The Jesus' Community
The church began as a movement of those who followed Jesus Christ. These articles help us to see how that movement formed and took root in and around Jerusalem.
Jesus: The Fulfillment
Key Concepts: Where to begin a series about church history is never easy. I have chosen to focus not simply on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but on Jesus as the one who fulfills God’s plan for the redemption and restoration of creation.
The Story: The Biblical story is one that stretches from the opening words of Genesis to the closing words of Revelation. It follows a five part pattern. Part one is that God loved the world and created it to be “good.” Part two is that human beings thought they knew better than God how to run this “good” world but they did not; and so they brought death and dysfunction into the world. Part three is that God chose a people through whom God would save the world. Part four is that God sent Jesus into the world to bring about that salvation. Part five is that God sent the Spirit into the world in order to apply Jesus’ saving work.
Jesus: Jesus plays the central role in this salvation story. His life is documented in the opening four books of the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The first three books (Matthew, Mark and Luke…called the Synoptic Gospels) share the same basic outline of Jesus’ life. Jesus is born, teaches, preaches, heals and performs miracles. He calls 12 followers whom he will teach. Few people understand who he is or why he has come into the world. Jesus however understands the role he is to play which is that of the suffering servant in Isaiah who is to die for the sins of the world. After three years Jesus enters Jerusalem, teaches, is arrested, tried and crucified. After three days he is raised from the dead and instructs his followers to go and tell the world about what he has accomplished. Each of the Synoptics add their own small twists. We discover that Jesus is descended from King David, born to Mary and Joseph, is tempted by Satan, that he is baptized by John, that he has great compassion for the powerless, that he preached and taught about the coming Kingdom of God and that he believed he was the one through whom that Kingdom would come.
The Gospel of John is the outlier of the four stories. It casts Jesus as the eternal Word of God that existed with and was God. This Word becomes en-fleshed in Jesus of Nazareth who travels into and out of Jerusalem three different times. The usual stories about Jesus life are missing from this account. Instead Jesus makes it clear that he and the Father are one. The ending of the story is the same. Jesus is arrested, tried, crucified and raised from the dead.
What binds all of these stories together are three central ideas. First, Jesus was born as a human being. He was not a demi-god or a spirit. He was a flesh and blood human being. Second, Jesus died on the cross. Of the few historical records we have concerning Jesus they refer to his having died at the hands of the Romans. Third, Jesus was raised from the dead. This was the proclamation (the resurrection) that formed the basis for the continuation of the Jesus’ community. It is the resurrection that forms the core of Paul’s theology as well as the other books of the New Testament.
Jesus is written about as messiah, savior, Son of God, Son of David, Son of Man, rabbi. Light, Bread, shepherd and numerous other titles. He is described as having fulfilled the roles of prophet, priest and king. All of these titles point to his role as the one through whom God was going to save the world from the evil that humankind had unleased upon itself. Jesus is the fulfillment of all God has planned.
Key Concepts: The Jewish holiday of Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church and is discussed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
The Story: The backstory for Pentecost that when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he had instructed them to stay together and to stay in Jerusalem. This was necessary because after Jesus’ death, his followers had returned to their original occupations. They believed that his crucifixion was the end of their ministry. Even after the resurrection though, it was only Jesus command to remain together that kept them going. In addition he promised them that the Holy Spirit would come and show them what they were to do next. To be clear, the Spirit had been around from the beginning of God’s work in the world. You can read about the Spirit in the Old Testament as well as in the Gospels. The disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and remained in Jerusalem.
I suppose it might be nice to report that they were out and about telling people about Jesus’ resurrection, but they were not. They were afraid. They were afraid because Jesus had been crucified as a rebel, as someone who had claimed to be King of the Jews. This meant that they too could be seen as rebels, libel to arrest and death themselves. In addition they were opposed by many of the Jewish leaders who did not want to upset the Romans if Rome suspected that the Jews were going to rebel.
After a period of time, the Jewish festival of Pentecost arrived. Pentecost was another name for Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. It was a commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It also marks the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22). Jews would come from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the holiday and bring their First Fruits to the Temple.
The book of Acts (2:1-4) describes what happens next. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The disciples all filled with the Spirit leave the upper room and begin telling people about Jesus. Even though the disciples are all from Galilee, meaning they only speak Aramaic, the people from around the Empire understood what was being said. In some ways this ability to understand is the first great miracle of the church.
Peter then makes an impassioned speech about Jesus. He does so by drawing upon numerous Old Testament passages with which the Jews would be familiar. The point that Peter makes is that Jesus is the long awaited messiah, whom God had promised to send. For many Jews this would not have mattered because not all Jews had been waiting for a messiah. On the other hand, at that time, there was a messianic fervor within parts of the Jewish population. Thus, in response to Peter’s speech, a great many people asked the question, “What must I do to be saved” which meant, how can I be part of the new Kingdom that God and the messiah are bringing about? Peter’s answer is that they need to be baptized in the name of Jesus. According to Acts more than 3,000 people did just that. This is why the church celebrates Pentecost as its birthday.
The Jesus Community
Key Concepts: Following Pentecost, the followers of the Way of Jesus began to organize themselves into a counter-cultural community with Jewish roots.
The Story: The interesting thing about the initial Jesus’ community was that it lived at first as a sect of Judaism which slowly became a distinct community. The early church lived in continuity with its Jewish roots by continuing to observe Jewish customs (eating kosher) and worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. This was the natural thing to do because they did not believe themselves to be a new “religion.” Instead they saw themselves as Jews who had found and were now following the Jewish messiah, Jesus. It made sense then to maintain their presence in Jerusalem, which was the center of world-wide Judaism. At the same time as they lived in continuity with their Jewish identity there were ways in which they were different.
First, they were a Jesus community. Everything that they did and believed was either centered on Jesus as Lord and messiah, or was seen in a new way through their identity as followers of Jesus.
Second, their life was not centered on public activity so much as it was centered on small groups meeting in homes. The book of Acts is filled with references to people meeting in homes, upper rooms and behind lock doors. By meeting in such places the followers of Jesus began to craft their own unique identity.
Third, they were a community of charity. While Judaism had a process for taking care of the widows and those in need in Jerusalem, the early church acted more like a commune in which all people shared what they had so no one was in need. This led to the creation of those who would later be called deacons, who insured that all widows had enough to eat.
Fourth, they were a community of radical inclusiveness. Jesus had demonstrated a radical inclusiveness during his life and work. The poor, women and others were included in Jesus’ circle of friends. This continued in the early church where women held prominent roles (deacon and apostle) along with slaves and the poor. Some of the church’s early critics dismissed it as nothing more than a gathering of easily misled women and slaves.
Fifth, the church instituted new rituals. The first was the ritual of baptism. In some ways this was an extension of the Jewish ritual of washing converts prior to their entry into the Jewish faith. Baptism for the early church was done in the name of Jesus, setting people apart as members of this new Jesus’ community. The second ritual was that of the “agape” meal, (love/fellowship meal) which morphed into what we call communion. It was at this common meal that the story of Jesus’ death would be retold. While the early church probably still celebrated Passover, this new meal slowly became more important.
Sixth, they were a community of worship. While Jews around and beyond the Roman Empire came together in synagogues for scripture study, there was no real sense of worship as we know it today. The church on the other hand included scripture reading, extemporaneous prayers, prophecies, teaching and singing. The focus was on Jesus as messiah rather than on any set of Jewish rituals. As a reminder, at this point in the life of the church, the only scriptures they had were those of the Old Testament. The writings of Paul and the Gospels would come later.