In the primitive church of the first century there was a pervading ethic that held all of its members together.1 The Book of Acts records that “all who believed were together” and it is safe to say that all who did not believe were not together. The ethic that caused them to be together and stay together was love for their Master and Savior. Jesus Christ was the one who had loved them first with the greatest self-sacrificing love ever recorded in history. Theirs was a simple love affair of the heart, a passionate response to the One who loved them first. It was the love that abandoned all for the sake of the One who abandoned all for them.
Certainly, it was not a complicated theology of the mind that motivated them. It was simple obedience to the gospel that called them to lay down their lives for their brothers. For the Messiah had laid down His life for them, and the only fitting response was to love their brothers the same way He had loved them.2 So they utterly abandoned themselves and their own independent lives and possessions to love Him back. They did this by loving all those He died for. This was their first love. It was their simple devotion to the One they loved. This became the foundation of the Body of Messiah.
On the day of Pentecost, when three thousand people were baptized, they abandoned everything in obedience to the many other words of the gospel spoken by Peter. (See the article, Saving Faith) Laying their possessions at the apostles’ feet, they walked away from the established camp of Judaism and formed a brand new culture. It was the new wine poured out into a brand new wineskin, just as Jesus had said must happen.3 He promised that as long as they stayed solidly on that foundation of love and obedience, He would continue to reveal Himself to them. And so the gates of Hades would never prevail against them if they continued in obedience to the Savior’s words.4
They were to be “a light to the world, a city set on a hill.”5 The world could not observe anything mystical. They have to see spiritual unity in a physical, observable body.6 This unity is only possible if it is set securely upon the firm foundation of love. This visible unity was evident in the early church. They were all of one heart and mind,7 under one anointing.8 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching9 and they all spoke with confidence in their assemblies.10 There were no needy among them for they shared all their possessions in common as any had need.11 They were certainly set apart and clearly distinct as the new spiritual nation observable by the lost.
What happened from then till now? Does the church today still bear the same distinctive characteristics of its original foundation? Is it controlled or governed by the same ethic of love? Could one honestly say that the church today bears any resemblance to its early roots?
And when did it change? Long ago — longer ago and closer to the time of the vibrant life of the first-century church than you may have ever thought possible. They were led astray from their first love.12 They allowed the trap of self-life to creep in through the craftiness of the Evil One. When self-life reared its ugly head, love began to be smothered.
There is no way for these two rivals to co-exist. As love was the beginning and the basis of this new culture, it was also the first thing to disappear. Since self-sacrificing love is the only thing that could unite the disciples, when it died, division came in and their unity went out the door.
The apostles could see these things happening and wrote many letters to the churches pleading with them in tears to repent and come back to their first love. They could see the splintering denominations on the horizon. They shuddered to see the spirit of the old camp creeping into this new culture.13 They saw the craftiness of the Evil One taking its toll on the once pure virgin, betrothed to Messiah, with no other loves.14 They remembered the dead religion they had come out of and urged the churches to hold fast to what they had already attained.15
The last thing Paul said in his letter to the church in Ephesus was:
Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible (or undying) love. (Ephesians 6:24; then see Revelation 2:4-5)
He would not have said this if it were not possible that their love could be corrupted. He said essentially the same thing to the Corinthian church:
If anyone does not love the Lord let him be accursed. Maranatha! (1 Corinthians 16:22)
The expression “Maranatha!” in this context meant “Come, O Lord, and cut them off!” — those in the church who don’t love you. When they left their first love, they were cut off from grace, which meant that everything they said and did was in their natural strength, for their own glory. That was all they had to seek for, having rejected the glory of the Father, which would have made them one.16 Without grace there is no way to meet the demands of love and there is certainly no way to live together.17
One by one, their lampstands were removed, just as the Master had warned them.18 There is no record in history that the vibrant life of love that characterized the first communities survived beyond the first century. It was replaced with a mere form of religion of an entirely different nature. Their love was replaced with dead rituals and traditions that put people’s souls in bondage.
The complacent laity filled the pews, while the self-satisfied preachers filled the pulpits. The people found their way to church once per week in order to secure their spot on a cloud with a harp. That’s all they had to look forward to. The clergy basked in their own self-glory as their sermons tickled the ears of the naive. Again religion became, “the blind leading the blind.”
We have a hope that the prophecy of Isaiah 49:6 will be fulfilled in our day. It will be the restoration of the same twelve-tribed spiritual nation that began in the first century.19 We have a hope that a great light of love will emerge upon the earth that will shine brighter than all the words that have ever been spoken. This light will be the witness and demonstration of the kingdom of heaven on earth that all people can see. We hope that you can hear the call in your heart to seek and not give up until you find the place where it all began again with love.
If it began with love and ended by the lack of it, it must be restored with the same love that it had at the beginning.