The Black Box
Have you ever wondered why the church today is not the same as it was when it first began? The first few chapters of the Book of Acts are filled with the wonder and excitement of the vibrant life of love and sharing that resulted from the apostles' first preaching, and the miraculous ways the Holy Spirit worked through the apostles to establish the first communities of faith:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
What happened? Where did that life of genuine love and unity go?
Many Christians say that it was merely the short-lived, immature zeal of the first believers, or the peculiar circumstances of that time and place that caused them to live so closely together, and not the result of obedience to the teachings of the Messiah. As the Christian faith matured, so they say, believers ceased to live together in community.
But is it not more consistent with human nature that the followers of a great teacher would drift from his teachings, rather than growing more faithful to them over time? Surely the first disciples of Yahshua the Messiah, who had lived with Him and sat under His teaching, and who were witnesses of His resurrection, and who had received His last instructions concerning the Kingdom of God1 -- surely they would have been diligent to put His teachings into practice just as soon as the Holy Spirit came upon them in power for that very purpose. After all, their Master had promised that this Holy Spirit they were to receive would bring to their remembrance all that He had said to them.2 Indeed, the church that was born on the day of Pentecost was the first fruits of the Spirit, and surely the nature of that fruit would not change unless the tree itself grew sick.
Tragically, that is exactly what happened. In time the churches did drift away from the original foundation and pattern of life that the apostles had established.3 In fact, most of the New Testament is a documentary of this drifting process, of which the church in Ephesus is a case study.4 The Apostle Paul ended his warm but commanding letter to the church in Ephesus with this blessing:
Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Ephesians 6:24)
During the next few years Paul wrote two letters to his disciple Timothy, who was then overseeing the church in Ephesus, with many urgent warnings to them to beware of false teachers and the subtle deception of material comforts.5 But thirty years later the church in Ephesus received this chilling rebuke from Messiah Himself:
I have this against you: that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)
Their first love for their Master and for one another, which had expressed itself in a commonwealth6 in which their very lives were knit together,7 had been corrupted, abandoned after little more than a generation. All that remained was a doctrinally correct but almost lifeless husk. There was only a little glimmer of light left, fading fast, and soon Messiah Himself would come like a thief in the night8 and take away their extinguished lampstand, if they did not quickly repent and do the works they had done at first. Those first works had been the result of their first love , which resulted in the first life described so vividly in Acts 2 and 4, which was the first light of the church.9
The Black Box
Remember therefore from where you have fallen... (Revelation 2:5)
Like a plane that lost power and fell short of its prophetic destination, the first-century church gradually lost altitude as their love waned, making a crash landing not far into the second century. The letter of James, written early in the second century, gives the grim picture of a scattered church consumed with pride, devoid of compassion, riddled with jealousy and backbiting, and driven by lust for wealth, power, and pleasure. Then there is silence. The New Testament ends.10 The plane crashed.
To be sure, Christianity continued on, growing into the great world religion that it is today, but its nature was drastically different from the church that was established by the apostles. It was no longer on the rock of the revelation that Yahshua is the Messiah, the anointed one sent by the Father to command obedience to His Word.11 Therefore, the gates of the unseen realm, the realm of darkness, overtook the church. [See Upon this Rock]
When a plane has crashed, there is normally a great urgency to recover the flight recorder from the wreckage. Commonly called the black box , the flight recorder is an almost indestructible device that records cockpit conversations and critical flight data. Investigators are eager to study the data contained in the black box, hoping it will shed light on the cause of the crash and show how to avoid similar disasters in the future.
The New Testament is the "black box" for the "flight" of the first-century church. It has proven to be indestructible, miraculously preserved through the perilous centuries. To the discerning eye, it documents the decline of the church and reveals the reasons for its demise. In the first century, the apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in reference to the fall of old Israel:
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)
For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Romans 11:21-22)
Early in Paul's ministry he fully expected Yahshua to return in his lifetime,12 ushering in the end of the age and the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom, but later it became clear to him that he would not live to see that day.13 As the years went by the warnings in his letters to the churches grew more urgent, for he saw them departing from the foundation he had laid,14 being led astray by charismatic, self-proclaimed apostles15 who peddled a more appealing gospel16 that made room for their fleshly appetites.17 Finally, all that remained was a form of godliness that lacked the power of love, for they were no longer drawing life from the root Paul had spoken of.18
So the axe was laid at the root of that fallen tree, just as it had been in the days of John the Baptist, cutting off the fruitless branches of old Israel.19 Twice fallen, just as the chilling judgment is pronounced in the book of Revelation:
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living. (Revelation 18:2-3)
Just as Paul had forewarned,20 and just as had happened to old Israel,21 the betrothed virgin had become a harlot, and the last 1900 years of history tell the lurid and bloody tale of her immoralities.
The Restoration of All Things
However, history also tells of courageous souls over the centuries who longed for a restoration of the church as it was in the beginning. None of their brave attempts actually succeeded in restoring all things as the prophets foretold22 must happen in order for Messiah to return. Yet, as William Bradford expressed in his bittersweet memoirs of Plymouth Plantation, they were stepping stones for those who would come after them.23
For there must be a people who will restore all things, fulfilling the words of the prophets, thus bringing an end to this wicked age and the return of Yahshua, the Messiah, to establish His reign of peace on the earth. There must be a people who will learn from the lessons of old Israel, and from the lessons of the first-century church, and overcome where they failed. The hope of that restoration was vividly expressed by a wise man who lived long ago:
For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender shoots will not cease. Though its root may grow old in the earth, and its stump may die in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and bring forth sprigs like a young plant. (Job 14:7-9)
We believe that sprig is sprouting now, producing the same life that sprang forth on the day of Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. Or to switch back to the other metaphor, we have discovered the blueprints of the original plane, and we are building according to that pattern using the right materials, under the direction of the original Designer. We are paying careful attention to the transcript of the "black box" of the original flight that crashed long ago so that we can stay on course and reach our prophetic destination.
And we are searching earnestly for all those who want to come aboard and fly with us.
- 1. Acts 1:2-8
- 2. John 14:26
- 3. 1 Corinthians 3:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:15
- 4. Acts 19:1-41; 20:17-38; all of Ephesians; 1 & 2 Timothy; and Revelation 2:1-7 are all about the church in Ephesus. A case study is a detailed study of the development of a particular person, group, or situation over a period of time; a particular instance of something illustrating a thesis or principle.
- 5. 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 4:1-3,6,7; 6:3-10,20,21; 2 Timothy 2:14-18,23-26; 3:1-5; 4:3-4
- 6. Ephesians 2:12
- 7. Ephesians 4:15-16
- 8. Just as for the church in Sardis, in Revelation 3:1-3
- 9. John 1:4
- 10. Although it does not appear last in the printed order of the New Testament, the letter of James is last chronologically, following the Book of Revelation. (Oddly, some scholars date it much earlier, about ten years after the church began, but it is unthinkable that the church would be in that condition so soon.)
- 11. Matthew 16:15-18
- 12. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
- 13. 2 Timothy 4:6-8
- 14. 1 Corinthians 3:10
- 15. 2 Corinthians 11:3-5,13-15
- 16. 2 Corinthians 2:17
- 17. 2 Timothy 3:1-7
- 18. Romans 11:17 (see also John 15:5)
- 19. Matthew 3:10; 21:43
- 20. 2 Corinthians 11:2-3
- 21. Isaiah 1:21
- 22. Mark 9:12; Isaiah 49:6; Ecclesiasticus 48:10
- 23. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Chapter 4, Paragraph 5 (1647).