Back in 2012, a lifeguard named Tomas Lopez was on duty at a beach in Florida when someone rushed over to his post and said that a man had gone out too far and was drowning. Without hesitation, Lopez swam out and pulled the man to shore with the help of some other beachgoers. There, they gave the man CPR until paramedics arrived and he ended up surviving.
Rather than being heralded as a hero, however, Lopez was fired from his position. His company informed him that the drowning man was “out of the protected area” and said that anyone who swam there did so at their own risk. In other words, the dying man was not in Lopez’s jurisdiction. Two other lifeguards were also fired for saying that they would have done the exact same thing.
Penalized for doing good. Punished for helping another person. That was certainly something the apostle Paul could relate with. He too had been treated badly for doing good and would have known exactly how Lopez felt in that moment. Paul once helped someone get their life back by freeing them from a demon, yet he was severely persecuted for doing so. The incident is found in Acts 16.
“As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most-High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:16-18).
Paul and his friends (Silas, Timothy, and Luke) were in the city of Philippi working with a new congregation when a demon-possessed slave girl started following them around day after day. She kept shouting that they were servants of the Most-High God, who proclaim the way of salvation. Though what the girl said was true, it is probably not a good idea to have a demon endorsing your work. That would kind of be like having a staggering drunk with a bottle in his hand shouting, “These guys can make you sober.” Therefore, Paul finally let out a shout of his own. He turned around and said to the demon, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her,” and the spirit left her that very hour.
Think about the good that Paul just did for this girl. She was being held captive inside her own body by a demon. Her innocence and independence had been seized by an evil spirit. And now she got her life back. The nightmare she had been enduring for a long time was finally over. You would think this should be reason to rejoice, right? However, that wasn’t the case at all. Her masters were not celebrating, they were furious. That is because they were exploiting the girl’s problem for profit. They were making a lot money off her demon possession. All her greedy masters could think about was dollar signs disappearing. And as they say, “No good deed goes unpunished!”
“But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers” (Acts 16:19).
The love of money has a way of making people crazy. It can cause otherwise normal people to do things that are totally irrational (and almost insane), like chug an entire bottle of hot sauce or go streaking through the mall. I saw where people have sold advertising space on their bodies. For the right price, they’ll let you tattoo your website on a prominent part of their body, like their forehead or bald spot or bicep, for all to see. That’s how crazy the love of money can make people. A man named Mike Merrill went even further than that and sold “his life” to shareholders, who now get to make all his decisions for him (what he eats, who he dates, what kind of music he listens to in the car). They have literally bought the rights to his life!
The love of money had blinded this girl’s masters so badly that they could not see the good being done. It kept them from seeing that a person had been set free; liberated from the unspeakable horrors of demon-possession. All they could see was dollar signs going down the drain. One writer said, “It was almost as if the evil spirit, having been cast out of the slave girl, had entered into her owners and turned them into furious, raving beasts.” They seized Paul and Silas, dragging them into the marketplace to stand trial.
There is a sense of irony here. Before his conversion, Paul had been “dragging” off others to stand trial (Acts 8:3), but now he was the one being dragged off to stand trial. Why Timothy and Luke were not arrested with Paul and Silas is not stated.
They were taken to the marketplace. That was basically the city square. It was the social center of town where business of all sorts was conducted. — It was where the sick was treated, the unemployed waited for work, and the magistrates heard court cases. — This was the charge leveled against them:
“These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21).
Rather than stating their real reason for the complaint, the girl’s masters came up with a charge that would arouse strong emotions among all the magistrates and any onlookers. It was sure to get everybody there fired up! First, they appealed to the people’s prejudice — “these men are Jews.” Anti-Jewish sentiment was high in Philippi and really throughout the whole Roman Empire. They were tolerated, but not very well-liked. Second, they appealed to the prime objective of Roman law — “they are disturbing our city.” More than anything else, the Romans wanted to keep the peace. They wanted to maintain order and have civil obedience at all costs; and they had very little patience for anyone making waves. And then finally, they appealed to civic pride — “they advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” This evoked the response they were hoping for. The fickle crowd rose up in a frenzy and demanded justice!
The magistrates immediately stripped Paul and Silas and had them beaten with rods. These rods were thick as a man’s thumb and would have left their backs bloody and bruised. Whereas the Jews were limited in the number of whippings they could administer, the Romans had no such restrictions. A prisoner could be beaten for as long and hard as the officials wanted. All the text says is they received “many” blows. — Was it 40? 60? 100?
This form of punishment was so brutal that Roman citizens were supposed to be exempt from it, and there are recorded cases of people dying from the beating. One writer said, “It was an experience not soon forgotten.”
Then the two missionaries were placed in “maximum security” in the local jail. This would have been a damp, dirty dungeon with little or no lighting infested with rodents. There was probably a musty smell in the air and blood stains on the floor. It would have been a terrible place to be.
If that were not bad enough, the text says their feet were fastened in stocks. This was a cruel move on the part of the jailer, for those stocks were not just to hold you in place; they were a form of torture. A prisoner’s legs were spread far apart and then locked tight. This left him in an awkward, uncomfortable position with no way to move or stretch out. You can imagine the cramping that must have set in as the hours slowly passed by.
If I were in their spot, I think I’d be having a pity party. I’d probably be saying to myself, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” — Here they were being punished for doing good; for helping somebody. They had been convicted on trumped up charges, brutally beaten in public, thrown into the inner-most part of the prison, and had their feet fastened in stocks. I mean who has ever heard of casting someone into jail for casting out a demon? — If that were me, I’d be singing the blues. These two men weren’t singing the blues, however, they were singing praises!
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:25-26).
There have been some pretty remarkable “coincidences” over the years. Some are almost too creepy to even believe, but they’re true. For instance, in 1974, a man died when his moped was hit by a taxi in Bermuda. One year later, his twin brother was riding that same moped when he was struck and killed by the same taxi, driven by the same person, and carrying the same passenger. Isn’t that creepy?
In 1950, a church exploded in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska. The blast demolished the building, shattered windows in nearby houses, and forced a local radio station off the air. Choir practice was supposed to begin at 7:20 that night, five minutes before the explosion occurred. Yet none of the 15 members were injured because all of them were running late. That’s creepy!
Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both assassinated while in office. Both men were shot in the back of the head, on the Friday before a major holiday, while sitting beside their wives (neither of whom were injured). Moreover, they were both in the presence of another couple and each time the man with them was also wounded.
Lincoln and Kennedy were both succeeded by vice-presidents named “Johnson,” who were both born in the year “08.” Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908. Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and fled to a warehouse, while Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theatre. Both assassins were detained by officers named “Baker.” And finally, both assassins used 3 names (John Wilkes Booth / Lee Harvey Oswald) and each had 15 letters total in their name.
Those are certainly creepy coincidences. Almost too creepy to even believe. But what happened in the Philippian jail that night was no coincidence, it was providence. It was the deliberate work of God through natural means and circumstance to accomplish a purpose.
The earthquake was so powerful that it unlocked every single cell and unloosed every single chain holding the prisoners, and yet the roof didn’t collapse, the walls didn’t crumble, and there wasn’t the slightest injury to anyone. Do you see what I mean? This was God’s doing!
When the jailer awoke and saw the cells opened, he assumed everyone had escaped and was about to kill himself. That may seem drastic to us, but under Roman law he was as good as dead anyway. Jailers were held personally responsible for their prisoners. If they escaped, you were executed. And in that society, it was considered more honorable to take your own life than to let someone else take it. Just as he raised the sword, however, he was spared by a voice in the dark.
“But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved’” (Acts 16:28-29)?
The jailer, who had probably already heard Paul and Silas witnessing in the jail, seems to have interpreted the earthquake as an act of God; and it compelled him to ask the most important question that anyone could ask — “What must I do to be saved?”
The missionaries told the jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus and then started sharing stories about their wonderful Savior. They probably recited how He was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, how He confounded the wise and healed the sick, how He was betrayed by a friend and crucified on a cross, and how He triumphantly conquered the grave on that third day. And in that very hour, the jailer and his family were baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins. They did exactly what Jesus had said to do in Mark 16:16 — “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
The earthquake was not designed to deliver the prisoners, it was designed to deliver the jailer. That was the reason God made the “jailhouse rock!”
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of worship services in the early church was a meal they shared together called the Agape, or love feast. It was an integral part of their assemblies in which members ate as one body, regardless of their status in society. Whether rich or poor, master or slave, male or female, this meal was an expression of their mutual devotion as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was at the conclusion of this meal that they observed the Lord’s Supper.
“The early church developed special fellowship meals that came to be called love feasts (Jude 12) and that usually were closed with the observance of Communion. Those were congregational meals stressing fellowship, affection, and mutual caring among the believers. The emphasis on oneness led very readily into a celebration of the unifying accomplishment of the Savior on the cross” (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, p. 267).
This may seem strange to Christians living today because we are not used to eating a meal together before the Lord’s Supper, yet that is exactly what they did in the early church. Rather than sitting in pews with just a tiny wafer and sip of juice, they gathered around tables for a love feast.
“Churches today generally observe the Lord’s Supper much differently from the way the first century church did. Now, Christians observe the ordinance with a pinch of bread and a modicum of drink, but the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper with great banquets… These meals came to be known as ‘love feasts’” (Max Anders, 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 197).
The Passover celebration involved a meal that satisfied hunger as the Jews commemorated their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Since it was during this time — “as they were eating” (Matthew 26:26) — that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, it is not surprising the early church had a similar meal setting.
“In the modern church the Lord’s Supper is not in the physical sense of the term a meal… But it began from the Passover, a feast of hungry men, who were to clear the table and to leave nothing; and the Lord’s Supper began in the Christian Church as a meal in which physical as well as spiritual hunger was satisfied” (William Barclay, The Lord’s Supper, p. 56).
Just as the Jews commemorated their deliverance from physical bondage in a meal setting, the first Christians commemorated their deliverance from spiritual bondage in a meal setting. That’s why it was called a “supper.”
The word for “supper” in Greek is deipnon and refers to the evening meal, which was a time when people filled up on food while enjoying one another’s company. This is the term used in the familiar expression “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20). Hence, the word conveys the idea of eating together.
“…the deipnon was the main meal of the day, where people sat down with no sense of hurry and not only satisfied their hunger but lingered long together. The very word shows that the Christian meal ought to be a meal where people linger long in each other’s company” (William Barclay, 1 Corinthians, p. 102).
A meal that afforded outcasts, such as the very poor and slaves, an opportunity to mingle with the upper echelon of society as equals was rare in that culture and would be a remarkable testimony for the early church. In fact, slaves were considered property in the Roman Empire and were often terribly mistreated by their masters. They could be whipped, branded, or even killed for any reason. Therefore, a setting where such social barriers were removed must have been quite a draw for them. And it was probably the best meal they had all week!
“The Love Feast, the Agape, was one of the earliest features of the Church. It was a meal of fellowship held on the Lord’s Day… For many of the slaves it was perhaps the only decent meal they ever ate” (William Barclay, Jude, p. 192).
We know from the many passages addressed to slaves in the New Testament that they made up a large part of the early church, and love feasts probably had a lot to do with that. It is easy to imagine those Christians telling their fellow slaves about the affection experienced at these great-tasting feasts. This undoubtedly led to more of them visiting the assembly and ultimately being saved.
We read about two abuses that took place at love feasts in the early church. The first abuse involved a selfish spirit that advanced division rather than unity (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). It seems the wealthier members had become impatient waiting for the poorer members to arrive at their feasts and ate without them, leaving the latecomers with little or nothing to eat. This embarrassed them and totally defeated the purpose of the Agape, which was intended to bring everyone together as one body in love. The text says,
“For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk… do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (vv. 21, 22).
Notice that some members were “going ahead” and eating their food before the others showed up, causing those who came late to “go hungry.” This behavior showed a total lack of regard for their brethren (i.e., the church of God) and “humiliated” those who had no food. Hence, the problem was not the meal itself, but how they were eating that meal.
Paul warned the Corinthians that their treatment of one another while feasting had a direct impact on the Lord’s Supper, which they observed afterwards. To partake of communion while denying the love and unity it represented would bring judgment upon them.
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29).
“Body” is a metaphor for the church in this verse. The problem was not that the Corinthians had a lack of consideration for the literal body of Christ on the cross, but for their brethren. In other words, they were not showing proper discernment for one another as the Lord’s body. The ERV puts it like this,
“If you eat and drink without paying attention to those who are the Lord’s body, your eating and drinking will cause you to be judged guilty” (v. 29, ERV).
Paul then gave his solution on the matter. He did not call for the feast to be cancelled, but for their conduct to change while partaking of that feast. Remember, the problem was that some were “going ahead” with their own meals before the others could arrive. Therefore, he said to wait on them before eating.
“So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (v. 33).
The problem could easily be solved by showing some respect for those members who ran late to the feast, most notably the slaves who did not control their own schedules. Again, notice the problem in verse 21 and the solution in verse 33 — “each one eats without waiting for the others… when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (ERV).
“The fact that he says ‘when you come together to eat’ assumes that he supported the idea of their fellowship meal, but they should ‘wait for one another’ before they partake of it” (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, p. 275).
If any of the Corinthians were just too “hungry” to wait for the others, they should eat at home (v. 34). This is brought out in certain translations/paraphrases:
ERV: "If some are too hungry to wait, they should eat at home."
NCV: "Anyone who is too hungry should eat at home."
VOICE: "If someone is hungry and can't wait, he should go home and eat."
AMPLIFIED: "If anyone is too hungry [to wait], let him eat at home."
The second abuse that took place at love feasts in the early church involved false teaching. Some men used the meal as a cloak to sow their seeds of error on unsuspecting members. Jude puts it like this:
“These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted” (Jude 12).
Jude warned that some were exploiting the love feast for their own sinister purposes. Even then, however, he did not call for it to be cancelled. There is no indication whatsoever that they should stop eating together, they just needed to protect the meal from becoming a platform for evil.
In addition to the Scriptures, there is overwhelming extra-biblical evidence to suggest that churches continued to have love feasts for several centuries. Here are some examples:
The Didache, which was a treatise of church teachings written around A.D. 100, gives instruction for a Eucharistic prayer “after you are satisfied with food” (10:1), which implies that a meal was eaten before the Lord’s Supper was observed. It also says to come together on the Lord’s day to “break bread and hold Eucharist” (14:1), apparently making a distinction between the two acts.
Ignatius wrote to the church at Smyrna around A.D. 110 and said, “It is not lawful either to baptize, or to hold a love-feast without the consent of the bishop” (8:2).
Pliny, in his famous description of Christians to Emperor Trajan around A.D. 112, reported that they would “come together on a fixed day before daylight and to sing responsively a song to Christ as God” and then later “assemble again to partake of a meal, common yet harmless” (10:96).
Tertullian defended the love feast against heathen slander of excess in his Apology around A.D. 197. He wrote, “Yet about the modest supper-room of the Christians alone a great ado is made. Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agapè, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy… As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste” (ch. 39).
Minucius Felix, in his dialogue called Octavius around A.D. 210, wrote, “Our feasts are conducted not only with modesty, but in sobriety; for we do not indulge in delicacies, or prolong conviviality with wine; but temper our gaiety with gravity, with chaste conversation” (31:5).
Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition around A.D. 215, links the Lord’s Supper to a broader meal. It says, “When they dine, the faithful shall take from the hand of the bishop a small piece of bread before taking their own bread, because it is blessed. Yet it is not the eucharist, like the body of the Lord” (26:1). It also encourages Christians to “eat and drink in moderation” (28:1) and to keep some food as “leftovers of the saints, so that the one to whom it is sent may rejoice” (28:3).
Origen rose to the defense of “love feasts” in his work Against Celsus around A.D. 248. He says, “The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that ‘of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.’ And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the ‘love-feasts’ of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger and were more binding than any oaths. Since, then, he babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it…” (1:1).
Love feasts were eventually outlawed by various church councils starting in the fourth century. For instance, the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 364) declared, “It is not permitted to hold love feasts, as they are called, in the Lord's Houses, or Churches, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of God” (Canon 28). This was just one of several reasons why they gradually passed from the scene.
Just because love feasts were sometimes abused and then forbidden by man-made legislative bodies are not good reasons for the practice to be abandoned by those seeking to restore New Testament Christianity in its purest form. There is no question the early church shared a meal in their assemblies and, as William Barclay said, “It was a lovely custom; and it is to our loss that the custom has vanished” (1 Corinthians, p. 100). Amen!