Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

The reviled

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

These words continue the eighth blessing; they are not a new blessing. Perhaps Jesus found it necessary to repeat himself because of the strangeness of what he was saying. How can it be good to be persecuted in the world? When we are on God’s side, shouldn’t we be set free from all worldly troubles and fears? Doesn’t life become easier for those who become Christians? Many people seem to expect an easier life after they come to faith. Disappointment awaits them, as they will learn that Jesus never made such a promise.

Jesus has enemies in the world. The devil, along with all those who follow his ways, fight against Jesus and against the members of his Church. Sometimes even Christians fight against Jesus and his plan for our lives. We struggle to remain faithful to him and to live as he wants us to live. We do not always succeed.

We should not belittle the hardships that Christians face where the persecution is fiercest. They risk all that they have, serving Jesus in countries hostile to the Gospel. But the greatest enemies Christians face are not flesh and blood. Evil is a spiritual power. We are tempted to sin. When we sin, guilt attacks us, perhaps even causing us to doubt God’s love and forgiveness. Sicknesses and accidents and the reality of death may make us question whether God is really taking care of us—we may even doubt that God is really there.

The words of Jesus provide an answer to those questions. Our enemies are his enemies; they are the same enemies faced by God’s people in earlier times. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, when we are meek and merciful, when we try to be peacemakers, some people will hate us and will try to make life miserable for us. The forces of evil oppose us as they opposed Jesus. Life is hard in this world for any person who tries to be like Jesus.

If his enemies are our enemies, then we must be on the right track. Persecution is not the only good news we have, of course. After all, the devil and the world cause lost sinners to suffer; they do not persecute only Christians. When the forces of evil rage against us, though, we know they are angry because we have already been rescued from their power. They resent the eternal life that we will enjoy with God in the new creation. They will do anything they can to try to make us doubt God’s love and the truth of his promises.

When we are under attack, we remember that we are blessed. Christ won a victory over all the forces of evil, and he shares his victory with us. Our reward in heaven is great, because our reward in heaven was earned in our names by the perfect, sinless life of Jesus. By his suffering, Jesus claimed each of us for that reward.

Our problems can remind us of how Jesus suffered to save us. The same enemies that fight us once tried to destroy him. They want to use our problems to trick us into forgetting about Jesus and his promises. When we instead allow our problems to remind us of Jesus and the cross, we are his partners in victory. His enemies lose. J.

Those who are persecuted

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

Some people go door to door sharing their version of religion. Their reputation is not good; they sometimes are persistent to the point of rudeness. When people are rude to them in turn, the visitors congratulate themselves with the thought that they are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They therefore think that they are earning the blessing of the kingdom of heaven.

Compare this example to the Christians of the early Church who suffered and died for their faith in Jesus Christ. Church historians report that eleven of the twelve apostles were executed for preaching the Christian faith. Peter is said to have been crucified upside down; Paul, we are told, was beheaded. Only John lived to be an old man, and he spent time on Patmos, a prison island.

Persecution did not end with the Roman Empire. Even today some governments persecute their own citizens because they are Christians. Even today people risk persecution for doing no more than attending a Christian worship service. Some risk boldly; others meet secretly. They know that they could lose their jobs, the affection of their family and friends, their freedom, and even their lives because of their faith in Jesus. They continue believing, though. They continue meeting to worship and to pray and to study the Bible. Some of them even dare to share the Gospel with others. They do these things because Jesus gives them more than any earthly power can take away from them.

Being persecuted earns no rewards from God. Those of us who confront only feeble opposition—or no opposition at all—have not lost the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. This gift is ours through the persecution Jesus endured for us from the hands of his enemies: his suffering and death on the cross. He won a victory on that cross, and he shares that victory with us and with all who believe in him. His victory is powerful, so powerful that it helps those who are threatened by poverty or violence because of their faith in Jesus. Their sufferings remind them how Jesus suffered for them. The memory of his cross strengthens them so they can endure suffering and death in Jesus’ name.

Persecution in this world does not guarantee blessings from God. People have suffered and died for bad causes. It does not matter what the world does to us; what matters is what Jesus has done for us. He has blessed us with his kingdom. Nothing in this world can take that blessing from us. J.

Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.