On my last sabbatical, I researched the early church. I studied the church from right after the resurrection of Jesus until the time of Constantine and wanted to see how the early church survived and thrived during a time when they were not the cultural norm. This was a time of intense persecution for believers.
I grew up in a Christian culture where Christianity was not only accepted but also encouraged by the culture. Getting to know the early church taught me many important lessons, some of which were hard to learn.
Many converts were attracted from the lower ranks of life. They were simple, unlettered—but they gloried in the fact that God had chosen to reveal His message to them. Former criminals found forgiveness, transformation, and acceptance that the pagan temples would not grant. Even the most atrocious criminals were attracted to the gospel. The promise of eternal life was amazing to them. Because of their limited education or their criminal past, all they could share was their own witness. However, they believed and found the claims of the divine Teacher to be true in their own lives and experience. Christians could not keep silent about Jesus their Lord.
The Christians in the early church had a joy in Jesus that was evident to their enemies. Heathen opponents of Christians recognized the pure life, devoted love, and amazing courage of Christians. There was an inflexible, intolerant zeal that invited Gentiles in.
Lesson to learn
Followers of Jesus today need to find that same zeal, love, and courage again. We should disciple the members in our churches so they do not need organized training in evangelism but are simply compelled to share. How might you raise up Christians who simply can not keep silent about Jesus their Lord?
The mutual charity of the early church was noticed by those around them. Infants left in the street were adopted, baptized, discipled, and supported by the church. They took the call to work with the poor and needy seriously. In 361 AD, Emperor Julian said, “that the godless Galileans feed not only their (poor) but ours also.” Early Christian communities abolished overwhelming poverty among their own members and made a very good impression on outsiders because such comprehensive care was alien to the pagan world. Acts 2:47 is a scriptural example of how they lived.
Lesson to learn
The early church ministered to “the least of these.” How do we love broken and helpless people? Throughout Scripture, we are commanded to care for the widows and orphans (James 1:27), visit the prisoner (Matthew 25:31-46), and to love the foreigners in the land (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). How might that look in your context?
Early Christians were often called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods. They were thought of as social misfits, unable by temperament or unwilling by conviction to participate in the common activities of a group or community.
Because the social life of the times was riddled with idolatry, sensitive Christians did not go to games, plays, or read pagan literature. It was difficult to find a job. They were not allowed in guilds as that required meetings at the temples where gods were toasted and worshipped. Even studying as an artist, teaching school, or serving as a soldier required bending the knee to the emperor. During the time of Domitian, the Christians were not allowed to use imperial coins. With this in mind, we begin to understand why the early church had to take care of each other. Those verses in Acts take on a new meaning.
Early Christians were often Jews who chose to follow Jesus. But when they did, they were kicked out of the synagogue and their names were struck from “the book.” (See the letter to Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11 and the letter to Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6 for more info) The Jews had an agreement with Rome that they did not have to worship the emperor. However, when the follower of Jesus was kicked out of the synagogue, that protection was removed. Christians were then subject to arrest for not worshipping the emperor.
Still, the Christians cheerfully submitted to the authority of their pagan governors by demonstrating passive obedience. They wrote letters of support to the emperor, telling him of their prayers for him and knowing that he was the one issuing their death sentences.
The early church paid a high price to be counter-cultural.
Lesson to be learned
As our culture moves farther and farther away from the Christian culture of the past, how do we follow Jesus counter-culturally? This is a new experience for us in America, but we need to figure this out. A good start might be to pray for and be respectful of our government even when we disagree with its policies.
I saved the hardest lesson for last. One writer said that, within the first thirty-five years after the death of Jesus, joining the Christian faith meant to court martyrdom. That was a hard sentence for me to read, and I still struggle with that. We often promise “happy ever after,” but the early church was promising a death sentence... This reality is true in many countries even today. Early believers celebrated martyrdom. They would celebrate the “birthday” of a believer’s martyrdom or refer to his “glorious martyrdom” in letters to other churches.
Joyful Christian lives and—even more so—joyful Christian deaths were major factors which attracted non-Christians to Christ. Justin Martyr said, “I myself, too, when I was delighting in the teachings of Plato and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death and all things which are counted fearful, I understood.” The Romans did not like to watch Christians killed in the games by animals or gladiators, because the Christians were not afraid. Instead, they prayed and they sang! They knew they were going to see Jesus very soon, and they were full of joy.
Lesson to be learned
Our “happy ever after” comes when we are with Jesus. We are to find our joy in Jesus in our life here and know that death takes us into the presence of Jesus. That promise brought the early church great joy and should encourage us today, as well.