Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: The Presence of God

Sea of Galilee

Jesus made talmidim (disciples) from among the Jewish Galileans.  But eventually, a Galilean had to make a Greek or  Roman disciple.


Priene is a city in Asia Minor, near Ephesus. The lower city is the part that existed in the First Century.

In 1,000 BC, this city was founded by the Greeks. There were about 35,000 to 40,000 people there in the First Century. Paul traveled nearby, but there’s no evidence that an apostle ever visited. However, a Christian community was formed there very early.

The agora is the marketplace in the city. Those selling wares were required to dedicate their goods to the god or goddess of the city (Zeus in this town) by making a small sacrifice. Therefore, Christians were not allowed to sell in the agora. After all, the pagans saw them as threatening to anger the gods!

The city council chambers looked much like a theater.  In the middle of the space is  a small fire. Those entering the room offered a pinch of incense in honor of the city’s gods. A Christian could not serve on the city council because he could not make the offering.

Christians were utterly counter-cultural. They were at a severe political and economic disadvantage.

Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, declares the Lord.

Unlike pagan feasts, food was served in the order of social order, the Christians served all equally. Higher ranking officials served even the slaves — and this unraveled the entire social order.

The city hall was the chambers for their equivalent of a mayor. The facility had the laws of the city carved into stone. The mayor offered an animal daily for all the gods on behalf of the people.  The Christians would not permit sacrifices to their God along with sacrifices to false gods.

The city maintained a hearth with fire from Mt. Olympus. The citizens took their fire from the hearth to Hestia, goddess of house and hearth. Christians could not use that fire to start their own fires in their homes.

RVL takes the group to a lower-class home with an expanded space, a long bench, and a niche or closet, and a menorah. It was a synagogue in someone’s house!

RVL says this is a model for the early church. They truly thought of their congregations as family or a household — they met in houses! It wasn’t just the message. It was also the community.

The Christians showed the pagans about Jesus through their community. They enfleshed the word through their house churches.

* They knew the text.

* They loved each other in a very visible way.

* They were the temple of the Holy Spirit, and so they were themselves the fire from God.


We’ve noted before how the New Testament refers to Christians more as a group than as individuals. “Christian” is not a common word. More common is “family,” “brothers,” “household,” “adoption,” “body of Christ,” “bride of Christ,” and “church.”  We tend to emphasize the individual words, but the early church thought of itself more as community. And meeting in homes very much helped the church visualize itself — and show itself — to be family.

This led to a radical form of equality, without regard to social rank, ethnicity, or race — which astounded the surrounding Hellenistic world, and was very attractive to many.

In what ways does the modern church accomplish these ideals?

In what ways does the modern church not accomplish these ideals?

[Be sure to discuss white and black and Hispanic churches, churches favored by the rich, churches favored by the poor.]

How does our church’s small group ministry accomplish these ideals?

How does our church’s small group ministry not accomplish these ideals?

Consider a First Century city with many Christians. The most people who could fit in even a large house at one time was 30. The archaeologists have found a few homes expanded to hold up to 70 as house churches.

The early church could not meet in the temples or theaters. They only met in houses. And yet Paul appointed elders over the “church” (singular) in Ephesus. There must have been several house churches, all under a single eldership.

Why would the early church have adopted such a scheme? Why not have separate elders for each house? Doesn’t this threaten congregational autonomy?

[They simply didn’t think in those terms. They were one family that had outgrown a single house.]

Early on, were their multiple congregations each teaching a slightly different theology, recruiting new Christians into their specific views?

[No way.]

What would the Lord’s Supper have been like in these house churches?

[The bread course with wine as part of a common meal — much like our small groups.]

Would visitors have shared in the meal? Would unbaptized children?

What impact would sharing a common meal have on the nature of the meeting? on the community?

How can we replicate that intimacy today?

RVL gives several examples of how the early church was counter-cultural — not so much in terms of having a higher morality but in terms of not being able to fully participate in the economic and political life of the city. Is that true today?

[We suffer very little persecution in the US today, but there have  been more martyrs for Jesus in the last 100 years than in the 1900 preceding years.]

Today, where does the Christian culture conflict with the national culture?

[Easy answers are on morality — premarital sex, homosexuality, profanity, pornography. Sex seems to be the biggest issue.]

But if we were truly disciples of Jesus — if we were just like the rabbi — how would we differ from modern society? How would people who don’t know us well recognize us as Christians — if we did things the right way?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: The Presence of God

  1. Jack Exum Jr says:

    Great article that helps us go deeper into being a Christian family/community.

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