Before we look at the effect of the Gentile peoples pouring into the church, I want to pause for a moment and take a closer look at what that early church really looked like, even after the apostles started preaching to the Gentiles. If we accept that what we call the early church, specifically the church which existed between AD 30 and AD 300, should be our model; the measuring stick we should aspire to, then we have already shown that the discrepancies between then and now are immense. You may be thinking that the model to which I am referring is no longer valid. Let me tell you that I firmly believe that if you are thinking that, those thoughts come entirely from your carnal side. The model of the early church is all we have to aspire to. There is nothing else.
I have started to look at not only what those early Christians said of themselves, but also how those who encountered them on a daily basis described the way they lived. If there was one observation to make from just the little sections which I have read so far, it would be that they lived their lives according to the literal words of Yeshua and those whom He appointed to be apostles. There was no arbitration of what was meant by His commands or any of the manipulation of Scripture, which we see today. They received the word without argument or reservation, and allowed it to grow in their lives until it bore the fruit which it was designed to do. A childlike trust in everything that God had said. They simply didn’t mix the seed.
Although I intend to quote from a couple of the sources, which I have found easily online, I strongly recommend that you do your own research into this. I have been absolutely staggered by what I have read. Their attitudes towards life and their understanding of what it meant to be ‘set apart‘ by God, are so far removed from my understanding of these things, that I have felt crushed with shame when I read of their simplistic faith.
I was discussing the subject of what they understood of what it meant ‘be in the world but be not a part of the world‘ with my wife, Caz, and we talked about how you could define what was right and wrong. But even as we talked of the boundaries between the right approach and the wrong approach, I realised the folly of such a conversation. Each one of us must seek God about what is good for us and what is not. You can’t regulate any of this, because the moment you do, you just make a new religion.
It is clear from the writings of the likes of Origen, Justin the Martyr, and Tertullian, that their view of the world was simple – If something was of God, it was good. If something was of or part of the world, then it was bad. In fact, their honest belief (which is so well grounded in Scripture) was that anything which was of the world served only to pollute their souls. It is the things of the world from which we require sanctification. Their approach was, as they drew nearer to God and allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, the Holy Spirit would reveal those things which weren’t beneficial to their walk – the things of the world that sullied them and held them back from a closer relationship with the Father, through Yeshua. When these revelations fell upon them, they would repent of those actions revealed as unbeneficial, and turn from them and purpose not to do them again. When they did, God responded by cleansing them just that little bit more, changing them more to the image of His Son in the process.
This black and white approach to the things of the world is not only incredibly helpful and refreshing, but also so wonderfully in line with the words of Scripture. From the very beginning when God called the Hebrews to be set apart, He was showing not only them, but all true believers, that the things of the world pollute our souls, and are all designed to entice our flesh. It is true that, on the surface, the things which those disciples of the first century AD would have considered as worldly, and therefore not beneficial, are wildly different to the things which we would call worldly today, but, like I said, that is only the superficial view. The reality is that nothing has actually changed…except for one thing. The church.
Over the years, the church has moved closer and closer to the ways of the world. It has become systematically more worldly as each year passes. Instead of being fixed in what God has said regarding the world, we have tried to move closer and closer to it. Today we hide behind the notion that we need to be more relevant so that more people become interested in Christianity. However, that is the complete juxtaposition to the teaching of Yeshua and His apostles. We are allowing the desires of our flesh for the things of this world to influence us. And it happens so subtly that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. We have totally and utterly compromised the stance we should take, because we have become so fleshy, so carnal that we actually crave the things of the world.
In a document which is known as the Letter to Diognetus, the unknown author writes of how the Christians of AD 130 behaved:
“They dwell in their own countries simply as sojourners…They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time, they surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men but are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death, but [will be] restored to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They possess few things; yet, they abound in all. They are dishonoured, but in their very dishonour are glorified…And those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.”
This description of the disciples of Yeshua from the 2nd century AD could easily be applied to any of the heroes of faith we see in Hebrews chapter 11. But, sadly, not to many alive today. Another quotation I read was from Justin the Martyr, again from the 2nd century, which said this:
“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else, now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
Astonishing isn’t it? And so easy to think that what applied back then doesn’t apply to us today. But, if that was the case, then it makes a complete mockery of their entire gospel. Yeshua’s words and commands are eternal. If they are not, then we are all wasting our time.
Here’s another description of true believers from Clement of Alexandria, again from the 2nd century. This description of a convert to Christ is almost alien to the reality of today.
“He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”
I’m not going to go on with the quotations. You can do your own research where God leads you. I have only included those that I have because I think we have got to a place where we justify everything we do by saying that God is fine with it. But, I am inclined to believe that He is not ‘fine’ with any of it. If He was, then He simply wouldn’t be God. We no longer call sin, sin. The things of the world, which we fill our lives with, are not of God, and therefore serve only to pollute our souls. God has called those whom He chose before the foundation of the world to come out and be separate from the world. You don’t need me to quote the Bible to you on these things because we all know them to be true. It would be easy for me to now criticise today’s church for not seeing its mistakes and being too worldly, but the problem doesn’t lie with the church, it lies with me. I am too worldly. I am not holy enough. I tolerate and even foster sin in my life because I tell myself that God is fine with it. He is not fine with it. If He is, then Scripture is not true.
Each of us who have been called out by God need to ask Him what it means to be separate, to be holy. This isn’t going to ever be managed behaviour on our part – this is always going to be a choice on how we think about the world. We can’t learn to behave in a holy fashion. Only He can make us holy by His righteousness. Unless we start trusting Him in everything, we will never be made righteous.
The more I read of the 1st and 2nd century believers, the more I realise that they embraced poverty and hunger because the things of the flesh didn’t matter to them. They rejected worldly pursuits that tried to satisfy the cravings of the flesh, in order to pursue the righteousness of God, which can only be achieved by trusting in Him. They knew that Yeshua had said that you cannot serve two masters and so, they chose to serve Him, and not the world.
By trusting in the unseen, they made all that was seen as if it was complete folly to pursue it. What they had, they shared between anyone in need. They didn’t consider ownership as something to aspire to – they saw it as a way of trapping people in the pursuit of wealth. They knew and believed that Yeshua had said that it is extremely difficult for anyone with wealth to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and so gave up all they had. They chose not to indulge in anything that could possibly pollute their souls, and chose, instead, to approach God in genuine humility, begging for forgiveness whenever the Holy Spirit convicted them of things that made their cups dirty.
I am greatly humbled at what I have read. I have been extremely challenged about all that I do, about what I fail to call worldly pleasures, when they clearly are. It is no good me telling anyone that we should be more like the early disciples, if I can’t find my way to live like that myself.
I need to consider the things in my life which are of God and nurture those things back to life. Everything else must go. I’m not talking about shutting off from the world. I need to live in the world. But, in living in the world, I am duty bound to ensure that I am not a part of it. I need to be apart from the world, and not a part of it.
In the next part we shall look at the Gentiles and how they affected the church when the gospel was opened up to them.