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  • July 2009
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TRAITS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH: Getting There from Here (Part 5)

The faith, love, and hope we see on the part of the early Christians in the pages of the New Testament are much different from what we see in the community of Christ on Earth today.

That is, it is much different if our earlier posts on this subject present an accurate, complete picture of the early church.

Actually, there is much information in the New Testament that shows the early church had its problems, just as we do. The things we quoted in the earlier posts were the apostolic exhortations to the ideal, not a reflection of how things really were.

Every book of the New Testament shows how the disciples of Jesus failed to live up to His ideal. In fact, most of the epistles were written specifically to correct problems in those churches.

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all relate the interaction between Jesus and His chosen disciples. In each of these, we see the disciples full of misunderstanding and misbehavior as they jockeyed with each other to be “first in the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Acts shows in many ways the tensions between the Jewish and Gentile Christians.
  • Romans, some commentators believe, has its climax in chapters 12ff where Paul encouraged greater harmony (see especially Romans 14:1 – 15:13) among the many “house churches” (see chapter 16) in Rome.
  • The Corinthian church was full of problems related to unity, immorality, worship issues, and even teaching concerning the core facts of the gospel. Some even questioned whether there is any resurrection of the dead, just as some do today – at least in some denominations.
  • The churches of Galatia reflect the tensions between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, as well as tendencies to walk after the flesh instead of the Spirit.
  • Paul even had to encourage the church at Philippi to help two women get along with each other.
  • The Colossian church had troubles from a strange mixture of Judaism and Greek Philosophy.
  • The Thessalonians needed reassurance concerning their hope.
  • The letters to Timothy and Titus both dealt with theological and practical issues that these young protégées of Paul faced in Ephesus and Crete respectively.
  • Philemon was a Christian slave owner who needed teaching on how to deal lovingly with a runaway slave who became a Christian.
  • Hebrews spoke to Jewish Christians who were leaving their faith (and their hope) to return to Judaism.
  • James spoke of instances of gross discrimination and favoritism in the assembly, as well as problems concerning faith as it should be expressed.
  • Peter, while speaking of suffering and persecution, did so to exhort the churches to be faithful in facing these. Some were already questioning the hope, wondering if the promise of the Lord’s coming was a mere myth.
  • The epistles of John speak so much of the need to love one another that, reading between the lines, we have reason to believe some to whom he wrote were not acting lovingly. In Third John, especially, we have an example of this in Diotrophes.
  • Jude spoke of shepherds who feed only themselves and are blemishes at the love feasts.
  • Revelation, sent to the seven churches of Asia, had words of encouragement and of rebuke for the churches. The first church addressed, Ephesus, was told they had left their first love.

The book of Ephesus, alone, of all the New Testament has scant reproof for the disciples of Jesus there at Ephesus. This may be because it could be a “circular letter” sent to Ephesus and the other churches of Asia. Some of the earliest MSS do not have the words “in Ephesus” in 1:1 and there are no personal greetings. The only person, other than Paul, mentioned was Tychicus, the bearer of the letter. These facts support the idea of this letter being a circular letter that was not an appropriate vehicle to give specific rebukes to specific churches.

So what does all of this suggest to us today?

1)      Our situation is not as hopeless as we may tend to believe. Yes, we have problems, but so did the early church – even as early as Acts 6 when the Grecian widows were neglected and, on a more individual level, as early as chapter 5 in the sin of Ananias and Saphira.

2)      The solution to our problems is basic: return to basics. Get back to the first principles of the gospel. By “first principles”, I mean those things that Paul said were of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). For too long too many have neglected preaching Christ crucified to preach the Church restored.

3)      We need to learn to depend more on God and less on ourselves. The early church had to learn this lesson; so do we.

Romans 5:1-11 gives a beautiful blend of faith, hope and love mixed thoroughly with the gospel message of Christ crucified. This is a message we need desperately to learn today.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Note several things in this passage.

1)      Our justification, our peace with God, our hope, our perseverance, our character, our love, our salvation, our reconciliation all are gifts to us from God by grace through faith. Apart from God’s activity, we would still be His enemies, lost and hopeless.

2)      God’s love took the initiative when we were powerless to save ourselves (as we still are). This was when we were still sinners (as we still are) and enemies of God (which we no longer are). We are no longer enemies because we have peace with God through Jesus who reconciled us to God through His death.

3)      In our new reconciled state and peace with God, He promises much more. Christ died to save us when we were still sinners. How much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him! We were reconciled through the death of God’s Son when we were enemies. How much more shall we be saved through His life!

4)      God has blessed us with his love poured into our hearts by His Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.

In the words of a little song I learned at my mother’s knee, “After all He’s done for me, after all He’s done for me – How can I do less than give Him all my best? After all He’s done for me!”

If I am short on faith, love, and hope it is because I do not focus enough on all He’s done for me. The solution for my problem is to look more intently at all He’s done for me.

– (6) The Christian and the Deity

– (4) An Indestructible Hope of Glory

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