John.
Some pinpoint the exact start of the apostolic age with the day of Pentecost when the apostles were publicly empowered by the Holy Spirit: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1–4). About three thousand believers joined the church that day (verse 41).
Other scholars believe the apostolic age began at the moment Peter confessed Jesus as Christ, and the Lord responded, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” ( Matthew 16:18). While arguments can be made for either view, the matter is of little biblical import.
What’s most significant concerning the apostolic age is that the foundations of the Christian church were established then, as the church of Jesus Christ flourished into existence. All subsequent generations of the church are built on this dynamic era in church history. It was during the apostolic age that the writing of the New Testament canon of Scripture took place. Under the guidance of the apostles, foundational principles were established for dealing with the multilayered relationships between Jews, Gentiles, and Christians, along with other controversial matters (Romans 14). The church learned to maneuver through external pressures and influences like governments, slave masters, and other religions and to address internal challenges like false teachers, disputes between believers, and church discipline.
Perhaps the weightiest development in the apostolic age was the church’s formation of fundamental views on the nature and significance of Christ and His resurrection. Other critical apostolic teachings dealt with the interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures and the importance of key worship practices such as communion and baptism. The apostolic age gave us the Gospels, which show us what Jesus said and did; and the Epistles, which expound on the meaning and significance of what Jesus said and did.
The book of Acts provides an overview of a large part of the apostolic age, and the writings of the apostle Paul and other New Testament authors give us more insight into the changes and challenges of the church during that era. In the apostolic age, the core body of believers exploded from a small, inward-facing community in Jerusalem to a widespread network of Christians branching out into all the major cities of the Mediterranean region and beyond (Acts 1:18). Dramatic changes in the make-up of the church followed the ministry of Paul and his missionary journeys. Both Paul (Romans 11:13) and Peter (Acts 10) actively contributed to the development of mixed communities of believers composed of Jews and Gentiles.
The church, a distinct people from the Old Testament community of Israel, began meeting together regularly in the apostolic age for the purpose of discipleship, teaching, maintaining Christian fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s Supper, encouraging one another, and prayer (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25). Leadership and pastoral ministries were established for tending to the practical needs of believers and for strengthening and nurturing the body of Christ (Acts 6:1–4; 1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:6–9; James 5:14).
The apostolic age ended with the death of John, the last surviving apostle. While today some churches erroneously claim to be a part of a “new apostolic” age, the biblical truth is that, for the last 2,000 years, the church has been continually “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The foundation was laid during the apostolic age, and a new foundation is not needed.