Christianity: The Basics

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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.

Summary

In the early Church, a Christian was not someone who believed in certain doctrines - a Christian was someone who put Jesus first.  The first statement of faith was very simple: 'Jesus is Lord': the early Church consisted of those who acknowledged Jesus as Lord - that is, as their Lord and as the Lord.  It was not a question of doctrine, but of allegiance.

In a world where you were required to acknowledge that 'Caesar is lord', the claim that Jesus is Lord was clearly understood and deeply subversive: Caesar may be the highest earthly authority, but Jesus has greater authority than Caesar; in saying that Jesus is Lord, I acknowledge that Jesus is my Lord, and nobody else can take the first place in my life.

When the early Christians said, "I believe in Jesus", they were not talking about belief in doctrines about Jesus.  When you believe in a person, you trust what they say to you, and you do what they tell you.  Jesus called people to follow him - to leave their old life behind, and devote themselves entirely to him and his mission.  It's that simple, and that challenging.

Actually, the early Christians often said a bit more: their message was about 'Jesus and the resurrection'.  The resurrection was a vital part of the message, and connects to all the core parts of the message they were preaching. If you tell people that Jesus is Lord, there are two obvious questions: who is Jesus, and what is he lord of?  The resurrection is central to understanding the answer to both questions.

  • Who is Jesus?   He is the man who was raised from the dead; he was a real human being, but God was present with him and in him in a special way; he said and did some wonderful things, was put to death and then raised to life again; he offers full, unquenchable life to all who follow his way.
  • What is he lord of?  The Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace and love; a kingdom of forgiveness, healing and wholeness; a kingdom of life, where death is not the end.  This kingdom is coming; it is already present as a growing seed, and one day soon it will sweep away the kingdoms which are based on injustice, violence and death.

In summary: for the early Church, a Christian was someone who gave their primary allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth, a human being in whom God was present, who God raised from the dead, and who is Lord of God's coming Kingdom of justice, peace and love.

Content

In the New Testament, there are many places where we are told that 'Jesus is Lord', or which refer to the 'Lord Jesus'.  So, to give a few examples …

"no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3)

" While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”" (Acts 7:59)

"they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." (Acts 8:16)

"you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 6:11)

Most significantly, Paul is very clear on the subject.

"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

 To be fair, in the Greek-speaking world, many people were referred to as 'lord' ('kyrios'); it can also be translated as 'master'.  So, for example, the head of a household was a 'kyrios' - the 'master of the house'.  You could ask a slave who their master was, and they would give you their owner's name.  But, in each case, the term is qualified: it is always 'your master', 'my master', or 'the master (of this house)'.  The head of the household would readily say, "I am the master", but he would never say, "I am master".  There were many qualified masters, many lords of something, but only one unqualified lord - Caesar.  Occasionally, Caesar's appointed representative in a country or region might call himself 'kyrios', demanding the honour due to Caesar's representative - but if Caesar heard he was getting too fond of the title, he probably would not be using it for very long.  In this context, "Jesus is Lord" is a clear and unqualified challenge to Caesar's authority.

But the New Testament is largely set in a Jewish context, and while they (the educated people, anyway) knew Greek, they had their own usage, largely based on the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.  And, for the Jews, the term 'kyrios' had an even loftier meaning: it is the word used in the Septuagint to translate the name of God.  According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, many Pharisees were executed by the Romans for refusing to use this title for the Roman governor - the man who spoke with the authority of Caesar, and therefore demanded absolute loyalty and obedience.  For a devout Jew, there was only one unqualified Kyrios, and it was not a man.  In the Jewish context, "Jesus is Lord" is an implicit recognition of the divinity of Jesus.

In the New Testament, 'resurrection' ('anastasios' and related forms of the word) appears 42 times - and it is found throughout the New Testament: in the four Gospels, in Acts, in the letters and in Revelation.  It is the foundation of the Christian faith, the event which transformed the tragedy and failure of the cross into a wonderful victory, and it defined the experience and the hope of the early Church.  The past resurrection of Jesus both authenticates His ministry and guarantees the future resurrection of all His followers.

"And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:33)

"Corresponding to [Noah's Ark], baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ," (1 Peter 3:21)

The resurrection has such a central role in the message of the early Church that the people of Athens thought for a while that Paul was proclaiming the good news of two gods - 'Jesus' and ' the resurrection' (Acts 17:18).  We know the message of the gospel is true, because God raised Jesus from the dead - that is why Paul insists that you must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead: if the resurrection did not happen, then the whole gospel message is a lie.

"But the fact is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep." (1 Corinthians 15:20)

 We know that Jesus is Lord, because God raised His from the dead.

Of course, if Jesus is Lord, then we need to understand what He is Lord of, and what His Kingdom is like.  In the Gospels, Jesus is seen as proclaiming and inaugurating the Kingdom of God - this is His entire ministry - so there is a great deal to understand.  The Kingdom is about loving God, your neighbour, yourself and your enemy; it is about bringing peace; it is about giving and receiving forgiveness; it is about a way of living which challenges both the religious and secular authorities; it is about being willing to die rather than fight those who oppose you.  But understanding this teaching and this lifestyle, important though it is, only matters if you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.

Background

These thoughts go back a long way.  I sometimes run a training course to help Christians communicate what they believe, and part of this involves asking the people what they believe.  So, when possible, I get a flip chat, and ask the group to tell me the essentials, the absolute minimum: what does a person have to believe in order to be a Christian?

The group generally starts of with things like 'Jesus is God' and the 'the Bible is God's word'.  After ten minutes or so, I usually have maybe 15 or 20 statements written down, all of which the group has told me are essential beliefs.  "Okay," I say, "this is what you are telling me you must believe in order to be a Christian?"

"Yes," they say, "that's what we said… but no… that can't be right."

I explain it's a trick question.

In the church, we are taught about doctrines which we are told it is essential to believe.  These doctrines may be essential, or really important, if you want to be a healthy, fully-functioning Christian, growing in your faith and enjoying the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.  They are probably necessary for spiritual maturity, but they are not essential for spiritual birth.  You don't become a Christian because you believe the right doctrines - "the devils also believe it, and tremble" (James 2:9) - it's not what you believe, but who you follow, who you acknowledge as Lord of your life.

In most of the churches I am familiar with, we fixate on the things which are important for spiritual maturity - quite reasonably, because we are almost always talking with people who are already Christians.  But this means we often don't focus clearly on the things which are important for spiritual birth.  So, when we are talking with someone who is interested in finding out more about Jesus, we try to explain to them things which are deeply important to us, but totally unimportant (and probably quite distracting) to them.

We have to be clear about the basics, because if we tell people there are seventeen things they have to believe in order to become a follower of Jesus, we are putting a completely unnecessary barrier in the way of them following Jesus.  Let them meet Jesus, fall in love with Him, and decide they want to spend the rest of their life following Him, and then they can start to worry about all the things which will make that life better and easier and more fruitful.

"The soil produces crops by itself; first the stalk, then the head, then the mature grain in the head." (Mark 4:28)

That's God's way of working, one step at a time.

 

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