I was reading my church history textbook from college a few weeks ago and I came across a description of church gatherings during the first two centuries written by Justin Martyr, who was a Christian philosopher and apologist during the second century. Justin wrote:
“The day that is commonly called Sunday all those who live in the cities or the fields gather, and in their meetings as much as time allows is read from the memoirs of the apostles or from the writings of the prophets. Then, once the reader is through, the one presiding offers a verbal exhortation, urging us to follow these beautiful examples. Immediately after this, we all stand as one and raise our prayers, after which- as I have already said- bread, wine, and water are offered, and the president, as he is able, also sends to God his prayers and thanksgiving, and all the people respond, ‘Amen.’ Now follows the distribution and partaking of the nourishment that has been consecrated by thanksgiving, and they are sent by means of the deacons to those who are not present. Those who can and will, freely give what seems best to them, and the offering is given to the president. With this he helps orphans and widows, those who are in need because of illness or any other reason, those who are in prison, sojourners, and, in short, the president provides for any who are in need. We hold this general gathering on Sunday, because it is the first day on which God, transforming darkness and matter, created the world, and also the day in which Jesus Christ, our Savior, rose from the dead.”* (The Story of Christianity, 109)
At first glance the description doesn’t seem very significant. When I first read it, I thought about how simple and normal it was. Much of what Justin describes is very similar to many church gatherings today. There may be a few differences here and there, but Justin could just as easily be describing a church gathering in the 21st century. However, as I read it a few more times, thinking about how basic and simple it is, I felt God starting to stir my heart a bit. Over and over, I kept coming back to the very last sentence: “We hold this general gathering on Sunday, because it is the first day on which God, transforming darkness and matter, created the world, and also the day in which Jesus Christ, our Savior, rose from the dead.” The reasons Justin gives for why the church started gathering on Sunday all those years ago don’t seem to be very significant at first glance. On the first day, God created the world. That’s what the Bible says. That’s what Christians believe. That’s normal. And, on the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the dead. Again, that’s what the Bible says. That’s what Christians believe. That’s normal. Both of those reasons just make sense. Both of those reasons are so essential to what Christianity is.
And that’s when God started to really work in my heart. I keep thinking back to something Jeremy said during the first sermon in our Gospel of John series. He was talking about reading the Bible and encouraging us to dig into it more for ourselves. He said the Bible is very simple, something any one of us can read on our own. But it is also not something we should take lightly. We shouldn’t treat the Bible cheaply. I’ve thought a lot about what he said since then and I think the concept he’s talking about applies to so many parts of the Christian life. There is so much I know I take for granted. I go to church on Sunday. I believe God created the world. I believe Jesus died and rose from the dead. They are such simple truths. I’ve heard them my whole life, and I do believe them. So, when I first read Justin’s words, his reasons for why Christians started to gather on Sunday, I thought, “Ok, so what?” That’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s just what we believe.
As God started to convict me in all of these thoughts I realized how easily I get caught up in the simplicity of the resurrection. And when I say simplicity, I’m just talking about how it’s such a simple thing to say out loud. It’s so easy to just nod my head, and say, “Yes , Jesus rose from the dead, I believe that.” It’s an easy thing to write about in a blog post without really understanding the weight and beauty of it. But like Jeremy said with the Bible, the resurrection isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Even if you’re like me, and have heard about it your whole life, the resurrection is a big deal. In fact, when it comes to the Christian faith, I would say it’s probably the biggest deal. In 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, the Apostle Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that He raised Christ… ” (ESV). Later in verses 17-19 he says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If Jesus only died, but didn’t rise everything about our faith falls apart. Paul says here that everyone else should feel sorry for us if Jesus did not rise, because that’s what our faith depends on. Basically, if the resurrection didn’t happen, everything we do as Christians doesn’t really matter. If the resurrection didn’t happen, everything we do is pointless. If the resurrection didn’t happen, we have no hope because we are still in our sins.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). And that fact means everything. The reality of the resurrection gives life to everything we do as the church. Because the resurrection did happen our faith in Jesus is not in vain. Because Jesus is alive our preaching is not in vain. Because God did raise Jesus from the dead we are no longer in our sins, if we believe in Him.
Knowing Jesus rose from the dead was the basis for everything in the early church. They realized how important the resurrection was to their faith and that realization turned every gathering into a celebration. According to Justo Gonzalez, author of The Story of Christianity, for a short time, early church gatherings included a feast to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. The reality of the resurrection even shaped how early believers viewed communion, which was the central act of their gatherings. Gonzalez writes, “Those early communion services did not focus their attention on the events of Good Friday, but rather on those of Easter. A new reality had dawned, and Christians gathered to celebrate that dawning and to become participants in it” (The Story of Christianity, 108)*. Of course, remembering the events of Good Friday, remembering the reality of the cross, are what make the resurrection such a big deal. It’s important to remember the weight of our sin and the pain Jesus endured for us. But, if Jesus only died and did not rise we have no hope. Because Jesus did rise our hope in Him is secure. And that is the greatest reason to celebrate.
I could honestly go on and on about how beautifully important the resurrection is, but for the sake of not making this post a million words long, I will try to bring it to a close. The resurrection is something God is really helping me personally understand more. Back before Easter I had prayed for Him to deepen my understanding and joy over the resurrection. And I believe He is absolutely answering. Over the past few weeks He has exposed some apathy in my heart and is replacing it with a little fire. I know the resurrection is so very basic . I know it’s so simple. But that’s exactly why I want to study and write more about it. Because it is so basic it’s also something we can easily take for granted. If we start to take the gospel for granted, we’ll easily forget why we’re doing what we’re doing as the church and as individual Christians. We’ll easily fall into the trap of just going through the motions. We’ll gather on Sunday only because it’s what we’re supposed to do. We’ll do other “Christian things” because they’re good things to do. And the gospel is so much better than that. It’s so much more beautiful.
I would like to invite y’all to join me as I dig deeper into the reality of the resurrection. I’m not sure how many posts this will take. I’m kind of leaving it up to God to show me what He wants me to see and to lead me in what He wants me to share. But I’d like to continue to share and write about how beautiful the resurrection is, and ultimately why it’s something we should celebrate. I would really love for this to be something we grow and share in as a community, so I definitely encourage y’all to dig into the resurrection for yourselves and send me anything God leads you in as well.
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