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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of Preaching In The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-5-9-1 The Openness Of Early Christianity

An Open Table

The exclusive, hard hitting message of early Christianity was mixed with an amazing openness in terms of fellowship. The issue of fellowship / association and disfellowship / disassociation was a major destructive influence within both Judaism and the later ecclesia of Christ. In first century Jewish thought, eating with someone was a religious act; and you only openly ate with those who were of your spiritual standard; and never with the unclean, lest you be reckoned like them. The Lord Jesus turned all this on its head- for He ate with sinners- and very public sinners at that- in order to bring them to Him. He didn't first bring people to Him, get them up to His moral level, and then eat with them. The anger and shock which met the Lord's actions in this regard reverberates to this day in many churches.

It's easy to assume that the arguments about "regulations about food" (Heb. 13:9) in the first century hinged about what types of food should be eaten, i.e. whether the Mosaic dietary laws should be observed or not. But the angst about "food" was more passionately about with whom you ate. Peter explains in Acts 11:3 how utterly radical it was for a Jew to eat with a Gentile. Bearing this in mind, the way Jew and Gentile Christians ate together at the Lord's supper would've been a breathtaking witness of unity to the watching world. And yet ultimately, Jew and Gentile parted company and the church divided, laying itself wide open to imbalance and every manner of practical and doctrinal corruption as a result. The problem was that the Jews understood 'eating together' as a sign of agreement, and a sign that you accepted those at your table as morally pure. The Lord's 'table manners' were of course purposefully the opposite of this approach. Justin Martyr (Dialogue With Trypho 47.2-3) mentions how the Jewish Christians would only eat with Gentile Christians on the basis that the Gentiles firstly adopted a Jewish way of life. And this is the nub of the problem- demanding that those at your table are like you, seeing eating together as a sign that the other has accepted your positions about everything. The similarities with parts of the 21st century church are uncanny.

Yet Luke's writings (in his Gospel and in the Acts) give especial attention to meals and table talk. Societies tended to distinguish themselves by their meal practices (1). Who was allowed at the table, who was excluded- these things were fundamental to the self-understanding of persons within society. So when the Lord Jesus ate with the lowest sinners, and Peter as a Jew ate with Gentiles... this was radical, counter-cultural behaviour. No wonder the breaking of bread together was such a witness, and the surrounding world watched it with incredulity (Acts 2:42,46; 4:32-35). Note too how Luke mentions that Paul ate food in the homes of Gentiles like Lydia and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:15,34).

Paul's reasoning in 1 Cor. 10-12 seems to be specifically in the context of the memorial meeting. The issue he addresses is that of disunity at the Lord's table- different groups were excluding others. It is in this context that he urges believers to "discern the Lord's body" (1 Cor. 11:29)- and the Lord's body he has previously defined as referring to the believers within that one body. For in 1 Cor. 10:17 he stresses that all who have been baptized into the body of God's people "being many are one loaf, and one body". There's only ultimately one loaf, as there's only one Christ. All within that one body are partaking of the same loaf whenever they "break bread", and therefore division between them is not possible in God's sight. "The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia, the sharing in fellowship, of the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). By breaking bread we show our unity not only with Him personally, but with all others who are in His one body. To refuse to break bread with other believers- which is what was happening in Corinth- is therefore stating that effectively they are outside of the one body. And yet if in fact they are within the body of Christ, then it's actually those who are refusing them the emblems who are thereby declaring themselves not to be part of Christ. Having reminded us that "by one Spirit are we all baptize into the one body" (1 Cor. 12:13), Paul makes the obvious point- that as members of that body we cannot, we dare not, say to other members of the body "I have no need [necessity] of you" (1 Cor. 12:21). To fellowship with the others in the body of Christ is our "necessity"; this is why an open table to all those who are in Christ isn't an option, but a necessity. Otherwise, we are declaring ourselves not to be in the body. Indeed "those members of the body which seem to be more feeble, are necessary" (1 Cor. 12:22). By rights, we ought to be condemned for such behaviour; for by refusing our brethren we are refusing membership in Christ. And yet I sense something of the grace of both God and Paul when he writes that if someone says "Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" (1 Cor. 12:15). I take this to mean that even if a member of the body acts like they aren't in the body, this doesn't mean that ultimately they aren't counted as being in the body. But all the same, we shouldn't stare condemnation in the face by rejecting ourselves from the body of Christ by rejecting the members of His body at the Lord's table. That's the whole point of Paul's argument. Naturally this raises the question: "Well who is in the body?". Paul says that we are baptized into the body (1 Cor. 10:17); and this throws the question a stage further back: "So what, then, makes baptism valid?". Baptism is into the body of Christ, into His person, His death and His resurrection; and not into any human denomination or particular set of theology. If the illiterate can understand the Gospel, if thousands could hear the Gospel for a few hours and be baptized into Christ in response to it- it simply can't be that a detailed theology is necessary to make baptism valid. For the essence of Christ, His death and resurrection, is surely simple rather than complicated. Those who believe it and are baptized into it are in His body and are thus our brethren- whatever finer differences in understanding, inherited tradition and style we may have. The early church didn't make deep  theological issues a test of fellowship; indeed, the range of understanding and practice tolerated by Paul in his churches is considerable. And we can't simply argue that Paul was allowing them time to mature; for if fellowship is to be based around strict doctrinal standards, then Paul's tolerance all the same disproves the proposition that fellowship cannot be extended to those in error of understanding. He reasons in 1 Cor. 8:7-11 that the weak brother was one who felt that idols did have some kind of real power, representative of some real 'god'; and Paul doesn't state that such brethren should be disfellowshipped, rather does he argue that the "strong" should be careful not to cause them to stumble. He doesn't imply that his position is somehow time limited or a special concession to Corinth. He simply didn't have the hangup about doctrinal correctness on every point which so many believers have today.

The incident when the Lord sets a child in the midst of the disciples is instructive (Mk. 9:33-37). He wasn’t asking us to imitate children, but rather the lesson was about receiving children. In our child-focused age, children have considerable importance. But not in those days. A Jewish boy wasn’t really considered a person until he became a “child of the law”; early critics of Christianity mocked it as a religion of women and children. Artists, even well into the modern era, depicted important children as having adult features. The point the Lord was making was that receiving the unimportant and overlooked was to receive Him, because He was especially manifest in them. And He is today; and His displeasure is therefore just the same today with any who seek to exclude the immature and insignificant.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. And Judaism was focused upon external behaviour rather than being united by a common theology. There was a wide range of beliefs tolerated within first century Judaism, as there is within it today. The openness of Judaism, out of which early Christianity arose, was reflected in the fact that "attendance in the synagogue was a matter of reputation; no one kept complete records" (2). "Fellowship" was something experienced between those present and wasn't based on a strict membership list nor subscribing to a detailed list of theology.

The Danger of a Closed Table
Fellowship with each other is based around and a reflection of our fellowship with the Father and Son; the horizontal bond is totally connected to the horizontal bond. By excluding our brethren, we are counting ourselves as out of fellowship with Christ. Denying them fellowship is to deny our own fellowship with Christ. Mk. 9:38-42 contains the account of the question about the disciples of John the Baptist, who were doing miracles but not "following with" the disciples of Christ; in response to the question about what our attitude should be to such persons, the Lord Jesus soberly warned: "Whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea". The "little ones who believe on me" would appear in the context to be the misguided and misunderstanding disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus is saying that by refusing to recognize them as brethren, we may cause them to stumble, and therefore merit the condemnation reserved elsewhere in Scripture for Babylon. The apparently disporportionate connection between rejecting a brother and receiving Babylon's judgment is indeed intentional. We are being asked to see how utterly important and eternally significant is our attitude towards our brethren in this life. If we reject or refuse to recognize them, we may well cause them to stumble. And this happens so frequently. Those disfellowshipped and otherwise rejected so often fall away. But that stumbling is reckoned to the account of those who caused their stumbling by rejecting them. Even if, therefore, some believers in Christ misunderstand Him [as the disciples of John the Baptist appear to have done in some ways], we are to accept them and not reject them- for by doing so, we may cause them to stumble further, to our own condemnation.

The Sense In Which The Lord's Table Was Exclusive

The only exclusivity of the Lord's table was that it was not to be turned into a place for worshipping pagan idols. Paul saw the sacrifices of Israel as having some relevance to the Christian communion meal. He comments: "Are those who eat the victims not in communion with the altar?" (1 Cor. 10:18); and the altar is clearly the Lord Jesus (Heb. 13:10). Eating of the communion meal was and is, therefore, fundamentally a statement of our fellowship with the altar, the Lord Jesus, rather than with others who are eating of Him. The bread and wine which we consume thus become antitypical of the Old Testament sacrifices; and they were repeatedly described as "Yahweh's food", laid upon the altar as "the table of Yahweh" (Lev. 21:6,8; 22:25; Num. 28:2; Ez. 44:7,16; Mal. 1:7,12). And it has been commented: "Current translations are inaccurate; lehem panim is the 'personal bread' of Yahweh, just as sulhan panim (Num. 4:7) is the 'personal table' of Yahweh" (3). This deeply personal relationship between Yahweh and the offerer is continued in the breaking of bread; and again, the focus is upon the worshipper's relationship with Yahweh rather than a warning against fellowshipping the errors of fellow worshippers through this action. What is criticized in later Israel is the tendency to worship Yahweh through these offerings at the same time as offering sacrifice to other gods. Is. 66:3 speaks of this dualism in worship:

What was offered to Yahweh What was offered to other gods simultaneously
"An ox is sacrificed, a man is killed;
a lamb is slain, a dog is struck down;
an offering is brought, swine-flesh is savoured;
incense memorial is made, idols are kissed"

And the new Israel made just this same blasphemy in the way some in the Corinth ecclesia ate of the Lord's table and also at the table of idols ["demons"]. Paul wasn't slow to bring out the similarities when he wrote to the Corinthians. It is this kind of dualism which is so wrong; to be both Christian and non-Christian at the same time, to mix the two. But differences of interpretation between equally dedicated worshippers of Yahweh, or believers in Christ, were never made the basis of condemnation.

The Heavenly Host

It was apparent that in the breaking of bread meetings, there had to be a host. The host was a vital figure. And yet herein lay the huge significance of breaking of bread meetings being held in homes- presumably the home of a richer believer- and yet it was the table of the Lord. He and not the master of the house was the host of that meeting. It's for this reason that it was unthinkable for any invited by grace to their Lord's table to turn away other guests- for it wasn't their table, it was the table of another One, and they were but guests. Attempts to bar others from the Lord's table in our own time are equally rude and deeply lacking in basic spiritual understanding. There are evident similarities between the breaking of bread experience and the marriage supper which we shall eat with the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom. The breaking of bread assembly is called "the table of the Lord"- and yet He says that we shall eat at "My table" at His return (Lk. 22:30). The Lord clearly taught the continuity between the breaking of bread and the future marriage supper by observing that He would not again drink the cup until He drinks it anew with us at the marriage supper (Mt. 26:29). The parables of how the Gospel invites people as it were to a meal are suggesting that we should see the Kingdom as a meal, a supper, of which our memorial service is but a foretaste. We are commanded to enter the supper and take the lowest seat (Lk. 14:10), strongly aware that others are present more honourable than ourselves. Those with this spirit are simply never going to dream of telling another guest 'Leave! Don't partake of the meal!'. But this is the spirit of those who are exclusive and who use the Lord's table as a weapon in their hands to wage their petty church wars. The very early church didn't behave like this, but instead sought to incarnate and continue the pattern of the meals of the Lord Jesus during His ministry. And this is one major reason why their unity drew such attention, and they grew.

Further, the Lord teaches that if we're invited to a feast, we should take the lowest place, genuinely assuming the others present are more honourable than us; and we take our place at that table awaiting the coming of the host (Lk. 14:8). Our attitudes to the seating and behaviour on entry to the feast will affect our eternal destiny- for when the Lord comes, He will make the arrogant man suffer "shame", which is a commonly used descriptor of the rejected at judgment day (Lk. 14:9). The Lord goes on in that same discourse to explain what our attitude should be- He tells the parable of the great supper, to which those who were invited didn't pitch, and there was a desperate, last minute compelling of smelly street people to come in and eat the grand meal. "When you are bidden of any man to a meal" (Lk. 14:8) is clearly meant to connect with "A certain man made a great supper, and bade (s.w.) many" (Lk. 14:16). Evidently the idea of eating with the Lord at His table connects with the breaking of bread. Our attitude at that memorial supper is in essence our attitude at the greater supper of the last day. We sit there with our Lord and with our brethren. We will sit there at the last day with the deep feeling, like the handicapped beggars had in the parable: "I should not be here. What am I, me, me with all my weakness, doing here?". If we sit likewise at the breaking of bread with that spirit, we will not even consider grabbing the best seat for ourselves; nor would it cross our mind to say to someone else sitting there "Hey you, what are you doing here? If you're here, I'm gone! Don't you dare take that bread and wine, you're not in fellowship!". Yet this is precisely the attitude of those who exclude their brethren from participation at the Lord's table; for the breaking of bread is a foretaste of the feast to come, and the Lord is teaching that our attitude to our brethren at it is in fact going to be reflected in how He deals with us at the latter day marriage supper. It seems so many of our exclusivist brethren are voting themselves out of their place at the Kingdom; although I believe God's grace is such that He has a place even for them.

And our attitude to others will be reflective of our perception of God's grace in calling us- as we were invited by such grace, so we will invite others to our table who likewise cannot recompense us (Lk. 14:12). If we are the blind and maimed invited to the Lord's table, we will invite the blind and maimed to our table. The extent of God's grace to us really needs to sink in. When was the last time you did an act of pure grace to others like this...? The servant seems surprised that after the crippled and blind beggars have been drafted in to the opulence of the feast, "yet there is room" (Lk. 14:22). Quite simply, there are more places in the feast of the Kingdom than there are people willing to fill them! How encouraging is that thought! The same Greek word for "place" recurs in Jn. 14:2,3, where the Lord Jesus taught that He was going to die on the cross in order to prepare a place for us in His Father's palatial mansion. The effort made in preparing the feast therefore speaks of Christ's life, death and resurrection for us. And it's so tragic that most people don't want to know. So in a sense, "all you gotta do is say yes". Just accept the invitation; take the messengers for real. Although perhaps we are left to read in the detail to the story, that many a desperate beggar just couldn't grasp that the messenger was for real, and preferred to stay put. Maybe only the truly desperate thought 'Maybe there's some truth in it...I've nothing to lose". The many places in God's Kingdom... are only for those who desperately want them. Those who make meaningless excuses about how busy they are, those who can't believe that really God could be true to His word and really give us beggars a place in His wonderful Kingdom... will by their own decision not be there.

And yet... the Lord followed right on from this parable with the demand to hate one's own life, pick up their cross and follow Him, without which we cannot be His disciple. He also told the parable of God coming with a huge army to meet us who are far weaker- and our need to make peace with Him and forsake all that we have in order to follow Christ (Lk. 14:25-33). These radical demands of Jesus are in fact a development of His parable about the supper. For amongst some Middle Eastern peoples to this day, refusing the invitation to enter the banquet for such a meal- especially after having signaled your earlier acceptance of the invitation- was "equivalent to a declaration of war" (4). And so the parable of us as the man going out to war against a far superior army suddenly falls into place in this context. "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that doesn't renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:33). The renouncing or forsaking of all we have refers to the man with 10,000 soldiers renouncing what human strength he had in the face of realizing he was advancing against a force of 20,000. The picking up of the cross, the 'hating' of our own lives, the renouncing all we have... obviously refers to doing something very hard for us. But the context is the parable of the supper, where the 'hard' thing to understand is why people refused the invitation, why they just couldn't believe it was real and for them; or why they just let petty human issues become so large in their minds that they just couldn't be bothered with it. Simply believing that we will be there, that in all sober reality we have been invited to a place in the Kingdom, that God is compelling / persuading / pressurizing us to be there... this is the hard thing. This is the hating of our lives, picking up our cross, forsaking our human strength and surrendering to God.

Let's not under-estimate the struggle which there is to believe the simple fact that there are more places in the Kingdom than people willing to fill them; that really God is begging us to come in to the place prepared for us through the death of His Son. When we read of the Master telling the servant to "compel" the beggars to come in to the feast, it's the same Greek word as we find used in one of the excuses given for not going in to the feast: "I must needs go and see" (the field the man had supposedly bought that evening without ever seeing it) (Lk. 14:18,23). Just as our loving God, with all the power of His most earnest desire, can seek to compel us to accept His offer, so the power of our own flesh compels us the other way. The petty human issues had become so large in the minds of the people concerned that they ended up telling obvious untruths or giving very poor excuses to get out of attending; life had gotten on top of them and that was it. The story seems so bizarre; the refusal of such a wonderful invitation would've been the element of unreality which struck the first hearers.The point is that petty human issues, coupled with our lack of appreciation that we are down and out beggars, really will lead people to lose out on eternity. The other such element of unreality would've been the persistence of the host to fill the places with anyone, literally anyone, willing to come on in. It's not so much a question of 'Will we be there?' but rather 'Do we really want to be there?'. Because if we do, we shall be.

And we who have firmly accepted the invitation are also the preachers and bearers of the message. We are the ones who are to "compel" men and women to just believe it's for real and come on in. And we do this work with all the power of God's compulsion behind us. For He wishes to see the places filled. And yet we work against the terribly powerful compulsion of the flesh. 1 Cor. 9:13 states that necessity or compulsion is laid upon us to preach the Gospel. This is the same word translated "compel" in Lk. 14:23. The compulsion is laid upon us by the tragedy of human rejection of the places Christ prepared for them, and the wonderful, so easy possibility to be there. Significantly, this same Greek word is used elsewhere about the 'necessities' which are part of our ministry of the Gospel (2 Cor. 6:4; 12:10). The urgency of our task will lead us into many an urgent situation, with all the compelling needs which accompany them.

The theme of eating continues after Luke 14- for Luke 15 contains parables told by the Lord in answer to the criticism that He ate with sinners (Lk. 15:2). He explained that He had come to seek and save the lost, and that was why He ate with them (Lk. 15:4 cp. Lk. 19:10, where He justifies eating with Zacchaeus for the same reason). Note how in the case of Zacchaeus, the man only stated his repentance after he had 'received' Jesus into his house and eaten with Him. This exemplifies how the Lord turned upside down the table practice of the Jews- He didn't eat with people once they had repented, but so that His gracious fellowship of them might lead them to repentance. The parables of Lk. 15 speak about eating in order to express joy that a person had repented and been saved- the eating was to celebrate finding the lost sheep, coin and son. But the Lord was saying that this justified His eating with not yet repentant sinners. Thinking this through, we find an insight into the hopefulness of Jesus for human repentance- He fellowshipped with them and treated them as if He were celebrating their repentance; for He saw eating with them in this life as a foretaste of His eating with them in His future Kingdom. He invited them to a foretaste of the future banquet. His fellowship policy was therefore to encourage repentance; and seeing He wished all to be saved, He didn't exclude any from His table.

The Gospel

Preaching a simple, clear Gospel and not being obsessed with fellowship issues were, in my view, one of reasons why the early church succeeded; and why we in the 21st century so often fail. The conversions recorded in the Gospels, those in Acts 2, and that of Paul himself, all occurred before the letters of the New Testament were written. Yet they were conversions made upon the same basis as we should be making them today- the preaching of "the Gospel" and belief into it. This indicates that the content of the Gospel preached and required for conversion was far less than what we have tended to think- many of the 'extras' refer to matters of interpretation which whilst true in themselves, are not fundamental parts of the Gospel message but rather what distinguishes us from other denominations. As such they may have relevance in terms of securing a sound convert into our group- but not into Christ. The Lord taught that His converts should remain in the synagogues (with all their false teachings about the death state, Satan, the nature of Messiah and His Kingdom) until they were thrown out. He had absolutely no 'guilt-by-association' mentality which later became so much a part of so many versions of Christianity. There's fair historical evidence that Christians remained in the synagogues until they were thrown out. Eventually the synagogues brought in "the blessing of the minim" as one of the eighteen benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh): "And for the Minim [Christians] let there be no hope [of eternal life]"- and all present had to repeat this. This of course forced Christians out of the synagogues- but it was a result of Jewish exclusion of them, rather than any fear of guilt by association on their part. This fearlessness in fellowship attitudes was a key to their success, at least initially; and the amount of time and energy expended by latter day believers on the fellowship issue is in my opinion a significant reason for our failure both in quantity and ultimate quality of evangelism.

Paul's letters were all responses to real, specific situations and problems, answering questions etc. Albeit under Divine inspiration, those letters were written ad hoc. They're not as it were a series of chapters in a consciously planned exposition of the Gospel. People were baptized well before those letters were written- on the basis of the Gospel which is (unsurprisingly enough!) contained in the records of the Gospel. It could therefore be argued that all we find in Paul's letters, true and important as it all is, isn't actually the core message of the Gospel, which is quite simply the life, teaching, work, death and resurrection of Christ. Paul's writings are an elaboration upon it. But the actual content of that elaboration was unknown to those who were first baptized, e.g. at Pentecost. Further, the bulk of first century Christian converts were illiterate; they wouldn't have all heard read all of Paul's letters. Given that all copies of letters had to be written by hand on costly papyrus or similar specific material, and then transported and safely stored, it's unlikely that all Christians had instant access to all of Paul's letters (although interestingly Peter writes as if he was familiar with all Paul's letters, 2 Pet. 3:16). We would be quite mistaken to think of the early Christians as having access to the New Testament books in the way most of us do today. And certainly, the average Christian convert wouldn't have had access to them before baptism. By saying this I am in no way devaluing the undoubtedly true and important theology, teaching and guidance which they contain. I'm simply saying that people were baptized (in large numbers) without knowing that material. Their source of instruction was from the Gospel records themselves.

Our attitude to others at the Lord's table is of course a function of our general attitude to others. As we have been accepted by grace by the Father and Son, so we also ought to accept our brethren. The Lord Jesus broke his bread with sinners in order to bring them to Him, and not as a sign that they made some kind of acceptable grade with Him. One sees in Him radical outgoing acceptance of people, even to the cost of His own life, rather than seeking to exclude people from His fellowship. God grants us the status of being "forgiven" through our being in Christ; He grants us forgiveness, if you like, before our repentance. This isn't to decry the importance of repentance; but it arises from our effort to be what we are in spiritual status. We are to be unconditionally kind to even our enemies, so that we may heap coals of fire upon their head (Rom. 12:20). I don't understand this as meaning that our motivation for such kindness should be the gleeful thought that we will thereby earn for them greater and more painful condemnation at the last day. Such motives would surely be foreign to all we have seen and known in the Father and Son. Rather am I attracted to the suggestion that there is a reference here to the practice, originating in Egypt, of putting a pan of hot coals over the head of a person who has openly repented (4). In which case, we would be being taught to show grace to our enemies, in order that we might bring them to repentance. This would chime in with the teaching elsewhere in Romans that God's goodness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). And this is how we should be, especially with our brethren. The idea of excluding our brethren seems to me the very opposite of the spirit of grace which we have received.

(1) Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1975) Ch. 7, 'Deciphering a meal', pp. 249-275.

(2) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 103.

(3) Roland De Vaux, Studies In Old Testament Sacrifice (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961) p. 39.

(4) H. B. Tristram, Eastern Customs (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004 reprint) p. 82.

(5) J. Zeisler, Paul's Letter To The Romans (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1989) pp. 306,307.

Appendix 1: Could Gentiles Eat The Passover?

It has been argued that the breaking of bread is the equivalent of the Jewish Passover, and Ex. 12:48 says that only the circumcised could eat of it. Here are a few comments:

- Whatever interpretation we wish to place upon Ex. 12:48, we have to reconcile it with the above evidence for the openness of the Lord Jesus with regard to His table fellowship, using it to bring people to Him, rather than as a test of fellowship or intellectual / moral purity of understanding or living.

- Peter ate with the uncircumcised- and got into trouble with the Judaist brethren exactly because the Law had forbidden the uncircumcised from eating the first Passover (Acts 11:3). The Jews had put a [very large!] hedge around this law by forbidding Jews from eating with Gentiles period. Yet Peter was taught that this was wrong- and he ate with Gentiles, it seems even before they were baptized. But the point is, he had been taught by the vision that all the old Mosaic category distinctions of clean / unclean, circumcised / uncircumcised, had now been ended. It seems this was as large a challenge to the church in the 1st century as it is in the 21st.

- Although the Passover and memorial meeting are related, the relation is at times by way of contrast rather than only similarity. e.g. in the first Passover, the families were to provide a lamb; whereas in the antitype, the Lord Jesus is the lamb of Divine and not human provision. The Paschal lamb of God takes away the whole world's sin, rather than just providing blood for the temporal redemption of Israel's firstborn, etc.

- Circumcision under the new covenant doesn't refer to anything outward, visibly verifiable. For now "he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart in the spirit, and not in the letter" (Rom. 2:29)- seeing we can't judge the secret things of others' hearts, how can we tell who is circumcised in heart or not? The 'sealing' of God's people today, the proof that they are the Lord's (2 Tim. 2:19), is not anything external, but the internal matter of being sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30), or being sealed with a mark in the mind / forehead, as Revelation puts it (Rev. 7:3; 9:4).

- The Gentiles in Israel, circumcised or not, could keep the feast of unleavened bread (Ex. 12:17-20) which was related to the Passover.

- If Ex. 12:48 is read on a literalistic level, i.e. that only the circumcised could eat the Passover, this would surely mean that no female could eat it? Yet this was not the case.

- It's Num 9:14 which speaks in more general terms of whether or not a Gentile could partake of the Passover- and here it's made clear that yes he/she could, and no mention is made of being circumcised: "And if a stranger shall sojourn among you, and will keep the passover unto the Lord; according to the statute of the passover, and according to the ordinance thereof, so shall he do: ye shall have one statute, both for the stranger, and for him that is born in the land".

- Commands that were intended for subsequent generations often include the kind of rubric we meet in Ex. 12:14,17: "And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD: throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever... therefore shall ye observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance for ever". But we don't meet that 'throughout your generations' with regard to the uncircumcised men not being allowed to eat it.

- So my suggestion is that the command of Ex. 12:48 that no uncircumcised could eat of the Passover, and that the Gentiles amongst the people should be circumcised if they wanted to eat it, was specific to that first Passover. As Israel and the mixed multitude that went with them sat in Egypt under threat of losing their firstborn sons, they could find salvation by keeping the Passover and entering into covenant with God through circumcision. Both Jewish tradition and the implication of Moses not circumcising his sons is that the Jews in Egypt weren't circumcised; yet "all the people that came out were circumcised: but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised" (Josh. 5:5). Implication would be that many were circumcised in order to keep the first Passover according to the command given them in Ex. 12. We could therefore take Ex. 12:48 as a specific command for those who kept the first Passover to be circumcised, rather than an ongoing principle. The Jewish sage Maimonides (A Guide For The Perplexed Vol. 3 ch. 46) explains: "The reason of the prohibition that the uncircumcised should not eat of it (Exod. xii. 48) is explained by our Sages as follows: The Israelites neglected circumcision during their long stay in Egypt".

- This approach would explain why Num. 9:14 doesn't demand that Gentiles be circumcised to keep future Passovers; why there's no comment that the exclusion of the uncircumcised should be kept "throughout your generations"; and why Ex. 12:50 speaks as if Israel fully obeyed the command about circumcision and Passover eating in a once-off sense when they kept that first Passover. And of course this is the reason for many branches of Judaism welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles to the Passover celebration- for they don't understand Ex. 12:48 to preclude it, but rather Num. 9:14 encourages it.

- This approach also helps answer a difficult question: Why was the lamb or kid kept for four days (Ex. 12:2,6)? If the effects of circumcision take three days to wear off (Gen. 34:25), it could be that the uncircumcised males were intended to circumcise themselves, chose the lamb, and then keep the Passover four days later. Some Jewish commentators claim that God fell in love with Israel whilst she was still in her blood (Ez. 16:6) in that some Jews circumcised themselves at the time of the first Passover- hence one Rabbi speaks of the blood of circumcision and the blood of the first Passover running together.

The Table Manners of Jesus

There is huge emphasis within the Gospels upon eating and table fellowship. The meals of Jesus are noted, and His parables often refer to meals and eating together (Mt. 21:31,32; 22:1-14; Lk. 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 12:35-38; 14:1-24; 15:1,2; 11-32; 19:1-10; 24:30-32; Jn. 2:1-12; 21:1-14). This is without doubt a major theme of the Gospels. Clearly, we are intended to learn something from this emphasis. The huge focus upon meals and table fellowship which we find in the Gospels clearly carried over in significance to the early church; because having given such emphasis to Christ's open table fellowship in his Gospel, Luke in Acts records how the disciples broke bread with each other in their homes as a sign of their unique fellowship in Christ (Acts 2:42,46). Significantly, it was by eating with Gentiles that Peter openly demonstrated that God had accepted Gentiles (Acts 10,11). In first century Judaism "meals... were principal expressions within Judaism of what constituted purity. One ate what was acceptable with those people deemed acceptable" (1). The Jewish ideas of the first century were partly based upon those of the Old Testament; for there, meals were used to help draw boundaries. In the period in between the Testaments, however, not eating with Gentiles and sinners became an obsession. Judaism became incresingly exclusive. Tobit is told "Give none of your bread to sinners" (Tobit 4:17); the story of Judith tries to teach that table fellowship can make the difference between life and death (Judith 13:6-11); the additions to Esther claim that Esther had always refused to eat at Haman's table nor with the king (Esther 14:17); Sirach urged "Let righteous men be your dinner compnions" (Sirach 9:16); bread was not to be shared with the sinner (12:5; 13:17). Jubilees 22:16 warns Jacob to separate himself from table fellowship with Gentiles lest he be contaminted by association with them.

No Guilt by Association

It was especially important for Rabbis or religious leaders to be seen as only eating with the right types: "The Rabbis would have been chary of intercourse with persons of immoral life, men of proved dishonesty or followers of suspected and degrading occupations at all times, but especially at meals" (2). The way Jesus wilfully invited such people (tax collectors, prostitutes, Mk. 2:15) to His table shows His specific rejection of this idea. The Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 23a) records that the righteous Jew wouldn't sit down for a meal until they were sure who their eating companions would be. The open table policy of Jesus was radical indeed. He showed them this welcome to His table in order to lead them to repentance (Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:32). Note too how He ate with Peter in order to prove to him that He had accepted him, even before any specific repentance from Peter directed to Jesus (Jn. 21:1-14). Again, that meal was characterized by a super abundance of food, 153 fish (Jn. 21:11), pointing forward to the Messianic banquet. Jesus was assuring Peter that he would 'be there' and demonstrated that to Peter by having him at His banquet table. Indeed it has been observed that many of the meal scenes recorded in Luke feature Jesus calling people to be His disciples. He had no fear of 'contamination by communion' (a phrase used in the church of my youth). Rather, His association with sinners in this way was their opportunity to accept His salvation and thereby to be convicted of their sins and repent. In this context it has been remarked: "Jesus is not defiled by his contact with impurity but instead vanquishes it" (3). His holiness was thereby commnicable to others rather than their uncleanness being as it were caught by Him. The "sinner in the city" whom He allowed at His table was a cameo of the whole thing; contrary to what was thought, He wasn't contaminated by her, but rather her presence at His table meant she left realizing her forgiveness and acceptance with Him (Lk. 7:36-50).

Exactly because Jesus ate with sinners, He was considered a sinner (Mt. 11:19). This was how strongly the Jews believed in 'guilt by association', and how intentional and conscious was the Lord's challenging and rejection of the concept. The Jews imagined the final messianic banquet at the end of the age (Rev. 19:7-9) to be filled with righteous Jews from all ages and all parts of their dispersion world-wide. But Jesus consciously subverts that expectation by speaking of how Gentiles shall come from all over the world and sit down at that banquet on a equal footing with the Jewish patriachs (Mt. 8:11,12). And He went further; He spoke of how whores and pro-Roman tax collectors would have better places there than religious, pious Jews (Mt. 21:31,32). Not only were the very poor invited by Jesus to eat with Him, but also those most despised- tax collectors were amongst the most despised and rejected within Jewish society, not simply because they made themselves rich at the expense of an already over taxed peasantry, but because of their connections with the Roman occupiers. Sitting and eating with Gentiles and sinners was therefore Jesus showing how every meal of His was a foretaste of the future banquet of the Kingdom. He wsa calling all those previously barred from the Lord's table to come and eat. This was why the table practice of Jesus was seen as so offensive by the Jews- because it implied that their exclusive view of the future Kingdom being only for religious Jews was in fact wrong. Anyone who opens up boundaries, breaks a circle, removes one side of a triangle, faces the wrath of those within that construct. Christ's 'open table' policy then and now leads to just such anger. For we are to reach out to the most despised of society, the very poorest of spirit, and actually eat with them in conscious anticipation of how this is their foretaste of God's Kingdom.

It's noteworthy that Jesus made no attempt to examine or quantify the repentance of those "sinners" whom He invited to eat with Him. In Judaism, as in many legalistic churches today, there was great importance attached upon making restitution for sin, compensating for sin through some ritual, and only then taking their place 'in fellowship'. The way Jesus invited "sinners", tax collectors and prostitutes to eat with Him was in careful revolution against this idea. One could argue that He knew they were repentant; but the careful omission of reference to this leads us to the conclusion that He ate with them, fellowshipped them, in order to lead them to repentance rather than as a sign that He accepted their repentance. It has at times been argued that "sinners" is a technical term used by the Jews to refer to all the 'people of the land', the non hyper religious Jews. But E.P. Sanders has given good reason to think that "sinners" in the Gospels means just that- moral sinners, bad people in moral terms (4). The way Jesus broke bread with Judas is perhaps the parade example of Jesus demonstrating that His table was indeed open to sinners, even impenitent ones- in the hope that the experience of eating with Him would lead them to repentance (Mt. 26:20-25 cp. Jn. 13:18-30).

The Essenes

John the Baptist clearly had some associations with the Essenes, and yet it was he who prepared the way for Christ. Yet the Lord Jesus seems to have gone out of His way to invert and criticize the exclusivity of the Essenes by welcoming people of all kinds and levels of holiness or sin to His table; He was seeking to clarify that his human support base was in fact quite misguided. The Manual of Discipline of the Essenes taught that meals were only to be shared with those of the same level of holiness as yourself; exclusion from eating at table was a punishment for various infringements of law, just as some churches today exclude members from the "table of the Lord" for certain periods because of some 'offence'. The Essenes had the concept of being in 'good standing' with the elders and the community; and only those in good standing could eat at the same table. Table fellowship became something of an obsession with the Essenes- exactly because in sociological terms, it controlled the very definition of the community. It was felt that by eating with those outside the group, the whole group would be defiled: "To eat with an outsider or a lapsed member was a highly serious offence, because it was to eat or drink an uncleanness which then crept into the human sanctuary and defiled it" (5). Jesus and the later New Testament teaching of imputed righteousness contradict this; holiness can be passed on by contact with Jesus, whereas we can't pick up any guilt by association from whom we eat with. The guilt by association mentality was rife in first century Judaism: "The demand for separation was based on a desire to avoid contamination through contact with outsiders" (6). Time and again, Jesus consciously challenges these positions; He welcomed children and the lame and blind who came to Him in the temple (Mt. 21:14), when the Damascus sect of the Essenes didn't permit "the blind, lame, deaf, feeble-minded and under-age... even to enter the community" (7). The Qumran group's interpretation of Ps. 41:9 is significant. The familiar friend "who ate my bread with me" is interpretted in the New Testament as referring to Judas, who fellowshipped with Jesus but betrayed Him. But 1QH 13:23,24 interpret this as meaning that woe is prophesied to any who share table fellowship with sinners and therefore their judgment is just and avoidable if they had only eaten with the righteous. Jesus was aware of this of course and seems to have purposefully fellowshipped Judas, knowing the consequences. His wilful, conscious critique of Essene sensibilities about table fellowship was humanly speaking foolish; because this was the very power base which John had prepared for Him to establish His Kingdom upon. But instead He shunned that and preferred to establish His Kingdom on the basis of tax collectors, the despised, the morally fallen, the irreligious. Even more fundamental was Christian teaching that atonement and forgiveness of sins was to be achieved through the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross and a willing association with His blood, through which His righteousness, which was God's righteousness, was imputed to the believer. Qumran and Judaism generally believed that holiness was "attained by strict devotion to the Law and by conscious maintenance of cleanness from any physical and ethical impurity... [this] was considered an alternative means for atonement" (8). Crudely put, if you sinned, then you atoned for that by keeping distance from sinners. The Lord Jesus taught that forgiveness was from Him, from His death and association with a crucified criminal, and you met together with other sinners to celebrate this by eating together with Him and them. This was so different to the Jewish view.

The Symposia Deconstructed

There was in the first century Mediterranean world a form of banquetting known as the symposium. There was a formal meal, drinking of wine, an address, often of a religious or philosophical nature, and often sexual entertainment. The church at Corinth had clearly turned the breaking of bread meeting into such a symposium. It could be argued that the early church simply adopted the format of the symposium for their communion meetings (9). But there was to be a radical difference- the attendees were of various social classes and races, and men as well as women were to be there [symposiums were typically for men, or the women sat separately]. It has been pointed out that the symposia featured "ceremonialized drinking" (10), which helps us see how the breaking of bread meeting instituted by Jesus could so easily have been turned into a kind of symposia. But the symposia were meetings of equals, from the same civic or business association, guild or philosophical college;  the idea of the communion service being a gathering of sinful believers in Christ from all parts of society and of both genders, slave and free, was radical. Significantly, Mk. 6:39 describes the huge crowd sitting down to eat with Jesus in symposia. He redefined the idea of a symposia. The abundance of food would have reminded the crowds of the descriptions of the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom as having super abundant food. All who wanted to partake were welcome; there was no attempt by Jesus to interview all those men, women and children and decide who was clean or not. Vine comments on the significant fact that the Lord blessed the meal: "According to the Jewish ordinance, the head of the house was to speak the blessing only if he himself shared in the meal; yet if they who sat down to it were not merely guests, but his children or his household, then he might speak it, even if he himself did not partake". His leading of the blessing was therefore a sign that He ate with these people and / or considered them as His own household. Luke's parallel record speaks of the crowds reclining to eat that meal (Lk. 9:14,15 kataklino)- to invite us to see it as a real banquet. The later feeding miracle occured on the other side of Galilee to Magdala (Mt. 15:39), suggesting the miracle occured in Gentile territory, with people present from "far off" (Mk. 8:3; hence the guests "glorified the God of Israel", Mt. 15:31). Surely there were Gentiles present at that meal, and the LXX uses this phrase to speak of how Gentiles from "far off" would come and sit down at the Messianic banquet of the last days (Is. 60:4; Jer. 26:27; 38:10; 46:27). Clearly Jesus intended His meal with that huge crowd to be a foretaste of the future Kingdom. To exclude people from the Lord's table is therefore tantamount to saying they have no place in God's Kingdom. Hence Paul warns that we can eat condemnation to ourselves by not discerning the body of Christ; by excluding some from His table, from the one loaf, we are saying they are not in His body, not possible candidates for His Kingdom; and thereby we exclude ourselves from that body. It's not surprising that the early church, at least in Corinth, allowed the meeting to turn into the kind of 'symposia' they were accustomed to. The church of later ages, including our own, has struggled terribly in the same way. The communion service has tended to become a club, a meeting of equals, and too often it has effectively been said "If he's coming, if she's accepted there in fellowship, then I'm out of here". In essence we are faced with the same temptation that was faced and succumbed to in the earlier church- to turn that table into a sign of our bonding with others of our type, rather than allowing the radical challenge of Christ's table fellowship to really be accepted by us as a radical advertisment to the world of Christian unity. The Jewish sensitivity regarding your table companions has too often been transferred to the church of our day.

The Parable of the Great Supper

The parable of the great supper in Luke 14 really says it all. People were begged to come in, anyone, whoever they were, street people, and those living in the countryside near the city. These people were "drawn from the ranks of those people who live close to the city precincts because their livelihood depended on the city, but not within the city walls because the nature of their business was too naturally noxious, socially odious or religiously suspect... an assortment of refugee aliens, disenfranchosed villagers, run-away slaves, prostitutes, roving beggars" (11). Yet these very people are in the parable invited to the Messianic banquet. The targums on the Old Testament depictions of that feast stressed that it was a feast for righteous Jews who had been despised by the Gentiles in this life. Jesus absolutely contradicts this; "He is toppling the familiar world of the ancient Mediterranean, overturning its socially constructed reality and replacing it with what must have been regarded as a scandalous alternative" (12). The radical import of an open table is no less scandalous today in many Christian groups. Hence one of the chief complaints against Jesus was that He welcomed sinners and ate with them (Lk. 15:1,2). His answer was that this is but a reflection of the openness of God towards each of us; for we are all, would we but realize it, the irreligious and marginalized. And Jesus wasn't passive in this; He in an outgoing way sought to fellowship with such people. This is our personal comfort, and yet also our challenge insofar as we are to reflect that to others. Note how He invited Himself into the house of Zacchaeus to eat with him, fully aware of the perception that "to stay in such a person's home was tantamount to sharing in his sin" (13).

We see in the table manners of the Lord Jesus a conscious and wilful outgoing desire to challenge the idea of guilt by association and to reflect the Father's outgoing searching for the repentance of sinners by inviting them to His table. His example incited the anger and hatred of the self-righteous religious right within the people of God at His time. Insofar as the early church carried His example forward, the true church grew and their communion services became showcases to the world of the Christian unity which is so powerful of itself to convert the world. But as they began to tone down the radical table standards of Jesus and turn those meetings into just another 'symposia' of the world around them, meetings between equals of the same background and standing, and even allowing the immoral spirit of those meetings to be replicated in Corinth and Thyatira at least, so the power of their witness was compromised and the church no longer showcased God's accepting, searching spirit towards sinners. Our practicing of the spirit of Christ in this matter of open table will lead us too to crucifixion by our brethren; but we can live no other way than true to Him, and we will in our turn through living out His example in this be a true light to the world, and attract to ourselves and to Him the very men and women for whom He died.


(1) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (London: Doubleday, 2000) p. 473.

(2) Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (New York: KTAV, 1967 ed.) p. 55.
(3) J. Marcus, Mark 1-8 (London: Doubleday, 2000) p. 231.

(4) E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: S.C.M., 1985) pp. 174-211.

(5) Bilha Nitzan, 'The idea of holiness', in D.K. Falk, F.G. Martinez and E.M. Schuller, Sapiential, Liturgical and Poetical Texts from Qumran (Leiden: Brill, 2000) p. 145.
(6) P.R. Davies, 'Food, Drink and Sects', Semeia Vol. 86 (1999) p. 161.

(7) M.A. Knibb, The Qumran Community (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1987) pp. 109,110.

(8) Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness (Leicester: I.V.P., 2005) p. 81.

(9) Dennis Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist (MN: Fortress, 2003).

(10) W.J. Slater, Dining in a Classical Context (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991) p. 7.

(11) W. Braun, Feasting and Social Rhetoric in Luke 14 (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1995) p. 93.
(12) J.B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 550.
(13) I.H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978) p. 697.