Monday, June 29, 2009

Evangelizing the Empire

The Gospel in the Roman Empire--
The Setting and Times of the New Testament

The Gospel in the Roman Empire--
The Rise of Persecution

The Gospel in the Roman Empire--The Rise of the Romans

One of the most amazing things when thinking about the Gospel and its advance through the ages, is how it went from being a small outlaw faith during the early days of the Roman Empire, to later becoming the official religion of the very empire that had spent so much time and effort trying to stamp it out.

How it went from first being a fringe movement led by a former carpenter turned itinerant preacher/healer who was crucified like a common criminal outside the city gates, to becoming a persecuted outlaw group whose adherents were often rounded up and made sport of in their deaths, to later being declared the official faith of the very Roman Empire that had tried to rid the earth of it, in the relatively short span of 300 years, is one of the more fascinating inquiries of the ages.

The Persecuted Minorities

Not too far along in its earliest days, persecution began to be directed towards the first Christians as we see in the first half of Acts with Peter and others being put in prison and James and Stephen being put to death. This would only become multiplied on a grand scale as time went on.

In Acts 18:2, packed into a small and seemingly obscure verse we find a dark foreboding of things to come: “Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.” The Jews were getting into disputes with others so Claudius basically booted them out of town.

This actually affected many Christians who were also Jews since Christians were seen as an offshoot of Judaism at this time. The prophetic insight of what was coming down the pike in this seemingly obscure verse foreshadows a troubling future for the minority Christian community as Emperor Claudius continued his reign.

Claudius was sickly and weak and seen by the Julio-Claudian dynasty as an embarrassing leader who stuttered, drooled, had various nervous tics and poor public presentation. Yet he could still govern adequately enough when compared with both his predecessor and successor. His predecessor and uncle Caligula was mentally unstable and had even suggested naming his horse as a senator; he later was assassinated. Claudius too was a better leader than his dreaded successor Nero. Claudius, however, was easily manipulated by women. He actually told the Praetorian Guard after another of his marriages failed, to please kill him if he ever got involved with another woman. Ironically, it would actually be a woman who would cause his demise and inadvertently usher in the wholesale persecution of the Christian faith.

Claudius’s third wife and niece Agrippina schemed to have her son Nero put in place as the next in line for the throne, instead of Brittanicus who was Claudius’ biological son. Once her wishes were in place, Agrippina then got rid of Claudius by poisoning him so that Nero could rise to be emperor at 17 years of age, which in turn unleashed a descent into destructiveness of all kinds.

Unfit for the task by many and varied accounts in every respect, Nero fulfilled his sinister family history by first murdering his very own mother Agrippina, the very one who had gotten him to the throne in the first place. He continued to carry on this accursed family tradition by also murdering his wife and putting her severed head on display for his mistress, only to later kick her to death while she carried his very child.

Nero soon turned his venom on the small minority group often derided as “the atheists” (quite ironic!) so called because they refused to worship the pantheon of Roman gods; they were also called “Christians” as followers of Jesus Christ, the name with longer-range sticking power.

Nero was garnering heavy criticism as emperor for burning down a good portion of Rome with a fire he had started in a land grab to build a monument unto his ever-expanding ego. Needing a scapegoat to cover up the mess he created, he pointed the finger at the small minority Christian population and blamed them for starting the fire. Following this, a campaign of wholesale and severe persecution was unleashed against the community of believers. They were thrown to the lions in arenas; they were covered with bloody hides as wild dogs were unleashed on them, tearing them apart; they were also burned alive in public places, and even used as human flaming torches in Nero’s very own garden, providing a hideous backdrop for his parties as he would entertain his guests by singing and playing the lyre.

Nero’s life ended in suicide when a coup was brought against him. He was facing certain execution and took his own life with the words: “What a showman the world is losing in me.” He had set a precedent of persecution against the Christians that would continue even after his demise.

As we can see from these scenarios, the believers in the days of the Roman Empire faced very real and very serious threats because of their beliefs. They also lived in a complex, often cruel, and yet at the same time advanced civilization with multiple and constant challenges.

Paradoxically, the world they lived in also offered exceptional opportunities to help perpetuate their faith and even to carry it forth into the world in great and unique ways. It really isn’t all that much different from our world today with its milieu of complexities, threats, and often-untrustworthy leaders on the one hand, while on the other hand presenting unique and never-before-seen opportunities to spread the faith. Nevertheless, we cannot understate the fact that it was more threatening to live as a believer back then than it is now.

We can also see and take heart from the fact that the Gospel can and does still live and even thrive in spite of a hostile political and civil climate, as well as ungodly—-yes, even crazed—-political leaders. Moreover, it must be noted that it wasn’t necessary for the political leaders to be won over for the continued advance of the Kingdom of God. Jesus' words, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” reflect the reality that the Kingdom of God’s advance is not dependent upon some politician giving it his endorsement.

Unique Opportunities of the Times

In spite of the sometimes-crazed Roman leaders and the threats they often brought to the Christian faith there were still outstanding aspects of the Roman Empire itself that actually did greatly aid in Christianity’s spread. As touched on previously, the Roman Empire was a high point of ancient times with an advanced and highly developed civilization—-not terribly unlike our own developed Western society in today’s world.

Its complex road and travel system could take one anywhere from Britain to Cairo to Mesopotamia, extending throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, and parts of Africa and Asia. This, in fact, became a very key feature in the spread of the Gospel as the Romans unwittingly and quite literally paved the way for the Gospel’s spread with these incredible roads they built throughout the Empire, which were used by those like Paul and many, many, other disciples to take the Gospel far and wide.

Another key factor was the international Greek language, the veritable lingua franca of the world. Greek was spoken everywhere, and along with Greek culture and philosophy it had spread abroad, fulfilling the earlier vision of Alexander the Great, who was prophesied about metaphorically in the Book of Daniel; as a matter of fact, the New Testament came to be written in koine (common) Greek. This was a tool in God’s hand and greatly aided the spread of the Gospel. Speaking a common language, the believers could readily communicate with others even when they were of different cultures and nationalities, without having to spend years learning a new language just to be understood.

Additionally, the final conquests of Augustus ushered in what became known as the Pax Romana or Roman Peace, which brought an unparalleled time of peace to the known world of that time. Augustus was the emperor mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who ruled during the time of Jesus’ birth. As Julius Caesar’s adopted son, he inherited the throne and put down all his enemies, pursuing Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins, into Greece until they were eliminated, then proceeding to put down Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Attica. With no more real competitors to the throne, an unprecedented time of peace came over the Occident of the Roman world, which came by way of military might and superiority and was one of the few times of real world peace the planet has ever seen. Not surprisingly, it served as a great advantage as well in the Gospel’s spread. It is not always easy to minister in a war zone.

Other aspects of the Empire also aided in the Gospel’s spread. The international monetary system, where with one currency—the Roman denarius—people could buy and sell goods, would ease travel for the disciples. The ingenious aqueduct system that brought fresh drinking water into city centers also aided those who gave themselves to Christianity’s spread; they could focus on the task at hand versus time spent just trying to survive and meet basic needs.

All these things unequivocally worked in favor of the Gospel’s spread as the early believers co-opted them for higher means. There is a lesson here for us today: we must also, as Paul says, “Use every available means” to also propagate the faith in our day as well. Be it media, Internet, technology, ease of travel–jets and cars are faster and easier than walking on Roman roads—mass ability to print and disseminate Bibles and literature, and whatever else comes our way; all of this should also be co-opted for a higher purpose: that of spreading the truth and ultimately fulfilling the Great Commission.

The Deciding Factor

Though the early Christians used the means of their times to advance the Gospel, and although those means aided the Gospel’s spread greatly, they were not, however, the ultimate deciding factor in the Gospel’s advance. As pointed out, Christianity had become an outlaw religion and began to suffer severe persecution soon under Nero. If one were to look at this situation through a natural lens, Christianity should have disappeared from the face of the earth under such extreme pressure and threat even with the great Roman infrastructure to aid its spread. Instead, it grew and even thrived, later becoming the official faith of the very empire that had spent so much time and effort trying to stamp it out.

It would take much more than some paved roads and a common language for someone to join up with an outlaw faith being preached by persecuted preachers, a faith that could ultimately cause one to end up as a torch in a maniac’s garden or as a meal for a hungry lion! There definitely needed to be something very compelling to win people over to such a persecuted faith.

The task of sharing the Good News, much less just standing firm as a Christian in that complex and challenging world of the Roman Empire, could be formidable to say the least. The incredible transition from having to hold underground meetings in catacombs and caves, to becoming the official faith of the Empire that had tried to exterminate it certainly demanded a compelling power that was beyond human strength or agency.

Not by Might Nor by Power (i.e. Not by human strength or agency)

We can clearly find one of the main keys to the incredible transition right in the pages of Scripture…there is a reason why the Book of Acts mentions the Holy Spirit over 70 times!!!

Jesus' words in Acts 1:8, “It is not for you to know times or dates… but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” are more than an interesting phrase for a Bible study. No, this was the locus classicus of the early Christian existence.

Being filled with and relying on the Holy Spirit was something not only taken as a necessary and essential equipping for the believer just to live as a Christian in that day, but also something that resulted in the believers being bold witnesses even in the face of serious and severe persecution.

Furthermore, as Jesus said: “He [the Holy Spirit] will convict people of sin, righteousness, and judgment.” (John 16:8-10) It was the fact that believers relied on the Holy Spirit which so empowered their witness so as to make it compelling and convicting to hearers.

In addition, the believers’ witness was commonly accompanied by miracles, signs, and wonders that served to illuminate their message in a dramatic way. For example Paul says in Romans 15:19-20: “…By the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” Paul also said: “My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on man’s wisdom but on God’s power.” 1 Cor. 2: 4-5.

It is apparent that the early believers took this to heart and sought to follow Paul and other apostles’ example of relying on the Holy Spirit and having miracles, signs, and wonders often serve as a witness to the message they were preaching.

Noted historian Ramsay MacMullen points out that miracles were something of a staple that accompanied the believers’ witness and served as a tool in reaching out to others, demonstrating the power and superiority of the Gospel and of the one true Savior and God.

Macmullen states in his book Christianizing the Roman Empire: “Driving all competition from the field head-on was crucial. The world had many dozens and hundreds of gods. Choice was open to everybody. It could only be a most exceptional force that would displace alternatives and compel allegiance. We should assign as much weight to this chief instrument of conversion [signs and wonders] as the best early reports do.”(1)

Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that the early Christians, as we ourselves do today, lived in a pluralistic and advanced society with all kinds of pseudo-spiritual things out there vying for people’s attention and allegiance. Yet back in the Book of Acts as in much of the Early Church, they relied on the Holy Spirit as they were told by Jesus to do, and eventually won the day.

In spite of the difficulties and persecutions of their day they relied on the Holy Spirit’s power and took advantage of the opportunities provided by the Empire they lived in and harnessed and utilized them for the purpose of the Gospel’s advance. Through trial and tribulation they persevered and in time went from being the persecuted minority to eventually becoming the official faith of the very Empire that had literally sought to eliminate Christianity from the face of the earth.

Important examples exist for us from these early believers that we need to take note of. The Gospel’s existence and spread wasn’t dependent on politicians being in league with it for its expansion and life. The early believers utilized the means of the day and of their culture and maximized them for God’s higher purpose of taking the Gospel throughout the earth. Most importantly though, they depended on the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the seemingly impossible task of reaching the world, a hostile world at that, and by persevering in these things they eventually won the day.

(1) MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984).

Note: New video on Christianizing the Empire coming soon.