We’ve now finished the journey. Over the course of four years, we have traveled from “In the beginning…” to this very day in 2017. We have just spent the last few months wandering through postbiblical history, figuring out how we got to the point we are at today.
You are here.
I’d like to summarize what I believe I learn from church history in the same way I summarize the trips I lead for my students in Israel and Turkey. As I look at the early Church, a church couched in the context of first-century Judaism, I see four things that stand out to me as a learner.
TEXT: The first-century Jewish world of Jesus was a world deeply committed to the Text. Teaching their children how to memorize the entire Torah at a very early age (and then much of the rest of the Tanakh), they had a working knowledge of God’s commandments we can hardly begin to understand. Without the printing press, this oral communication and commitment of God’s Word to memory would prove invaluable to an entire culture of people devoted to following God. Unfortunately, when we lost our connection to our Jewish heritage (by rejecting the Jewish identity upon which we were built), we didn’t just lose relationships with the Jewish people — we lost the written Word of God, as well. As the one Word that doesn’t return void, but always accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent (Isaiah 55), we effectively lost the power of our movement. Paul told us in Ephesians that the Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit.” I believe we lost the power of the Spirit by losing our connection to the Text, exchanging it for a fascination (maybe idolatry) with doctrine and creed.
COMMUNITY: Our Hellenistic ways always deceive us. Again, as we jettisoned our connection to a Jewish world that lived in intentional subversion to the pagan narrative, we were left with our own pagan roots, deeply entrenched in the narrative of Empire and the Roman worldview. Instead of living in intentional community, rejecting the lies of self-preservation, luxury, comfort, and leisure — we embraced (and still do to this day) these tools of the empire. The most fascinating and effective tool of the Kingdom is an inclusive community that shows the world a better way to live.
DISCIPLESHIP: One of the best ways of training up leaders was the first-century model of discipleship. Consider the fact that Jesus started no churches and went on no missionary journeys. What he did do (and then asked us to do) was make disciples. He spent three years with twelve young men — all day, every day — and he changed the course of human history. He didn’t lead Bible studies (which are great) or create awesome new conferences to teach the masses (although those are incredibly beneficial, as well). He simply went out, told twelve guys to “follow me,” and then showed them how to live as God had asked them to live. It changed everything. We don’t do this anymore.
WRESTLING: The early church community was a community devoted to the same wrestling that Jacob, the father of the Israelites, was known for. They didn’t think answers to all the questions were the point. They believed the Text was meant to be wrestled with and that life was tricky and difficult. They did not believe in formulas or self-help strategies. They believed in walking the path with faithfulness. This walk meant things could be quite complicated and messy. There are many shades of gray. However, working with God to restore the world would be worth the great wrestling match. But this, too, was something we lost. Because we had lost the Text, questions and doubts were threatening. We immediately began to identify orthodox answers to questions and discouraged dissent. In a world that was founded on a culture of chutzpah and engagement, this is an odd experiment.
So, we lost the Text, disengaged from subversively inclusive community, stopped making disciples the way our Jesus did, and discouraged wrestling.
We still don’t know our Text. We find it nearly impossible even to experiment with true community because of the idolatry of our consumerism and comfort. We run church programs and invest in programmatic ministries rather than believing discipleship could change the world. And we still discourage people from asking questions that push the boundaries or color outside the lines.
Is there any hope?
God has placed you and I here for such a time as this. Consider the following:
TEXT: Because of the Internet, we have an unprecedented amount of Bible study tools and information at our fingertips. Unlike any other point in human history, accessibility to truth is at an all-time high. Even though many of us struggle to have a knowledge of the Text rivaling that of Orthodox Judaism, we do have the tools to pursue that kind of understanding and keep learning, learning, learning. If the disciples knew we have biblegateway.com or online lexicons to do word searches in a matter of seconds, they would roll over in their graves. There is no reason we cannot create our own kind of Essene community — people who seek to know the path and walk it.
COMMUNITY: No matter the time or place in history, if we are human, then we are capable of great community. There is no reason we cannot create subversively inclusive communities that show the lies of our culture’s idolatry for what it is, and show the way of Jesus is the best way to live, even after all of these centuries. We can create communities that teach the world how to Sabbath, forgive, and be generously hospitable to others. We can look out for the mumzers. There is nothing stopping us from these endeavors. In fact, because of our “connectivity” in our social networking world, we have tools to facilitate community like never before. It simply requires us not to settle for pseudo-community that allows us keep our Herodian idolatry of consumerism and neo-Hellenism. We have to make the sacrifices necessary for true community.
DISCIPLESHIP: I remain convinced that this model and methodology of discipleship would be just as effective in our world as it ever was in the Greco-Roman context. Total immersion is still the best context for true learning and transformation. It is not easy to fit into our world, and we certainly don’t live in a culture that facilitates these commitments, but the Great Commission still sits for us to seize — today more than ever.
WRESTLING: Maybe one of the best things postmodernity has given us is a culture that values the complexities of life and rejects the notion of black and white answers. This kind of context — often misidentified as moral relativism — is not our enemy, but an incredible opportunity. We need to recapture a world where questions are not a threat to our systems of control, but the doorway to discovery. We need to trust the process of searching, believing that if we truly do search for God, we will find Him — just as He promised us.
Will you wake up tomorrow and do all these things like a champ? No, you will not. But can you wake up tomorrow and set some realistic and obtainable goals to begin making new ground in all four of these areas? Yes, you can.
And I believe some wise man once said the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Or as the Talmud instructs us: Just as rain falls in drops and forms mighty rivers, so it is with Torah. A man studies a little here and a little there, until understanding comes like a rushing stream.
May it be so.
In our day, LORD.