1 – The First Century: Context For Early Discipleship

Home Learning Hub Early Church & Discipleship 1 – The First Century: Context For Early Discipleship

Life isn’t much different today as it was in Jesus’ day. The kinds of things we see happening in the Gospels help us in our discussion about discipleship.

Personal Holiness

First, we see the Pharisees. They were the orthodox. They cared strenuously about the scripture and the doctrines of their faith. They keenly felt the importance of personal holiness. In many ways, they were very like Jesus. They looked to the scripture as God’s word. They held to many of the same doctrines of the faith, including the resurrection.

But they weren’t disciples of God. This means they weren’t followers of God. It may have been difficult for them to have known what God is like. You must know what God is like, before you can follow him. God revealed himself in Jesus. But even before Jesus, they had the law and the prophets. They could have learnt about God’s character from these.

Today, we can replace the Pharisees’ orthodoxy with Christian orthodoxy, but still be in the same position as they were. We can add to their belief about the coming messiah, to say we now know that this is Jesus. But if all we are doing is ticking orthodox boxes, then our faith is no different.

Jesus wasn’t asking the Pharisees to fine tune their orthodoxy. He was asking them to follow him.

When Jesus told them to believe on him, he meant believe in the first century sense of the word. This meant to follow. It meant to become his disciples, to walk like him. It didn’t mean to shift their orthodoxy to include a faith about Jesus Christ.

Against Ungodly Society

Then there was the faith of the Zealots. These were the nationalists. They believed fervently in the faith of Israel. They had no toleration for compromise. For them, faith was to be expressed through zeal for the main teachings of the Torah.

They were like the Pharisees, in the importance they placed on the word of God.

But they expressed this importance differently. Where the Pharisees expressed their zeal in extreme moral applications, the Zealots expressed their devotion in more violent ways. They believed the kingdom of God needed violence to be secured. But the Zealots also were not followers of Christ. They met the requirements in doctrinal orthodoxy and zeal, but not in emulating the character of God. They didn’t know who God was. They used the tools God gave them, like the scripture, but not for the purpose God gave it. God’s purpose is that we learn what he is like and become his followers in this world.

Do We Serve the Suffering?

A common issue, whether we are thinking about the Pharisees or the Zealots, is their relationship to suffering. The Pharisees detached themselves from the suffering of others. They claimed that others suffered because they shifted away from orthodoxy. Therefore, anyone who was suffering was being judged by God. The Pharisees could then condemn them.

On the other hand, the Zealots directly caused suffering in others by their violence. They added to the overall suffering of the world. They no doubt believed that the suffering they caused was a necessary evil, for a future good. It was a means to an end and therefore justified in their eyes.

But the question for us is, is God like this? What is his response to human suffering? We see our answer in his calling of Israel. They were unrighteousness and stubborn, yet God had compassion on them. This was supposed to show them what he was like, so they could follow him in how they treated others. This was God’s goal in calling them from Egypt.

And for the Zealots, the question is, does God use violence as a means to an end? It’s an important question, because if he does, then can we do the same and be his disciples, his followers? In scripture, we see God opens the door of judgement, so he can deliver others from oppression and suffering. But the judgement is never God’s violence. In fact, God judges those, like Babylon, who perpetrate violence in judgment, because they do it in covetousness.

God is seen in Christ. He does no violence against his enemies. He overcomes evil with good. He has compassion upon the sinners, even upon zealots, and serves them so they can change. He lays down his life for them, so their hearts may see the kingdom of God and that they may repent.

Are we Detached from the Suffering of Others?

God cares about the suffering and he comes to serve those who suffer. This is what distinguished him from the Pharisees and from the Zealots.

Today, we may not be morally legalistic like the Pharisees, or not personally violent like the Zealots, but still be detached from the sufferings of others in the world.

A kind of gnostic faith is common in hedonist societies. This means we have a personal faith that is detached from this world. It’s strong on personal devotions, and uses the scripture as a sourcebook for personal spirituality. But it does not see the God of scripture, who in zealous compassion, gives himself to rescue those who suffer.

Jesus Rebukes Those Detached from the Suffering of Others

We might say that Jesus had zeal against sinners. He cleansed the temple and had strong words for the Pharisees. These words were directed at those who were the custodians of the faith or commercial means. They were the ones with the power in the day. They should have been using this power to serve the sinners and draw them into healing and restoration. But instead, they were using their power to establish their private interests.

We can misinterpret the actions of Jesus. They weren’t a cold, detached rebuke of the sin of his society. He called us all, powerful and sinner, to repentance, from the place of his own sufferings. In his sufferings, we see his compassionate call to us, to lay aside our own selfishness. He was never harsh against people caught up in the normal sins we see, especially among the poor, who had passed through many struggles. He never quenched their wick.

What Discipleship Isn’t

We can quickly see from the above what discipleship isn’t. It isn’t a pharisaic zeal for orthodoxy. When the book of Acts says the early disciples continued in the apostles’ doctrine, I think this was more about their way of life and form of fellowship than it was about orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is important, but it is expressed through life style. It is shown through the lives we live.

Discipleship Is Self-Giving

We may speak on this more later in these notes. Orthodoxy meant this: God had come down to us through the incarnation, to condescend to us and rescue us from our darkness and death. To do this, he gave himself on the cross in love. Orthodoxy means to follow this in our relationships with each other, including with our enemies. This is what the breaking of bread from house to house symbolised. It wasn’t just about the bread, but sharing our lives as fully as Christ shared his with us.

Orthodoxy means, if the one who is God, can come to our rescue in this way, if he wasn’t too big to come to our aid, then we aren’t too big to lower ourselves and serve the weak and outcast of our world. This just about covers what is required in orthodoxy. All the rest is mostly our opinions on the details, about which we are to exercise tolerance, as we learn together.

This is what the baptismal creed was about in the early church. We identify with Christ in his death and in his resurrection. This has instead changed to become a formula, like a legal contract for salvation. This wasn’t how it was intended. Rather, it is about what Jesus was saying, “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay his life down for his friend. You are my friends if you do whatever I say.” And the communion, “This is my body, given for you, share it among yourselves. This is my blood shed for you, do this in remembrance of me.” This was like the foot washing. These things were done for our example, so that me might do the same for each other.

Baptism meant, that as Christ gave his life for the church, so we give ours for each other. We are raised up in a new life of service to his body. The baptism is about our fellowship, as followers of Christ, who went ahead of us and showed us the way. This is righteousness, coming out of Egypt, from a system of oppression, living together in a community of Jubilee.

Discipleship Isn’t Ticking Doctrinal Boxes

We can see that orthodoxy isn’t about ticking a lot of doctrinal boxes. That can be counter to orthodoxy, because box-ticking can separate believers into camps. In fact, this is what box-ticking does. It divides the body. Then we aren’t giving our lives for each other, as Christ did for us. This isn’t orthodox.

Discipleship isn’t the ticking of our theological boxes. However, this is often how we have seen discipleship. We may have discipleship classes, to learn the doctrines of orthodoxy, especially in the view our own group. We have often turned discipleship into learning about what we should and should not believe, in terms of doctrines.

Doctrine and Politics

I think this shift in our view of discipleship gained strength in the Constantinian period of church history. Then, faith became a matter of politics. Constantine wanted a uniform faith expression, as opposed to unity. The church before that held unity within diversity. The unity was in our love: “By this, all people shall know you are my disciples, by your love for each other.”

But Constantine wanted a political uniformity. We see this at the Nicaean Council. The church had different biblical views on how they expressed the trinity, all within an orthodox expression of love and fellowship. But at the council they couldn’t arrive at one view which all would accept. Constantine insisted that all sign one uniform view, and the majority view was forced upon all.

This was appended by an anathema. That meant, that all who didn’t adhere to this “orthodox” view were enemies of the church and of the state, and this would be punishable by the law of the state, which could include death. This gave the state “divine permission” to pursue its wars against it enemies, and dispossess evil people of their land and riches.

From that time “discipleship” became a matter of signing the creeds of the church, which were also creeds of state power. This is entirely unorthodox. For the church to invest its power in the state, and not in the lamb of God, who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, is as unorthodox as we can get.

Even today, the creeds are sometimes held as the basis for our fellowship. Some of these creeds still divide the body on a somewhat national and political level. And they still divide us politically from other faiths even more so. When I say politically, I mean we may not agree with other faiths, but we are still called to lay our lives down for them in service. This is to be the only division we adhere to. A division whereby we refuse to join the sword.

Discipleship of Service

Likewise, discipleship today doesn’t consist of learning what is wrong and then pointing that out everywhere we see it in our society. Discipleship isn’t learning right from wrong and becoming commentators on the degradation around us. It isn’t condemning abortion, homosexuality, Islam, politicians, and those who hold to false Christian teachings.

Discipleship is laying down our lives for others in service, to give us all, ourselves included, a better vison of who God is, and of the kingdom he is building in our world. This is how the early church stopped infanticide. Not by a patriarchal condemning of women who deserted their babies, but by taking women and children into their homes in love and care. This is the light of the church.

Early Discipleship

James, the Lord’s brother, was an apostle in Jerusalem. His letter in the New Testament has been controversial, because of its lack of our usual evangelical formulas of faith and creed. It hardly mentions the gospel in our more traditional forms. James has sometimes been neglected, or even rejected, rather than allowing him to educate the way we interpret other authors, like Paul.

James was speaking about the coming judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70. James was an elder of the Jews. There wasn’t a clear distinction between Jesus followers and other Jews then. They all went to the synagogue and the temple. James spoke of synagogue meetings in his letter. Today, our division from synagogue and mosque is largely politically driven. The letter of James addresses the whole Jewish community. It is evangelical in describing Jesus’s Lordship in the Sermon on the Mount, not a formulaic faith.

The letter speaks about not discriminating between social classes. It says a lot about caring for others and sharing our wealth with the suffering. James calls this the royal law, loving our neighbour. This issue is the most prevalent one in the letter. James talks of war, and puts it down entirely to an offshoot of our human greed.

The letter of James aligns with the kind of social life we see of the church in the book of Acts. James described faith, as the early church lived it. It was about the Jesus way of giving ourselves for others. James made no use of doctrine as a way of dividing the people in Jerusalem. It was all about life style, expressed through the incarnation of God in Christ. This shows us a lot about the early church.

Orthodoxy was more about incarnational living, than about pharisaic positions of faith.

Followers of the Way

The is what Acts meant by calling the early church those who followed the way (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 23, 24:14, 22). The way they were talking about wasn’t a doctrinal way. It meant a way of living. It was a way of fellowship and sharing, across all the divisions of the empire. It was referring to a way of living, that wasn’t seen anywhere else in the Jewish or Roman world.

The is the way we see in Acts, in house to house fellowship, that was open to people of all backgrounds, races and economic groups. Women were equal. This was revolutionary. The way 6 treated all people as made in the image of God. The people worshiped God, by following his way as revealed through Jesus Christ, repairing the injuries of brutal commercial and militaristic empire. Jesus was God’s incarnational revelation to humanity of this way.

Therefore, the church was persecuted. They weren’t persecuted because of their doctrines. It was because they threatened the social structures of Jerusalem and of Rome. The powers killed Jesus because he condemned their injustice, just as they killed the prophets before him. Now they had whole communities threatening the social structures that made them rich.

The civilizations of Rome and Jerusalem depended on social divisions. The riches of power depended on the misfortune of others. Slavery was an essential. In Philemon, Paul called a slave a brother. People who followed this way would have to be stopped. Allowing their ideas to spready would very quickly threaten all that the powerful had.

In Ephesus, both the synagogue and the worshippers of Artemis rejected Paul’s message about the way. The Jews rejected the kingdom of God, about the way of fellowship and care. The craftsmen of Artemis also rejected the way, because of the prospect of monetary loss.

Paul was in trouble everywhere he went, because of the financial interest of both the pagans and the Jews. Jews profited hugely as custodians of Yahweh’s faith and pilgrimages. This made Jerusalem extremely rich. Paul was sharing God’s faith equally with gentiles. This break down of the Jew’s national advantage had to be stopped.

Paul’s Doctrine

So why did Paul write so much doctrine? Misunderstanding this is the reason we base our faith on doctrine, not on the way of life of the early church. Paul’s view of the faith was the same as James’, and of Jesus’, who taught about the kingdom of God community.

When we look at Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians and Colossians, we see that Paul wasn’t writing about our personalised faith. He wasn’t forsaking the focus of James and Acts, about selfgiving that resembled the nature of God in his incarnation in Jesus. Paul wasn’t substituting for this true faith, a legally contracted individualistic faith, a creedal faith.

In each one of these letters, Paul was writing because of those Jews who had rejected the way. They had rejected the joint table fellowship with the gentiles. The reason Paul brought doctrine in to each of these letters, was to explain why these Jews must receive the gentile believers in Christ. Paul’s purpose wasn’t the doctrine, but the community way he was insisting upon.

The early church was a counter-cultural movement of enormous impact in the Roman world. It was the only group that offered justice through mercy and true brother/ sisterhood, that prevailed over all social, nationalist and racial interests. This justice wasn’t a socialist movement. It was a divine faith movement. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit. It was God breaking into our old hearts with his self-revelation through the gospel, replacing our self-centredness with his love.

Being a disciple doesn’t mean using Paul to divide from others, but following his life of inclusion and service, through faith and grace, in a radical and revolutionary new way. Orthodoxy means that we present Jesus, his cross and resurrection to the world, through our new lives, in which we give ourselves to serve those we previously made outcasts.

Our First Love

When we come to the book of Revelation and its comment on the church of Ephesus, we see the same shift in discipleship, as is common in church history. When Paul left the elders of Ephesus, he pleaded with them to watch out for wolves who will eat the flock, and to care for the weak. In Revelation, the church had held on to their doctrinal fidelity, but not to their first love, the way of the early church in Acts. They were adopting a discipleship of doctrines, rather than resembling the true God, who gives himself to bring in the outcast.