WELCOME TO FIRST CENTURY CHRISTIANITY
Ben H. Swett
Bethany Christian Church
In February, 1988, I led a seminar on the topic, "Spirituality--What
Is It?" Later, the Chairman of Christian Education for my congregation
read that paper and asked me if I had any suggestions for a special adult
education course focused on spirituality. After thinking about it, I said,
"I've always wondered what a meeting of Christians was like in the
First Century, before all the church councils and doctrines and dogmas and
stuff. Maybe we should try to rediscover some of that." She liked that
idea and scheduled the course for November and December of 1988. A few friends
from other churches also came to this course. A Course of Study
As preparation, I reviewed the secular history of the First Century. I also
tried to see what I could find on the practices of Christians before 100
AD, but I didn't find much. The Bible infers rather than describes what
early Christians actually did in their meetings, and there are practically
no other references. Not much is known about that period. Perhaps they did
not keep records, or perhaps their records have been lost, but one thing
is certain from any comprehensive reading of Acts and the Epistles: some
of those people were receiving guidance from Jesus. His inputs were the
specific cause of major turning points in the early development of Christianity.
In November 1988, thirteen of us met at night, with a guard posted at the
door, and gathered in a back room with only two candles and no heat. I nearly
froze. After an opening prayer, I reviewed the situation of just such a
small group of Christians in the year 88 AD:
Some of us are Jews; some are Greeks or Romans. Some are citizens;
many are slaves. But we are all Christians, disciples of Jesus the Christ.
We think he was born about 88 years ago--that's why we call this the 88th
year of our Lord. We believe he was crucified in 33, but we're not sure.
All we have are some partial accounts of his life and teachings, plus a
few copies of copies of letters from Paul or one of the others. The Lord's
first disciples are almost all gone now. There are rumors that John is alive,
but he is not here and we don't know where he is. Peter and Paul and many
others were killed in 64, when Rome burned and Nero blamed it on us.
The Jews rebelled against Rome in 67. When the Christians in Jerusalem saw
the city surrounded by armies, they remembered what Jesus said about that,
and fled across Jordan to Pella, in the desert. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem
in 70, and by the time the fortress at Masada fell in 73, they had crushed
the entire Jewish nation. Now they are after us, too. The three generals
who decimated the Jews each became Emperor, one after the other--Vespasian
and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Now, we must hide because Domitian
is trying to restore the Roman religion. He executes both Christians and
But tonight we are all here, together, and perhaps safe enough for the moment.
So ... why have we come? Why do we slip out at night, away from our masters
and hiding from the Romans, to meet in caves and catacombs and darkened
rooms? What do we expect to happen that is so different, so attractive,
so important, that we risk our lives to be here?"
Each of us tried to place ourselves into that situation--mentally, emotionally
and spiritually. We knew we needed to lay aside all the unnecessary paraphernalia,
embellishment, and other trappings we have inherited from nineteen hundred
years of church councils, tradition, theologians, translators and interpreters,
but it wasn't easy. We had to remember that First Century Christians did
not have a creed, a prescribed order of worship, a special church language,
a hymnal of their own, a set of scholarly commentaries, or anything like
that. They didn't even have what we now know as the New Testament.
We asked ourselves, "What kind of church meeting would bring me out
at night if the government was trying to kill me?" Today, we can't
even get people to church if it rains. What was it? What was there, in those
early Christian meetings, that we don't have? What did they do that we don't
do?--and what do we do that they never heard of? What has been added, and
what has been lost?"
Part of the attraction must have been in the friendship and fellowship--the
joy and strength and mutual support--that flows from people who obey the
Lord's new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you."
However, there's already a lot of that in our churches, but it doesn't seem
to be enough to explain the behavior of First Century Christians. So we
discussed what they had that we don't have--primarily the spiritual gifts
and ministries, and especially healing.
Finally I said: "Perhaps they came because they knew what Jesus meant
when he said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God" and "The Kingdom
of Heaven is at hand" (within reach). That is, maybe they gathered
to inquire of the Lord and receive his guidance. If so, Jesus himself was
the teacher of all those little groups--but he was no longer in a physical
body, so at least one member of each group had to be a prophet through whom
he could communicate."
The Hebrew word for prayer means "to inquire of the Lord" and
the phrase "the word of God" originally referred to the answer
received in prayer: that is, an understandable message from God to man.
The word "prophet" did not refer to a person who predicted the
future (one who did that was called a fortune-teller or a soothsayer). Prophet
means spokesman: that is, one who speaks for another. Any genuine prophet
of God received understandable messages from God and relayed them to other
people: "Thus saith the Lord ..."
We recalled that, in the First Church of Jerusalem, when the apostles got
bogged down in church administration, Peter said, "Select some trustworthy
men for this task of distributing food to widows and orphans. We will devote
ourselves to prayer and the distribution of the word." That phrase,
"prayer and the distribution of the word" describes the function
of a prophet--and a true prophet must always hear the word of God before
he or she speaks it.
We noted that people who were not apostles also received messages from God
or Jesus--such as the believer at Damascus named Ananias whom the Lord told
to go help Paul regain his sight after his conversion.
Thus, from the common theme of the Old and New Testaments, I suggested we
might try to test the idea that First Century Christians met to receive
guidance from God through Jesus, by testing the hypothesis: Is it still
possible for a small group of people to receive messages from God or Jesus
in the Twentieth Century?
The group liked that idea and said they were willing to try. I said, "Okay,
but there are certain prerequisites, and we need to practice them first,
so that is where we will start." I told them I had been practicing
private two-way prayer for 24 years, showed them some of the messages I
received, and led them through the current edition of my paper, "Prayer
as a Form of Two-Way Communication."
For the remainder of the five weeks, the group practiced each step of my
approach to private two-way prayer: (1) stop everything else and get quiet,
(2) open your heart and mind, (3) elevate your spirit, (4) care for another,
(5) inquire of the Lord, (6) stop thinking and listen, (7) test the spirit
of anything that pops into your mind.
At the end of the study course, the results were encouraging but not conclusive,
and several people said that five meetings were not enough, so we formed
a new group, called it First Century, and continued to meet. In essence,
we took to heart something Paul wrote to the First Century Christians at
Corinth, "Make love your aim and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,
especially that you may prophesy."
A Small Group
We set some rules for the First Century group, because we wanted to be clear
about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
After the discussion in which we developed these rules, eight of us decided
to meet once a week to practice elevation of spirit, the act of blessing,
and small-group two-way prayer. The results have been encouraging. We have
found, in our own experience, confirmation of the testimony of numerous
men and women over the past nineteen hundred years: God and Jesus can indeed
place in our minds thoughts which are not our own.
- Not dogmatic: This is an exploratory and experimental group;
we will not impose beliefs; instead, we will search for the truth and see
what we find. Any subject is fair game. Agreement is not required; scorn
or ridicule is not allowed. If we disagree, we will first try to state the
other person's position in terms that he or she will accept, in order to
avoid semantic difficulties.
- Not arrogant: The ability to receive messages will not be a
test of faith or membership or status. We are not interested in self-aggrandizement,
or splitting churches, so we will not claim divine guidance, either inside
or outside the group. We will quietly share with each other what we think
we may have received, and respect the confidence of anyone who asks that
it be kept within the group.
- Not occult: Although what we are doing is technically similar
to channeling or mediumship, we will not obey any message unless we all
agree it is something Jesus would say. Personal study of the New Testament,
especially the Gospels, is the way to learn how to recognize his "voice"
(what he says and how he says it).
- Not a cult: Since we are trying to find Jesus and learn from
him, none of us will have final authority over this group. And we will not
set this group outside the churches we represent; we will continue to serve
in our churches, and we will keep our own ministers and other church leaders
informed of what we are doing.
For example: in one of our first experiments, we all lifted up the name
of an elderly friend who was very ill. We asked, "Lord, what about
Of the seven people present, three got one answer and four got another.
The three got the same message in different ways: one was a mental image
of someone reaching down and taking John's hand; one was a sudden feeling
of sorrow followed by a feeling of joy, and one got the thought: "John
is going to walk with me and that's alright." The other four all got
the same message in the same way: when they asked, "What about John?"
the thought immediately popped into their minds, "What about Val?"
She was John's wife.
After discussion, we all agreed those two thoughts sounded like something
that Jesus might say to us. And when John died a few weeks later, we remembered
the unsolicited part of that message and have continued to help his wife.
From the fact that we continue to receive such guidance, and far more important,
continue to test the spirit of the guidance received--and it proves to be
kinder and wiser and more gracious than we are--I feel this group is making
some progress toward rediscovering a central component of First Century
I think this is what Paul was talking about when he wrote: "Let two
or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation
is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all
prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged; and the spirits
of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but
of peace." (I Corinthians 14:29-33a)
I also think I know why a small-group approach to receptive prayer is a
good idea. The Old Testament prophets were basically on their own, as far
as I know, with no one to cross-check what they thought they received from
God, but the members of a small group can rely on each other to help point
out thoughts that do not come from the Lord. And when one is so troubled
he can't hear his neighbor, much less the Lord, the others can ask for and
receive guidance on his behalf. Thus, there is strength and safety and mutual
support in a small group that is not available either in a large group or
when one is praying alone.
After a year of experience with the First Century group, I revised "Prayer
as a Form of Two-Way Communication" to include the lessons we learned.
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