Did you know that The Way wasn’t the only Jewish cult in Jerusalem in the first century?
Visit a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit and you’ll learn all about the strict rules and discipline of the Qumran community. While they didn’t have a Messiah figure, they were disciples of a teacher. Who had his own beatitudes and life plan which sounds very similar to Jesus. Devotees left society altogether and lived in no mans land in the desert. (Remember, it took 1900 years to discover the Dead Sea scrolls– not exactly prime real estate.)
And there were others. Collectively they are known as the Essenes. Most of them were built around a claim of the messiah or a certain apocalyptic vision or a withdrawal from societies pleasures. (Some took vows of celibacy, which seems like a tough multiplication strategy.) They each tended to remove themselves from society by first creating compounds in the city, then once you’d proven yourself truly worthy, you were allowed access to the leaders.
My point isn’t to give an exhaustive list. Rather to point out that at the time of Jesus’ resurrection The Way joined a few other groups in the city. (I’m sure there are other books about this. But one I’m familiar with is Communities of the Last Days. Also see Josephus.) Jesus’ followers copied some of what they saw from these other groups since this is what all the cults did, these will seem familiar in light of the Acts record:
- Asked followers to forego their families for the sake of their group.
- The entry point was communal living.
- Baptism was a symbol of identification.
- Followers sold everything they had and gave it to the group for the sake of the common good/needs.
- The ones in Jerusalem all had a base near where the Last Supper and early church hung out. It was kind of a neighborhood of cult groups.
- Once you’d proven you were all the way in, memorized everything, worked your tail off, proven your devotion… then you got to spend time with the leaders. (For most that meant complete withdrawal to the desert. For others that meant living in protest in the city.
Of course, those groups collectively known as the Essenes, are all gone today while The Way became one of the largest religions in the world.
As Christians, we believe Christianity spread because it was true. But another practical answer is strategy.
Followers of Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society. They indwelled it.
Once followers of Jesus had proven they were all in, memorized everything, been baptized, gave everything they had to the group– they were sent out to love their neighbors in ways that were defined by the needs of the neighborhood. Instead of withdrawing they deposited and invested in their community. (This was radical thinking! No one else did this!)
All of these other groups, their contemporaries and fellow Judaic cults, believed that their strict obedience to rules would lead to the messiah coming, or the apocalypse, or revival of the people.
But Jesus’ followers became an unstoppable force because of their profoundly simple strategy. They loved their neighbors as themselves. They didn’t just know them. They didn’t just witness to them about Jesus’ resurrection.
They loved them.
As people used to harshness and exploitation, when they experienced love in the name of Jesus, they wanted that– experiencing the practical realities of Good News made for fertile ground for Jesus’ message to be received.
The Good News wasn’t just a theological reality, it was an unstoppable force of love for their neighbors. To date, no army has been able to stop the spread of love. The Way was an insurrection of the heart and it changed everything. It spread like wild fire. Think about it, within 200 years this simple strategy spread throughout the known world.
Love literally conquered all.
And my belief? My belief is that the simple strategy of The Way is what we need today.
Let’s indwell our neighborhoods and truly be the Good News in the name of Jesus.