Persecution, Faithfulness, and the Love Feast

Persecution, Faithfulness, and the Love Feast

The Lost Discipline of the Love Feast – Part 3

The last few posts talked about the “agape” or “love feast” and centered on it as a fulfillment of the mandate given by the Lord for His church in Acts 2:42.  Just to jog your memory, let me share the four practices the early church devoted themselves to that allowed the Spirit to move in them as He did:

And they continued steadfastly in (1) the apostles’ doctrine and (2) fellowship, in (3) the breaking of bread, and (4) in prayers – Acts 2:42.

But the point often overlooked is these four practices of the early church were not four separate and unique things they did at different times and maybe on different days.  Nor were they separate and individual parts of a combined worship service.  They were the four key elements that made up their worship service, the sum parts of the whole, indivisible from each other and of equal importance.  One practice did not eclipse the others.

Think about our church services today.  When we come together, we are often presented with a bulletin or playbill outlining the separate things we will do during the service and the order in which they will happen.  First, an opening prayer.  Then, some announcements.  After that, maybe some congregational singing followed by a Scripture reading.  Next, the “special music” performed by someone other than the congregation followed by a sermon or message of some sort.  Then we have a closing song, a benediction, and somewhere between these parts, we take up an offering to keep the lights on.  Whew, I get tired just thinking about it.

Persecution, Faithfulness, and the Love Feast

If you come in late, you can check the bulletin and see precisely what is next and what you may have missed.  It’s all linear in nature, first to last, from the opening prayer to the closing benediction, with no surprises.  And the order is cast in stone, printed on paper or projected on a screen, with no deviations allowed.  Each line represents a single individual act of one long play.  And you can clearly see where one act ends and the next one begins.

But that’s not how Acts 2:42 plays out.  In the early church, the four practices the church “continued steadfastly” in were all integrated as one, like a cake baked with four ingredients.  You cannot separate the eggs from the sugar, but the combined result was pleasing and satisfying, as church should be.  During their worship time, they embraced the preaching of God’s Word, and there was a time for prayers, both corporate and individual.  Their entire service centered around a shared, common meal, the agape or love feast, which also included the celebration of the Lord’s supper.

This format the church in Acts devoted themselves to led to their unprecedented spiritual growth in record time.  And the results?  Breathtaking.  Read them for yourself in Acts 2-6.  It looks like we have strayed far from this mark today.

This prompts the question: Why did the church change if God ordained the church to function under the example of Acts 2:42?  Why don’t we do now what worked so well in the past?  What happened to the church “continuing steadfastly” in anything, especially the four abovementioned things?

Persecution, Faithfulness, and the Love Feast


Logic and the Definition of Insanity

During our study of the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, we concluded that each letter prophetically describes church history in advance.  And in each of these letters (or ages of church history), the Lord has something to say to them and us.  Sometimes what He says is good— and sometimes, well… not so good.

When we did an overview of these letters, we discovered two of them the Lord said only good things about (Smyrna and Philidelphia), and two of them the Lord said nothing good about at all (Sardis and Laodicea).  The rest was a mixture of things He both praised and rebuked them for (Ephesus, Pergamos, and Thyatira).  So logically, it would seem we would want to follow or emulate the practices of the church in the ages our Lord only commended and praised, and run far and fast from the methods of the church in the ages our Lord condemned and rebuked, which would be Sardis and Laodicea, the latter being the church age we live in now.  If the following statement is true, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results,”— then the opposite must also be true, “Insanity is expecting the same results yet refusing to do what brought success in the first place.”  For some reason, we embrace this truth in all areas of life, except the church.


The Persecuted Church in Smyrna

During the first two centuries of the church, it faced unbelievable persecution. Jesus said, in His letter to the church of Smyrna¹ (representing the church age from about 100 AD to the Edict of Toleration in 312 AD):

“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” – Revelation 2:10.

The phrase, ten days, points to the ten waves of state-sanctioned persecution the church suffered.²  And the Lord admonished these early Christians to remain faithful, even unto death.  But faithful to what?  To Christ, His kingdom, and the gospel?  Of course.  To their “common salvation” and the “faith which was once delivered to the saints”?³  Absolutely.  To the church practices and disciplines instituted by the Lord in Acts 2 and elsewhere in Scripture for their growth, unity, and power?  Undoubtedly.

And if you read the letter, you will find the Lord characterized the church during this time as experiencing “tribulation and poverty,” yet He called them “rich” (Rev. 2:9). How is that possible? For a church living as foreigners and strangers in this world (Heb. 11:13) without buildings, staff, age-segregated programs, media presentations, multi-campus mega-churches, live-streaming, movie studios, publishing houses, or radio stations, how could they be deemed rich? Simple. They understood Jesus’ words when He proclaimed, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). What the persecuted church lacked in material things, they made up for in spiritual riches— big time.

They were faithful amidst suffering, like Paul and Silas singing praises to the Lord while beaten, bleeding, and unjustly imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:23-25).  They were rich in fellowship (koinōnia), love, and trust in the Lord to “supply all their needs according to the riches in glory of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).  They counted it all joy to embrace the greater blessing of patience that trials and persecution inevitably bring (Jas. 1:2-4).  And they had an eternal perspective, being promised the “crown of life” for their patient endurance (Rev. 2:10).

But don’t let the obvious slip past you.  The persecuted believers also remained devoted to the practices God gave them to foster unity, trust, loyalty, partnership in the gospel, and a sense of oneness and family stronger than blood (John 17:21).  They lived as children of God and as part of the family of God (Rom. 8:16-17).  And all this experience of oneness centered around worshiping the Lord, as strange as it may seem, while sharing a common, communal meal God had prescribed for the edification and sanctification of His church.  It’s hard to believe something so simple as a meal could be so important.

But that is how things are with our God.  Have you noticed?


But What Happened to the Love Feast?

Satan and the flesh operate from the same playbook.  He never changes.  And he is not very original, but quite proficient in his deception skills.  So the enemy starts to attack whenever the Lord institutes something to build His church and strengthen the body of Christ.  And once God speaks, and Satan counters with the question, “Has God indeed said?” (Gen. 3:1), we have a choice.  It’s the same choice offered Adam and Eve in the garden, and it’s the same choice we face every day.  Will you trust and follow the commands of the Lord, no matter how trivial and unimportant they may seem to you at the time?  Or will you trust your own heart (Prov. 28:26), lean on your own understanding (Prov. 3:5), follow your own reasoning (Isa. 55:8-9), and do what seems right in your own eyes (Prov. 21:2)?

In effect, this was the choice presented to the church in the spring of AD 312 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration and, not long after, the Edict of Milan.  These imperial decrees granted full rights and freedom of religion to Christianity and soon propelled the once persecuted faith to the most favored status of religion in the Roman Empire.  Not too shabby for a bunch of former rebels who worshiped a dead carpenter from Nazareth who, with the stroke of a pen, were no longer on the Top Ten Most Wanted List.

Now, what will the church do?  Will they follow the practices and purity of their faith that allowed them to thrive during almost twenty decades of persecution?  Or would they run after the wealth and cultural acceptance their newfound notoriety and freedom gave them?  I think you know the answer.  But how the early church came to choose its course of action may surprise you.

Their compromise gave birth to the next of Jesus’ seven letters to His churches, the letter to the church at Pergamos, which, by the way, means “mixed marriage.”  Ah, a fitting picture of the marriage of the pure bride of Christ to the unholy Roman empire, wouldn’t you say?

We will look more into the collateral damage of this unholy union, this mixed marriage, next time.  But one last thing, it was during this phase of church history the love feast met its sad demise.

But more on that next time.


Notes:

1. The name Smyrna means “crushed, suffering, or myrrh.” Fitting, don’t you think?
2. The ten phases of persecution the church suffered under a succession of Roman emperors are:

Nero (AD 64-68): Nero infamously blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. He subjected them to various brutal executions, including burning them alive.

Domitian (AD 81-96): Domitian saw Christians as political rebels. Under his rule, Christians were exiled, including John, the author of Revelation.

Trajan (AD 98-117): Trajan set a precedent where Christians were not to be sought out but were to be punished if accused and found guilty.

Hadrian (AD 117-138): Hadrian’s policy was similar to Trajan’s, but there was an increase in mob violence against Christians.

Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (AD 138-180): Christians were seen as enemies of the state and endured great sufferings, including the martyrdom of Polycarp, a disciple of John.

Septimius Severus (AD 193-211): Severus sought to unify the empire under the sun god, leading to increased persecution of Christians who refused to conform.

Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-238): Maximinus targeted Christian leaders specifically, executing many church pastors and leaders.

Decius (AD 249-251): Decius required all citizens to sacrifice to Roman gods, leading to widespread torture and execution of Christians who refused.

Valerian (AD 257-260): Valerian targeted Christian clergy, leading to numerous martyrs, including Bishop Cyprian.

Diocletian and Galerius (AD 303-311): Known as the Great Persecution, it was the most severe, resulting in thousands of Christian deaths, including mass executions.

3. Jude 1:3
4. The letter to the church at Pergamos represents the time from the Edict of Toleration in AD 312 until the recognition of Boniface III as the first Pope in AD 606.


Leaving Laodicea | The Survival Manual for the Coming Underground Church

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557: Hermeneutics – The Rules for Biblical Interpretation

557: Hermeneutics – The Rules for Biblical Interpretation

To download the slides for this message, click – HERE

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How to Understand Prophecy

When we are faced with either believing God’s Word or the prevailing, confusing, and ever-changing voices of our culture, many Christians find themselves in a conundrum.  They want to believe everything God’s Word says, yet they don’t want to be called a bonehead by their high school biology teacher or to be deemed anti-science by the pro-vac crowd.  So we frantically look for some rules to help us understand what the Scriptures say about everything, and then we adopt those rules as the parameter of His sovereignty and try to funnel our understanding of His truth through this grid we have created to help us save face among our friends in this declining culture.

Over the centuries, there have developed several methods of Biblical interpretation, or grids, that are used to set the parameters of our understanding of Scripture.  These methods are collectively called the study of hermeneutics (Greek – to interpret, to translate).  But not all hermeneutics are created equal.  And the method of interpretation you embrace will determine the conclusion you have about both current and future events.

For example, do you believe the Bible is the Word of God, or does it contain the Word of God?  And if you say the Bible is the Word of God, we are talking about all the Bible, the miracles, the creation events, the teachings about male and female roles, and the specific two genders God created.  This is an example of a personal hermeneutic.  For your answer to the question about God’s Word will determine how much weight you give it in your own life and what authority God has, at least in your eyes, in human events.

So it is vitally important to settle for yourself the hermeneutic you will embrace to understand these prophetic Scriptures.  Do they mean what they say, or can we allegorize the text to make it say whatever helps us sleep better at night?  It is either one or the other. You cannot have it both ways.


Tips for Understanding Prophecy

Setting hermeneutics aside for a moment, let me close by giving you a few tips to help you understand the prophetic Scriptures we will look at in the weeks to come.

First, God wants you to understand what He said.  His Word, after all, was written to be read and understood.  So expect Him to speak and reveal His truth to you as you study these sometimes confusing prophetic passages.

Next, God’s word has allegory, parables, signs, symbols, eyewitness descriptions, etc., yet the text has only one meaning.  And that meaning for us was the intended meaning when it was given.  Therefore, when you encounter symbols or signs, look for the “built-in” interpretations given by the Holy Spirit within the text itself.  You can see examples of these built in interpretations all throughout the Revelation.

Next, compare parallel passages.  After all, since the Bible originates by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, much of what is revealed in one section is also discussed in another section.  Rarely (almost never) does one Scripture contain all that the Bible says about a given topic.  So watch God’s Word interpret itself elsewhere in Scripture.  It’s a wonderful thing to behold.

Then, be aware of time intervals.  For example, the church age was a mystery that was not yet revealed when Daniel wrote about the future (Eph. 3).  And for this reason, some Old Testament prophets sometimes blend the two comings of Christ.  These intervals are called “prophetic skips.”

Finally, be sure to distinguish between filled and unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture.

Now, armed with these tips, let’s look at what the Lord reveals to us about our current situation and the times ahead.

Leaving Laodicea | The Survival Manual for the Coming Underground Church

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Podcast 280:  The Default Setting in Our Christian Life

Podcast 280: The Default Setting in Our Christian Life

Our experience may indicate otherwise, but the default setting for the Christian can be found in John 10:10 where Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Did you get that? Jesus came to give us life and to give it to us abundantly. This is the standard, the default setting in our spiritual life.

Is that what you’re experiencing in your life with Christ? If so, praise Him. If not, why?

Keep listening and you’ll discover how to reset and restore your spiritual life back to the default, factory setting.

The following is a study on the Hindrances to Revival from Revelation 2:1-11.

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The Outline of the End Times

The Outline of the End Times

“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are,
and the things which will take place after this.”
Revelation 1:19

One of the key truths that explains almost everything pertaining to the Christian life today is found in the second and third chapters of the Revelation.  Here our Lord Jesus writes seven letters to seven churches that are, on the surface, intriguing.  But once you dig deeper into the meanings of these letters, they are breathtaking and prophetic.  In fact, they chronicle all of church history from the days of the Apostles until now.  They are a timeline of church history and, for us, present church life.  And once we come to grips with that fact alone, the meaning and purpose of the life we live, or try to live, or claim to live, or don’t live in Christ today opens up and unfolds like a spring flower.  Everything becomes clear and focused.

But, as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me step back and explain.

Seven Letters to Seven Churches

In Revelation 1:19 John is given a command by the risen Lord Jesus.  He is told to, “Write the things which you have seen, the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.”  Here we have the outline from Jesus Himself for the entire book of the Revelation.

First, John is told to write what he has seen— the seven lampstands, the seven stars, the sharp two-edged sword, the Lord Jesus in all His glory, for example.  All this takes place in chapter 1.

Next, John is told to write “the things which are”— the current church situation, the seven letters to seven churches in what we would now call Asia Minor.  He is to write what the Lord says to the churches at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7), Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11), Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17), Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29), Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6), Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13), and Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22).  When we look at these seven letters to these ancient churches with strange sounding names we often see them as something mystical, something confusing, and something that we don’t really need to bother ourselves about except maybe in a purely academic sense.  But that would be a grave mistake on our part.  These seven letters are anything but dry, academic and boring.  As stated before, chapters 2 and 3 reveal to us all of church history, our history, from the Apostles to the coming rapture of the church.  They show us why we do the things we do, good or bad, in the name of Christ.  They show us why we worship the way we worship, why we “do” church the way we do, and why we live the way we live.  These letters show what the Lord commends in His church and what about His church He abhors.  And they also show us what about His church literally makes Him sick on His stomach.  But I am getting ahead of myself again.  We will talk more about that later.

Finally, John is told to write the “things that will take place after this.”  He is to write about events that will take place in the future, the incredible events that make up chapter 4 to the end of the Revelation.  These events speak of great tribulation, of two witnesses, of the throne of God and the scroll sealed with seven seals, it speaks of the Lamb as if slain, the woman and the dragon, the Whore of Babylon and much more.

As you can see, John is given the outline for the entire book of the Revelation and of human history.  In fact, the Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a special blessing to those who read it.  It begins with these words, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things that are written in it; for the time is near.”1   Or, as Chuck Missler would say, “Read me, I’m special!”2

Tomorrow we will look at the seven letters in detail and show how they reveal to us past church history and, amazingly, our current church situation.  These letters from the Lord to His church are as timely as any news blog and as prophetic as the book of Daniel or Ezekiel.  In fact, you will learn more about yourself from these letters, especially the last one, than you would have thought possible.  And finally, you will see how God views His church, and you and I, compared to how we view ourselves— and the difference will take your breath away and drive you to your knees.

Are you ready for an incredible journey?  Then let’s begin.

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1.  Revelation 1:3
2.  Missler, Chuck.  2002.  Learn the Bible in 24 Hours.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 271.

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