The Early Church: Life With Jesus, Continued
Imagine Yet Again
Imagine walking with Jesus living in His people…
It will soon be evening in Jerusalem. The afternoon’s lingering warmth mingles with the oven’s heat in front of you. Behind you a cool breeze drifts through your window, bringing with it a hint of fresh air from the heights just outside the city. The sun, riding low in the sky, floods its golden light through that same window, illuminating the crowded kitchen with a radiance that perfectly matches what you are feeling inside. You appreciate the simple gifts—the fragrance of baking bread, the music of a friend’s laughter, the beginnings of a perfect sunset. Yet the promise of a lovely summer evening cannot explain the joyful expectancy that wells up like a song inside you. There is another reason for it.
They are coming. The church, your family in Jesus!
Of course you have seen many of them throughout this day. Even now several women are finishing preparations for the evening meal, while a handful of men are carrying in a few pieces of simple furniture and several dining mats. But tonight the little house will be filled to overflowing with your fellow believers. And as you gather in His name, it will be as if Jesus Himself were right there with you!
There will be no script for the evening, just as no one has been “assigned” to “attend” tonight’s meal. Every day is fresh and new. As the Master, Jesus, works in each life, He draws people together in a dynamic, ever-changing network of love. The time together this evening may be unrehearsed, but you are certain that it will be genuine and life-changing.
Some will talk about the challenges of the day and the Father’s faithfulness through it. Some will share, with excitement and conviction, how they are applying the powerful teachings that they heard the evening before. Perhaps others will share a song that seems to fit the occasion perfectly. The church is alive with music these days—both the old psalms of David and the new expressions of praise emanating from the grateful hearts of the disciples. And there will be prayer—there is always prayer! It won’t be a sterile formula, but a powerful conversation with a Living God. It just might shake the room!
Unlike the synagogue services you grew up attending, the time together won’t have a “beginning” or an “end.” The interactions of the day will join seamlessly with the intimate conversations over dinner. Those interactions in turn will flow right into the potent times afterwards when the whole group will be dialoging, and they will keep on going in the quieter talks as the believers begin to return to their own homes.
The brothers and sisters are coming, and you can hardly wait until everyone arrives!
Through His people, Jesus will show you many things tonight—the wonders of His cross, the mysteries of His indwelling Spirit, the lessons of practical obedience and daily discipleship. The evening will be rich. But the greatest joy of all will simply be spending the time with Him in His people. That fact thrills your heart! It is doubtful that you could explain it at all to someone on the outside looking in—not that you haven’t tried. But the uncomplicated truth is that Jesus is alive in His church, and you have the amazing privilege of walking with Him day by day!
Does that picture of life sound good to you? It should.
You were born for it—if indeed you have been born a second time!
A Turning Point
It all began with fifty utterly amazing days—first three, then forty, then seven.
First, there were the three days of despair. Their scenes are permanently burned into your memory. Midnight in the garden. Empty promises and hollow vows. Sleepy eyes. Bloody sweat. Torches. Soldiers. A kiss, then chaos. Lies, accusations, and mockery. Clubs, whips, and thorns. A tortured walk up a bleak hill. Splinters. Spikes. Blood. Blackened skies. Anguished cries. Silence. Numbness. Hiding. Doubts. Fear. More fear, and still more.
Next came the single moment, that euphoric instant when it finally hit you that Jesus was ALIVE! You had wanted to laugh, cry, dance for joy, and fall on your face, all at the same time. You could live an eternity and never forget that moment—and, according to Jesus, that’s exactly what your future would hold!
After that came the forty days of wonder. It was a bit unsettling—you never knew when Jesus would show up, or where, or how long He would stay. But well before those six weeks were over, you were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus’ resurrection was real. His conversations with you and your friends took on a new intensity and focus. It was as if He were trying to prepare you for something. Everything He had to say kept coming back to one topic: the Kingdom of God.
Then came another single moment. This time it wasn’t euphoric, exactly—more like totally awe-inspiring. Jesus had given you what had sounded like marching orders to take His Kingdom life to people in every nation under heaven, instructing and helping them to line up their hearts and lives to His teachings. With the orders had come three promises. First, that the Holy Spirit would come on all of you. Second—and this seemed related to the first—that He would be with you always. And third, that He would come back for you. That last promise had actually been delivered by angels. Jesus Himself ascended into Heaven, where you are certain He is now seated at the Father’s right hand. That is the awe-inspiring part!
Next came the week of joyful anticipation, when you and dozens of other believers did exactly what Jesus said: you waited in Jerusalem. Even though Jesus was gone, you felt no sense of loss—just that contagious joy. It was waiting, perhaps, but it flew by so quickly, and with such a depth of peace and praise.
Finally came the fiftieth day since the cross. It happened to be on the “day of first fruits,” one of the yearly highlights in God’s perfect religion. Because it was a feast day, Jerusalem was filled that morning with worshippers from all over the Roman world. Suddenly, all heaven broke loose! An invisible tornado of sound filled the room where you and Jesus’ other friends were praying together. A split second later, a ball of fire was hovering in the middle of the group, as if an unseen altar had burst into flame. Within moments, the fire divided into dozens of individual flames, which flew out and landed on each person in your circle.
Now you were filled with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus had promised. Your loud praises, shouted in a myriad of languages none of you had studied, quickly drew an audience. Within minutes, the streets outside were overflowing with curious people. First Peter, then the rest of you, began to proclaim Jesus to them. A few listeners started to “get it.” Then others did. Then others… Within hours, three thousand new believers had been baptized and joined your number. Astonishing!
But now what?
What do you do with three thousand new believers? They are all Jews. Do you point them back to observing “God’s perfect religion,” with exhortations to get it right this time? Or do you seize the moment to begin “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” as Jesus instructed? And if you make that choice, how do you go about it? Do you organize everyone into groups? Do you select regular times and places for people to meet? Do you put a pyramid leadership structure in place, to insure that everyone at least receives qualified teaching? Do you institute a priesthood? In short, do you create a new, improved religion, similar to the others you’ve known, but based around Jesus’ teachings?
Or do you have the courage to live the way Jesus did with you instead?
The apostles had a decision to make. This decision was to be one of the turning points in the history of planet Earth.
The Christians’ Holy Place: the Ekklesia!
What about a special place? Did the first century Christians build temples, shrines, synagogues, or sanctuaries? Jesus’ life wasn’t based on attendance; it was based on relationship. He had taken His relationships with the Father and His followers out of the confines of designated holy places and into the homes, highways, and marketplaces of Israel. The Pioneer of their faith, Jesus, had blazed a new trail. These early believers simply followed Him.
In the first days of the Jerusalem church, the believers sometimes made use of the temple courts, an outdoor, publicly-accessible area adjacent to the temple itself. For a while, the apostles continued to use the temple as a place both of prayer and of outreach to unbelievers in the community. But even in those days, the life of the church was centered elsewhere: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).
Soon, however, persecution permanently shut most Christians out of Israel’s “special places.” When Saul of Tarsus started his rampage, most believers left Jerusalem and the temple behind. Within a few years, the Jewish synagogues around the empire began to exclude Christians.
A new development made an even greater impact: Gentiles by the thousands started coming to faith in Jesus, first in Antioch, then in hundreds of cities spread over three continents. These new Christians had no notion or history of Jewish “special places.” Even if they had, they were excluded from temple-worship in Jerusalem. In AD 70, of course, the whole question of the temple became academic. The Roman army responded to a Jewish revolt by leveling Jerusalem, including the temple—and it has never been rebuilt.
These early believers rejected the notion of building their own temples or shrines. Archaeologists tell us that the first known religiously-purposed building associated with Christianity wasn’t constructed until the third century, over two hundred years after Jesus ascended to the Father!
The snapshots provided by the New Testament show that the early Christians, like Jesus, simply took their life with God out into the “real world.” Paul, for example, could say, “I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes” (Acts 20:20). That’s where you could find Christians gathered in the cities and villages of the empire—in a variety of public places and private homes.
Where, then, was the Christians’ holy place? Jesus had prophesied that a day would come when geography would be irrelevant to spiritual life (Luke 17:20-21; John 4:20-23). Instead, the dwelling place of God would be within a people. And that’s exactly how the early Christians saw themselves. The English word “church” is ambiguous and therefore misleading. It can refer to several things, most of which didn’t even exist when the New Testament was written. Instead, the early Christians used the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “called out ones.” They viewed themselves as being called out of the world and assembled into a new living organism, with Jesus Himself as their head. The temple—the special dwelling place of God—was no longer in a geographical location. It was within the ekklesia.
The persecutor-turned-apostle, Paul, saw and taught this truth with great passion and clarity:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:
“I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be My people. Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you. And I will be your Father, and you will be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
Peter, who mostly focused on helping and teaching Christians from a Jewish background, agreed wholeheartedly:
As you come to Him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:4-6)
The early Christians were united in believing that Jesus lived among and within His people. And they not only believed it; they lived it.
The Christians’ Holy Day: Today!
What, then, of special days? Did the early church choose a certain day of the week as sacred? Did they set aside certain seasons or “holy-days” as being particularly important? Did Jesus’ ekklesia adopt an “ecclesiastical calendar”?
Again, the answer is a clear no.
Jesus, remember, had taught His followers many things, but observance of special days was not on the list. Instead, He had emphasized the holiness of today. This day—whatever it was called on the calendar—was the day to offer yourself to God in trusting, peaceful dependence (Matthew 6:11, 25, 33-34; Luke 9:23-24).
When Jesus left our planet to return to the Father, He urged His followers to teach every new convert to obey His instructions as well. That’s exactly what they did in this matter of special days.
It was difficult for the new Christians, no doubt—especially for those coming from a background steeped in religious traditions. The apostles were patient with them. When someone regarded one day as more sacred than the rest, Paul recognized it as a symptom of “weak” faith, yet refused to cast judgment on him or her (see Romans 14). But when anyone tried to graft the observance of special days onto Christianity as a religion, Paul’s tolerance came to an abrupt end. He wrote the Galatian ekklesias:
Now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. (Galatians 4:9-11)
Yes, you heard Paul right! He called observing special religious days a “weak and miserable” principle for getting to know God. The fact that the Galatians were doing so made Paul wonder whether his years of blood, sweat, and tears on their behalf had done them any good at all.
Paul was not alone in this stance. It is fascinating that in the first six decades of Christianity, as recorded in Acts and the apostolic letters, there are only three apparent references to the first day of the week, Sunday. Only one of those describes anything resembling a gathering of Christians. And that one was highly unusual: it began one day, kept going all night, continued the next morning, and featured Paul raising a young man from the dead! One day of this two-day gathering did happen to be a Sunday—since Paul was leaving town, never to return, on Monday.
In sixty years, that’s it.
Those same books of the New Testament are completely silent about “Christian holidays.” The date of Jesus’ birth is not even recorded, and there is certainly no mention of the early Christians observing it for centuries afterwards. Similarly, the New Testament record is silent about the early Christians celebrating the day of Jesus’ resurrection or ascension or any such occasion.
When they spoke of the old Jewish holy days and feasts at all, it was to point out that their meanings had been fulfilled in higher and better ways in Jesus. It was never to exhort others to observe those days.
The Passover? In the “perfect religion” God had given the Jews, it involved a feast with a sacrificial lamb and unleavened bread. But now? Paul said that Jesus was the believers’ “Passover lamb.” The ekklesia itself was the “unleavened bread,” as long as they were filled with sincerity and truth rather than the “leaven” of malice and wickedness (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
And the Sabbath? In the “perfect religion,” it had commemorated the seventh day of the week, when God had rested from His work of creation. But now? The apostolic writings again give no hint that the Sabbath was to be transferred to a different day of the week. The writer of Hebrews states that a “Sabbath rest” does remain for the people of God, but it is not entered into by observing a day of the week. Rather, believers enter that rest by ceasing from a reliance on keeping religious laws and instead believing in Jesus (Hebrews 4:1-11)!
Like their Pioneer, the early disciples did single out a day to be holy—today. For example:
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:7-13).
The most important day in the “Christian religion” is always today, no matter what the calendar says. One essential way to observe the “holiness” of today is by getting outside ourselves and finding a way to encourage, admonish, and inspire a brother or sister.
Daily encouragement was the watchword of the early believers throughout the first century. Of the Jerusalem church, we read:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Years later, Paul could still say to the Ephesian ekklesia, “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31).
Jesus had taught that each day was to be infused with the simple religion of selfless consecration to and trust in a loving Father. That’s how the early Christians lived with one another. In the end, picking out other “special days” was an expedient they just didn’t need or desire.
The Christians’ Holy Man: Jesus—and All Who Believe!
What, then, of “special men”? Did the early believers implement some version of a priesthood, as all other world religions had done—and still do? After all, the sudden influx of brand-new Christians did require some sort of leadership to take care of them, didn’t it? Did the early churches designate certain Christians as leaders and give them titles, positions, and even salaries? Or did they once again choose “a path less traveled by,” a seldom-used trail blazed by their Leader, Jesus?
To begin with, let us affirm that great men and women of faith—as God defines greatness, anyway—certainly strode the earth in those days. They did offer much help to the ekklesias. Without their gifts, and without the faith with which they exercised those gifts, there is no way the early believers could have grown the way they did.
But at the same time, let us also affirm that in no way did the early churches practice leadership by the priesthood model, with a professional “caste” of clergy. It just didn’t happen that way.
Jesus’ last marching orders to His followers included this ringing declaration: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18). The early believers knew and taught that when Jesus ascended to heaven, the Father had:
…seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church. (Ephesians 1:20-22)
The absolute authority of Jesus was something that they took very, very seriously. In no way did they put up with someone diminishing or undermining that authority at all. One of the severest criticisms in scripture was John’s statement about a “leader” named Diotrophes: “He loves to be first” (3 John 9). John was not at all amused, promising to come and “call attention to what he is doing.” All authority belonged to Jesus. Human presumption was just not tolerated in the ekklesias.
The early believers knew and taught something else about Jesus’ ascension: “When He ascended to the heights, He led a crowd of captives and gave gifts to His people” (Ephesians 4:8). They understood what had happened on that summer morning in Jerusalem, fifty amazing days after the cross. When the room was filled with a mighty wind and tongues of flame, Jesus was pouring out His Spirit on His people (Acts 2:33). He was apportioning His Spirit, with all of the marvelous facets of His amazing character, to human beings. As Paul put it:
A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)
Each of these gifts was Jesus, distributing His Spirit among His brothers and sisters, empowering them to help one another as He had done. In that sense, each of these gifts was equally Jesus and therefore equally “authoritative” in its own way.
Leadership, then, was one such gift. As we have seen, it was to be expressed with authority, but never with authoritarianism. It shunned titles. It was lived out through relationship with people, not position over them. Its goal was to equip people to exercise their gifts, not to squelch others through control or “micromanagement.”
That is why when the early ekklesias met together for encouragement, prayer, teaching, and worship, there is not even a hint of a “designated speaker” or “master of ceremonies” in charge. There was no division of people into “pulpit” and “pew.” No one was controlling the meeting—except Jesus.
Here is the best description in the entire New Testament of how Christians were to meet:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Corinthians 14:26-31)
How were the ekklesias to meet? Everyone was responsible to use his or her gifts to build up the rest. All gifts were welcomed and valued. There were many different kinds of “flowers” in the “bouquet” of Christian gatherings, and each was welcomed. No single person dominated. Each individual submitted to the others, to the point of stopping in mid-sentence if another person received a revelation from God! In this way, everyone “prophesied in turn” and so everyone was “instructed and encouraged.”
For all of these reasons and more, nothing remotely resembling a “professional priesthood” or clergy arose for many, many decades of early Christian life. It was foreign to their experience of Jesus. Leadership, yes; a “clerical caste system,” no.
In the matter of “special people,” the early believers lived out the new agreement God had made with them through Jesus. It was vastly different from human religion, but it was the only way of life they knew:
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
The “Religion” of Christianity is the “Religion” of Jesus
What was the “church life” like in AD 30-70? It was identical, really, to the “disciples’ life” during the last three years of Jesus’ physical existence. That experience of intimate fellowship had simply been transplanted geographically to the cities and villages of the Roman Empire.
According to Luke, the gospel that he wrote described what Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The book of Acts, then, was what Jesus continued to do and teach, after His ascension. This time He was “doing and teaching” through His people, the ekklesia.
First century believers, then, saw themselves as continuing the life that the earliest followers had enjoyed with Jesus on the hills and highways of Galilee and Judea. They were still His spiritual family, “seated in a circle around Him” (Mark 3:34). They still hung on His every word. They still built their lives on the foundation of putting those words into practice. Acts 2:42-49 is really only a description of several thousand people putting Matthew 5-7 into practice together.
The “religion” of Christianity is in truth only meant to be the “religion” of Jesus. It is nothing more—and certainly nothing less.
When they rebelled in the Garden, mankind forfeited a life of intimate, loving, face-to-face dependence on God. Religion—with its categorization of times, places, and people into “holy” and “secular”—proved to be a poor substitute for Paradise. When God offered a perfect religion, rich with meaning, the human race had proved itself incapable of living it. Jesus was God’s mind-blowing answer to this dilemma. For the first time in millennia, human beings had an opportunity to walk with God face to face in loving dependence. When Jesus returned to heaven, that opportunity was not lost. Far from it! “Christ-ianity” was merely the name people gave that life of intimate reliance after the ascension.
The early believers proclaimed with clarity, courage, and joy that Jesus died, that He was buried, that He rose again, that He ascended to the Father’s right hand, and that He poured out His Spirit on His followers. Jesus was not a dead hero or dearly beloved founder. He was alive and very actively involved in the lives of His people.
Christianity in those days required no religious trappings. It blew past the special time-place-man paradigm into a new Reality of relationship, both with God and with His people.
If you have been born a second time, that life is your birthright.