Maybe it’s just because I’m a pastor, but I’m always fascinated when I hear that someone has abandoned the Christian faith. I’m not talking about the people who have never been Christians. I’m talking about the ones who were raised in the church or they became a Christian for a while and then bailed out. Why would someone stop being a Christian? Following Jesus makes your life better and following Jesus makes you better at life. Let’s be real. Everybody wants their life to be better and most people want to be better at life.
The thing that’s really fascinating to me is that 100% of the people (in my experience, which I’ll admit is limited) who bailed out of Christianity, bailed out for really bad reasons. Some bailed out because they met some quirky or weird Christians, their parents took them to church too often, or their church did something that let them down. Basically, they didn’t like the Christians so they left Jesus. I’m going to be blunt. These are terrible reasons to leave Jesus. You’ve had bad haircuts, you just found another barber. You had bad medical experiences, you just found another doctor. You didn’t give up on hair cutting. You didn’t give up on doctors. So don’t give up on Jesus because of us Christians.
Even more fascinating to me, are the people who give up on Christianity because of the Bible. I kid you not, this happens a lot. Some says, “I grew up believing creation, but then I read other theories, and I just couldn’t buy into the six-day thing any more.” Others say, “there’s no real evidence that the Israelites actually left Egypt”, or “this date in the New Testament that doesn’t line up with other historical documents. So, I just left Christianity.” I’m sorry, but those are just terrible reasons to quit being a Christian.
Now this does remind me that the church, and I’ll take part of the blame, has done a terrible job communicating the foundation of our faith. But I’ve never talked to someone who genuinely followed Jesus and then left and thought to myself, they had a good reason. I don’t argue with people’s story, but it’s like, “Wait a minute. What you’re rejecting isn’t even the faith. What you’re rejecting isn’t even essential to Christianity.”
The Bible is not the foundation of our faith. Don’t panic, evangelicals. The foundation of our faith is actually an event, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not the Old Testament. It’s not the New Testament. Part of our problem is we were given the Old Testament and New Testament together, all bound up into one book called the Bible, which I absolutely love and cherish. But it is not the foundation of our faith. The foundation of our faith is not a book. The foundation of our faith is an event that got documented in a book.
So what happens is, as we approach Christianity, it becomes like a house of cards. If somebody says, “Well, I don’t believe this in the Bible,” or “there was a contradiction here,” or “this didn’t line up for me,” you pull out one part or one thing that you think didn’t line up or you don’t like and the whole house comes tumbling down. It’s like all of Christianity just falls apart if we think we can’t trust this or that part. That’s a terrible reason to leave the faith.
That would be like me saying, “I don’t think you exist because I looked at your birth certificate and it has an error on it.” There’s been errors on birth certificates with names backwards or spelt wrong, so that means you don’t exist? You’d say, “Well, that’s absurd.” But listen, your birth certificate documents your existence, it doesn’t determine your existence. Your birth certificate documents that you’re here, it doesn’t determine that you are actually here. It only documents that. Besides there are human beings who do not have birth certificates in this world?
Here’s what you need to know about Christianity.
The New Testament documents what happened. It’s not the same as what happened. It’s two different things. So if you find a discrepancy, or something you don’t like, or something you don’t understand that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
The New Testament documents the Resurrection. The Old Testament documents the history of the nation of Israel. For convenience sake, they all got put in one book. But listen, if you find stuff in the Old Testament or the New Testament you don’t like, you don’t agree with, I’m just telling you, that is no reason to leave the Christian faith. The foundation of the faith isn’t the birth certificate. It’s what happened. What happened is Jesus rose from the dead.
Now let me just say this before you check out and say I don’t know what she’s trying to say. If Christianity was as fragile as some of us treat it… if Christianity was as fragile as some of you have approached it… if Christianity was so fragile that it could just fall apart because somebody found something in a book they disagreed with, or couldn’t validate… then Christianity would have never survived the first 300 years.
In the first 100 years of Christianity, do you know you could lose your life for being a Christian? This was not a fragile belief system at all. You could lose your job, your family could lose their job, just because somebody suspected that you were a Christian, which meant you thought Jesus was a bigger deal than Caesar.
In fact, within this first 300 years, the strength, and the courage, and the commitment, the dedication of Christians was absolutely unbelievable in light of what they faced. So again, just one more time, if anyone listening has left the faith over something you read in the Bible, I’m telling you, you owe it to yourself to continue listening today and to come back next week. Because, and I believe you know this, following Jesus will make your life better.
I know we think our nation is in a terrible place right now, and I’m not saying it isn’t. We definitely have priorities and values out of sorts. But when you look at how life was in the first 300 centuries for Christians… I’m just saying sometimes we need a different perspective.
For instance, there was a Christian apologist who lived in the early third century (that’s someone who kind of argues for something). He died around 250 or 253 AD. His name is Tertullian. You may have heard of him before. He was a Roman centurion’s son, and at age 40 he became a Christian, which was kind of old back in those days since people didn’t live as long.
He made a statement that kind of puts all of this in context. He’s writing during the time when it’s extremely dangerous to be a Christian, yet he honestly and bluntly writes, “If the Tiber (which is a river) rises too high, or the Nile too low, the remedy is always feeding Christians to the lions.”
His point was, in the Roman Empire, anytime things went bad, they blamed the Christians. They thought anytime things went wrong the gods were angry because all these Christians are running around that don’t worship and honor the gods. So, if we’ll just get rid of the Christians, the gods will be happy with us, and then the river won’t overflow and destroy our crops, or won’t be too low that we can’t water our crops.
My point is this, nobody gave up on Christianity in the first couple of centuries for reasons many of you have considered giving up on Christianity or perhaps why you did. It was not nearly as fragile as we consider Christianity to be today. Nobody gave up on Christianity in the first three centuries because of the violence in their culture. They embraced Christianity because of the violence in their culture, and they saw Christianity as something liberating and better than the Roman violence.
Nobody abandoned Christianity in the first three centuries because of something they read in a book, or because they couldn’t make the text line up. I’ll tell you why. Because the gentiles didn’t have a Bible. The Old Testament was the Jewish Bible. There was no New Testament at this point. There was no “Gentile Bible”. All they had was the teachings of Jesus, and yet they were able to maintain Christianity.
Here’s what a big deal this is. If you’re a Christian, you should be so proud of this. When you read secular history, and you get to the part about the development of Christianity, all serious, honest historians say the very same thing.
Karen Armstrong wrote a book called, “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.” Essentially, this is a book about the history of violence within all religions and she’s approaching this as a secular historian. She says what many historians acknowledge. “Yet, against all odds, by the third century, Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with. We still do not really understand how this came about.”
When it comes to Christianity, every honest historian says, “All we know is what we know, and there’s this big, dark part where we can’t imagine how in the world Christianity survived those first three centuries.” I’m telling you. It is so stinking strong, and for you to abandon it because of something you found in the Bible you don’t like, or you met some crazy Christians, oh my goodness, you need to come back!
Historians can kind of guess and piece things together, and they’re supposed to do that. I’m not being critical at all. Fortunately for us, the people who were there give us extraordinary insight into what happened after Jesus rose from the dead, and why the church became as Karen Armstrong says, “a force to be reckoned with.”
To set the scene for this series, here’s what happened.
Jesus rises from the dead, and nobody saw it coming. Nobody expected it, not even the disciples who hung out with Jesus for three years. It was a total surprise. There’s chaos. There’s people going into the streets of Jerusalem saying, “Hey, I know I was a coward before, but do what you want to me. I have had a conversation with a risen Savior.”
Thousands of people in Jerusalem, within walking distance of these events embrace Jesus as their Savior. Then something very fascinating happened. A group of Jewish theologians and religious leaders realized they missed it. They should have seen this coming! They were the professionals. Not only did they miss the awaited Messiah, but they participated in having Him crucified. So, they go back into the Old Testament looking for Jesus, and low and behold, they find Him. They begin to find all this literature that pointed straight to Him.
That’s why when you read the Gospel of Matthew, all throughout it, there are references to the Old Testament that Jesus was the fulfillment of these things.
So, that was one group that went backwards to connect Jesus through Jewish history. Another group said, While you take care of that we’re going to work on getting the message out. We’re going to tell all the gentiles about Jesus… that God has done something so significant.
This is where you come in. I want you to put yourself in the first century as a gentile. You worship the gods, yes plural. You have an altar in your home to your ancestors. You have no love for the gods, and the gods have no love for you. Nobody worshiped Jupiter or Zeus or Mars because they loved them. Nobody sang songs of love to the gods. The gods toyed with the people, and the people tried to manipulate the gods. That was the pagan religion.
Today, even if you’re not a Christian, you’re familiar with the Ten Commandments to some point. But in the first century, the gentiles didn’t know a thing about the Ten Commandments. They never read an Old Testament. They may have had some Jewish friends, that they thought were kind of strange, and knew there was a synagogue in town, but they had no comprehension of an Old Testament or what the Old Testament was about. And they didn’t care.
Christianity was introduced to the gentiles as something brand new that God had done in the world. And not a single gentile became a Christian because somebody showed him a book and said, “Here’s what the Bible says.” In fact, there was no Christian Bible. There was just the Old Testament that most gentiles didn’t take seriously because that was a Jewish book.
But, if you’re telling me, a guy rose from the dead, and you’re telling me that we could go to Jerusalem, and you could introduce me to people who saw a living man who rose from the dead, and He claims to be from God, then I want to know more about that. All the gentiles had in the first century was the Gospel, and the eye-witness accounts, and the teaching of Jesus according to the eye-witnesses. That’s it.
That’s why Paul, when he wrote his letter to the church in Corinth said, “Here’s the most important thing for you to know.”
1 Corinthians 15:1-5
1 Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. 2 It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
3 I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. 5 He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. 6 After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles.
Do gentiles have to become Jewish to be Jesus followers?
Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, you’ve got these Jewish leaders who have suddenly found Jesus in the Old Testament. They decide that they need to keep Christianity hitched up to the Old Testament. Not just a historical connection, but a theological connection, as well.
So it just makes sense to these Jewish leaders that the gentiles who are now embracing the Jewish Messiah as their Messiah need to become Jewish. Jesus was Jewish. This is where He comes from. This is when it really gets interesting. In the book of Acts, we read what’s often referred to as the first church council. And the hot question on the table was, “Do gentiles have to become Jewish to be Jesus followers?”
Our future here today hung in the balance of what they decided in this meeting, so I’m going to read you parts of the story.
1 While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing fervently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.
There should be some kind of murmur or groaning going on because they are going to decide if every man who becomes a Christian has to have a surgery. Can you imagine what this would’ve done to a Billy Graham crusade?
4 When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them.
Okay, so Andrew’s there, Matthew’s there, John’s there, Peter’s there. These are some of the main guys, and they’re all in Jerusalem to discuss this question, do we have to become Jewish in order to become Jesus followers?
Paul says, “Hey, you’re not going to believe this. I’ve been traveling around and preaching the Gospel, and all over gentiles are given up their pagan gods, and their pagan idol worship, and they’re embracing Jesus as Savior.” And all these Jewish people in Jerusalem and this council are like, “That’s fantastic.”
5 But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.”
Now don’t miss this. This is so huge…
In this first meeting of the early church, there were Pharisees who had become believers. Now when you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the Pharisees are like the reoccurring bad guys. They are the enemies of Jesus. Every time Jesus shows up, and there’s Pharisees, it’s bad news. They hate Jesus. They were the ones behind having Jesus crucified. They put away some of their theological differences in order to meet with the Sanhedrin and the teachers of the law to gang up on Jesus. Yet in the Book of Acts, some Pharisees show up as leaders in the early Christian church. What?!
How did that happen? Was it because of what Jesus taught? No. Was it because of the miracles? No. Was it because He was crucified? No. There is only one explanation as to why Pharisees joined the church. It’s because Jesus rose from the dead.
I imagine they show up with their hat in their hands, sobbing to the leaders of the church going, “We are so ashamed of ourselves, we crucified the Son of Man. We’ve come to apologize.” Do you know what the first century believers did to those guys? They welcomed them. My goodness. They welcomed the very ones who were responsible for crucifying Jesus. So, at this meeting, you now have Pharisees because they saw and believed the eye witness accounts of the resurrection.
These Pharisees are all about the law which is why they said, “The gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses.”
6 So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. 7 At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.
10 So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? 11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”
In other words, why do you test God? You’ve already been on the wrong side of God once. Do you really want to be on the wrong side of God again? Why do you want to test God by putting on the necks of the gentiles a yoke, that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear. He’s going, “Look, Jewish friends, you were raised with this. You were raised kosher, you were raised thinking this way, you were raised reading the Torah, you were raised memorizing this.
How is this going to sit when we send a letter down to Antioch saying, “Hey, you 35-year-old, 40-year-old, 45-year-old men and women, you got to clean out your house, you got to memorize 600 laws.”
He says, and before we do that, tell me how this has been working out for you? He sits down. (Isn’t this awesome?) Then (it’s my favorite part) James, the brother of Jesus, stands up to speak.
Note: Peter and James, they are like the guys. Peter, because Peter he is Peter, and James, because he’s the actual brother of Jesus. James doesn’t show up in the story of Jesus. James, his mom, and all the brothers and sisters think Jesus is a little bit off. We read a story of Jesus’ mom and brothers and sisters are worried about Him, telling Him to come home. So James is a little bit like the pharisees right now. He shows up late. You know why he shows up? Because when you stand behind your mama and watch your brother die on a cross and then you meet Him a few days later, you just believe.
Then James stands up and says something that to me is so profound.
19 “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.
He’s saying look, if somebody has taken their eyes off the pagan world, and they’re beginning to focus on the one-true-living God, let’s fan that flame. Let’s not do anything to make it unnecessarily difficult for those who are turning to God.
23 This is the letter they took with them: “This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings! 24 “We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! 25 So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question. 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements:
Now this is just mind-boggling. This whole conversation was, “Do we give them 600 plus laws?” So out of the 600 plus laws James in this letter is about to tell us which ones we’re responsible for.
29 You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
Now we learned in this same text a little further on, that the only reason he mentioned these dietary laws is because in all of these cities, he knew that many Jews were turning to Jesus, and he knew that Jews and gentiles would not mix if gentiles were not sensitive to the Jewish people’s dietary laws which is such a big deal.
We went from 600 to “Don’t offend your Jewish brothers and sisters with what you eat and don’t sleep with their wives.” That’s it?” Yeah, that’s it because you have been saved by grace.
30 The messengers went at once to Antioch, where they called a general meeting of the believers and delivered the letter. (the guys all anxiously waiting….) 31 And there was great joy throughout the church that day as they read this encouraging message.
Let me tell you how what a big deal this is historically. Then I’m going to wrap this up.
The Jesus movement came that close to stalling out. If the Jerusalem council had decided that in order to be a Christian you’ve got to become Jewish, then Christianity would have died in 70 AD when the temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire. In 70 AD ancient Judaism ceased to exist and Christianity would have ceased to exist with it. This is a big deal.
In that council, our faith was unhitched from ancient Judaism. But that left a gap. There was not much to go on for quite a while, for a bunch of years actually. Paul hadn’t started writing letters yet. The gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not written. Maybe parts were being written, but they don’t show up till later. Peter and James hadn’t written anything. In other words, there is no New Testament.
The N Commandments
For the next few weeks, I want us to kind of retreat back in time, and put Paul out of the picture, and some of the stuff we’ve been taught out of the picture, put the Old Testament out of the picture, and just pretend for a few weeks…All we know is Jesus died for my sins, rose from the dead, and gave us some commands.
This is where we are going for the next few weeks with the N Commandments. You’re probably wondering, so what are the N Commandments?
Jesus gave us the two greatest commands:
- Love the Lord your God and
- love one another.
But along with those commands, He issued some others. He issued some commands that required extraordinary trust. They are so big! They didn’t even make sense till after the resurrection.
“Fear not.” (Yeah, just don’t be afraid any more. Do you realize how many times scripture says don’t be afraid? Yup, 365 times. One for each day. We must be a bunch of scaredy cats.)
“Doubt not.” (Just quit doubting.)
“Worry not.” (Just stop worrying.)
Who can just do these? These are things Jesus would say. I’d bet to say the followers before the resurrection were like, “Okay, you’re Jesus and all, but we can’t just not fear, or doubt, or worry.” To which I think Jesus thought, “You just wait”. Because when you see your Resurrected Savior, what will you have to be afraid of? Think about that. When you see your Resurrected Savior, what reason will you have to doubt? When you see someone crucified and then you see them alive, now what are you worried about?
That is what fueled the first century church. They were fearless. They did not doubt or worry. Instead, they laid down their lives and it’s historically a mystery, but theologically there’s no mystery at all. When you are convinced your Savior rose from the dead, everything changes.
So we’re going to talk about what we’re calling Jesus’ N Commandments: Being fearless, dealing with doubt and worry, and sin and judgement. When combined with His command to love one another, it changed the world and my hope is it will change our world today.
We’re going to start next week with fear, and talk about is it even rational for there to be a command ‘fear not’? We’re going to discover that there is. So don’t miss next week.
We have been invited, just as Jesus invited His original followers, to embrace these N Commandments. Don’t miss this series as we discover why no one should ever, ever, ever abandon the faith.
Heavenly father, thank you for preserving these records for us. Thank you for the men and women who gave away their lives so that we could have them. Thank you for the fearlessness of the early church, the doubtlessness of the early church, the fact that somehow, they overcame worry when they had so much to worry about. I pray that we would catch that, that you would give us a dose of that, that you would open our eyes to see in a way we’ve never seen before; and that we would live boldly, lovingly, and that as those first century Christians embraced their enemies, that we would learn to embrace ours as well. So guide us as we go, and give us wisdom to know what to do with what we just heard. In Jesus’ name, amen.