All who believed were together and had all things in common... And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 2:44; 4:32-35)>
What was the church like when it began in the first century? What image do you picture in your mind? Probably a very common one that you’ve seen drawn many times by artists, maybe even in a movie. Jesus is walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with His twelve apostles, teaching these rough-looking fishermen to become “fishers of men.” But then flash ahead to today. Why is the image so different, so less radical today than it was then? It’s an image of comfort now, with rows of nicely-dressed people bowing their heads as the priest or the preacher leads them through the liturgy.
You may be surprised to find out that the early church was not a weekly gathering in a church building, looking at the backs of the heads of people you rarely see during the week. In fact, there is no record of a church building for the first two hundred years.1 No, the early church was a community of people, a group of disciples sharing a common life together, who gathered every morning and evening in a circle, as in Mark 3:34. In fact, they were together every day, working together, and sharing their new life with others.2 These communities were organized into twelve tribes in their different geographical locations, which formed a new spiritual nation called Israel.3
Although they lived in normal towns and were not isolated from society, they were insulated from the fallen culture of the society around them.4 They were set apart, having a different culture altogether.5 Where the Romans were devoted to entertainment and pleasure, the disciples were devoted to loving one another, especially caring for widows and orphans.6 There were no poor among them,7 because those who had means gladly shared all they had.
Love was the primary message of the early church. But their message was not a mere sermon from a pulpit. (They didn’t even have a pulpit or a single person doing all the talking — all came prepared to share thanksgiving, a song, a teaching, even a prophecy.8) No, the message was lived out by all. Every day was spent caring for each other in practical ways, and laying down their lives for each other. This was the substance, the visible reality of the new commandment of their Lord: “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are My disciples.”9
This love created a new social order called community. Those disciples with wealth sold their assets and laid the entire sum at the feet of the apostles.10 This simple act revealed their belief as nothing else could. Because of the love of God that had been poured into their hearts,11 they gave all they had — all they’d gained in life, all that supported them. The generosity they had for their poorer brothers, their radical forsaking of material wealth, and their affectionate trust for their shepherds were part and parcel of their faith. Such acts were not just the noble zeal of a few impulsive zealots, but a way of life practiced by all.12 Community was the result of love in action. Who were and weren’t believers then was very clear.13
As they obeyed the new commandment to love one another as their Master had loved them, each disciple was assured in his own heart that he had truly passed out of death and into life.14 They knew our Master was pleased with them, for He had prayed for His disciples to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one.15 This confidence grew as the watching world observed the visible demonstration of their love for one another.16 But more than that, the Holy Spirit communicated to their hearts an assurance that they had eternal life17 because they were loving their brothers and living together in unity — the very place where God commands the blessing of eternal life.18 If they ever lost their love and drifted apart, they would lose this confidence as well. That could only come from another spirit19 — not the Holy Spirit.
Love produced a full-featured culture based on the teachings of the Messiah. He had said that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on two commandments: to love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.20 All of the prophecies yet unfulfilled depended on this love being expressed first and foremost. All of the instructions in the Law were impossible to fulfill without clinging to love just as a climber scaling a cliff clings to every handhold in the rock. No benefit would come from trying to obey the Law without love. The scribes and Pharisees had demonstrated that all too well. But as the first disciples hung on to love, a new and living way to fulfill the Law opened up to them.
They kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the same way they kept all the feasts and sabbaths: in a new and living way.21 The early disciples understood that they were set-apart from the world into communities in order to be made holy.22 The process of being made holy or pure meant learning to overcome their iniquities and to love one another from a pure heart.23 The Sabbath was a sign between Yahweh and His people that He was doing this work of purification, called sanctification.24 That is why there was a command in the New as well as the Old Testament to keep the Sabbath:
There remains therefore a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9)25
At first, most of the early disciples were Jews who had grown up keeping the Law, many with the zeal of Peter, who could say as a mature adult and disciple, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” When they became disciples, they continued keeping the Law, not in the legalistic way of Judaism, with its man-made regulations, but with revelation and joy, knowing that it was their Father’s wise instruction to His people.26
For example, they understood that the Sabbath was an important sign, coming from the Law of Moses which they knew so well: “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you [set you apart].” Now more than ever, the early disciples were set apart for a special purpose — to love. This was how they would fulfill Israel’s prophetic purpose of being “a light to the Gentiles” and “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”27
Because of their great importance prophetically,28 Paul instructed the disciples that they were not to let anyone but the Body of Messiah judge them about how they kept the Sabbath or the New Moon festivals.29 As their new culture developed, the early disciples also began to gather on the first day of the week for festivals. The Sabbath was for resting and for evangelism, while the first day of the week was for celebrating the resurrection, beginning on the evening of the first day (what we call Saturday night). Sometimes those in smaller communities would travel to a nearby larger community that could accommodate a “First Day Festival.” We know this from several accounts, the first by Ignatius, who died in 107 AD:
And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s day as a festival, the resurrection-day...30
The second, and later account was by a man named Justin Martyr. He was a Samaritan philosopher who grew up pagan. After becoming a believer in Christ, he defended the beliefs of the early church to governors and officials. Somewhere around 150 AD, he described what the church did then:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.31
The first community was in Jerusalem, but the gospel quickly spread around the Mediterranean Sea, north to Turkey, west to Greece and Italy, and south to Egypt and Africa. The pagan influences in the new places pulled much harder on the souls of the new disciples. These people did not have the background in the Law of Moses as the first disciples in Jerusalem did, but had been steeped in the idolatry and immorality of the day. They required more care and instruction to remain set apart and not slip back into the popular culture, but it was a constant battle — one that was often lost.
In the beginning, the communities were self-governing clans, loosely connected in a confederation under the care of the apostles. Local elders ruled the clans,32 watching over their flocks and themselves to preserve the unity and love between them, both within and between their communities. Yahshua had said, “The kings of the nations lord it over them; but you are not to be like that. The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”33
In a short time, charismatic bishops arose to keep the flock in check. Their power came through the force of their great intellects, both within and without the church. They often had a philosophical or legal background, which equipped them to engage in complex arguments to attempt make their religion agreeable to the governors and philosophers of the day. The apostles noticed a change, and wrote letters of correction and warning. The most outstanding of these is First John, but the letter of Jude addresses the same issues, and so do the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation. Their first love was fading, but only a few overcomers noticed.
A paradigm shift took place: right doctrine replaced brotherly love as the “litmus test” of true belief.34 “Keeping the faith” used to mean holding fast to the love they had at first, which was the basis for everything a disciple did. Eventually, “the faith” was reduced to intellectual argument about words and doctrines.35 The prevailing Greek culture was known for its love of debate, its rhetoric, and its logic. These aspects seeped into the church undetected, as the precious but fragile culture of love collapsed under the spiritual blows of those who loved “to have the preeminence among them.”36
The disciples in the different places abandoned the love they had at first. Paul had exhorted the Ephesians to “love our Master Yahshua the Messiah with an undying (or incorruptible) love.”37 But forty years later, the Revelation the Apostle John received included a solemn warning from Yahshua Himself to the church in Ephesus:
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)
In just forty years, the church had nearly completed the process of losing its lampstand. The fuel for these lampstands was the love between brothers, shining for the world to see. The churches were out of oil. Since there was no light, the lampstand would be removed, too, and most would not even notice the difference. The Holy Spirit was not confirming the disciples for their life of love, and soon He would depart completely. Millions of new converts would come in over the coming centuries, but none would receive the Holy Spirit.
It is not known when all the lampstands of the early church were taken out of the way, but it seemingly started with the Corinthians. Paul noted in his lifetime that they received “another Jesus...a different spirit...a different gospel” — that they even “bore it beautifully!”38 And the Savior Himself took note of the fall of the Ephesian church. They fell out of love with their Savior and one another, and fell into what it is now: a weekly meeting where everyone looks at the backs of each other's heads, rather than daily gathering in a circle to speak and sing to one another, discerning the Body of Messiah.
The key to understanding what happened is realizing that everything hangs on obedience to the two greatest commandments He spoke of Matthew 22:37-40. When love left, only ritual remained, and the cancer spread like gangrene throughout all of the clans and tribes.
Along with the change from love to doctrine came the Nicolaitan (clergy/laity) system, dominated by bishops who did most of the talking and ruling, lording it over their flocks. With the rise of the Nicolaitan the priesthood of all believers ceased to have any reality in the churches, which is true to this day. These mutated churches were warned that God hates this system, as it suppresses the full participation by each and every member.39 In the face of such a stern warning, the bishops seized more and more power, gaining clout over large areas that would eventually take on the Roman name of diocese. The same Ignatius quoted earlier was a chief early proponent of such ruling bishops.40 He wrote after the death of the last apostle, John, that the churches were to:
Do nothing without the bishop… It is not lawful to baptize without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God.
A new religion was beginning, one far from the simple life of love the Community in Jerusalem had known.
Out of the fifty “Early Church Fathers” whose writings remain, only two make even a passing reference to the commandment of our Master to “love one another as I have loved you.”41 Beginning in the second century, creeds and catechisms of faith became increasingly important as keystones in Christianity. Surprisingly, none of these contains a single reference to the Master’s “new commandment” or the two greatest commandments on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. In fact, even the words, “love one another” are strangely absent from all of them.
Over time, the communities lost their distinction of being set-apart from the surrounding society. They were not being purified in their love. Divisions were rampant and bitter, especially among the leadership as they strove to prove their points. Their weapons became carnal, and as history shows, soon enough they became physical. Those who had been rich or poor outside the church remained rich and poor inside.42 Pagan customs and rituals slipped into the church. Of course, they stopped living in community. One can hardly blame them — without love, community is a torture chamber for the flesh.
A fire broke out in Rome in 64 AD, destroying much of the city and the Emperor’s palace. The disciples were blamed for it, unleashing the wrath of the Romans against them. Three years later, the Jewish people in Palestine revolted, and three years after that the city of Jerusalem was flaming ruins. These events worked together to effect a change between the two groups.
In the beginning, it was convenient for the early church to be known as a “sect of the Jews,”43 as it gave them legal status in the midst of Roman culture. But when the Jewish uprising against Roman rule unleashed fierce persecution upon them, many in the church wanted to distance themselves from their Hebrew roots.
Paul’s warnings against Jewish legalism were a good excuse to jettison any unnecessary Jewish baggage. Within several generations, many Christians saw little benefit to keeping the Sabbath anymore. The process was much more noticeable in Rome than in the East. But from our Father’s perspective whether they kept the Sabbath on the seventh day mattered far less than whether they loved one another as the first disciples had in Jerusalem. Without that self-sacrificing love and sharing, the sign of the Sabbath was invalid, as it no longer signified that Yahweh was their God and that they were His set-apart people whom He was purifying. In many places, they stopped keeping the Sabbath. Instead, the Christians were known for their faithful attendance in the pagan festivals of the day. The farther they were from the days of the apostles, the faster things changed. Tertullian writes in 197 AD:
To we Christians nowadays, the Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals are just a memory of what was formerly beloved by God. But alas, we frequent the Saturnalia and New-Year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia. Presents come and go — New-Year’s gifts — games join their noise — banquets join their din! We do everything that the nations do. Alas, they are more faithful to their own sect than we to ours. They would not have participated in the Lord’s day, nor Pentecost, even if they were invited, for they would be afraid of appearing to be Christians. But we are not the least bit worried about appearing to be heathens!44
So Christianity remains to this day!