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.
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?
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.
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.