Once upon a time, members of a Jewish cult called The Way, against all odds, captured the attention and, ultimately, the dedication of the pagan world, both inside and outside the Roman Empire. So perhaps we need to hit pause on much of what we’re doing today—which isn’t working all that well anyway—and take notes from the men and women credited with turning the world upside down.
What did first-century Christians know that we don’t?
What made their faith so compelling, resilient, and, in the end, irresistible?
Something happened in the first century that resulted in Christianity spreading like an airborne disease. There was something about the faith of these early believers that made it attractive, compelling, and seemingly irresistible.
The testimonies of Peter, Luke, James, Paul, and others provide ample explanation for why the Jesus movement not only survived the first century, but eventually overcame the very political and religious machines intent on destroying it. Two thousand years ago, the cross symbolized the power of empire. Today it symbolizes the power of God.
How did that happen?
What can we learn?
And, most importantly, could it happen again?
I believe so.
New, Not Improved
Jesus stepped into history to introduce something new.
He didn’t come to Jerusalem offering a new version of an old thing or an update to an existing thing. He didn’t come to make something better. Jesus was sent by the Father to introduce something entirely new. People gathered by the thousands to listen. To see. To experience. Read the Gospel of Mark and circle the word crowd. There’s a crowd in practically every chapter.
But it wasn’t just his new message that made Jesus irresistible. It was Jesus himself. People who were nothing like him, liked him. And Jesus liked people who were nothing like him. Jesus invited unbelieving, misbehaving, troublemaking men and women to follow him and to embrace something new, and they accepted his invitation.
As followers of Jesus, we should be known as people who like people who are nothing like us. When we invite unbelieving, misbehaving troublemakers to join us, they should be intrigued—if not inclined—to accept our invitation.
The Jesus Movement
Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of Judaism and a replacement for paganism.
Jesus was new wine. Judaism and paganism were old wineskins. The new Jesus offered was a departure from the traditions of both. Jesus, along with his early followers, argued that Judaism and paganism both pointed to a day when God would unleash something new in the world, for the world.
Specifically, Jesus came to establish a new covenant, a new command, and a new movement. His new movement would be international. The new covenant would fulfill and replace the behavioral, sacrifice-based systems reflected in just about every religion of the ancient world. His new command would serve as the governing behavioral ethic for members of his new movement.
The new Jesus introduced stood in stark, blatant, and unambiguous contrast to the values and assumptions of both empire and temple. Those closest to Jesus understood this contrast. The gospel accounts underscore and illustrate the differences. The apostle Paul leveled his harshest criticisms at those who attempted to integrate empire and temple thinking into the new Jesus introduced.
The temptation to pour the new wine Jesus offers into the old wineskins of temple and empire is with us today.
Every generation needs imperfect reformers.
Once upon a time the Church was virtually irresistible. I believe it can be again.