Thursday, July 25, 2013

Early Christian Community 1

The response to Peter's sermon is dramatic.  About three thousand Jews accept Peter's message and are baptized.  We can assume both that they repented of their past sins and also received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). If the Feast of Pentecost was a celebration of the harvest, then these are the "first fruits" of the age of the Spirit and the new covenant.

Presumably, every one of these three thousand people was a Jew.  That is to say, they were not changing religions. They were not leaving Judaism to Christianity.  They were becoming better Jews. They were believing in the Jewish Messiah. They were repenting of their failure to be faithful to God's covenant with Israel. And they were receiving the promised Spirit of the Scriptures of Israel.

This was as much the renewal of Israel as the birth of the church--at least it should have been. It would not always be this way. In the early days, the number increased first to around five thousand Jews in Acts 4:4, and then 5:14 speaks of a "multitude" constantly being added. But we know from Paul's letter to the Romans that most Jews would not end up believing.  In Romans 9-11, Paul wrestles with the paradox that although the good news was first for Israel, most of Israel did not believe it at that time.

We should thus be careful not to assume that church growth--especially massive church growth--is always going to be the norm.  We can sometimes get the impression that if a church is doing all the right things, it will not only grow in numbers but will grow astronomically. But we should remember that the beginning of the church was somewhat of a unique event. Growth did not continue on this magnitude for long in Jerusalem.

The Jewish historian Josephus barely even mentions Jesus in his history of this period. [1]  That is to say, Christianity was not a major feature of Israel--at least not to him--in the late first century. Sometimes the church grows. Sometimes it grows fantastically. But sometimes Jesus cannot perform miracles because a location lacks faith (cf. Mark 6:5-6). He does not force people to believe. Sometimes the gate is small and the road is narrow, and few find it (Matt. 7:14). Because God gives humanity a choice, nothing anyone does can guarantee that others will believe...

[1] Josephus' mention of Jesus in Antiquities 18.5.2 has been tampered with, leading some to argue that Josephus never mentioned Jesus at all.  However, it is more likely that Josephus briefly mentioned Jesus and that some later Christian copyists "enhanced" his description.


Susan Moore said...

Part one.
“But sometimes Jesus cannot perform miracles because a location lacks faith…He does not force people to believe…the gate is small and the road is narrow, and few find it…” That is all as true today as it was back then. Only today instead of people outside of the church not believing, we have people inside the church who do not believe and choose, instead, to deny the power of God. What great anguish this causes to watch some legalistic-minded church leaders drag whole congregations to their deaths. Nowhere in the Bible does it say He will stop performing miracles through us, but yet we are willing to be deceived and believe that He has. Nowhere in the Bible does it say He will stop giving miraculous gifts, but yet we are willing to be wicked and suppress the truth about God by teaching others that He has stopped. Woe to those church leaders whose names are not written in Christ’s Book of Life. They are not written because they do not love God –the one, true God who saved me and healed me: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Said by Jesus in John 8:44).

Susan Moore said...

Part two.
In Matthew 24:9-11, Jesus tells His followers, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” He is not saying that false prophets from outside the church will deceive worldly people, for those people are already worshiping idols and being deceived. He is referring to false prophets as being the church leaders and teachers that arise from inside the Church to deceive the elect.
In Mark 16:14 Jesus appears to the elect and rebukes them for their lack of faith, for not believing the ones who told them that they had seen Him after He had risen. Likewise, I am telling ‘believers’ that after I asked two righteous men to pray for me that my mind was renewed, and Jesus miraculously healed me. He tells us, plain as day, in John 6:29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.” God is one, therefore we must believe in the whole, one God. He does not give us permission to slice and dice off the parts of Him we do not understand, fear, or don’t like. He never tells us to let our irrational thoughts and fears –such as loss of control, embarrassment or death- to rule our lives, but rather that His perfect love will cast out all fear. In order to know Him we must yearn for His truth, and He will open our eyes and ears and we will then see and hear Him. Knowing His truth results in loving Him more, and each other as well.
Putting all doubt aside, what does the Word actually tell us about miracles and gifts? He says this: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (Matthew 21:21). He tells us in John 14:12-14, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” In like form, Mark 16:16-18 states, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.”
In my mind it’s almost as an afterthought to Himself that in Luke 18:7-9 Jesus ends His parable of the persistent widow with His final question: “And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for your thoughts!

Susan Moore said...

Part three.
In Luke 22:30-32, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
He is now sifting His Church as wheat. But He has prayed for us, too.
In John 17:20-26 prior to His death Jesus prayed for His current disciples and for us, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –I in them and you in me- so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…” (John 17:20b-21).
But when He is done sifting us through Satan, what will remain is His one body; and we will feed His lambs. We must stand firm in our faith.