We often view Christians as people who perform religious obligations, and try to adhere to a set of rules for righteous living. In this view, Christianity is just a religion of rituals and morals—right?
However, contrary to what we see in Christianity today, early Christianity was a religion that was centered much more around spiritual practices.
THE RELIGION OF CHRISTIANITY TODAY
The Sunday church gathering is seen as an obligatory religious act. Few people want to get up early enough to attend, and the kids are so bored with church that either they do not want to go, or we place them in Sunday school (which sometimes is, at best, glorified daycare). At the service, we might say a silent prayer, shake a few hands, and perform a few rituals, but that’s about it. This service constitutes our religious experience for the week. It may not be the most exciting or life-giving experience of our life, but we feel that this is what we should do (or in some churches, need to do) if we want to be in good standing with the church and with God.
Additionally, good moral behavior is seen as the number one goal for our faith. While Christians acknowledge that a God exists, we have been taught that our sole response to our belief in God is to live according to a moral set of do’s and don’ts—mostly so that we don’t go to hell, or that we don’t get God angry at us. In the center of the Christian story, it has come to be understood that God is ultimately after one main thing: to get human beings to avoid doing sin and evil behavior, and to endeavor to do other things, such as loving our neighbors as our self. If you are Christian, then, you do good things and don’t do bad things. That’s the point of Christianity.
Do those two concepts sum up the experience of the Christian faith? Is this the end goal of the gospel of Jesus—to just go to church because you believe in God, and then be a good person to yourself and others? Is that what Christianity is all about?
What is wrong with going to church? Nothing, of course. It can be very beneficial, just as it is in any other social context when people gather with other like-minded people, like a book club or support group. Assembling with one another under a unified purpose can provide growth, comfort, and edification. But, I know from the stories of others, and from my own personal experiences, that churches can also be destructive, manipulative, abusive, stagnant, boring, flat, void of life, and even life-killing. I can tell you with no reservation and with certainty that simply going to a church and bowing your head in prayer doesn’t mean that yours or others’ lives will become any better. Going to church will not in itself transform your life. Church attendance alone will not grant us entry into the pearly gates.
What wrong with good moral behavior? Nothing, of course. Doing unto others as you would have done to you is something that almost every person would agree is totally worthwhile (save tyrants, megalomaniacs, those mentally ill, and those given over to absolute selfishness). If everyone would follow the “golden rule” isn’t it true that we could establish a heaven-on-earth, a peaceful and loving global society, a social nirvana? But why would we need Christianity specifically, or any other religion for that matter, to accomplish that? In fact, is it not the case that many non-Christian’s find no shortage of “Christians” displaying the exact opposite—unloving, judging, intolerant, selfish, and hypocritical behavior? Many kids that grow up in “good” conservative Christian homes later end up completely walking away and rejecting the faith (Abraham Piper’s recent Tiktok’s come to mind). Certainly, people like Ghandi lived a more selfless and moral life than most western Christians have—including myself. And I know a handful of people in my own life who identify as agnostic who are certainly not lacking in love toward others. So, if the point of Christianity is to just follow rules for moral living, then what sets Christianity apart from any other religious or non-religious attempt at being morally good and loving? Why do we need Christianity, or any religion at all, to accomplish that?
Yet we even find Jesus telling us that good works alone won’t grant us entry into His Kingdom (Matthew 7:21-24, 19:16-26). Isn’t that surprising? Yes, we find Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes, people who actively sin, will enter into the kingdom before the religious people will (Matthew 21:31). The apostle Paul also tells us that good works apart from the indwelling of God’s love are entirely worthless (I Corinthians 13). So, if our ultimate purpose is just good works then we are in trouble.
While the early Christian church did indeed meet together for sharing and worship (church attendance), and the leaders did heavily stress the importance of living life full of love toward others and personal morality (good works), it seems neither of those two things were the church’s purpose or heartbeat. Instead, those were its fruits, its outcomes, its organic results that originated from an entirely different source.
The ultimate purpose the church was continually seeking after and living in was spiritual connectedness with the Creator, the Source, and the Life-Giver through Jesus Christ.
THE SPIRITUALITY OF CHRISTIAN PAST
Yes, the early church met together for gatherings centered around their faith. They were also encouraged to live in love with one another and to rid themselves of the destructiveness and self-centeredness of sin. Being a good, moral person was central to their teaching.
But acting those things out were not the means by which they practiced faith. Doing those things were not the substance of their experience as Christians.
The heartbeat and life-source for early Christians was the real and tangible relationship with God that brought spiritual connectedness with the Divine Creator.
Yes, the early church believed that those who followed Jesus would receive the forgiveness of their sins so that they would have confidence in approaching God both in the present and at the final judgement at the resurrection. However, it is paramount to emphasize that the church also believed that upon one’s entrance into the Kingdom via faith in Christ they would also be filled by the very Spirit of the Living God (John 7:38-39). They believed that God’s very own presence through the Holy Spirit would take up residence in them (John 14:15-17, 23). And not only to guide, instruct, teach, but also to abide, commune, and bring a new transforming life (John 7:38-39, 14:26, 16:13-15, I John 2:27, Romans 8:26-28).
It is from this center, from the spiritual connectedness of drawing on and walking in the ever-present presence of God living within them, they would be changed (Romans 12:2). That through this connectedness they would be slowly transformed (Matthew 13:31-33, Mark 4:26-29) into a reflective image of God (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:10). That though abiding in the presence of Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit their heart would be changed in a way that would, in turn, naturally compel them to act in the very same nature toward themselves and others as Jesus would.
Early Christianity consisted of a spiritual experience, which connected humans with God. Through a two-way, personal and communal relationship, it filled and transformed their lives to such a great degree that it overflowed, spilling into the world around them.
The Christian gospel wasn’t a warning message to live holy because an end-times judgement was coming. It wasn’t a message to compel people to go to church and to behave well. It was message of invitation to join a family of faith who abides in the presence of God and draws life from that presence in such a tangible way that it transforms and enables the community to give life to themselves and to others.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ABIDING?
The early church communed with God. They spent time with God. They heard from God. They were intimate with Him. They spent time together in groups with God. They worshiped. They were able to spiritually touch the “hem of His garment” (Mark 5:24-34). As the message Bible puts it, through their spiritual practices they shared intimacies just between them and Him” (1 Corinthians 14:2).
God didn’t share intimacy with the Early Christians because they were living holy and righteous on their own and in their own strength. God didn’t look down at their righteousness and then decided to dwell with them. God shared intimacy with them because they humbled themselves as sinners and received the grace of God through faith in Jesus, and thereby entered into a live-giving transformative relationship with the Creator. And through the intimacy of living in them through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God was able to slowly mold their hearts into the image of His own. It was God working in them though humble grace that brought forth the fruits of their good deeds (Phillipians 2:13).
What and how the first followers of Jesus practiced intimacy/abiding with God is what led to the good fruit they displayed.
This is where the modern church has veered drastically off course from its roots. Our faith used to be expressed and entered into via a set of spiritual practices that, if practiced today, would probably have people thinking that Christianity was some type of new age religious sect, rather than what we see with mere Sunday church-going.
The Christian faith was mystical. touchy-feely, spiritual, mysterious, and transcendent. The early Christians believed that they could so freely enter into two-way communication with God that many of them are reported to have received direct words from God (Galatians 1:11-12, I Corinthians 14:26-32), visions and prophecies (Acts 9:10-18, Act 10:1-16, Acts 16:6-10), and Spirit-prompted guidance from God (Acts 10, I Timothy 4:1). In other times they had group experiences where they were tangibly filled with a community presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31, Ephesians 5:15-21). And through that life-giving intimacy they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6 KJV).
INTIMACY WITH GOD
Here are four ways that the early disciples of Jesus shared intimacy with God:
Personal and group prayer: We see Jesus leaving His disciples to go off to pray intimately with His heavenly Father (Mark 1:35, Mark 6:30-46, Luke 9:18-20, Luke 9:28-36). He also instructed us to pray alone, by ourselves, to reap God’s rewards (Matthew 6:5-6). Those who believed in Jesus after His resurrection were said to have, “devoted themselves…to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Furthermore, there is an overabundance of passages from the letters of the New Testament encouraging believers to pray (Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2, I Timothy 2:8, James 5:13-15, Ephesians 6:18)—and to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Early Christianity was, first and foremost, rooted and grounded in prayer. It wasn’t something the first Christians did only on occasion, or in church, but rather in a continual state of two-way intimacy with God. It’s how they lived day in, day out. They were constantly turning their attention away from the world and turning it to God, and with thanksgiving, they would bear their hearts before the Father.
Worship/Filled with the Spirit: Worship is a broad term, but for this context I want to focus on the dynamic of worshiping together. Don’t necessarily think of rituals, reciting written prayers, or listening to sermons. Think of a group worshiping God where there are spontaneous group outpourings of love and adoration to heaven.
In Acts 4:23-31 we see the disciples coming together where such an instance took place. As they lifted up their voices and worshiped together there was great unity. The building shook. And they were filled with a tangible presence of the Spirit of God.
In Acts 13 we see the Apostle Paul and a group of disciples worshiping God together when they were able to discern a message given to them by the Holy Spirit. Paul continued to encourage his disciples to sing and worship in thankfulness together (Colossians 3:15-17) as well as to seek to be filled with the Spirit as they sang and sought the Lord with one another (Ephesians 5:17-21).
Early Christianity was bound in group worship. Lots of singing, lots of joy and thanksgiving, and at times even tangible intimacy with the Holy Spirit. Group worship wasn’t limited to only one day of the week at a one-hour prepared service. It was an organic process, happening spontaneously, at whatever day or hour believers felt led to corporately worship (Acts 2:42-47, 5:42).
Speaking in Tongues: This is by far the strangest spiritual practice, but perhaps the most life-giving practice of them all. And certainly, the most defining characteristic of intimacy between the Old and New Testaments.
When addressing the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul said that he prayed in tongues, “more than you all” (I Corinthians 14:18). He also said that when addressing the church as a group he would rather speak 5 words in the common language rather than in the mysteries of the Spirit in tongues. Undoubtedly, Paul did most of his tongue-talking by himself between him and God. This would make sense since Paul instructed the Corinthians in the same letter that when they speak in tongues they are speaking to God, and not to people (I Corinthians 14:2).
I can imagine Paul spending hours and hours speaking in tongues personally to God as he went about his tent-making business, or when walking from town to town, or during shared personal worship with other believers (Acts 13:1-3). It was in these special, transcendent moments, when Paul abided tangibly with the Holy Spirit, that I believe Paul received some of his greatest revelations and experienced His greatest intimacies with God.
Early Christianity had a transcendent, spiritual experience through praying in tongues, both individually and in a group dynamic (I Corinthians 14, whole chapter). Individual worship, praise, thanksgiving, and even encouragement given to the whole group would take place via the gift of tongues.
Fasting and Meditation: Fasting and meditation have a long history with the people of God, as witnessed in the Old Testament. However, for many in the Jewish leadership during Jesus’s day, the motivation for these disciplines had become corrupted and were incorrectly being seen as something to be used to gain God’s favor and approval (Matthew 6:16-18, Luke 18:9-14) rather than their true purpose—to rid oneself of worldly distractions in order to experience a greater intimacy with God.
Jesus and the early church fasted (Matthew 4:1-2, Acts 13:1-3, 14:23, and 17:19-21 and Corinthians 7:5 NKJV). They found it to be integral to experiencing God.
Fasting is a way to train the body and emotions that we receive life (i.e., satisfaction, peace, happiness, purpose, value, identity) ultimately from God alone. It exposes areas in our lives where we have allowed our flesh control/direct us apart from God’s rule.
Along with fasting, mediation also shares a long history in the Bible. Taking time aside to specifically set your heart on and renew your mind (Romans 12:1-2) to the things of the Kingdom of God was one of the primary means of transforming one’s life and helping to bring God’s ways into a living reality in one’s heart. Meditation is a broad practice that can be brought into just about any context and dynamic of experiencing God. Yet, in addition to special times of meditation, Psalms 1:1-3 bears witness that the practice of meditation wasn’t intended only for dedicated days of the year, or only for certain seasons or events. It turns out mediation is a daily state of living:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
It doesn’t mean that we must sit cross legged, clear our minds of everything, and say, “om…”. Christian mediation means that we intentionally set our minds on both the person of God in Christ and His Kingdom, and we give space to let God reveal Himself, transform us into the image of His Son Jesus, and speak to us in that realm.
We speak the written Word to ourselves. We build ourselves up in his good will toward us. We contemplate the encouragements, challenges, and commandments Jesus’s gave us.
Early Christians integrated fasting and mediation into their daily practices. Christian mediation is filling yourself up with the fullness of God through the Holy Spirit by giving time, mindfulness, and attention to God.
INSIDE OUT: BEARING FRUIT
As Jesus instructed us, being connected to the vine is what brings forth the fruit of good works:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Our connectedness to the vine is what brings us life. It is the driving force behind all of our actions. It’s the gas the makes the car go.
The solution to living out the good morals and behavior that God created us to manifest (Ephesians 2:10) is found in engaging in spiritual practices that keep us continually connected to the Vine. It is that connection from which all other aspects of our life organically flow. Our inward spirituality is the headwaters for our outward expression. Yes, to be a Christian, and to be inadvertently mistaken as some new ager who is mystical and spiritual, should be taken by us as a compliment!
The Early church was instructed to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:13). They were told to renew their minds and hearts so that an inner transformation would take place leading to outward change. In Jesus’s kingdom, the emphasis was inside-out. You wash the inside of the cup and the rest will be clean outwardly (Matthew 23:25-26).
The Christian walk isn’t white-knuckling your way through a set of moral tenets and commandments. It is not found in church attendance, obligations, and rituals if those acts in themselves leave us void of spiritual connectedness. The Christian walk is a deep, spiritual practice that draws life from the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is being spiritually connected to God, the Vine, in a way that changes your very heart so that after the leaven has worked its way through the dough (Matthew 13:33), and the mustard seed as grown to maturity (Matthew 13:31-32), you can’t help but do what is good, pleasing, and acceptable to God.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!