One of my family’s valued possessions is a family history book researched and compiled by one of my now-deceased aunts. Among other things, it contains American Civil War-era letters from my great-great-grandfather, John Williams McNair. He was drafted into the Union Army in 1864 and served as a medic in the final year of that terrible conflict. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife on December 27, 1864:
I am getting very anxious to hear from home though you know that much without me telling you. We have got along this far without any accident and I hope we will be successful the balance of our time that we are out on this campaign…. Take care of yourself and the children. God only knows how you will get such things as you are bound to have, for I don’t expect I will get any money before my time is up and if I had it, it would be a very uncertain business to send it home…. I want you to send me your likeness. I would rather have it this morning than to have one hundred dollars laid in my hand (as bad as I need the money)…. Meda, I want you to write often when I get to a place where I can receive them for a letter from you does me more good than you think it could….
John, I want you and Leo to be good boys. Don’t fight Mary and mind what your mother tells you. Meda, be good to the children—make them mind you. Remember me in your prayers. I trust God in his mercies will remember you and comfort in your troubles.
J. W. McNair
I can’t read this, or other letters like it, without getting a little emotional! I imagine this man, far away from home, never sure of another day of life, yet trying to cheer up his wife and reminding his children to mind her! The open tenderness and raw feeling are profound.
Family testimonies and histories are important. Knowing where we came from helps us to understand that we are not just “islands in the sea,” unconnected to anything else. We need to understand the context of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Knowing these things helps us not to feel alone in our daily struggles—helps us escape the feeling that we are the first ones to ever face trials and setbacks. If others persevered, so can we.
In the season of Pentecost, it’s good to think about our spiritual family history—which is more important than the history of any physical family. And we know quite a lot about that history, because the Bible records it. In this article, let’s look at several parts of our Church family history, as recorded by Luke, Peter, John, and two of John’s disciples.
Family History from Luke
The Day of Pentecost inaugurated the New Testament Church of God (Acts 2:1–4). On this day in 31 AD, Jews and proselytes from all over the Roman Empire were in Jerusalem keeping the Feast of Firstfruits. They had great respect for the Scriptures. When these individuals came to understand how the role of the Messiah affected them personally, and Who that Messiah was, they responded. They became a family. And they began fellowshipping, sharing, and spending time together (Act 2:46–47).
Think about it: why can we even read this today? Because someone thought it important enough to write it down, to preserve that family history. Luke addressed both his gospel and Acts to an individual named Theophilus (Acts 1:1; Luke 1:1–3), apparently a convert and probably someone of some financial means. Luke may have been commissioned by Theophilus and apparently recorded a portion of our common family history to give him an accurate, preserved statement of what happened.
What a treasure the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are! Think about all that the book of Acts tells us about the early Church—how it started, what transpired, what were the challenges, how they faced those challenges. We owe so much to this man, Luke, who felt inspired to write down what he had seen and what he had heard from eyewitnesses.
We trace our spiritual roots to these events. This is our spiritual family history, our Church family history. Just as a family will cherish photo albums and books about their own family history, so do we treasure these books of the Bible.
Family History from Peter
Like Luke, Peter was conscious of the need to preserve the truth for the future. Notice what he wrote in 2 Peter 1:13–15, toward the end of his life: “Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease.”
While he was alive, Peter was able to give an eyewitness account of the events of Christ’s life. But now that he was near death, there was an urgent desire to make sure there were accurate records of the truth. Mr. John Ogwyn explains this in his January–February 2002 Tomorrow’s World article, “How Did We Get the Bible?”:
In the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, accounts of His life and ministry were written. Letters to fledgling congregations were written. As the decades passed, those who were firsthand witnesses of what Jesus Christ said and did began to pass from the scene. False teachers arose who were teaching “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4). They also wrote letters, often signing the name of one of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:2). In such confusion, how was an accurate account of Christ’s teachings and the teachings of His Apostles to be preserved for future generations of disciples? Peter addresses this issue in 2 Peter, the last letter that he wrote. Written shortly before his execution, not long after Paul’s death, Peter puts things in perspective. Referring to his soon-approaching death in verse 14, Peter states: “Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Peter 1:15). The only way that he could ensure a permanent record of what he had taught was to leave behind writings officially designated as Holy Scripture.
People debate about how we got the canon of the Bible. It’s fairly obvious that God supernaturally commissioned certain men to write down what they and others saw to preserve it for future generations. Peter was a preeminent figure among the Apostles, so he would have had a big role in preserving the truth in document form. Mr. Ogwyn continues:
Beginning in verse 16, Peter abruptly switched from using the first person singular to using “we,” the first person plural. Who was the “we” to whom Peter referred in verses 16–19? He defined the “we” in verse 18, when he referred to them having witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus in the Mount. This event is detailed in Matthew 17:1–13 where we learn that only Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus to the mount and were first-hand witnesses of this event. James the brother of John was the first of the Apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:1–2) and had been dead for decades at the time Peter was writing 2 Peter. Therefore, the “we” being referred to by Peter could only refer to him and John…. In other words, Peter was pointing out to his readers that he and John were the ones designated by Christ to leave behind an authoritative record that would guide the Christian community in generations to come, long after the death of the original disciples.
Peter was concerned about the future. He knew his death was coming soon, and he was determined that an accurate documentation of the events of Christ’s life and early Church history would be preserved. What a blessing it is that God inspired this remarkable leader, nearly 2,000 years ago, to commit to writing vital details so we might have the truth!
Family History from John
The Apostle John is also a remarkable figure. Peter talked about the “we” who saw Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain—Peter, James, and John. After Peter died, John was the last of the original Apostles who could serve as a living eye-witness of Jesus Christ. He saw himself as a grandfather-figure with a mission to complete for the family. Notice how he addressed his correspondent in Asia Minor:
The Elder, to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth: Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth (3 John 1–4).
For those of us who have had the blessing of knowing our grandfathers, there is a very special connection. Do you remember hearing your grandfather tell stories of what he’d been through in his life? Cherish the time grandparents take to share wisdom, experience, and family history with you. There will come a time when they are gone, and unless it is written down, much will fade from memory and be lost. This is what John surely must have had in mind, as he was the last man standing of the Twelve. What did he focus on in his writings?
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full (1 John 1:1–4).
Notice the context, that we are a family, and that we need to be connected to one another. Where would we be if the book of Acts had not been written, if Luke and other writers had not worked so hard to preserve an accurate account of our family history? Peter and John labored to preserve and collect and record, for all time, the body of truth on which the New Testament Church was built. Like Peter, John was looking back and was very concerned that accurate accounts would be preserved. And he was also looking forward and training disciples himself.
Family History from Polycarp and Polycrates
And we have written records of John’s disciples, Polycarp and Polycrates. They continued in his doctrine, and just as important, they recognized the authenticity of the New Testament scriptures. Notice this quote from The Apostasy of the Lost Century, by S. Gusten Olson, written in 1986:
In an era when heresies were widespread, it was imperative that the norms and doctrines of Christianity be established by the writings of the apostles. The definition of Christianity would otherwise become lost. The bishops who submitted to the criterion of the apostolic writings were able to discern the deviations from the original faith. Hence Polycarp, who seems to live and have his being in the Word of God, noticed the error which led to the Quartodeciman Controversy (p. 92).
What was the Quartodeciman Controversy? Simply that, early in the second century, the church at Rome ceased to keep the Passover as the Apostles had done, in favor of keeping Easter, and those who continued keeping Passover on the 14th of Nisan came to be called Quartodecimans by the Roman church, meaning “fourteeners.” Mr. Olson continues:
As he was familiar with John’s first epistle, he realized that dissenters and antinomians had once been mistaken for converted members of the Church (1 John 2:19). Ever since the first century, false teachers simply rejected parts or the entirety of writings which the Church had already considered Scripture. Others were perverting the meaning of them (2 Peter 3:17)… Polycarp and the Asian Christians[’]… staunch refusal to compromise with their Christian principles was based on their belief that Scripture was inspired by God and provided an authentic and trustworthy means by which Christ was speaking (pp. 92–93).
Passing on the Family History
What does this all have to do with Pentecost? It emphasizes our need to know our family history. It gives us an accurate understanding of who has come before and what they believed. It gives us context, and even holds us accountable for our actions! We need to be connected to our past, and to be aware that our actions reflect on our spiritual family.
We also need to think about the future! Our work is to prove the truth, cherish the truth, and pass on the truth. We need to be involved in not only absorbing what we have been given in the past, but also making sure we are part of passing it on in the future.
We are, perhaps, living in one of the most selfish and inward-looking times in human history. The trend is to look only at the here and now. The temptation today is to focus only on what we are doing and not care about anyone but ourselves. We can allow our world to get smaller and smaller, especially when we suffer trials and difficulties.
But brethren, now is not the time to do that! Now, of all times, is the time to think big!
Pentecost is about the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). We are preparing now for positions in God’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:3). We will someday rule and have power over the nations (Revelation 2:26). God is not giving us power over the nations so that we can aggrandize ourselves, but so that we may relieve the suffering of the world. We will be a part of the team that will bring peace and help ensure that no one lives in fear anymore (Micah 4:1, 3–4)!
God is starting small with us now. He’s training us through the work we do in our own families, and He’s wanting us to note personal testimonies that can be part of our own individual family’s history. Dr. Jeff Fall explained this in the booklet Successful Parenting: God’s Way:
Family testimonies, or family stories of God’s dramatic interventions, healings and other blessings, can help children appreciate the reality of God, and of His loving nature as a living and vital Lord who is personally interested in our lives.… Over the years, my wife and I have talked with our children about many such dramatic interventions—including many healings. These stories have become our personal family “testimonies” of God’s intervention—stories that have reinforced our appreciation of the love, the reality and the power of our God. All parents should regularly share personal testimonies from their own lives, to help bind their children to the real God (pp. 28–29).
Whether we work with our physical children now, or spiritual “children” in the future—the many people living during the Millennium who will look to us for guidance, inspiration, and understanding—we will all have opportunities to share personal testimonies!
As we keep Pentecost, we are not alone. We are a part of a big family with many members. We have elders and ancestors who lived righteously, providing us with good examples—Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah. They continued the heritage they were given, and they looked ahead to what was coming (Hebrews 11:13–16). We are part of a wonderful heritage, shared by all those who have come before and those who will come after (Hebrews 11:39–12:2).
The baton has been passed to us. The trials we face now and will face in the future are a small blip in the span of history. We can easily get caught up in the here and now, in problems of the moment, in the “cares of this world” (Matthew 13:22). But now is our time to sacrifice, to persevere, to give up our own will, to give up the self, to crucify the self—to go all out in accomplishing the Work Jesus Christ commissioned us to do until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20).
The Day of Pentecost teaches us that we have a priceless heritage, being a part of the family of God that will be born into literal spirit life. It also teaches us that we have a job to do. We are to take this truth and take it forward, to stand up, to do our job, to be strong, to be faithful, to not shrink back but to be bold, so that we can show the way to future generations.
Let us use that big picture to keep us focused and zeroed in on seeking God with all of our hearts and fulfilling our role as firstfruits. He is building a family. We are writing our part of that family history right now.