90. The First Century Church

Richard Veach

When we take an overview of the “Body of Christ” that we call “Christianity” we find that it is divided into many different belief systems, denominations, and many different kinds of non-denominational churches. How is it that we all have the same Biblical text, but so many different belief systems all with their well thought out statements of faith? Is there an original model of the church that Jesus intended and where would one look to find it? What type of meeting does the Lord desire when we assemble together to worship Him? I am beginning to look into this important topic again with reference to the best sources that I can find, and am grateful for the opportunity to present some of my findings in the Tishrei Journal from time to time. In this first article I will try to make a brief general summary of some of my initial findings.

One should begin to search by referencing the scriptures and the first model for reference could be the Tabernacle. This is where we find a detailed description of what the Lord desires of us when we come before Him to worship and to serve Him. A good place to begin our search might be to study the Biblical feasts that were instituted by the Lord while Israel was in the wilderness. The first of the feasts are Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits given to the children of Israel when they were delivered from the bondage of the Egyptians. The next feast is Pentecost when the Lord gave Moses the Torah and the tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments while they were on Mt. Sinai. In the fall comes the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Much can be learned about God and His prophetic time clock by studying The Seven Feasts of the Lord. These are perpetual feasts for the people of God and warrant our observance and serious study. We can look at the Tabernacle model for principals and patterns that are repeated in the New Testament and in the first century church. An example might be that of the burnt offering, symbolizing the offering of ones whole self to the Lord and to His service, being completely consumed on the altar, and totally dying to ones self. This principal is repeated in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” As the scripture states in 1Peter, believers in Christ have become a royal priesthood, 1 Pet 2:9, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Before the priest could perform his duties and enter the Holy Place to offer prayers for the nation of Israel and minister to the Lord he would have to perform a ritual cleansing of his body. Next the priest would offer a sin offering for his sin nature, a trespass offering for any unintentional sins, and a burnt offering along with the grain offering which represented their duty toward God and man which is representative of giving ones whole self to the service of God and man. Although, the High Priest could only enter the Holy of Holies and into the presence of God once a year on the Day of Atonement we may now enter into God’s presence at any time we desire and with confidence and full assurance, “Let us come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” Hebrews 4:16. What were some of the other duties of the priesthood that were revealed to us in the Tabernacle model and in the first and second Temple? What are we to do as priests? How do we minister to the Lord and to each other? These are the sorts of questions that build a bridge between the community of Israel and the communities of believers today, scattered across the world.

In the interest of space I have listed just a few examples that we can find when looking at what is provided for us as an example in scripture. I am sure that we can find many more threads that continue on through the Temple times and even through to the synagogue model and on through to the first century church. There are a few threads that have continued even to the present time and are practiced in some Christian churches. An example might be that of the Aaronic Blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26; it was spoken as a blessing during the Tabernacle services and is often recited as a benediction in some Christian churches. I am sure that we can find many other examples of principals that have been taken from the Tabernacle model and put into practice in the first century church, but let’s continue on now and have a look at the first century church.

I’ll begin by looking for what can be found in the scriptures. I have always thought that the best model could be found by looking at the communities that were first established by the Apostles. In the book of Acts the scripture says that those who were added to the church on the day of Pentecost “continued steadfastly in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”1 “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.”2 The practice of shared wealth had an origin in the Essene community of Qumran as it was required of every member to share their wealth with the community.3 “The gathering of Christian believers in private homes (or homes renovated for the purpose of Christian gatherings) continued to be the norm until the early decades of the fourth century.”4 There are three distinct stages of development during the early Christian period. The first stage covers the years 50-150 CE. “During this period of rapid expansion, the Christians would have met in the private homes belonging to individual members. The second stage covers the years 150-250 CE. During this time private domestic residences were renovated and used exclusively for the purpose of the assembled Christian communities. The last stage, 250-313 CE, saw the introduction of larger buildings and halls (both private and public) before the introduction of basilical architecture by Constantine.”5

While researching various publications for factual information concerning the first century church I have come across information that I was not expecting to find and for which I was not really looking. This illustrates how, if we are careful to look widely when we do our research, we may add a variety of insights that help refine the overall picture, and possibly change our preconceived views.

Oskar Skarsaune in his book The Shadow of the Temple quotes the following written by Origen (A.D. 230s), “When a Jewish believer in Jesus was asked about the meaning of Ezekiel 9:4, the man gave the following answer: the old way of writing the Tav was in the form of the cross, so here [Ezek. 9:4] we have a prophecy of the sign that later was to be signed on the foreheads of Christians; and also of what believers now do, when they sign themselves whenever they begin a work, and especially before prayers and the holy readings.”6 I had the idea that the signing of the cross (blessing ones self) came much later and was instituted by the Catholic Church.

The Didache (a Greek word for teaching), also entitled The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is an important early document written in two parts. The first part is a code of Christian morals, and the second is a manual of church order. The dating is uncertain, but most scholars agree on dating it between A.D. 90 and AD 150. Reading through this document one finds that the church had already begun to meet on Sunday. “On every Lord’s Day do gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving, after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”7 I think it can be assumed that “the Lord’s Day” is referring to Sunday. Again, the change to Sunday occurring much earlier than I had once thought. It does not necessarily mean that all churches had changed from worshiping on the Sabbath to Sunday, but some, perhaps many, had. Incidentally, there is no directive in the Bible that tells us to worship on any particular day, neither Sunday or the Sabbath. We may worship on any or everyday, the only day singled out as being special is the Sabbath and that we are to honor and keep holy resting from our daily work routine.

We know that the early church was made up of both Jews and Gentiles and both continued to visit the synagogue and the Temple as well as continuing to hold meetings in their homes. During the second century the Lord’s Supper was still a full meal (agape feast) as is indicated in the following quote from the Didache regarding prayer after communion. “ But after you are filled, thus give thanks: we thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You did cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. You, Master almighty, did create all things for Your name’s sake; you gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You did freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant.”8

Although, many Christian communities continued to meet in private homes on into the early fourth century the growing numbers (approximately 30,000 in Rome by 250 A.D.) required building larger structures to accommodate them. The building of larger structures ended the “agape feast” and the sharing of a full meal with the Lord’s Supper as well as requiring the congregation to be spectators rather than participants. “Without question the separation of Eucharist from agape …had a correlative impact on the arrangements for assembly. No longer was a dining setting and culinary appurtenances needed. Rather, formal seating was implemented (among which a throne was included), the orientation was uniformly forward-looking toward the dais” (raised platform).9

I realize that I have not begun to answer all of the questions that can be asked. My intent is to dig deeper into the subject of the first century church and to highlight some of the useful information that I discover in future articles. I think that we can deduce from the scriptures that the first century church met in homes, attended the synagogue, and visited the Temple. They shared things in common, studied the scriptures, ate a meal together, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and prayed together.

(This articles was first published in the third series of Tishrei Journals, Numbers 2, September 2008)