We Americans, as Westerners, believe in what some call radical individualism. In our world, the individual (me) is more important than the nation, the community, or the family. We aren’t surprised at all when our children leave family, hometown, and even country to realize their maximum potential. In the First Century, this would have been rare — and would only be celebrated if done to honor God. No one else was higher than the community.
Therefore, when we read about the early church, we read the epistles as speaking about our “personal relationship” with God. And we do indeed have a personal relationship with God. But it’s more likely that a given passage is actually speaking of our community’s relationship with God. And we just don’t see it.
Thus, when we take communion, we believe God wants us to meditate as individuals, oblivious to the fellow Christians around us. But Paul in fact commands us (1 Cor 11:29) to discern (notice, recognize) the “body of Christ” — not just the bread but the church — the community — which is the body of Christ. We are to commune as a body.
The way the early church often did this was by combining communion with a common meal, symbolizing both Jesus’ Last Supper and the great banquet of the church God will serve at the end of time (Rev 19:9). Eating together was how the early church celebrated the death of Jesus, because the death of Jesus brought them together. The death of Jesus made them family, and so they acted like family.
Think about the powerful metaphors of the New Testament: the bride of Christ; the body of Christ; the Kingdom; the good news of the Kingdom. These are all community/corporate/church metaphors. And they are all about individuals coming together to be part of a larger whole.
Paul speaks of Christians together forming a “body” in 1 Cor 12 and Rom 12, and his point is not just that we are different, but that we’re pretty much useless without each other. What’s the point of being just a foot?
Therefore, to read Paul, we have to learn to think like a First Century Roman or Jew — someone who likely lived with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren, all in a single compound called an insula. A man and wife and their children might share a single room with open air windows, immediately adjacent to their parents.
To some of us Westerners, this sounds like a living hell! But to the ordinary First Century person, this is just how it was, and being any other way was unimaginable — and very desirable. They lived as family in a way that few of us have ever experienced.
Therefore, when Paul speaks of the “household” of faith or being “family,” he doesn’t mean family like we mean family. He means family where there were no secrets, no privacy, and continuous, intense community — but a community that defined who they were as people.
And this helps explain why there were so many “household” conversions in Acts. Extended families lived together in intense intimacy, and so they made decisions like this together. Any other approach would have been unthinkable. And this is one of Paul’s models for the church!
And this helps explain why Abraham and the early Israelites found great comfort in God’s promises to bless their descendents and make a great nation out of them. They thought in community terms.
The destructions of Jerusalem
We Gentiles have trouble seeing the flow of history in the Bible, as the story of Israel seems so distant and foreign to us. But it was far from distant or foreign to Paul — and we miss much of what’s going on if we ignore this.
In Romans 9 – 11, the historical event that looms over quotation after quotation is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The 10 northern tribes of Israel (often called simply “Israel”) had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians. The remaining two tribes (Judea and the much smaller tribe of Benjamin, generally referred to together as “Judea”) survived.
However, despite repeated warnings from the prophets, Judea became idolatrous. Even when kings sought to reform Judea, most of the people remained Baal worshippers. Eventually, even the kings were sacrificing their own children to Baal — making them “pass through the fire,” that is, burning them alive.
God brought to fruition the curses promised in Deuteronomy by allowing the Babylonians to lay siege to and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. However, the prophets promised that God would bless those who returned as promised in Deuteronomy 30.
Return from Exile
Under the Persians, some of the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, and they rebuilt the temple (the “Second Temple”). However, the Jews by and large did not consider the exile to be over. God had promised to set things right when the exile was over, and it hadn’t happened. After all, they were under Roman rule, an Edomite sat on the throne (kings in the Herodian dynasty had been named King of the Jews by Caesar), and the wrong lineage served as high priest. When Jesus came, many Jews were still looking for the fulfillment of the prophecies about the return from exile.
The second destruction
Forty years after Pentecost, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, re-enacting the curses of Deuteronomy. Jesus had cried over Jerusalem and prophesied its destruction. Thanks to Jesus’ words, Christians living in Jerusalem fled, as Jesus had told them to, before the Romans laid siege to the city and killed its inhabitants in a brutal assault.
Now, huge portions of the Old Testament are dedicated to the Fall of Jerusalem. It was understood as God’s judgment against Israel and fulfillment of his curses announced in Deuteronomy. However, we read the New Testament as though the apostles were uninterested in the second destruction prophesied by Jesus. But they surely were deeply concerned about this.
Therefore, when Paul speaks of God’s dealings with the Jews, we have to pause to consider: is Paul speaking of damnation and salvation at the end of time? Or about a more immediate destruction coming in just a few years when the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and kill tens of thousands of Jews — in an event just as clearly marking God’s judgment against the Jews as Nebuchnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem?