In the first century the Christian faith grew dramatically—hearts changed in huge numbers. So, what created that change? This post is the first of four to chase the question, with a summary post to follow. I pray the core insights are as useful in today’s post-Christian world as they were in the new-Christian days of the first century.
Faith brings eternal life. This starts with Christ in us, as his Spirit forms a new, living spirituality. Opposite to that of “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” [Eph. 2:2]. Jesus intends, instead, to be an eternal relational partner. He created life, and now he comes as a bridegroom to all who “know him.”
The Bible verb “to know” can speak of sexual or marital intimacy. As in texts like Genesis 4:17 or 1 Kings 1:4. Indeed, any notion of faith as merely “knowing-about” Jesus is inadequate. The term instead suits the Bible’s idea of union with Christ. This is clear in one of the most explicit of Paul’s warnings against sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6:17-18. This, because, “… he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality.”
And with this “one spirit” bond it follows that to know Jesus is to love him. Or, alternatively, if we don’t love him, we don’t yet know him. Love ultimately expresses Christ’s presence in a soul, by his Spirit, in contrast to outward or ceremonial religion. The real change comes because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” [Ro. 5:5].
This strong relational emphasis may seem odd to some. Does it rely on Systematic Theology? No. Or on purely Exegetical Theology? No. Or, are these simply arbitrary personal claims? No. Instead we rely on Biblical Theology, with major textual themes. We also read the Bible as a “plenary” resource—a full and wholly integrated revelation. So, for instance, the first part of Genesis is taken to be overtly Trinitarian, with the “let us” and “our image” statements aligned with what we later discover about the Trinity by reading John’s gospel. We presume the Spirit shaped all of Scriptures with one overall message in view. This fits what Jesus taught, after his resurrection in Luke 24, in saying the Old Testament was ultimately about him.
In tracing major themes, the core vision of the Bible is a call to love God. The Great Command is, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” [Mk 12:30, citing Deut. 6:5]. Jesus is then given as God’s most complete and compelling self-disclosure. The writer of Hebrews said as much, by acknowledging Christ’s divinity, along with a wholehearted vision as his term for love: “… let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” [Heb. 12:1-2]. This correlation of “love” and “looking” treats faith as the loving gaze of a captured soul, with Jesus as its object. It is heart-based, in accord with the devotion of lively, mutual marital love.
The metaphor of vision, then, is also crucial. Spiritual blindness and supernatural new sight are set out in John 9. Paul also prayed for believers to use the “eyes of your hearts,” [Eph 1:18]. The message of Jesus in Matthew 6:33 is of a visual call—”But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” His mention of “these things”—security and meaning in life—invited a full trust in God’s complete providential care.
The message was clear, yet alternatives emerged. Calls for multiple pathways to God came from within Christendom and beyond. Jesus anticipated this, along with various pretentions of faith: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you…’” [Mt 7:21-23].
Again, the verb “to know” in its relational form is crucial, as we’ve argued already. It defines true faith. It goes beyond merely “gaining information about Jesus” or efforts to mark out key cognitive concepts of faith. These are only secondary or tertiary at best, and misleading at worst. Love alone is the one true mark of faith; and the substance of salvation. Jesus expressed this in his John 17 prayer: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” [v.3]. And then he summarized this love-focused “knowing” at the end of the chapter: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” [verse 26].
This continuity of affective, unity-based language—of one vision, love, and Spirit—set out the basis of a spirituality that sets out a robust affective devotion as something above lesser models of faith. This is faith “in Christ”—as a response to his shared Heart-to-heart disclosures.
Let’s review this claim one more time. Faith is uniquely Spirit-to-spirit or Heart-to-heart. It’s not accomplished as an ordinary human experience, or as a product of good Christian education. It only comes about through encounter—in discovering God’s love by means of the Spirit’s active witness to the Word. His “pouring out” of God’s love fit Christ’s John 3 message to Nicodemus. Though he was a knowledgeable, religious Pharisee, he still needed to be “born of the Spirit.”
If we read this John 3 episode with care, an illuminating feature appears in Christ’s citation of Numbers 21:9 in John 3:14. In the former text, victims of potentially fatal snakebites would be healed with a “look” at an elevated bronze model of the snake. “Look and live.” Spiritual life, then, comes about as a soul looks to Jesus and then lives. This isn’t a function of human-effort or self-improvement, but a discovery of God’s mercy as one who “so loved the world” that he sent the Son. The “looking” heart is able to “live” by maintaining a vision of Jesus lifted up.
A final thought about the use of the metaphor of Vision as a synonym for “saving faith” comes in the Sermon of the Mount where Jesus warned, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” [Mt 6:21-23]. In his cryptic portrayal Jesus pointed to the simple reality that we go wherever our vision might take us. If, as in John 3:19, humans love moral and spiritual “darkness rather than light” because of evil ambitions, only an eye-opening, spiritual awakening offers a solution. This only comes about by a newfound gaze of faith.
If we ask, then, “Isn’t there a tighter way to say all of this?” The answer is, “Of course!” We already said it: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” [Dt 6:5]. By looking to Jesus, who knows our need, we find that he happily embraces us. As did a noted father with his prodigal son.
The early church prospered because more and more people heard about Christ’s death on the cross and then about his resurrection. They heard this news through transformed reporters. From those who had come to “know” and love Jesus as their companion for the rest of time.