The Message of the Early Church

The words of the first Christians – though rooted in a long-gone era – are every bit as relevant today as they were when first recorded. Eberhard Arnold summarizes the message he found in these writings.

God’s new order can break in with all its splendor only after cataclysmic judgment. Death must come before the resurrection of the flesh. The promise of a future millennium is linked to the prophecy of judgment, which will attack the root of the prevailing order. All this springs from the original message passed on by the very first church. The tension is between future and present, God and demons, selfish, possessive will and the loving, giving will of God; between the present order of the state, which through economic pressures assumes absolute power, and God’s coming rule of love and justice. The tension is between two antagonistic forces sharply provoking each other. The present age of the world is doomed; in fact, the Messiah who is to come has already overpowered its leader! This is an accomplished fact. The early church handed down this supra-historical revolution to the next generation. Jesus rose from the dead: too late did the prince of death realize his power was broken.

To believers living in the time of the early church and of the Apostle Paul, the cross was the one and only proclamation: Christians knew only one way, that of being nailed to the cross with Christ. Only dying his death with him, they felt, could possibly lead to resurrection and to the kingdom. No wonder that Celsus, an enemy of the church, was amazed at the centrality of the resurrection among the Christians. The pagan satirist Lucian was surprised that one who was hung on the cross in Palestine could have introduced death as a new mystery: dying with him on the cross was the essence of his bequest. The early Christians used to stretch out their hands as a symbol of triumph, imitating the arms extended on the cross.

In their certainty of victory, Christians who were gathered for the Lord’s Supper perceived the alarmed question of Satan and death, “Who is he that robs us of our power?” They answered, exultantly, “Here is Christ, the crucified!” When Christ’s death is proclaimed at this meal it means that his resurrection is given substance and life is transformed. His victorious power is consummated in his suffering and dying, in his rising from death and ascent to the throne, and in his second coming. What Christ has done he does again and again in his church. His victory is perfected. Terrified, the devil must give up his own. The dragon with seven heads is slain and the evil venom is destroyed.

Thus the church sings the praise of him who became human, who suffered and died, rose again and overpowered the realm of the underworld when he descended into Hades. He is “the strong,” “the mighty,” “the immortal.” He comes in person to his church, escorted by the hosts of his angel princes. Now the heavens are opened to the believers. They see and hear the choir of singing angels. Christ’s continual coming to the church in the power of the Spirit verifies his first historical coming and his second, future appearance. In trembling awe the church experiences her Lord and sovereign as a guest: “Now he has appeared among us!”

Some see him sitting in person at the table to share their meal. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is indeed a foretaste of the future wedding feast. The Spirit has descended upon them, and grace has entered their hearts. Their fellowship is complete and perfect. The powers of God’s Spirit penetrate the gathered church. Gripped and filled by the Spirit, they become one with Christ. Ulysses, tied to the mast of the ship, sailed past the Sirens unscathed. In the same way, only those who become one with the crucified by being tied, as it were, to his cross, can withstand the lures and passions of a storm-tossed world.

The trials of all the Greek heroes, however, cannot match the intensity of this spiritual battle. By becoming one with the Christ triumphant, early Christian life became a soldier’s life, sure of victory over the greatest enemy in the bitter struggle with the dark powers of this world. Murderous weapons, amulets, and magic spells are of no use in this war. The one who truly believes in the name of Jesus, the power of his Spirit, his life, and victory, has no need of water, oil, incense, burning lamps, or even the outward sign of the cross to gain victory over demonic powers. Whenever the believers found unity in their meetings, especially when they celebrated baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the “love feast,” the power of Christ’s presence was indisputable. Sick bodies were healed, demons driven out, sins forgiven. People were assured of life and resurrection because they were freed from all their burdens and turned away from their past wrongs.

Adapted from The Early Christians: In Their Own Words (Walden, NY: Plough, 2015).

Article edited for length and clarity. View original document here: The Early Christians after the Deaths of the Apostles (in German).