The first century was an incredibly hard time for Christians. They were persecuted, had to flee their homes, and some were literally used to light evening events (yep … their bodies were skewered on stakes and lit on fire for evening light in Nero’s Circus). Their bodies were ravaged by animals in the colosseum… and yet, we know they lived by the New Covenant. We have records of Roman officials writing letters to each other discussing their interrogations of Christians before executing them when they wouldn’t renounce Jesus as Lord. The man writing was Pliny the Younger, and he was the Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus, and he was writing to none other than the Emperor Trajan.
Here are three things Pliny discovered as he interrogated Christians:
- They got up early one day a week and sang songs about Jesus.
- They shared ordinary and innocent food.
- They vowed to each other not to commit crimes.
Let me break down how significant those behaviours were:
They worshiped a God who came in the flesh, died, and rose again. This was a source of mockery from the culture. The gods weren’t supposed to be “killable,” but their God was. Jesus was so different from any other deity. He didn’t die due to weakness, but strength. The Romans mocked the Christians for their “defeated” God.
Ordinary food. I love this part. There is nothing more common than bread and wine. They were celebrating communion! They were taking part in the Gospel message, reminding themselves that God would give His life for His enemies!
Making a vow to not commit a crime. Of all the things you would expect people who were being persecuted and killed to do, would this be one of them? They would take time to re-commit themselves to not doing harm, and living the way of love in the midst of pain and violence.
And you know what’s wild? You would think that when you light people like candlesticks and feed ‘em to the lions, they would be deterred… but nothing would deter them. A man was killed and came back to life, and they would follow Him, and His new Command.
That command was passed down verbally, and even before someone was able to bind His words in leather, and print their name in gold on the cover (they couldn’t read anyway), they were able to pass on this New Covenant command – so simple and yet, so demanding! The Love of Christ compelled them!
And the first century blew up in response to the radical love of these early Jesus followers. Even scholarly historians scratch their heads as to how this crazy movement gained momentum, and how it ever survived the first century.
Historian Karen Armstrong says honestly: “Yet against all the odds, by the third century, Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with. We still do not really understand how this came about.”
This New Covenant was so simple, and yet so incredibly demanding, it drew people in from all across the empire. A faith that was not built in response to rules, but a faith built on a response to a loving God who gave His life. And this movement broke out of the first century as those early Jesus followers continually reminded themselves through songs and meals, of the Gospel message – committing to live in response to the Love of Christ.
Be encouraged today, friends. While it may feel overwhelming, I imagine the first century Christians were overwhelmed as well. They probably didn’t always get it right … and we won’t either. So let’s just continue to ask that simple question: “What does love require of me?”