It is clear that the early church, right up until the coming of Constantine, managed, for the large part, to keep themselves apart from the world by the simple and child-like acceptance of the gospel of Yeshua, who is the Christ. But what appears to be as equally clear is that there existed a never-ending battle to prevent false teaching entering the church from the very outset.
From the fairly brief research I have done over the past few years, I have learned that there were several factors at work in trying to de-rail the progress of the church. Obviously, Yeshua came first to what He called the ‘lost sheep of Isra’el‘ (see Matthew 15:24), and so we know that the makeup of the very early church was almost exclusively Hebrew. It is likely that at least some of these first converts were responsible in part for mixing the seed by reintroducing Judaic religious practices into the church. We also know that as the message spread to the Gentiles that various elements of paganism also found their way in. And then there was the outright opposition from the Hebrews who hadn’t been converted in the first place, who tried to come in and destroy the church. These Yeshua later referred to as the Synagogue of Satan, as we shall see a little later.
Thankfully, we have some very useful evidence of the apostles’ responses to all such mixing of God’s word in the letters of the New Testament. The inclusion of these letters into the canon of the New Testament didn’t happen until well into the 2nd century AD, but the value of their inclusion should be considered with more gravity today than it was back then. The approach of the apostles in writing these letters was both straightforward and simple. Today’s church is guilty of making everything so very complicated. We have much to learn from the simple things of this life.
In writing this series, I have become increasingly aware of my own shortcomings; not just in the way in which I over complicate things both in my mind and in my explaining of them, but also in the way in which I avoid the simplistic, child-like approach which I had as a new convert to the life of faith. It is something of a discipline itself to find my way back to the mindset I had back then. In fact, I am starting to believe that it isn’t something you can necessarily fashion exclusively by will power and decision making – I suspect it requires the help of God too. After all, it was God who first enabled me to believe in the way in which I did. That time He did it without me asking. How much more will He be prepared to help me if I ask Him?
The simple truth of what Yeshua and His chosen apostles taught was that all believers should learn to live life by the Spirit – that the very breath of God was to be our breath; that every word which He spoke would sustain us. I cannot tell anyone how to do that – it is a matter for yourself and God. All I can say is that the evidence found in various places, all points to the fact that those followers of Yeshua cared nothing for the things of this life because they walked according to the Spirit, and not the flesh. As God is spirit, then we should all turn to Him to show us the way. I have endeavoured in writing this series to make what I have discovered easy to understand. Sometimes I may have managed it; at others I am sure I failed. For me, from this point on, I cannot look to the writings of others for guidance, but instead, like those early believers, I look only to the lead of the Holy Spirit. This means that in each and every situation I will have to acknowledge that God is living in me and that He knows what I can and can’t handle. It means that instead of trying to fight whatever is troubling me, I will have to turn to Him for the grace and strength to get through it. It means that I will have to ask His help in every area of my life, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It means that anytime I think I know better than God or want to do it my way, that I am in direct rebellion of God and His Kingdom. To be in His Kingdom is to be His servant. A servant has no say in anything, except to say ‘Here I am’ when He calls my name.
Now, let us return to the evidence of the letters of the New Testament and the three main influences that were trying to derail the church from the path of God’s plan.
A Hard Habit to Break
For those whom Yeshua chose, whom we know all to be Hebrews, there was a transition period. Called mainly from the fishing villages around the Lake of Galilee, they were used to the Pharisee way of life. There were rules for everything. The sect of the Pharisees had taken God’s Law, His Torah, and built upon it. At some point, their unwritten or oral traditions had assigned the Pharisees more authority over Scripture than Moses himself. And so, as a result, they would constantly tweak Torah by adding interpretations to it. This isn’t me just speculating on this practice. Any rudimentary investigation into Rabbinical history will show, unashamedly, that the Pharisees have long practiced creating additional laws and telling the people that if they failed to observe them then they were in danger of the wrath of God. Today, the Pharisees still exist – they are known as Orthodox Jews, and they are still making rules to burden the people with. For example, an Orthodox Jew will be taught that when it comes to putting your shoes on, you should first put on the left shoe – but not tie it; then you put on the right shoe and tie it; and then tie the left. You might think that I am making this up. I’m not. And if you will look it up for yourself then you will find that they give a Godly reason for following such a practice.
When Yeshua came, He came to fulfil or complete Torah. He didn’t come to destroy any of it. But He came also to show the people, His people, that living life according to the way of the Pharisees, wasn’t what God had intended. They had over-complicated everything until it became a burden to the people instead of bringing the freedom which Torah was designed to do.
In Matthew’s gospel we see Yeshua appealing to the people to come to Him, and not to continue following the teachings of the Pharisees. In the passage in question, which starts with Him praying out loud, He acknowledges that only those whom the Father has chosen to reveal Himself to will understand that the righteousness of God, which comes through faith in Him, is far greater than the righteousness men award themselves by following rules. Yeshua says:
“Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV]
Apart from this passage being one of the most beautiful in the gospels, it was a message that those to whom He spoke would have been able to identify with, even if God hadn’t opened their spiritual ears enough to take it to heart and act upon it. He was speaking to those who felt burdened by the rules that the Pharisees had placed upon them – those to whom accepted what the Pharisees said because they believed that God had placed them there to lead the way. Those who were burdened and weighed down by trying to achieve what was impossible, that is, righteousness through observance of man-made rules, were the disciples of the Rabbis of the day. Yeshua stood and said that any who were struggling under these rules should take His yoke. When people spoke of the yoke in this context, it meant to submit yourself to the teaching of a Rabbi. He was offering anyone who could understand what He was saying the chance to become His disciple and gain freedom from the yoke of the Pharisees. The rest He offered was entirely spiritual, and they would have recognised His reference to Jeremiah 6:16 when He promised them rest for their souls. He was telling them that He is ‘the way which is good.‘
And many heard His message and followed Him. But for those who did, there was always going to be a struggle in the transition period – between loosing themselves from the yoke of the Pharisees to learning to walk under His yoke. Of course, whilst this message when He spoke was entirely directed to the Hebrew race, we know that it is now universal and applies to each of us. It shows that when God calls us out of whatever life we are living and into His Kingdom, it will take time to break the habits of our old lives, whatever they are.
We can see evidence of this clearly throughout the New Testament when we stop and consider the context of the day. Although Yeshua clearly practiced attending synagogue on the Sabbath, which was not a command of God but a man-made tradition developed whilst in exile in Babylon, He didn’t observe this out of tradition but in order to speak to the lost sheep of Isra’el. However, those whom He called to be His disciples would have come from a place of believing these traditions honoured Yehovah and tended to keep them for that reason. Even after Yeshua had ascended to the Father’s right hand side, and the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon His followers, we see Peter and John observing the daily prayer service in Acts chapter three. And, throughout the book of Acts we see that those whom God had called often found themselves in synagogues on the Sabbath.
But gradually, the evidence found in the letters of the apostles show us that these habits were broken. Paul’s approach was one of tolerance to any who still felt the need to observe holy days and new moons and eating habits, but it was clear in doing so he had become free of the restrains that had once held him there. It took a while, perhaps 15 years, but the apostles finally grasped it in around the time of what New Testament scholars refer to as the Council of Jerusalem. I think it would be incorrect to think of it as a council in the way in which these scholars like to convey. It is highly likely to have been just a Sabbath meeting in which they broke bread and discussed the matters before them. You can find the account in Acts chapter 15. It is a vital turning point in the history of the church because the Gentiles were pouring in and those who came from the Hebrew background of Judaism were still holding to the Law of Moses on the likes of circumcision and were demanding that all Gentiles be circumcised. That’s how ingrained Torah had become.
And, you will note, that even after this meeting when they agreed to proclaim, alongside the gospel, that circumcision was not required, that Paul still insisted that Timothy was circumcised in order to be able to speak to the Hebrews (see Acts 16), such was the power of tradition in the lives of the early, Hebrew church.
I suspect that the fledgling church didn’t fully grasp the full understanding of The Way, as Yeshua had taught, until after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. By then, many of the apostles had been martyred, and those who remained would have been very clear in their teaching that righteousness could only be attained by faith in the person of Yeshua.
The Trojan Horse
We all know the story of the Trojan Horse, and it was this principle which Satan tried to employ when the Gentiles started to hear the gospel and become part of the ever-increasing body of Christ. We know from historical records that, on the whole, the church managed to remain unsullied by the Greek and Hellenistic influence. Instead, the power of the gospel was more than enough for those prepared to hear God’s word. However, it is clear that in the places where there was no clear Hebrew influence, that the people who converted to following Yeshua, had the same problems of shaking off old habits, just as the Hebrews did.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is clear in his condemnation of mixing the seed pagan idolatry in with the seed of truth. To go from the worship of multiple gods to the worship of a single God must have been very challenging for a people to whom pagan ideology was the norm. The entire region of Asia Minor in particular, as we shall see in the next part, was so deeply immersed in paganism that coming out and being separate was a whole new way of life, and not just a new religion. In Asia Minor, you simply couldn’t work and earn money unless you were part of a guild. Each trade or profession had its own guild, and each guild had its own set of gods and idols to whom they gave thanks and offered tribute.
Of course, it was Constantine who finally merged paganism with Christianity to ensure both political stability, as well as accessing the tribute system of paganism to swell Rome’s tax coffers. By legalising Christianity in AD 313, which had been punishable by death until then, Constantine forged State and Church together. He declared that the old pagan gods and idols now represented martyred Christian saints to whom prayers and guild tributes should now be made. He made it the emperor’s job to appoint the bishops of the church and remove the role of the Holy Spirit from appointing those whom He wished to be setting the examples for God’s sheep to follow.
The church then began its descent into the Dark Ages with the Trojan Horse of pagan rites and rituals deeply engrained in all its practices. And all in the very name of God.
The Synagogue of Satan
The phrase the Synagogue of Satan is first used by Yeshua Himself in the Revelation which He gave to the last surviving apostle, John, in around AD 95. He is referring to the Hebrews who, despite hearing the good seed of the gospel, rejected Yeshua as their saviour and continued to believe that righteousness can only be attained by religious observance of man-made rules.
The apostle Paul was once part of the Synagogue of Satan before His conversion and subsequent appointment by Yeshua to the role of apostle, or ambassador for the gospel. Paul was part of their machinery for destroying the church before it took root. In the same way which God spread His gospel through word of mouth, Satan attempted to discredit the person of Yeshua and any of His disciples by way of the word of mouth in the synagogues.
It is easy to think of Yeshua only as the redeeming merciful aspect of God which we see in the pages of the gospels. However, if we look carefully, you will see that He is to be the judge of the world too. We tend to see God as either loving and kind, or angry and full of wrath. The truth is, He is both, all of the time. When the Hebrews heard the message of Yeshua and rejected it, God assigned them a place for all eternity. They chose to listen to the word of Satan instead of God’s word. Their false religion, which brings them so much comfort, is the doctrine of demons and its purpose is to prevent them from hearing the truth. Now, that is fair enough, if they choose not to accept the word of God as being the truth, that is entirely upon them. But, what Satan managed to stir up in them, right from the events leading up to the crucifixion, was the desire to destroy anything which disagreed with their own established order of things. The odd thing is, there is little evidence of them trying to destroy any type of paganism. That would be to divide against themselves because paganism, like their own false religion, was under the direct influence of Satan and his demons. Satan riled them against the followers of Yeshua because he determined to sow discord amongst their ranks by any way he could – whether by custom and traditions which were hard to break, or by way of integrating paganism into Christianity, or by the outright destruction of all things which were subject to Christ at the hands of zealous Hebrews. He had all bases covered, in that respect. And he clearly still has today.
It won’t take much research on your part today to discover that modern Hebrews of the orthodox persuasion have made it their mission in life to become what is known as ‘anti-missionaries‘ whose design and purpose is to prevent the gospel reaching their own people. Their mission is well-organised and well-financed and very far reaching. They make no attempt to take on the church. They only attack what is known today as the Messianic Movement – that is the Hebrew people who have come to accept Yeshua as Yehovah’s salvation.
And today’s Trojan Horse within the church comes in many forms, all of which can be, in one way or another, traced back to some form of paganism. Whether you look at Word of Faith teaching or the rise of the Emerging Church, where all roads lead to God, you can find the mixed seed of Satan at work. Everywhere you look, his influence is to be seen. Self-appointed apostles and prophets are so popular that none of what comes from their mouth is ever questioned, and much of what they are saying is paganism in a new disguise. The truth doesn’t matter to them anymore because they have their own truth. It has become arbitrary instead of being absolute.
And then there is tradition. After the Reformation, when people first realised just how far from the Narrow Path they had wandered, they separated themselves and came away from the existing order. But soon, their new order became the existing order. Today we see whole sections of those who would call themselves the church and use God’s name in doing so, all trapped in tradition and custom as their means to righteousness, instead of faith in Yehovah’s salvation, Yeshua.
Satan has no new tricks. And we fall for them because we are not grounded in God’s words to us. Those disciples whom Yeshua chose may have been simple fishermen and tax collectors, but they had one thing in common – they were all grounded in God’s word. They knew what He had already said in the scrolls of the Tanakh. That was their frame of reference. Today, as a whole, what should be our own frame of reference isn’t God’s word, but popular culture. We have been sold another of Satan’s lies – the one that makes the people of God’s church think that in order to reach more people we need to be like them. That isn’t what God teaches. He teaches us to come out and be separate.
It is not for me to write a long list of all the things which we shouldn’t allow into our lives because of the subconscious influence that they will have. That’s between you and God. If you ask His Spirit to lead you, you will find that, when you let Him, the things you once found entertaining you will now see as destructive to your walk with God. And besides, if I (or anyone else for that matter) write a list of does and don’ts, it will only be a matter of time before it is considered to be a law to be followed.
What Yeshua did on the cross was not only to pay the penalty which was due to us, but also to put to death the law of sin and death so that we can live lives according to His Spirit and not according to our own flesh. Our response is to repent and turn from living that old life. In exchange we find spiritual freedom from tradition and custom – the things that burden people. Constantly our walk is being influenced in exactly the same way in which the early church was being influenced – by tradition; by false religion; and by hatred of the truth. It is up to us to resist that influence and we can only do it if God’s word is allowed to rest and to prosper in our hearts. If we let anything else take hold in the good soil of our hearts, it will eventually grow up and choke God’s word, and our salvation will be in question.
In the next part we will look at the kinds of influences mentioned here in action in the church when we examine the Seven churches of the Revelation.