Welcome To First Century Christianity


Ben H. Swett

In February, 1988, I led a seminar on the topic, "Spirituality--What Is It?" Later, the Chairman of Christian Education for my congregation read that paper and asked me if I had any suggestions for a special adult education course focused on spirituality. After thinking about it, I said, "I've always wondered what a meeting of Christians was like in the First Century, before all the church councils and doctrines and dogmas and stuff. Maybe we should try to rediscover some of that." She liked that idea and scheduled the course for November and December of 1988. A few friends from other churches also came to this course.

As preparation, I reviewed the secular history of the First Century. I also tried to see what I could find on the practices of Christians before 100 AD, but I didn't find much. The Bible infers rather than describes what early Christians actually did in their meetings, and there are practically no other references. Not much is known about that period. Perhaps they did not keep records, or perhaps their records have been lost, but one thing is certain from any comprehensive reading of Acts and the Epistles: some of those people were receiving guidance from Jesus. His inputs were the specific cause of major turning points in the early development of Christianity.

A course of study

In November 1988, thirteen of us met at night, with a guard posted at the door, and gathered in a back room with only two candles and no heat. I nearly froze. After an opening prayer, I reviewed the situation of just such a small group of Christians in the year 88 AD:
Some of us are Jews; some are Greeks or Romans. Some are citizens; many are slaves. But we are all Christians, disciples of Jesus the Christ.

We think he was born about 88 years ago--that's why we call this the 88th year of our Lord. We believe he was crucified in 33, but we're not sure. All we have are some partial accounts of his life and teachings, plus a few copies of copies of letters from Paul or one of the others. The Lord's first disciples are almost all gone now. There are rumors that John is alive, but he is not here and we don't know where he is. Peter and Paul and many others were killed in 64, when Rome burned and Nero blamed it on us.

The Jews rebelled against Rome in 67. When the Christians in Jerusalem saw the city surrounded by armies, they remembered what Jesus said about that, and fled across Jordan to Pella, in the desert. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70, and by the time the fortress at Masada fell in 73, they had crushed the entire Jewish nation. Now they are after us, too. The three generals who decimated the Jews each became Emperor, one after the other--Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Now, we must hide because Domitian is trying to restore the Roman religion. He executes both Christians and Jews.

But tonight we are all here, together, and perhaps safe enough for the moment. So ... why have we come? Why do we slip out at night, away from our masters and hiding from the Romans, to meet in caves and catacombs and darkened rooms? What do we expect to happen that is so different, so attractive, so important, that we risk our lives to be here?"

Each of us tried to place ourselves into that situation--mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We knew we needed to lay aside all the unnecessary paraphernalia, embellishment, and other trappings we have inherited from nineteen hundred years of church councils, tradition, theologians, translators and interpreters, but it wasn't easy. We had to remember that First Century Christians did not have a creed, a prescribed order of worship, a special church language, a hymnal of their own, a set of scholarly commentaries, or anything like that. They didn't even have what we now know as the New Testament.

We asked ourselves, "What kind of church meeting would bring me out at night if the government was trying to kill me?" Today, we can't even get people to church if it rains. What was it? What was there, in those early Christian meetings, that we don't have? What did they do that we don't do?--and what do we do that they never heard of? What has been added, and what has been lost?"

Part of the attraction must have been in the friendship and fellowship--the joy and strength and mutual support--that flows from people who obey the Lord's new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you." However, there's already a lot of that in our churches, but it doesn't seem to be enough to explain the behavior of First Century Christians. So we discussed what they had that we don't have--primarily the spiritual gifts and ministries, and especially healing.

Finally I said: "Perhaps they came because they knew what Jesus meant when he said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God" and "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (within reach). That is, maybe they gathered to inquire of the Lord and receive his guidance. If so, Jesus himself was the teacher of all those little groups--but he was no longer in a physical body, so at least one member of each group had to be a prophet through whom he could communicate."

The Hebrew word for prayer means "to inquire of the Lord" and the phrase "the word of God" originally referred to the answer received in prayer: that is, an understandable message from God to man. The word "prophet" did not refer to a person who predicted the future (one who did that was called a fortune-teller or a soothsayer). Prophet means spokesman: that is, one who speaks for another. Any genuine prophet of God received understandable messages from God and relayed them to other people: "Thus saith the Lord ..."

We recalled that, in the First Church of Jerusalem, when the apostles got bogged down in church administration, Peter said, "Select some trustworthy men for this task of distributing food to widows and orphans. We will devote ourselves to prayer and the distribution of the word." That phrase, "prayer and the distribution of the word" describes the function of a prophet--and a true prophet must always hear the word of God before he or she speaks it.

We noted that people who were not apostles also received messages from God or Jesus--such as the believer at Damascus named Ananias whom the Lord told to go help Paul regain his sight after his conversion.

Thus, from the common theme of the Old and New Testaments, I suggested we might try to test the idea that First Century Christians met to receive guidance from God through Jesus, by testing the hypothesis: Is it still possible for a small group of people to receive messages from God or Jesus in the Twentieth Century?

The group liked that idea and said they were willing to try. I said, "Okay, but there are certain prerequisites, and we need to practice them first, so that is where we will start." I told them I had been practicing private two-way prayer for 24 years, showed them some of the messages I received, and led them through the current edition of my paper, "Prayer as a Form of Two-Way Communication."

For the remainder of the five weeks, the group practiced each step of my approach to private two-way prayer: (1) stop everything else and get quiet, (2) open your heart and mind, (3) elevate your spirit, (4) care for another, (5) inquire of the Lord, (6) stop thinking and listen, (7) test the spirit of anything that pops into your mind.

At the end of the study course, the results were encouraging but not conclusive, and several people said that five meetings were not enough, so we formed a new group, called it First Century, and continued to meet. In essence, we took to heart something Paul wrote to the First Century Christians at Corinth, "Make love your aim and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy."

A small group

We set some rules for the First Century group, because we wanted to be clear about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
  • Not dogmatic: This is an exploratory and experimental group; we will not impose beliefs; instead, we will search for the truth and see what we find. Any subject is fair game. Agreement is not required; scorn or ridicule is not allowed. If we disagree, we will first try to state the other person's position in terms that he or she will accept, in order to avoid semantic difficulties.

  • Not arrogant: The ability to receive messages will not be a test of faith or membership or status. We are not interested in self-aggrandizement, or splitting churches, so we will not claim divine guidance, either inside or outside the group. We will quietly share with each other what we think we may have received, and respect the confidence of anyone who asks that it be kept within the group.

  • Not occult: Although what we are doing is technically similar to channeling or mediumship, we will not obey any message unless we all agree it is something Jesus would say. Personal study of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is the way to learn how to recognize his "voice" (what he says and how he says it).

  • Not a cult: Since we are trying to find Jesus and learn from him, none of us will have final authority over this group. And we will not set this group outside the churches we represent; we will continue to serve in our churches, and we will keep our own ministers and other church leaders informed of what we are doing.
After the discussion in which we developed these rules, eight of us decided to meet once a week to practice elevation of spirit, the act of blessing, and small-group two-way prayer. The results have been encouraging. We have found, in our own experience, confirmation of the testimony of numerous men and women over the past nineteen hundred years: God and Jesus can indeed place in our minds thoughts which are not our own.

For example: in one of our first experiments, we all lifted up the name of an elderly friend who was very ill. We asked, "Lord, what about John?"

Of the seven people present, three got one answer and four got another. The three got the same message in different ways: one was a mental image of someone reaching down and taking John's hand; one was a sudden feeling of sorrow followed by a feeling of joy, and one got the thought: "John is going to walk with me and that's alright." The other four all got the same message in the same way: when they asked, "What about John?" the thought immediately popped into their minds, "What about Val?" She was John's wife.

After discussion, we all agreed those two thoughts sounded like something that Jesus might say to us. And when John died a few weeks later, we remembered the unsolicited part of that message and have continued to help his wife.

From the fact that we continue to receive such guidance, and far more important, continue to test the spirit of the guidance received--and it proves to be kinder and wiser and more gracious than we are--I feel this group is making some progress toward rediscovering a central component of First Century Christianity.

I think this is what Paul was talking about when he wrote: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace." (I Corinthians 14:29-33a)

I also think I know why a small-group approach to receptive prayer is a good idea. The Old Testament prophets were basically on their own, as far as I know, with no one to cross-check what they thought they received from God, but the members of a small group can rely on each other to help point out thoughts that do not come from the Lord. And when one is so troubled he can't hear his neighbor, much less the Lord, the others can ask for and receive guidance on his behalf. Thus, there is strength and safety and mutual support in a small group that is not available either in a large group or when one is praying alone.

After a year of experience with the First Century group, I revised "Prayer as a Form of Two-Way Communication" to include the lessons we learned.