The First Century
Part I (1-100 A.D.)
History is nothing more than the movement of God countered by the movement of the devil.
History is one of the greatest teachers we have, but only if it is studied with the right perspective. High school and college history courses simply fill our heads with useless names and dates with no relevance to the world in which we live. How many times did you mutter to yourself in history class, “When in God’s name will I EVER use one bit of this mindless drivel?” My take on history is not like that. In this brief series—and in my book, Church History—I hope to communicate insight into why things happened rather than only what happened.
I’ve come up with a series of important principles to remember when studying history. Principle number one is this: History is nothing more than the movement of God countered by the movement of the devil. If a student can grasp that concept, he can look behind the raw data to see what is happening in the chess match of eternity.
God gave us a free will, but all our choices are, in one way or another, responses to the movements of two spiritual forces behind the scenes—God and Satan. God moves in the hearts and lives of men and women. Satan then reacts to God’s moves by also moving in their lives in an attempt to stop God’s plan. God moves again to cut off Satan, and Satan responds in turn. It has been going on now for millennia. It is the ultimate game of life and history, and it is far more involved and complex than anyone ever imagines. There are billions of chess pieces, not just 32. They include not just the human race, but also untold billions of spirit beings in the unseen world of the “invisible hand” which operates largely without our knowledge.
Unlike a regular chess match where the pieces are inanimate, the chess game of history involves people who have been given a free will and choose to move on their own volition. They are not lifeless pieces picked up and forcibly moved against their will by the two opponents, though they are driven by suggestion and the power of spiritual persuasion. Chess pieces in the game of history can be moved individually one at a time or in masses of millions simultaneously. The two contestants in this chess match do not take turns. Instead they are constantly moving, not just once, but making multiple moves at the same time.
This game not only involves the physical dimension, but also the dimensions of time and eternity along with the supernatural world. What a chess match! The next time you try to figure out exactly what is going on in the world, remember the complexity of the game. Often you can see who is moving, but in many cases, your guess is as good as mine, and both of our guesses are usually wrong.
“These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”
Now that we understand this principle, let’s go to the beginning of the church.
The first century of the church saw the spread of Christianity unlike any other time in the last 2,000 years except perhaps during the revivals of the age of Philadelphia. With an infant church getting off the ground, God put up a special hedge of protection in its early years. Obviously, there was still opposition and attack; you can find it easily in the book of Acts. But overall, God gave a great deal of protection to the first-century church.
This is a good principle to take note of in your own life. When you first bring home little baby Johnny from the hospital, all eyes are on him and an all-out campaign is launched by mom and dad and grandparents and everyone else to protect that precious young life. The tiniest of issues with a newborn is dealt with immediately, especially the firstborn. As the child grows up, we gradually take the bubble wrap off him and let him experience life. Little 8-year-old Johnny gets beaned in a baseball game and dad yells out from the bleachers, “Get up! Rub some dirt on it! Be a man!” God treats his children the same way. When a person first gets saved (born again), God protects them in ways they are unaware of. As we grow in our new life in Christ, we begin to experience a little more of the realities of spiritual adversity. Our Father in heaven often calls out from the grandstands to tell us to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Timothy 2:3). The infant church experienced this same protection.
Since the book of Acts is the history book of the early church, much of what happened in the first 30 years of Christianity is recorded in its pages. Perhaps the most telling verse describing the spread of the early church is in Acts 17:6: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.” This was roughly 25 years after the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Obviously, “the world” was simply the “known world” of the time (areas surrounding the Mediterranean), and there were far fewer people, but this is nevertheless a significant accomplishment.
Paul and his men essentially evangelized the known world in a quarter century with no automobiles, cell phones, or internet. They didn’t even have Facebook to stay in touch. Some believers today pine for the “good old days” and want to go back to the “primitive church”. The spiritual principles governing any age of history are consistent and absolute, but physical circumstances vary. Sometimes those physical things affect the spread of the gospel, both in a positive and a negative way. So if you want the early church, unplug and get “off the grid”. Sell your car and walk everywhere you go. Actually, that could be a benefit in some ways! But our goal is always to seek and save the lost, and using the modern means we have is not wrong.
Our job is not necessarily to “call” for revival; it is to prepare our lives for God to use us as he sees fit and to be “in the way”.
As we peer back into the chess match of history, the most significant issue of the first 100 years was the rapid spread of the gospel. Satan took a few jabs at the church, but did not land many. There was a persecution that arose after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1), and Nero launched the first Imperial persecution from Rome in about 64 AD, but God did not allow a major attack against the church until late in the century. It was a unique movement of the Spirit of God where genuine, word of God Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire, and a significant percentage of the world’s population came to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Now when I say things like that, some may reply, “But God hasn’t changed. We have the same Holy Spirit today; why isn’t there a similar movement of God in our world?” It’s true that Jesus is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever”(Hebrews 13:8). Malachi 3:6 says, “I am the Lord, I change not.”But that doesn’t mean he operates exactly the same in every age. God’s nature does not change, but his methods do. Some of that is a result of the spiritual climate man creates. Revivals are not programmable by mankind. We cannot “call for revival” any more than we can force people to get saved. But there are clearly times in history that God has moved in a very special and unique way, and the first century was one of them. Our job is not necessarily to “call” for revival; it is to prepare our lives for God to use us as he sees fit and to be “in the way” (Genesis 24:27) when he does so we can participate in his mission.
The first century ends with the apostle John in exile on the Isle of Patmos off the coast of Greece. Each one of the other 11 apostles was met with a violent martyr’s death, which is chronicled in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. John escaped the sword, but did suffer persecution. I can’t prove this, but I believe that as soon as John penned the final words of Revelation (“Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”), he stepped into the presence of his Lord and Saviour. John is clearly the picture of the church at the rapture (Revelation 4:1), so I believe he was taken home to heaven from his prison cell in Patmos. Once the final words were written, he had fulfilled God’s purpose for him. I sometimes wonder what the prison guards found as they checked on him the next morning.
God backed his opponent into a corner and had decimated his bishops, rooks and knights.
The completion of the written revelation of God is another of the landmark events of history. One way we know the Book of Revelation is the final book of the canon of scripture because of the predominance of the number seven in it: God’s perfect number of completion.
Paul said that tongues and the other sign gifts of the apostolic church would cease when “that which is perfect is come” (I Corinthians 13:10). Without delving into a long discussion of the topic, that which is perfect is the completed written revelation of God. God’s word has always been around. It is “true from the beginning” (Psalm 119:160) and “settled forever” (Psalm 119:87). But Paul or David or Moses did not have a full Bible in their hands. In the context, Paul said, “We know in part and prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:9). Once the full revelation was collected, we no longer needed the sign gifts. All of the “Thus saith the Lord” was now in the hands of man to read for himself.
The church was born in Acts 2. It was empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit of God and given its commission to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). The apostle Paul and his converts fulfilled this commission as God put his arms of protection around it. Then, the crowning jewel of the New Testament church near the end of the first 100 years was the completion of the written word of God. God backed his opponent into a corner and had decimated his bishops, rooks and knights. But this chess match is unlike any other. We will continue the match in the next post, covering years 100-200 AD.