esoteric adj. (from the Greek esoterikos "belonging to an inner circle") 1: designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone; 2: requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group; 3: limited to a small circle.
Have you ever felt left out? You're around a group of people who really know each other well, and seem to almost have their own secret language. I mean, they're speaking your own native tongue, but you realize that you're not getting a lot of what they're saying, even though the words themselves are familiar to you. And it's not just the words, but they have a way of being, a different look, a different walk even. Maybe they're not even trying to exclude you. Maybe they're really friendly and hospitable, but you still feel left out.
That's how you might have felt if you'd been around Yahshua and His disciples. They were always together. They had that special kind of friendship that comes from honest and deep communication, from going through struggles together, receiving correction, forgiving and being forgiven. Under the teaching and warm authority of Yahshua, those rough and ready men were changing, and everyone who knew them could tell. But sometimes the things Yahshua said gave people the impression that He didn't consider everyone in their very religious nation to be on good terms with God.
One day, not long before He was crucified, someone approached Him and asked, "Lord, are only a few being saved?" or in other words, "Are you the only ones?" He did not reply, "Of course not! The Jews are God's chosen people. We're all going to heaven." Instead, He said:
Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, "Lord, open to us," then he will answer you, "I do not know where you come from." Then you will begin to say, "We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." But he will say, "I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!" (Luke 13:24-27)
The fact of the matter was that Yahshua had something that no other teacher or religious leader in Israel had, and He was only able to pass it on to those who followed Him and entrusted their very lives to Him, obeying His every word. There were many who were impressed by His teaching and the miracles He did, and even said they believed in Him, but He would not entrust Himself to them.1
Yahshua demanded exclusive loyalty from His disciples. It was all or nothing. As Peter said after watching a rich young man turn away sadly at the Master's call to forsake everything, "See, we have left everything and followed you!"2 Indeed they had, and the standard was the same for everyone, rich or poor.3
The eternal life that the Master had to offer was freely given, but it cost everything:
I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. (Revelation 21:6)
Let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17)
The word translated "freely" in these two verses is the same word in the Greek, and in this context it means "without a cause to hold back." In other words, Yahshua will give freely (without a cause to hold back) to whoever will drink freely (without a cause to hold back). Conversely, He will withhold the "water of life" from anyone who has a cause to hold back from forsaking everything to follow Him -- possessions, career, house, lands, unwilling relatives, even his own life.4
The "water of life" is the Holy Spirit,5 and "holy" simply means set apart -- that is, the Holy Spirit is set apart only for those who can drink freely, who obey the Master's commandments,6 who are utterly surrendered to Him and have no conflicting loyalties. Only to them does He reveal Himself and grant eternal life. They are His chosen ones,7 His elect,8 His brothers,9 and ultimately His bride.10
So let's go back to Yahshua and His small band of brothers, the first ones to entrust their lives to Him. Yes, it is true, He did lose one of them -- the one who had been responsible for the money bag, their common purse. They didn't all have money in their pockets -- not even Yahshua. He had appointed Judas to take care of what little money they had between them, and all of their needs were met out of that one purse. It was a test for Judas, and he did not pass the test.
Whether pilfering the money bag11 to satisfy his own desires was what gave him a bad conscience, leaving him susceptible to receive accusations against Yahshua, or whether getting offended at Yahshua left him susceptible to the temptation to pilfer the money bag is not clear. But divided he was, and his countenance grew darker over time. It all came to a head during what turned out to be their last meal together.
Yahshua, knowing what was working in Judas, laid aside His outer garments, put a towel around His waist, and like a common slave, began to wash His disciples' feet. Embarrassed that his Master, whom he loved and respected so much, would take such a low place, Peter objected, "You shall never wash my feet!"
Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Peter said to Him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. You are clean, but not every one of you..." (John 13:8-10)
Of course, He was not speaking of physical cleanness, but of having a clean conscience, and unhindered fellowship with Him and with each other.
Then He went on to wash Judas' feet, tenderly caring for him just as He did all the rest. It was the opportunity for Judas to humble himself and confess his sin, but instead he hardened his heart. Grieved in His spirit, Yahshua continued preparing His disciples for how they would need to be after He was gone, making it unbearable for Judas:
When He had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
"I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, 'He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.' I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he."
[John asked,] "Lord, who is it?"
Jesus answered, "It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it." So when He had dipped the morsel, He gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly." ... So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. (John 13:12-19,25-27,30)
With Judas gone, Yahshua could finally express the deepest things in His heart to His disciples, those whose hearts were completely His. He could entrust Himself to them.12 What He spoke in John 13:31 through 17:26 are the secrets of the kingdom, the esoteric knowledge that would be revelation only to the few who were truly willing to do His will, at the cost of their own lives. It was not just that they would be willing to die physically for Him (they weren't yet ready for that), but that they were willing to live for Him, not taking a thought for themselves, but spending their very lives to accomplish His will on the earth. He was about to leave them, and then what would they do? Go back to their former homes and professions, and just go to church on Sunday? May it never be!
No, the words He spoke to them were their "marching orders" to define who they were and what they were to do for the rest of their lives -- full time. Here are a few of the things He said to them:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:21,23)
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:8)
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)
The disciples treasured these words, remembered them, and after the three dark days of their Master's execution and His suffering in death, He confirmed these words and added to them over the next 40 days until they were saturated with the Gospel of the Kingdom.13 Then He ascended to His Father and sent the promised Holy Spirit to remind them of everything He had taught them, and to give them the power to do it.
Therefore, it is very significant what happened on that day of Pentecost, the Feast of First Fruits, when the Holy Spirit came upon them. By His power and inspiration they preached the Gospel of the Kingdom for the first time since their Master had left them:
Those who received their word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:41-45)
First there were twelve who were together with the Master, sharing all things in common. Then, by the time the Master ascended, there were 120 who were together, all in one accord, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit.14 Then there were 3000 who were together, sharing all things in common. They were all devoted to the apostles' teaching and fellowship -- the very same teaching and the very same fellowship that the apostles had experienced with their Master, and which He had commanded them to pass on.15
Then some time later (whether weeks or months is not clear) the number of these esoteric ones had grown to about 5000 men16 (plus the women and children), and they are described in this manner:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
Now, if you have ever tried to live together in peace with even just a few people, or even with your spouse, perhaps you can grasp what a miracle it was for thousands of people to live together, sharing all things in common, and still be "of one heart and soul." To say that "abundant grace was upon them all" was certainly an understatement! Any good-hearted person coming in contact with them would surely feel a tug on his heart-strings to belong to such a people and experience those warm bonds of love and trust. You would want to know what those people had that you didn't have, which made them able to live together in peace and unity. You would feel left out.
What they had was the water of life, of which they had drunk freely, because they had heard from the apostles the same gospel the apostles had heard from their Master, which called for the utter abandonment of their former lives and possessions. Since they had no cause to hold back from drinking, Yahshua had no cause to withhold from them the water of life -- the Holy Spirit who gave them the power to love one another and live together in peace.
Yes, it is true. The common life of the first-century church did come to an end. Many Christians say that God sent persecution to break the community apart because they had become introverted. That view is hard to reconcile with the dramatic and steady growth of the church all the way up to the time when the severe persecution began with the stoning of Stephen.17 It is also hard to reconcile with Yahshua's promise that persecution would be a result of obedience to the gospel,18 which it certainly was in Jerusalem. The effect of the persecution was the establishment of communities all over Judea, all following the pattern of the first community in Jerusalem.19
No, the demise of the common life described in Acts 2 and 4 was actually a result of the object lesson of Acts 5:1-11 being forgotten. Right after the account of Joseph, the Levite from Cyprus, selling his field and laying the proceeds of the sale at the apostles' feet, there is the contrasting account of Ananias and Sapphira. They made a show of laying the proceeds of the sale of their property at the apostles' feet, but they secretly kept back some of the money for themselves. The Holy Spirit revealed their deceit to Peter, and when Peter confronted them about it, they dropped dead, with this effect:
And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:11)
The vibrant life of the community was utterly dependent upon the self-sacrificing love of each and every member. Yahshua had commanded his disciples:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33)
Community is the only context in which this commandment can be obeyed, where everyone is busy caring for the needs of others, building up the Body of Messiah,20 and not taking a thought for themselves,21 and in the process, everyone's needs are met.22 But as soon as someone starts trying to meet his own needs or desires, as Judas did, and as Ananias and Sapphira conspired to do, then someone else's needs go unmet, and the breakdown of community has begun.
Selfishness destroyed the first-century church as the esoteric knowledge of the true gospel, which burned in the hearts of the first disciples, was gradually replaced by another gospel that made room for self.23 That other gospel would more honestly be called The Broad Gate.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is broad and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
The true gospel is the narrow gate, and those who find it are few -- the esoteric ones. Are you looking for that gate? Don't be left out. We know the way; we'll bring you home!