I am currently writing the history of 20 centuries of the Christian Faith for the website. So I thought I would post it in the blog century by century, starting with the First Century. Happy Reading:
It has been a tumultuous 20 centuries for the Christian faith. It began with a single Jewish man who died at the age of 33 who claimed to bring himself back from the dead, the one thing humans cannot do. He then challenged and trusted 11 simple men to disciple every single ethnic group on the planet (Matthew 28:16-18). What a mission! Powerless and marginalised, these few men eventually spread out after a decade of dithering, gave their lives for their cause, and slowly began a quiet revolution in the far east of a mighty empire.
This essay is the record of those who followed them over the next 2,000 years. It will be broken up into century-sized blocks so you can sense the ebb and flow of His-story. It is taken from the first chapter of the amazing book “The Future of the Global Church” by Patrick Johnstone.
Each century of the Christian era has a signature and a flavour all of its own, some positive and some decidedly negative. The key political events of the world will be recorded alongside the spiritual events. You will see empires appear and disappear in rapid succession. You will also see the waxing and waning of Christianity in Europe, the Middle East, in China, India, and the New World. You will watch religions being born and die, cultures come and go. If I get it right, you will feel like you have travelled through history in a time-machine.
In the cut and thrust of all these global events you will observe that Christianity has nearly been snuffed out on numerous occasions. In places it has sat dormant for a thousand years. It has conquered the super-continent and was then snuffed out. It has been corrupted from within and without. It has disobeyed its founder practically everywhere. Yet it is still here, growing rapidly, and with about 8% of the world’s population now in relationship with its creator.
So get a cuppa and enjoy the story of our great faith as you have never read it before.
Christianity to 100AD
The Hand of God in History
Christianity began just over 2,000 years ago, but it had been incubating inside the Jewish faith and nation for many centuries before that. For some reason, the mind of God decided this time was right to begin calling humanity back into a personal friendship with him through Jesus. Why?
We don’t know for sure, but it was probably because this era was a time of great social, economic, religious and political ferment in Europe and the Middle East, perfect for new ideas. Rome was aggressively pushing back its boundaries on all sides, angering nearly every surrounding empire and ethnic group. It was also just before the first great globalisation that linked the Chinese dominated east with the Roman dominated west via the Persian dominated Silk Road. People travelled great distances safely during this stage in history. Greek intellectual ideas were all the rage, as was their language mathematics and science. Relative religious freedom and tolerance was the norm, as long as you bowed your knee to “Pax Romana”. The Jews were expecting the imminent return of the Messiah. Buddhism was engulfing Hindu India and Islam was still 600 years away. This was the perfect time to parachute God the Son into the human journey!
Political Milestones to 100AD
In the sixth year of the First Century Rome conquered Samaria and Judea, thereby securing the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Without this single event Christianity would have been birthed outside the empire. At the same time the Han Chinese were industrialising and would remain the world’s dominant industrial power until the 16th Century. In the middle of the century they would use all of this industrial power to build the world’s greatest structure, the Great Wall, to keep the Huns from occupying their northern border country. This event would later have a deep impact on Eastern Europe.
In 42AD Rome conquered the densely populated island of Britain, but could not subdue the Picts in the north of the island. A decade later in 58AD several momentous events began to take shape. Another major war broke out between the Romans and the Persians. This was one of many wars between the two empires in the Middle East over the next 500 years. These ongoing conflicts resulted in a complete separation between European and Asian (Nestorian) Christianity. In the same year Nero became emperor of Rome. This is the man John describes as “666” in the book of Revelation because his was the first systematic to wipe out the infant church (Revelation 13:8). Finally, on the other side of the planet, Buddhism reached China.
In 70AD the Jewish state rose up against its occupiers and was crushed. This was predicted in great detail in the book of Revelation, written some 5 years before as a warning of the approaching catastrophe (Rev 1:1, 3, 11:2, 8, 17:18, 18:9, 19-20). The Christians fled the city in time but between a half and one million Jews were executed in the siege. Jewish slaves from this revolt built the colosseum in Rome, which still stands to this day. This event propelled the fledgling Christian faith onto a global stage and it quickly lost its Jewish roots.
Spiritual Milestones to 100AD
Four years before the Century began; our Lord entered the human condition as a baby born out of wedlock to a teenage girl in a cow shed in a poor country under military occupation. This innocuous event became the hinge of history.
Some thirty years later, the now fatherless and single young tradesman, eldest brother of at least seven children (Matthew 13:55-56), began his ministry to the Jewish nation. He combined a popular fight against the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling religious and economic elite (Matthew 23) with a supernatural ministry to the poor and oppressed. A potent mix indeed! For three years he did life with a group of men who would later craft their lives on the modelling he demonstrated for them. In the end it was fear of revolution within the ruling elite that brought him to his death on a cross (John 11:50, 18:14). Within weeks claims were being made of his resurrection…and the rest is history. Well, not quite.
In 31 AD a violent prosecutor of the new and expanding Jewish sect, Saul, was spectacularly converted. After 14 years in hiding he became the main thrust of the cause in non-Jewish communities all over the empire from his base in Antioch. Around the same time the message reached the apostate Samaritans and the black Nubians in Ethiopia. In 38AD Peter was supernaturally goaded, against his will, into reaching out to the Romans. Why it took this long we do not know but it must have had a lot to do with religious pride, a theme that would haunt Christianity down through the centuries. It took another 6 years more before he and the rest of the leadership reluctantly left cosy Jerusalem to begin their international ministries.
This half-generation delay in obeying their Lord allowed Paul, the non-apostle, to become the de-facto leader of the early church and become the second most influential person in Christianity, a source of tension within the early church (2 Corinthians 11:5, Galations 2:11).
Up until this stage Christianity was often called “The Way” (Acts 9:2). It was in the largely Gentile church at Antioch that believers were first referred to as “Christians” (Acts 11:19-26).
Over the next two decades, from around 44 to 65AD, there was a great swath of evangelism from the now ex-Jerusalem leadership. Somehow, they seemed to finally wake up to their assigned task of winning the world. Thomas journeyed to Syria and then on to India on a Roman trade ship. Thaddeus and Bartholomew journeyed up into Persia. Bartholomew was killed in Saudi Arabia. James sailed for Spain. John and Phillip spread the Good News in Turkey while Andrew made for Greece. Andrew headed for Russia. Mark and Phillip evangelised the North Africans while Matthias encouraged the growing Ethiopian church. In 45AD Paul joined in and began the herculean task of reaching the eastern half of the Roman Empire with the Good News. Luke records these journeys in great detail in the Book of Acts. Thousands of other evangelists were also busy spreading the Good News during this period, but their names are now known only to our Father.
As a result of the influx of Gentiles, in about 50AD the leadership in Jerusalem had to grapple with the delicate task of determining which aspects of Jewish culture were to be dumped from the growing movement (Acts 15). They wisely ditched many of the aspects of their own culture and lifestyle they held dear. This event, in no small way, enabled Christianity to travel to the four corners of the globe. But the issue of culture and legalism verses spirituality would not die easily and needed to be addressed frequently in the Epistles.
In 60AD, in modern Armenia, then a buffer state between Rome and Persia called Osrhoene, the Gospel was eagerly received. As a result of this work, Armenia later became the first independent state to fully embrace the Christian faith as its national religion in 301AD. To this day Armenia remains an island of Christianity in an ocean of Islam.
The spectacular period of growth was inevitably followed by a severe persecution which started in Rome under Nero in the mid 60’s. The sifting of loyalties served to shrink but strengthen the early church. During this time of testing the apostles recorded the gospels for posterity before many of them were executed. In the lead up to 70AD believers fled Jerusalem in anticipation of Jesus’ prophesies of its demise at the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24-25, Luke 21:5-38). The utter destruction of Jerusalem, which was the cultural, economic, spiritual and political heart of Israel, further diluted the Jewish roots of the early church. Two decades later another severe persecution broke out under Emperor Diocletian. There were to be many more over the next two centuries.
It is important to note that during this time the leadership structure of the church was the opposite of the modern church and denominational hierarchy. Apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, teaching, and pastoral gifts were in full use to serve and not control. Leaders suffered greatly for their faith and carried a huge spiritual burden for their spiritual children. Wherever the church is in growth mode today, such as the Middle East, South Asia and China we see this same style.
By the end of the century Christianity had a presence in what we would call Ethiopia, Egypt Tunisia, Turkey, the Ukraine, Iraq and Iran, Italy, Greece, Spain, Libya, Bulgaria, Syria, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, India, Saudi Arabia and England. It was off to a great start, with around one million followers. But things were about to go wrong.