Archives For The Early Church

Conquering Lambs

Preston Sprinkle —  February 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

“Come on, Erastus. We’re going to be late. The celebration has started!”

Fear gripped Erastus’s heart. He knew he had to do it, but his feet felt cemented into the lambmarble floor, as the warm Mediterranean breeze swept through his front door.

“Hang on, Gaius. Let me just grab my cloak.”

“And don’t forget your speech, Erastus. Remember: this is your night!”

“Oh…yes, of course,” stammered Erastus, as he stuffed a piece of parchment into his cloak. “Okay. Let’s go.”

As the two rushed to the city square, the buzz of the crowd vibrated through the alleys. Intoxicated from violence, they chanted:

Kurios, Vespasian. Kurios, Vespasian. Kurios Vespasian!”

“They’re waiting for you, Erastus! Are you ready?

“Um, yes. Yes, of course. I’m ready.”

Celebrations ignited across the Roman world at the news of emperor Vespasian’s recent bloodbath in Jerusalem. The Jewish revolt was crushed by Rome and pride wafted through the Mediterranean air, especially in patriotic towns like Corinth where Erastus was the city treasurer.

Kurios, Vespesian! Kurios, Vespesian!

“There it is, Erastus! Look, they built a stage for your speech. This is your night, Erastus. The favor of the gods is with you. And kurios Vespasian, our divine emperor, is with you. Make him proud!”

As city treasurer, Erastus was called upon by the Senate to herald the good news of Lord Vespasian’s peace-bringing victory over the revolting Jews. Putting down such threats brought salvation and security to the empire. Normally, Erastus would eagerly celebrate. The only problem was that Erastus had recently renounced his belief in the Roman gods and he no longer believed that Vespasian was his kurios. He had joined the community of the Way, otherwise known as Christians. And Erastus now worshiped a new King, a Jew from Nazareth named Yeshua whom his own government had crucified. Yeshua, the crucified Jew, was his new Kurios—His divine Lord.

“Right this way sir,” beckoned a soldier glistening with joy. “Kurios, Vespasian! Make us proud, sir!”

Erastus strolled up the stage, dove into his pocket, and snatched his manuscript. He glazed over the crowd and then squinted up to the sky and whispered: “Kurios Christos, give me strength to follow you. May your cross be mine. This night, I will be with you.”

“Citizens of Rome,” cried Erastus. “We are here to celebrate Vespasian’s recent victory over the Jews in Palestine. Many people have been killed, both Romans and Jews. And Rome has reclaimed Palestine for the empire.”

Kurios, Vespasian!” shouted the crowed. “Salvation and peace belong to Rome!”

“However,” continued Erastus. “I’m here to tell you about another empire. Another Kurios. A better salvation and true peace.”

The crowd became paralyzed.

“I stand before you as a herald of the good news, that Yeshua, a Jew from the town of Nazareth in Palestine is the true Kurios, the Lord of the earth. And his kingdom rules over Rome and its boundaries reach to the ends of the earth. I am a servant of this King, this Lord. He is my Kurios. He is your Kurios. I have submitted to his rule and I can therefore not celebrate this war with you. Many innocent lives have been shed to maintain Rome’s peace. But true peace is found in Yeshua.”

Anger whipped through the agitated crowd as they gnashed their teeth. Several men rushed the stage. Soldiers drew their swords.

“Citizens of Rome. People of Corinth. I declare to you this evening, that God has highly exalted Yeshua and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Yeshua every knee in this city square should bow and every tongue confess that Yeshua the messiah is Kurios, to the glory of the God of Israel, our Father.”

A sword slashed across Erastus’ face and he crumpled to the floor. Blood gushed out and filled the stage. Another sword hacked at his ribs, boots trampled his limps, and soon Erastus was with his Kurios.

And Satan was dealt another blow. Erastus, citizen of Christ, had conquered.

“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11)


* This story is based on Romans 16:23 and the book of Revelation. It’s not historical, but it very well could have been.

I’ve never been a member of a house church, but a big part of me would like to be. I love the idea of a stripped down, no bells and whistles, authentic gathering of believers making house church 2disciples and living on mission together. And I’m sympathetic with the house church movement that’s gaining traction in recent years. But are house churches biblical?

Early on, Christians gathered at the temple and at synagogues. But as Christianity began to separate from Judaism, believers gathered in homes. Or more specifically, they gathered in the homes of rich Christians who had houses large enough to host a gathering of 20 or so people. We see such gatherings throughout the New Testament. In Acts, houses quickly become the primary location for Christian gatherings (1:13; 2:2, 46; 12:12). Paul addressed at least 5 different house churches in Romans 16. Corinth had a few house churches, though on occasion they all gathered at the house of Gaius, who must have had a rather large home (Rom. 16:23). In the first century believers didn’t gather at church buildings as far as we can tell; they gathering in homes. House churches are therefore biblical in as much as this is where believers gathered for worship.

But we have to distinguish between what is described and what is prescribed. Unless I’m house churchmissing something, the New Testament never prescribes (i.e. commands) that believers meet in homes as opposed to meeting in a building. It simply describes that this is what they did in the first-century.

The question is why? Why did believers meet in homes rather than buildings? There are usually two answers that are given.

1) They met in homes because this is where they “did life.” Well, not really. Whatever “doing life” meant for first-century believers, it didn’t happen in the homes. Most believers were crammed into a tiny 500-700 square foot flat with little or no ventilation, no running water, and no toilets other than a large pot in the corner. (Watch out below when it’s time to empty!) Most folks, in the cities at least, “did life” on the streets, in the market place, or at the shop. Homes weren’t very homey.

2) They met in homes because believers protested meeting in buildings. This is what some people think, but it’s historically not true. Early believers first met in synagogues, which were buildings designed for gatherings much like our contemporary churches. If Christians didn’t get kicked out of these buildings, they would have continued to meet there. The same goes for the temple, another building, although they moved away from there for more theological reasons.

So why did they meet in the homes of rich Christians? Because that was the only option. Buildings were expensive and in some cities like Rome it would have been extremely difficult to afford to build a building or to purchase an existing one. Plus, the gatherings were relatively small. Most fellowships were 10-20 people, 50 at the most. Why spend loads of money for a building when we could just meet over at Gaius’ house?

So, house churches in the first century weren’t reacting against the organization of the synagogue or the liturgy of the temple. And they certainly weren’t opposed to meeting in a building on principle. They met in homes because they didn’t have other real options.


A reconstruction of the church at Dura-Europos

So when did the church start meeting in buildings? Some people think that believers met in homes for the next 300 years until Constantine got saved (AD 313) and introduced all sorts of paganism into Christianity—including organized services and elaborate buildings. While there may be a grain of truth to this, it’s only a grain. We have evidence of a church building that dates back to AD 240 (80 years before Constantine) at Dura-Europos in Syria. This church building had a sanctuary, a Sunday school room, and a separate baptistery. And there may have been many other buildings such as this one. This is simply the earliest one archaeologists have found.

So are house churches biblical? Sure. And again, I personally resonate with such small, authentic gatherings. But I don’t think they are any more biblical than buildings. And if believers gather in homes in reaction to the “organized” church that meets in buildings, not only is this wrong-headed—reactions are shaky foundations—it may be further from the original intention of first-century house churches.

Here’s the key point for all of us: Don’t make your church model your identity. Jesus is your identity. The type of structure where we gather and the model of service—or lack of service—should always be secondary. Nothing should compete with our claim that Jesus is supreme.

Luke Comes Before Acts

Mark Beuving —  February 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

Luke the Physician wrote a two-volume work. Volume I is the Gospel of Luke, Volume II is the book of Acts. Taken together, these books give us a careful and compelling account of what happened in the Roman Empire during the first century AD.

In this post, I want to explore the obvious: Luke comes before Acts.

In the church today, we rightly understand that we have a mission. So we get busy evangelizing, church planting, sending out missionaries, caring for the needy, counseling, etc. Our mission as the church continues what was begun in the book of Acts. Of course, we don’t do this perfectly, and the church needs strong and frequent calls to recover what we are actually supposed to be. But the point is, the biblically sensitive among us read the book of Acts and get inspired to continue on with the life of the early church.

But Luke comes first. If we’re not careful, we can become attracted to the life of the early church without considering the motivation of this community. It’s so appealing to see Christians sacrificing for one another, boldly speaking about Jesus, and literally changing the world. We read that and want to get in the game. We may even try to directly imitate the things the early church did.

Now, none of this is bad. But when we consider why the early church did what it did, our fascination with Acts gets a bit more refined.

Jesus on the Cross 2Luke’s gospel records the strangest events in the history of the world. Here was a man—clearly more than a man but clearly human—walking around speaking words of wisdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, challenging those who claimed authority, speaking gently to the oppressed, and generally transforming everything he touched. Luke leaves us no doubt that this man was the most unusual the world has ever hosted.

This man was about to be made a king, but then his supporters decided to kill him instead. If you were reading Luke for the first time, you’d reach Jesus’ death and think—well, that was a weird end to a weird story. But then it gets even weirder. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. He comes back to life, sends out his followers, promises to empower them for the mission he is leaving with them, and then ascends to heaven.

And then Acts happens. Do you see why it’s important that Luke comes before Acts? It’s not enough to rally around a common mission. It’s not enough to have a sense of goodwill towards mankind and to set out to change the world. The reality is, a group of twelve (or 120 when Acts begins) doesn’t just change the world. It can’t be done. At least, not unless Luke comes before Acts.

The amazing truth is that twelve hearts transformed by the risen Lord can change the world. They did it. This is why Acts is so compelling. Actually, the unbelievable events recorded in Luke’s Gospel changed the world, though the change was largely imperceptible until Jesus’ followers went about proclaiming the kingship of the man who raised from the dead.

So when you read Acts, be careful to understand that Acts is not giving us a manual for church planting, nor is it giving us a program for “Changing the World in Thirty Tumultuous Years.” Acts gives us an inspiring account of what happens when human beings are transformed by Jesus and devote their lives to carrying on his mission together. We probably shouldn’t be trying to recreate the events of Acts in our modern setting, but the reality of a transformed community on a common mission is something we should devote ourselves to—not as an end in itself, but as the outflow of hearts transformed by the Man described in Luke’s gospel.

As we wrestle with the issue of Christians and violence, it’s interesting to note that prior to Constantine (4th Cent. A.D.), Christians were basically pacifists. Few Christians ever joined the military and rarely would a believer pursue a vocation where killing someone else would expected. (There’s no evidence of a Christian serving as a soldier of Rome until A.D. 174.) If you did happen to kill someone—say, you were already a soldier and got converted—it was viewed as a sin that required tearful confession and repentance, rather than celebration. Violence for the early Church was viewed as contrary to the cross of Christ, and there really wasn’t much of a debate about it.

This, of course, isn’t a biblical argument for pacifism, though it should cause us to question our assumptions as we approach the text. For pre-Constantine Christianity, non-violence was a fundamental Christian ethic. For post-Constantine Christianity, or more specifically in American Christianity where warfare is what brought us our religious freedom purchased by the blood of Native Americans, violence is rarely questioned except when embedded in a rated-R movie. (The contradiction between some Christians’ support for war and yet disdain for violent rated-R movies is ironic, to say the least.) All in all, we absolutely need to stick close to the biblical text in order to think Christianly through the issue of violence.

In the last post, I mentioned three passages that often head the list of biblical support for the so-called Just War position, or violence by individual Christians when it’s appropriate: Luke 22, Romans 13, and the temple cleansing (John 2, among others).

Luke 22:35-38 says:

35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

So, Jesus tells them to go buy a sword, and low and behold, two of them (Peter and probably Simon the Zealot) already had a sword. “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” The question is: What did Jesus mean by the last phrase “It is enough?” Two swords are enough for what?

I don’t think this text can be used to support Jesus’ (new) allowance for violence. First, a few verses later Peter will wield his sword, cutting off a dude’s ear, and Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this!” (22:51). Obviously Peter (along with many later interpreters) misunderstood Jesus’ previous command to go buy a sword. The swords weren’t meant to be used for violence by Jesus’ followers. Second, Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 53:12, that he would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37) reveals the point of the two swords: Jesus had to be viewed by the Roman authorities as a threat—a potential revolutionary—in order for Rome to have legal grounds to crucify him. When Jesus hung on the cross, he was placed between an insurrectionist (Barabbas) and another criminal; he was numbered among other revolutionary transgressors and was therefore crucified. Understanding Luke 22 in this way makes much better sense both of the quotation of Isaiah 53 and the flow of Jesus’ ethical teaching, which has consistently discouraged violence up until this point.

Let’s go to Romans 13:1-5:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

This passage is often used to advocate for the use of violence by Christians. Now again, the passage isn’t a command or even a direct allowance for violence by the church, but a command that the church submit to its—can I say—evil, corrupt, anti-Christian, and immoral governing authorities. Paul is not praising the government. He’s not saying to love the government. He’s not saying that the government is inherently good. In fact, at the time of writing, Caesar Nero was on Rome’s throne and he was a pedophilic maniac who thought he was divine! In A.D. 64, the same “governing authorities,” whom God commands the church to submit to, will end up dipping Christians in tar and setting them on fire to illuminate Nero’s garden at night. So Paul isn’t saying that Nero’s Rome is on our side, so to speak.

So what is Paul saying? In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, Paul is saying that God is the ultimate authority and He is so sovereign that He can even work through evil earthly authorities to carry out his will. We see this in Daniel (5:1-31). We see it in Isaiah (44:24-45:7). We see it in Zechariah (1:15-21). We see it all throughout the Old Testament: God works through the evil institutions on earth to carry out his will, and God’s people shouldn’t resist or revolt against those institutions that God has placed over his people. God is ultimately in charge.

But this doesn’t mean that the evil institution is morally good or “on God’s side.” God uses earthly authorities, but He will ultimately judge them. Again, we see this throughout the prophets, where God will judge the very governing institutions that he uses. And we see this in Revelation 17-18—follow me here—where God ruthlessly condemns and pronounced judgment upon the same Roman Government that he told the church to submit to in Romans 13. The apostle John would be quite shocked, I think, at the contemporary Church’s affectionate love for and unconditional allegiance to the Babylons of their day. The question of a Christian’s participation in Babylon’s governance is simply not in view in Romans 13.

I’ve got to cut this short, so for the sake of space let me just say that in all the accounts of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-19; John 2:13-22; and others), never does the text say that he physically harmed the people he was rebuking. Yes, he made a whip and drove them out (John 2:15), but it doesn’t say that he was lacerating people with it. The temple cleansing demonstrates Jesus’ non-violent righteous indignation toward greed and corruption, and ultimately foreshadows the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, but it doesn’t show that Jesus reversed his non-violent posture by snapping a few money changes in the butt.

For the next post, we’ll dig into violence in the Old Testament.