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How God Prepared the Way

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Christianity has surpassed two thousand years of tremendous growth. According to 1994 population figures there are now 1.87 billion people who profess some form of Christianity, or more than one out of every three in the world. And this started from a most humble beginning. The founder of Christianity was not a prince or a priest as the world defined it, but a commoner who owned nothing except the homespun robe that he wore. His twelve closest followers were a mostly uneducated bunch, which included such characters as a zealot (first-century terrorist) and a tax collector; Judas Iscariot was probably the only respectable member of the bunch!

The growth of the Church from this unlikely start to a world-encompassing faith is one of the more positive trends of history. True, there have been some bad episodes, like the persecutions that were carried out "in the name of Christ," but God has also regularly raised up new men and women to bring the Church back into line with what it should believe and how it should live. Some believe in an evolutionary process, where the Church is gradually getting better all the time; others believe that imperfect man will always mess up God's perfect message, but at the second coming God will set everything right again. Whichever theory you subscribe to, I think you will find much that is encouraging in what we will cover in the next lessons.

How God Prepared the Way

Before the Lord could make His appearance on earth, civilization had to be prepared so that there would be widespread communication and acceptance of what He taught. John the Baptist is identified in the New Testament as a person set aside for this purpose, but there were also many not-so-obvious trends worthy of note:

1. The Romans lost faith in the gods of their ancestors. The myths surrounding Jupiter, Mars, Minerva, etc. were now viewed as rather silly stories about oversized people acting like oversized people (this attitude probably came from the Greek philosophers; remember that Socrates said "Of the gods we know nothing"). In addition, the Roman religion had long ago passed from simple ceremonies to elaborate public rituals which had little meaning for the layman. The old gods were kept around because they symbolized the state, but the Romans had always been a superstitious, rather than a religious people; they were more interested in omens and soothsayers than in whether or not they were keeping the commandments. By the time the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, some of its citizens had begun looking for a superior kind of spiritual sustenance, one which their gods could not supply.

2. Roman law and citizenship created more than two hundred years of peace, and (from Western man's point of view) a one-world government. The empire also built roads and encouraged commercial traffic, which greatly helped the spread of the Gospel. I believe it was part of God's plan that the empire did not fall until churches had been established in every province of it for at least a hundred years.

3. Two languages, Latin and Greek, were understood just about everywhere. Jesus and the Apostles probably used Aramaic in everyday life, but because Greek was so widely used it would become the language for preaching and for the writing of the New Testament.

4. The impact of Judaism. Greeks first became acquainted with the Jews in the fifth century B.C., and the Romans did in the second century B.C. Jews gave their Gentile rulers the Old Testament, the idea of taking off one day a week for rest, the concept of Monotheism, and hope for a Messiah (Gal. 4:4). In return the Jews were not required to worship the emperor as a god, the way Rome's other subjects did, though they did gratefully offer prayers and sacrifices for his well-being. Most emperors could accept this, since they believed they became gods after they died, but less prudent emperors like Caligula and Nero insisted on being worshiped in their lifetime, and viewed those who did not do so as disloyal; this sparked some of the Jewish revolts, particularly the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135).

Estimates of the numbers of Jews living around 1 A.D. range from several hundred thousand to as many as five million. Whatever the figure was, more than half of them lived in Iraq, which was part of the Parthian (and later Persian) Empire. In the West, they appear to have made up around one tenth of the Roman Empire's population. It takes more than just large families to explain how the Jewish community reached this size, and it probably came about through a number of converts (proselytes) from the surrounding Gentile population. Exact details are not available, though.

Jesus of Nazareth

The only detailed account of how Christianity got started is in the first five books of the New Testament. Since it is expected that most of the readers of this work will come from a Christian background, or be at least familiar with the story of Jesus, most of what is in the Gospels will not be repeated here, except to explain the effects on Middle Eastern history in general; it is also safe to say that nobody can improve on the original story given to us by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

At first Christianity was basically a reaffirmation of the Middle Eastern view concerning the nature of the world and man. The teachings Jesus gave on salvation and the coming of the kingdom of God were an elaboration on what the Jewish prophets had taught centuries earlier. The new faith at the same time generated an idea that was enormously appealing--that God Himself had come to earth and wanted to have a personal relationship with His people.

The twelve Apostles of Jesus expected Him to fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies at once, judge the world, right all wrongs, and establish Israel as an everlasting kingdom. When instead the Romans arrested and crucified Jesus on a trumped-up charge of sedition (29 A.D.), it looked like everything he did was for nothing. But soon afterwards the dispirited Apostles gathered in an upstairs room and suddenly felt again the heartwarming presence of their Master. Now they were convinced that the death of Jesus on the cross was not an end but rather a beginning.

If they doubted it before, now they knew for certain that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, and that He would save whoever accepted Him as Lord before He returned in glory on the long-awaited day of judgment. During the next seven weeks five hundred of His followers saw their resurrected teacher before he left them for the last time, giving them a final command to spread the Gospel to "Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth."

The good news could not be kept a secret. On the contrary, the Apostles bubbled over with excitement and told anyone who would listen what had happened and was going to happen. Peter, for example, who had denied his master when the Romans arrested Jesus, now proclaimed Him with the courage of a lion. Initially these early Christians stayed in and around Jerusalem, but when Stephen was stoned, and Herod Agrippa I and various Jewish leaders tried to stamp out the new movement, they moved their headquarters to Antioch in Syria, and the number of people who heard the Gospel grew exponentially.

The Rabbi from Tarsus

At this point the early Church made a convert who would become the greatest missionary of all. This was Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who had distinguished himself by his outstanding adherence to the Law and his persecution of the first Christians. Saul chased them from Jerusalem but was converted through a vision of the risen Christ on his way to Damascus. Temporarily blinded, he found his way to a Christian named Ananias, and when cured he began to preach the Gospel vigorously. Before long his former friends made plots against his life, and Saul had to escape Damascus by being lowered over the city wall in a basket.

Saul wandered in Arabia for a while and then returned to Jerusalem, but here he faced a double problem: Christians who feared his conversion was not really genuine, and Jewish leaders who now viewed him as a traitor. He went home to Tarsus and lay low for about a decade, until the Church of Antioch called him back into the ministry. From this point on Saul is called by the Greek version of his name, Paul.

Using Antioch as his starting base, Paul now went on three epic missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece, which are described in detail in the second half of the Book of Acts. Wherever he went, he first located the nearest synagogue to preach in, and when the Jewish congregation would not have him, he took his message to the Gentiles outside. Previously the Apostles had converted a handful of non-Jews (e.g., Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius), but Paul was more dedicated to this ministry than anyone else; he even brought Peter back into line when Peter slipped into his old habits and associated only with Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-16).

It was Paul who offered the Gentiles salvation without the necessity of following the 613 commandments of the Torah (plus all the rules the Pharisees & Sadducees had tacked on more recently). Being fluent in Greek, he was also able to express the message of Jesus in terms his Greek listeners could understand. In the long run, Paul's activities caused a total change in Church demographics--by the end of the first century most of its members were non-Jewish, and would remain that way to this day.

Paul had special freedom of movement because he was born a Roman citizen; that opened doors for him that were closed to other Jews. He concluded his third journey in Jerusalem, bringing money he had collected for the poor Christians of the mother church. When he arrived he was seized by a Jewish mob and would have been lynched, had not the Romans arrived in the nick of time. Paul had to stand trial to refute the charges against him, but rather than face a biased court in Jerusalem, he appealed to the Roman Emperor Nero for justice. He was sent to Rome as a prisoner, surviving a shipwreck at Malta on the way.

After spending two years in Rome (the Book of Acts ends at this point), Paul was probably released to conduct some more missionary work; Romans 15 mentions trips to Spain and Illyricum (Albania) that he planned and possibly carried out (a second century believer, Clement, wrote that he did go to Spain). Finally around 64 A.D. he returned to Rome and became a martyr in Nero's first persecution of the Christians. Because of his Roman citizenship, he got one last privilege; he died from beheading, rather than on the cross.

The Journeys of the Apostles

Paul was not the only Church leader to travel far and wide, but his travels are by far the best documented. Each of the twelve Apostles made journeys, motivated by Paul's success as well as by the "great commission."
Unfortunately no one wrote as comprehensive a record on the journeys of the Twelve as Luke did for Paul. To fill in the many existing gaps, we have to rely on Church traditions/legends. Of course these are not the most reliable source of historical data, but where two or more separate accounts tell us the same thing (e.g., Peter died in Rome, Thomas went to India) we can guess that we are on safe ground. Also, remember that each Apostle had to go somewhere, so if only one country claims an Apostle as its missionary, he probably did go there.

It is beyond the scope of this work to go into detail on their adventures. For those who want to read that, I recommend The Search for The Twelve Apostles, by William Steuart McBirnie, Ph.D. (Tyndale House Publishers, 1973). That book devotes a chapter to the traditions and hard evidence available concerning each Apostle, as well as covering the later careers of other New Testament worthies, like John Mark and Lazarus. I have also written a more detailed summary of the Apostolic adventures in Chapter 7 of my Near Eastern history papers. In the meantime, here is a quick list of where it appears that each of the Twelve went.

Simon Peter: Babylon, then Rome, where he was crucified upside down.

Andrew: Armenia, Colchis (Georgia), Scythia (the Ukraine), and Greece.

James the Son of Zebedee: Killed by Herod Agrippa I in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), but some believe he visited Spain. Whether or not he went to Spain, most of his bones did; the shrine built over them, Santiago de Compostela, received more pilgrims during the Middle Ages than any other holy place west of Rome.

John: The "disciple whom Jesus loved" was the only one of the Twelve who died peacefully. He turns up in Ephesus, leading the church Paul started there, both before and after his exile on Patmos (about 96 A.D.).

Philip: Central Asia Minor (Galatia and Phrygia); some also link him with Scythia, and Gaul (France).

Bartholomew: Bartholomew teamed up with Philip at first, and the two went to Hierapolis in Phrygia and Azerbaijan. Other traditions have him preaching in India, an Arabian oasis, Iran, and Armenia, but these are unreliable.

Thomas: Babylon, Iran, and India.

Matthew: Egypt and Ethiopia.

James the son of Alphaeus: Syria, tradition makes him the first leader of the Church in Antioch.

Thaddaeus: Armenia, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.

Simon the Zealot: Egypt, North Africa, and Britain. Then he returned to Israel and journeyed through Syria, Armenia, and Iraq, before being martyred in northern Iran with Thaddaeus.

Matthias: Same as Andrew (they traveled together), but was martyred in Jerusalem, rather than Greece.




-A History of Christianity
http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/church/index.html
 
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