In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul told his readers that God sent his Son into the world at the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4, English Standard Version). This fullness of time to which Paul referred was the proper time for God to send the Messiah into the world and to set the church in motion. Nevertheless, this perfect time may not have been what we would expect. Less than two years after Jesus’ birth, the crazed and paranoid King Herod murdered all the infants of Bethlehem in an effort to eradicate this child he perceived to be a rival to his rule. Moreover, as Jesus went about healing the sick and proclaiming the good news of salvation, he repeatedly found himself at odds with the deeply divided Jewish leadership of his culture. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who had religious and political influence in first-century Israel, were opposed to one another in nearly everything. One thing they appeared to agree upon, however, was their disapproval of Jesus. Ultimately, they were able to bring about his crucifixion.
Opposition to the Way
Following Jesus’ resurrection and directive for his disciples to share the gospel message with the world, the opposition the Jews had for him was quickly transferred onto his followers. As thousands of people heard the gospel and were baptized into Christ (Acts 2:41, 4:4), Jewish aggressions toward the followers of Jesus heightened. Stephen was martyred for his belief in Christ (Acts 7) and Saul of Tarsus, the same guy who later told the Galatians that God sent Jesus into the world at the ideal point in history, was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (9:1, NIV). It’s hard to imagine this as the prime time for Christ’s appearing and the commencement of the church. But as Scripture asserts and as history confirms, God’s timing was perfect.
The Roman Empire’s initial perception of Christianity was somewhat ambivalent. To Rome, the newly formed Christian community was merely another sect of the Jewish religion and Judaism was a legal belief system within the Roman Empire. Yet, the disturbances that arose as a result of the Jewish animosity to the emerging Christian sect threatened to undo the tenuous peacefulness that Rome had established in Palestine. As the Christian movement advanced beyond the borders of Israel and throughout the Roman Empire (partially in an effort to escape the Jewish persecution in Israel), others found reasons to contend with Christianity. Some viewed Christianity as a challenge to their accepted religious and moral ideas (Acts 17:22-32), while others saw it as a threat to their economic prosperity (19:23-28). So great were these challenges that the Roman Emperor Nero, less than 35 years after the church’s inception, endorsed localized persecutions that specifically targeted Christians.
Accompanying the escalating political and cultural opposition to Christianity were a series of inaccurate and unfair charges that were levied against the believers. When Christians refused to worship the emperor or pay tribute to the other gods of the Roman pantheon, they were accused of being anarchists and atheists who sought the demise of Rome. They were also alleged to be cannibals who ate the body and drank the blood of their dead leader (a corrupted understanding of the Lord’s Supper) and sexual deviants who both married their “brothers” and “sisters” and met in suspicious nocturnal worship services. Among the culturally elite, Christians were also characterized as the intellectually deficient members of society who believe in the virgin birth and resurrection of the one they called Lord.
Problems that Led to Opportunities
While the church’s early centuries were filled with roadblocks and hardships, they were also filled with possibilities and opportunities. The various captivities and conquests of the Jews in the centuries before Christ, for instance, caused a diffusion of Jews throughout the empire. As these dispersed Jews formed synagogues, many early Christians used these synagogues as forums for announcing to the Jewish audiences that the Messiah had indeed come. Moreover, the conquests and influence of Alexander the Great some 300 years before Christ made Greek the universal language of the Roman Empire. Both evangelists and biblical writers relied on Greek as the most effective dialect for communicating the Christian message to the widest possible audience. And, as missionaries traveled the empire to proclaim the good news of Christ, they discovered that Rome’s governance of the Mediterranean world made travel much safer and efficient than ever before. Over 50,000 miles of paved roadways crisscrossed the Roman Empire and seafarers on the Mediterranean were safeguarded from piracy by Rome’s military might.
By taking advantage of the opportunities and refusing to allow the difficulties to deter them, early Christians overtook the Roman Empire with the gospel message. While there are no precise statistics on the early growth of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark suggests a very plausible growth-rate estimate of 3.4 percent throughout the church’s first four centuries. Using Stark’s model, a Christian population of roughly 1,000 people in the year A.D. 40 would have grown to over 30 million by 350.
Regardless of the trustworthiness of speculative growth quantifications, early Christians clearly took Jesus’ evangelistic commission seriously and pushed beyond the barriers that were designed to impede them to make Christianity the predominate religion of the Roman Empire.
Advancing the Faith Today
As modern society appears to be trending more toward secularism and religious apathy, many Christians have expressed great angst as they ponder the future of Christianity in our Western culture. Amid the religious pluralism that marks Western civilization, many Christians fear the encroachments of other religions or of no religion at all. It’s also quite easy to lament the social decay of a once vibrant Judeo-Christian standard of morality or to complain that certain Christian beliefs are being called into question by our culture. As modern opponents to Christianity both mock the Christian faith and make spurious and baseless claims against it, just as their earlier Roman counterparts did, some wonder how long it may be before governmental policies infringe upon the church’s free expression of those Christian convictions that are deemed unacceptable to our non-Christian culture.
Amid these potential threats to our Christian comfort, however, one must wonder if we are overlooking the opportunities and possibilities that exist for advancing our faith in this modern culture. No other era in history has possessed the technologies of our age for travel, education, communication, and the advancement of the gospel. The early church thrived and advanced throughout the Roman Empire because they refused to see their pagan society as a threat to their personal wellbeing. Instead, they viewed their non-believing culture as a fertile soil into which the seeds of their Christian faith might be planted. And God brought growth to his church because of their faithfulness.
When Jesus came into the world at the “fullness of time,” it was not a comfortable and accepting culture that he entered. In fact, it was a hostile culture that had no tolerance for Jesus or his message. And it was into this hostile culture that Jesus sent his followers, commissioning them to make disciples. Jesus did not promise these faithful witnesses that they would have comfort and safety, or that there would never be trials or difficulties. But he did promise that he would be with them always, “to the very end of the age.”
After 20 years as professor of church history at Cincinnati Christian University, Rick Cherok recently accepted a position as professor of history at Ozark Christian College. Dr. Cherok is also the founder and executive director of Celtic Christian Mission (www.CelticChristianMission.org).