Saturday, August 03, 2013

Early Christian Complications 1

... continued writing on Acts
As long as we live on this earth, we will be susceptible to temptation.  After all, even Jesus was tempted.  Adam was tempted even though he did not have a "sin nature."

Some temptation comes because of a desire to sin (cf. James 1:14). But temptation can also come because a God-given desire is directed toward the wrong object. So the desire to have sex is God-given.  The problem is when it is directed at someone who isn't your spouse. Temptation can also come when we find ourselves in new and unfamiliar situations.

For these reasons, no Christian individual ever gets to the point where he or she cannot be tempted to do the wrong thing.  And the more people you have in a community, the opportunity for temptation multiplies exponentially. We should be optimistic about the power of God to help us resist the urge to do wrong, but we should also be realistic about the power and likelihood of temptation.

The early church was no more immune to temptation than other times and places in history. We like to think of the earliest Christians as saints. There's something about human nature that likes to think things were ideal in the past--not like they are today. But this dynamic of human culture has more to do with our forgetfulness than reality.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira is the first chink in our idealism about the earliest church. We can be sure that there were others like them who were pretending to share the virtues of authentic individuals like Barnabas.  But deep down, their hearts were far from generous or virtuous.  The early church had its hypocrites and pretenders, just like the church today.

Ananias and Sapphira did wrong intentionally.  Individuals and communities of faith can also wrong others unintentionally.  In no situation are we more likely to wrong someone unintentionally than when we are not aware of them, their needs, how they think or how they live. Conflict and misunderstanding are especially likely when we encounter people who are "other."

Acts 6 gives us an early conflict along these lines. Again, it is not clear that the earliest disciples were very aggressive about their mission. They seem to have spent most of their time praying and worshiping at the temple. They heal a lame man on their way to the temple.  They end up preaching because of the stir that results when they heal him.

So Acts gives us no evidence that Peter or John went out of their way to make sure that Greek-speaking Jews--called Hellenists--would hear the good news about Christ. They seem to have heard unintentionally. Perhaps some of them were present on the Day of Pentecost. Perhaps there was talking going on in the Aramaic-speaking synagogues--the language of Jesus and Peter--and it spread to the Greek-speaking ones without anyone really thinking about it.

It was a cross-cultural situation ripe for complications and inadvertent mistakes.  Leaders like Peter and John were not outward-focused at the time. They were looking "inward" and "upward." Ministry was taking place within the part of the community that was familiar. But Peter wasn't being proactive toward those outside the boundaries. He was in response mode to "outsiders" rather than missional mode.

It might be helpful to know that far more Jews lived outside of Jerusalem at the time of Christ than lived inside it.  In fact more Jews lived in a fraction of a big city like Alexandria in Egypt than lived in all of Jerusalem. Greek was the business language of the Roman Empire, the "lingua franca." So far more Jews at the time of Christ likely spoke Greek than Aramaic, and they read the Old Testament in Greek.

It was thus understandable that part of the Jerusalem community would speak Greek.  Some Jews inevitably were attracted to their homeland and made their way back to Palestine, just as happened in the last century after the nation of Israel was re-established. We call the Jews who were scattered around the world, "Diaspora" Jews. This dispersion had started centuries earlier, especially with the Babylonian captivity of the early 500s BC.

There was at least one synagogue in Jerusalem where Greek was almost certainly the language of worship--the "Synagogue of the Freedmen" (Acts 6:9). [1] A "freedman" was a former servant who had attained his or her freedom in some way. Sometimes the person had been a slave to work off a debt. Perhaps the person was granted freedom at the death of his or her owner. Some Jews no doubt became slaves during the wars of earlier centuries. At some point, some of these must have decided to move back to Jerusalem when they attained their freedom. Someone founded a synagogue where they could worship in their first language or at least a language they held in common.

Ministry was taking place within the Aramaic-speaking community of believers.  Those with extra were sharing with those who did not have food or material resources. There was a ministry to widows, for example.

There was no welfare at the time.  The community of believers would no doubt have applauded the Romans if they had taken care of those in need, but no such service existed. Widows and orphans were particularly vulnerable if they did not have extended family to take care of them. Women simply didn't have the opportunities to take care of themselves like we do today.

So there was a daily distribution of food...

[1] We might bear in mind that a synagogue at this time was a gathering more than anything else, not necessarily a gathering in a building.  It is quite possible this synagogue took place in a building, but we do not really know.  In villages, a synagogue might take place in its center, for example.


Susan Moore said...

It seems there is a disconnect between views of the early church and the works of God through the early church. By works of God I'm referring to miracles.
So here we have Ananias and Sapphira caught in their lie to the Holy Spirit, and who then drop dead on the spot, "Great fear (of God) seized the whole church...The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders...and more and more (people) were added to their number daily... as a result (of the expressed holiness of God through His people) people brought the sick on mats so that Peter's shadow might fall on them as He passed by (and they be healed)...and all of them were healed.
In regards to the suffering of others, there seems to be a direct connection between responding to that suffering from one's heart in the loving nature of God, and being used by God to love other's through miraculous works.
What if the church nowadays responded like that, in love, with the fear of God in their hearts? I don't mean, 'respect' of God, that so many Christians believe the word 'fear' means nowadays. Having been one who has first hand lived through the divine nature and eternal power of God effecting a divine healing in my life, I would like everyone to know this: The word 'fear' means this -FEAR! Fear enough to be obedient, but not cowardly.
Ok, so, if every Christian was obedient to God, but not cowardly towards Him, and loved Him above all else, and loved everybody else just the same. The Church could be highly regarded by the people, and more and more (people) would be added to our numbers daily (Acts 5:13-15). And all could see evidence of God's miraculous works through us, though there would still be those that deny they come from God. Just as today there are those who deny the power of God to miraculously heal.

Jake Schell said...

If I am following this example correctly, it sounds as if temptation may be used to draw people into positive environments. Desire and pride may lead me to act but if I do not have the right motive the results may never be fulfilling (James 4:3). Unfortunately, the initial euphoria from success fades. When it does, one begins to look elsewhere for the next “high”. Thus, the endless search for personal fulfillment that seems so apparent in our society ensues. Clearly, how people think and react has really changed very little through the ages. The numbers that were following Jesus grew as He performed miracles and quickly declined as the going got difficult. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that more exists beyond the now as Jude reminds (Jude 21).
Thanks for the continued thought provoking blog!
Jake Schell