When It Comes Right Down to It, Whose Law Will You Obey?
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together….
— Hebrews 10:25
In today’s Sparkling Gem, I want to share some history with you about where believers met to worship when the law forbade them to do so. I think you will find this little history lesson to be very interesting!
Hebrews 10:25 commands believers to meet together regularly. However, during New Testament times, Roman law expressly forbade believers from congregating. Although there were periods of reprieve in different regions of the empire in the early centuries of the Church, it was generally illegal for Christians to come together anywhere in the Roman Empire — including the privacy of their own homes. Those who were caught doing so often faced severe reprisal.
These restrictions put believers in a difficult position. Although Scripture instructed them to obey, honor, and pray for the authorities of the land (see Romans 13:1,2), their government wouldn’t permit them to obey God’s commands. As the new laws took effect, Christians found themselves being forced to choose between obeying the law of God or following the law of man — just as Peter and John had to decide whom they would obey when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (see Acts 4:19). When Roman or local laws were in line with God’s law, early Christians diligently obeyed them. But if a law conflicted with the principles clearly outlined in God’s Word, most believers chose to obey God over the government’s mandates. This choice was not without consequence, however, because it gave rise to accusations that Christians were insubordinate lawbreakers.
As a result of Roman authorities passing laws that forbade gatherings that were not sanctioned by the government, it quickly became difficult for believers to find safe locations where they could worship together in peace. Early Christians had to be creative in the ways they met and in the way they communicated where their meetings would be held. One method they used to communicate with each other was secret imagery that pagans didn’t understand.
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An example of this secret communication was a special symbol that believers would often scratch into the marble pavements of public places. This symbol was essentially a circle with a series of intersecting lines at its center, somewhat resembling an eight-spoked wheel. To the eyes of the public, these drawings looked like mere children’s games that had been scratched into the pavement — but to believers, this symbol was actually a secret code. If one separates the lines from the circle, one finds that this symbol is actually composed of five Greek letters — ΙΧΘΥΣ — that overlap one another. In Greek, this sequence of letters is icythus, the Greek word for a fish, but to Christians, these letters hidden within the circular icythus symbol conveyed so much more.
The word ΙΧΘΥΣ is an acronym for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεος Υἱός, Σωτήρ, which means: Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Savior.
- “I” is the first letter (Iota) of the word Ἰησοῦς — which is the Greek name Jesus.
- “Χ” is the first letter (Chi) of the word Χριστός — which is the Greek word for Christ.
- “Θ” is the first letter (Theta) of the word Θεóς — which is the Greek word for God.
- “Υ” is the first letter (Upsilon) of the word Υἱός — which is the Greek word for Son.
- “Σ” is the first letter (Sigma) of the word Σωτήρ — which the Greek word for Savior.
Soldiers and political officials might have thought this symbol was a mere street game, but in reality, it was a secret code designed to help believers connect with each other and coordinate meetings. For instance, if it was scribbled next to a shop, it might have conveyed that the shop owner was a Christian. If it was drawn next to a home, it might have indicated that a Christian gathering was secretly being held there. Wherever this symbol was inscribed, it sent the message that believers were nearby.
Because of the law forbidding unauthorized gatherings — which included members of this upstart Christian sect — Hebrews 10:25 put believers in direct opposition to the law. Consequently, they were often driven to assemble in secret meetings, which they frequently disguised to look like something else. Using emblems like the circular icythus symbol, believers were able to covertly communicate where they lived or worked with each other. And by regularly changing the place and time of their meetings, they made it difficult for authorities to catch them.
Congregations rarely met at the same place for long, choosing instead to constantly move to new secret locations in order to avoid detection. Church meetings in the First Century were mostly conducted in private residences, and just like today, the homes of believers could come in all sizes. Some places were quite modest, whereas others were large enough to accommodate a small congregation. In Acts 20:7-12, we read of a boy who fell from a window of a third-floor apartment where Paul was preaching to a local congregation. This reveals that even apartment buildings could be used for church use if the circumstances were right.
As the years passed and forces continued to mount against Christians, they were often forced to become even more covert about the locations of their meetings. For example, in the mid-Second Century at the trial of Christian leader Justin Martyr, he admitted to the Roman magistrate that he had been conducting meetings in a room located above a bathhouse in Rome.
Since Roman bathhouses were notorious cesspools of sinful activities, it might seem highly unusual that a respected church leader like Justin Martyr would choose to meet with other Christians there for purposes of teaching or corporate worship. However, the strategic potential of such a meeting place should be considered. This may have been an ideal covert location for Christian gatherings simply because it was such an unlikely possibility.
Another place where believers met in secret was in suburban cemeteries on the outskirts of the cities. These were considered ideal meeting places because they were largely hidden from the eyes of hostile governmental authorities.
By the Second Century — and some scholars believe there is evidence for as early as the late First Century — believers began to use underground catacombs for the burial of their dead. Although there were few rich Christians in the earliest years of the Church, later some wealthy Christian landowners granted permission for underground tombs to be built on their land. Some of the larger rooms in these underground chambers became another means used by early believers to assemble together in secret.
Especially during periods of fierce persecution in the Second and Third Centuries, these underground catacombs sometimes provided an effective “cover” for Christian meetings because they gave the impression that these believers were merely a group of people gathered for a funeral ceremony. In fact, at times actual funerals became legal opportunities for Christians to gather.
Roman soldiers were superstitious about the dead and were afraid to enter the catacombs, so some of the larger chambers in these underground systems became ideal locations for believers to meet on occasion without fear of authorities watching what they were doing. Deep beneath the earth, those burial quarters would be transformed into places for worship, testimony, and the teaching of God’s Word — a place where believers could strengthen each other’s faith before reemerging into the sunlight. But even these Christian burial grounds came to be officially forbidden to believers.
So we see that because of the hostile forces arrayed against the Church during the first three centuries of its existence, it was a matter of survival for early believers to find concealed places where they could meet to worship, hear God’s Word, and fellowship with one another. It’s not so different than the way the Church operates today in countries where governments are hostile to the Gospel.
We should never take for granted how fortunate we are to be able to attend church without the threat of death or imprisonment. This privilege has cost and continues to cost others highly. Let’s pray for God to give us a renewed love for the local church — and a firm decision that if we have to choose between obeying man’s laws or God’s laws, we will always choose to obey God rather than man!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Father God, I realize that it is better to obey You than man. I didn’t realize the pressure that early Christians faced just to meet together. Because we have so much freedom, I often forget that there are Christians around the world today who are persecuted simply for attending church. As we face the days ahead of us — when laws passed by high courts may conflict with the law of God — give us the courage to stick by Your law and do what You say. This will take great strength of will, so I ask You, Holy Spirit, to give me the inward fortitude to do what is right, regardless of what the world around me says.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I confess that I am committed to carrying out the instructions outlined in the Word of God. The thinking of the world and society may change, but God’s Word is unchanging — and I will stick by the Word of God, regardless of the way the world around me tries to dictate my actions or influence my beliefs. I am filled with courage; I am overflowing with confidence; and I have the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord is my strength and my personal bravery. The Word of God is a high tower of strength to me. Regardless of what man says or the price it will cost to obey, I will do what God’s Word commands.
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Do you think of or pray for Christians in other parts of the world who are presently suffering for their faith? Have you ever thought about what it costs them simply to attend a church service?
- Our freedom is so abundant, and we have lived in freedom for so long that it’s hard for us to imagine losing But if the government suddenly put restrictions on your practice of faith, how would you respond? Would you obey the courts, or would you obey the Word of God?
- I live in Russia where there was a time when believers had to meet covertly. If you had to meet covertly to worship with other Christians, would you do it, or would you fall out of fellowship to avoid persecution?