“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8 (ESV)
With these words, Christ ended his earthly ministry. As his disciples watched on, flabbergasted, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving them behind. The disciples were so entranced by the sight of his departure, two angels were dispatched to tell them to stop standing around and get on with their mission. And “get on with it” they did.
So, the disciples went.
While remaining “disciples” – followers, students – they also were given the title of “Apostle” – messenger, one sent – along with several other notable early church leaders we will discuss on another day. They proclaimed Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – everywhere life and the Spirit carried them (literally, in Philip’s case – see Acts 8). Their witness was passed down in verbal and written form to those who came after them. Within the lifetime of The Apostles, the good news Jesus offered to the world was carried throughout the Roman Empire, and beyond. It was carried throughout three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe) by the end of the second century, and carried throughout the rest of the world shortly thereafter. Their message has been passed down for millennia, from generation to generation, through joy and sorrow, persecution and worldly power, famine and plenty, war and peace. It has been passed down faithfully from them to you.
That is the topic I aim to address with this blog. I’m going to spend some time each month writing about the history of the church, God’s message bearers. Along the way, I’ll be touching upon a variety of topics – politics, warfare, geography, notable people, notable events and the like. I’ll be writing chronologically as much as possible, from early church history and working towards modern times. Sometimes I will have to step outside of this chronology, so please bear with me. We will come back to it, I promise.
For the purposes of this blog, we are going to assume the Church Age, and therefore church history, started immediately upon Christ’s ascension into heaven. And yes, in case you are wondering, historians and theologians do indeed argue about when exactly the Church Age started. Don’t worry, historians like to argue. It’s practically our job, and most of the time it’s good-natured. So, we will be working in the book of Acts soon.
But first, I want to spend a little time talking about some of the background things that were happening in the world that lead up to the Church Age. Trust me, they will be worth knowing. In Galatians, Paul says “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son.” God ensured the world was prepared for the message of Christ, and the state of the world in the early first century demonstrates that.
Here’s a quick breakdown of topics we will be discussing in the coming months. More topics will follow! Don’t let the fancy words fool you, they should each be worth reading!
Topic One: Setting the Stage
- Hellenization (the spreading of Greek Thought, Culture and Language)
- Pax Romana (The Peace of Rome)
- First Century Judea in Socio-political Context
- First Century Jewish Thought
Topic Two: Biblical Church History
- Church History in Acts
- Church History in the Epistles
- Church History in Revelation (yes, it’s there)
- Biographical Breakdowns of Biblical Church figures
Topic Three: The Apostolic Age
This period technically covers the “biblical church history” mentioned above, but will go further than what we can read in the Bible. We will talk about the cities in which the church took root, the people who influenced the direction of the early church, and the fourth-century bishop who recorded much of this period of church history.
When I start talking about church history, I’ve noticed one question get asked over and over again: Why should I care? To be honest, I have asked this question myself (and far more recently than I would like to admit). I didn’t always love history. I used to hate it. I saw history as the memorization of facts divorced from the issues I was dealing with day after day. Then, I was introduced to the Early Church Fathers. Reading the writings of these giants of faith (a title they would, most assuredly, have foresworn) led me to realize something that had been readily apparent to Solomon millenia ago: there is nothing new under the sun.
The issues we face as followers of Christ, the theological debates we have, the push and pull between the world and the church that seems to be a new phenomena is nothing of the sort. The problems we have are the same. The context may have changed, but the underlying issues haven’t. Learning about the past allows us to more confidently face the present, because we can know that our fellow followers of Christ have gone through similar times. Our technology has changed, our means of communication have changed, but most of our underlying ideas about life, truth, and faith remain the same.
While some ask “Why should I care?,” it is also possible to err in the opposite direction. I cannot tell you how often I have met young christians who took on a love of church history, and then dove so far off the deep end in fervent study that I could scarcely help them to come up and breath. They began to love the topic for the sake of knowledge alone. They loved knowledge, and missed the fact that knowledge is supposed to spur on action – it is supposed to spur on love. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.
In Hebrews 11, the author walks the reader through a list of people throughout history, demonstrating over and over again the faithfullness these men and women had in God. He (or she) reminds the readers of their shared history, and the way in which God used people throughout the ages to do his will in the world. In Hebrews 12, we learn the action the author wants this knowledge to have on our lives. They write:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3 (ESV)
We learn about the great cloud of witnesses that surround us for the same reason; that they may help direct our gaze toward Christ. Through them, we can learn more about what it means to live as a follower of his throughout our lives in this troubled, beautiful world.
I look forward to taking this journey with you! May the Lord bless you and keep you.
Now go, be the church.
Photo by jimforest on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND