Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Early Church (4)

This is part 4 of 4 of chapter 6 of my book, Biblical Glasses.

How did the Church grow?

As the number of believers increased throughout the region, the Herodian family of rulers continued to reign. Herod the Great, who ruled from 40 B.C. until his death in 4 or 3 B.C., was the man who tried to have the Messiah killed as a baby. This Herod was succeeded by his son, Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist and ruled from 4 or 3 B.C. until his death in 39 A.D. Herod Antipas was succeeded by his son, Agrippa I, who ruled from 39–44.

Herod Agrippa I put to death James, the brother of John, for preaching the Gospel. When he saw how this pleased many of the Jews in Jerusalem, he arrested Peter as well. Peter was going to be put on public trial, but an angel rescued him from prison. When Agrippa could not find Peter, he had the guards executed! Later, Agrippa accepted praise as if he was a god, and he was struck dead immediately, eaten from within by worms. He was succeeded by his son, Herod Agrippa II, who ruled from 50–93, throughout the remainder of Biblical history.

Meanwhile, the fellowship of believers in Antioch was thriving, and the Holy Spirit came to the leaders there, telling them to “set apart … Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2,3). So around 47 A.D., Barnabas and Saul set out on a missionary trip. They took along a young disciple named John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, and went from Antioch to the island of Cyprus, where Saul, now called Paul, converted a Roman leader to Christianity after blinding a wicked sorcerer named Elymas, who was attempting to keep the Roman leader from conversion.

Continuing from Cyprus into present day central Turkey, Mark left the group and returned to Jerusalem. (He may have been homesick, as he was still very young.) During the two-year journey guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul and Barnabas worked miracles, preached the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, and despite significant persecution and even death threats, founded several Christian churches throughout the region of Galatia. They appointed elders as leaders within these churches and then returned to Antioch to report the results of their voyage.

Shortly after their return, many of the Jewish Christians began arguing over the conversion of Gentiles; they said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with James and Peter. They held the Council at Jerusalem and came to the consensus that grace is what saves both Jews and Gentiles, through faith in Christ, not by circumcision.

So the Council drafted a letter to circulate throughout the region among the new churches and clear up any confusion on the method of salvation. The believers in Antioch “read it and were glad for its encouraging message” (Acts 15:31). Basically the Council at Jerusalem determined that one did not first have to convert to Judaism, which required circumcision, before converting to Christianity. Despite the agreement of all the Church leaders, there were many people who still thought the Jewish law must be kept, just as Moses had prescribed. But the Bible says:

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you
have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not
circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though
they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys
the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and
circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly,
nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one
inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by
the written code (Romans 2:25-29).
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, to the churches in the region of Galatia, explaining, among other invaluable teachings, that Gentiles did not first have to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. Then in 49 A.D., Paul and Barnabas decided to set out on another missionary trip, but they disagreed on who would accompany them. Barnabas wanted to take Mark, but Paul did not, as Mark had left them prematurely during their previous trip. So Barnabas took Mark and went his separate way, back toward Cyprus, and Paul took a disciple named Silas and headed for the churches in Galatia. Despite the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, there were no lasting ill feelings.

As Paul and Silas declared the Gospel again to the people of Galatia, a young convert named Timothy joined them. Timothy was the first second-generation Christian! His mother and grandmother had converted to faith in Christ at an earlier time. The missionaries worked their way through present day Turkey and then headed into Macedonia. Interestingly, Paul wanted to remain in Asia Minor (Turkey), but the Holy Spirit denied his desire and directed them instead to go west into Greece.

The missionaries arrived in the city of Philippi, where they worked miracles, preached the Gospel, converted many to faith in Christ, and founded a Christian church. One of their miracles involved driving out an evil spirit from a fortuneteller slave girl, thereby eliminating her ability to tell the future; the girl’s owners were upset that their source of profit was gone, so they complained about Paul and Silas to the local authorities.

Believing the false accusations against Paul and Silas, the authorities beat them severely and imprisoned them without offering a trial. An earthquake shook the ground that night, and all the prison doors flew open. The jailer was about to kill himself, knowing that the punishment for allowing prisoners to escape was death, but Paul stopped him and preached the Gospel to him. The jailer was immediately converted to Christianity and baptized. The next day, Paul and Silas were legally released from prison, and the local authorities, after finding out that they were Roman citizens, regretted imprisoning them without a trial.

The missionaries traveled on to the city of Thessalonica, where they continued to preach the Gospel of Christ, winning many Thessalonians to salvation in the Lord. Paul “reasoned with them from the [Old Testament] Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3). The Jews would have known the Old Testament very well. Nevertheless, there were some Jews in Thessalonica who did not accept the Gospel message; they grew jealous and threatened Paul with death! So the missionaries escaped to Berea, where they continued teaching. The Bible says:

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they
received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day
to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a
number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. When the Jews in
Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the Word of God at Berea, they went
there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately
sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who
escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas
and Timothy to join him as soon as possible (Acts 17:11-15).

Paul was disturbed at the numerous idols in Athens; people worshiped anything and everything. Because great crowds had gathered to hear his preaching, Paul was invited to speak before the Assembly in Athens. Paul masterfully preached the Gospel to these Greek philosophers, beginning with the Book of Genesis to explain what his Jewish listeners already knew: God created the universe. Paul said:

From one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole
earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they
should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for
Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. ‘For in Him we live
and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:26-28).

Many of these Greek philosophers to whom Paul spoke were skeptical, but others liked what Paul had to say and wanted to meet with him again later. Paul was known primarily for his writing of the majority of the New Testament letters, but he was also brilliantly equipped to preach the Gospel to anyone in any setting.

When speaking to Jewish people, who already knew that God created the universe and formed a covenant with their father, Abraham, Paul taught that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Whom they expected, by reasoning from their Scriptures, the Old Testament. When speaking to Gentiles, who had little or no knowledge of the Scriptures and often did not believe in only One God, Paul would begin with the creation account told in Genesis to explain that there is indeed only One, True God, Who has a plan of salvation through Jesus Christ for all of His people. In nearly every situation, Paul was able to gently and respectfully approach anyone with the message of the Gospel. Paul said:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win
as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those
under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the
law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became
like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under
Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak,
to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible
means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may
share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Later, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth, where he met up again with Silas and Timothy and continued preaching boldly. Paul made friends with a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who came to Corinth from Rome when Emperor Claudius, ruler of the Roman Empire from 41–54 A.D., banished all Jews from Rome. They converted to Christianity and later returned to Rome and founded the Christian church there.

Paul preached in the synagogue at Corinth, but the Jews were unresponsive to the Gospel message, so he went out and preached to the Gentiles. Many in Corinth, including the leader of the Jewish synagogue, believed and were baptized into Christ. Paul remained in Corinth for over a year, corresponding via letters with the church at Thessalonica; then he accompanied Aquila and Priscilla to Ephesus, leaving Greece for Turkey. Paul briefly preached there and then left his friends behind, traveling on to Caesarea, where he greeted the church members. Finally, Paul arrived in Antioch in 52 A.D., where, after over two years on the road, he rested for awhile.

Meanwhile, an up-and-coming preacher named Apollos arrived in Ephesus, where he “learned the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26) from Aquila and Priscilla. Then Apollos went to Corinth, where, “on arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27-28).

Paul’s third missionary trip lasted from 52–57, taking him from Antioch back through Galatia and eventually to Ephesus, where he stayed for three years. God allowed Paul to work wonderful miracles in Ephesus, causing more and more people to come to faith in Christ. From Ephesus, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, and then “he traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, where he stayed three months” (Acts 20:2-3).

From Greece, he wrote a letter to the Roman church, which he intended to visit but had not as of yet. He also wrote a second letter to the Corinthians. Paul continued to experience persecution throughout his journey. There were always people who could not stand to hear the name of Jesus; it is much the same today!

Hearing of a plan to sabotage his ship, which had planned to sail for Syria, Paul decided to backtrack through Greece and take the long way home. He spent time in Philippi then came to Troas, in present day Turkey on the coast of the Aegean Sea. In Troas:

Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on
talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we
[Luke, the author of Acts, was with Paul for much of this journey] were meeting.
Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep
sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground
from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on
the young man and put his arms around him. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘He’s
alive!’ Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until
daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly
comforted (Acts 20:7-12).
This event is so inspiring to me! I often feel the same as Paul, desiring to always and constantly engage in conversation about the magnificence of God and His ways, but I rarely feel like those around me want to talk about those things. If Paul shared my apprehensions, he did not let them inhibit him; regardless if his audience was listening or sleeping, Paul was so passionate about Christ and God’s Word that he had to talk about them all the time. The Bible says:

Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you
walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols
on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of
your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).
Continuing on, Paul left Troas and sailed toward home, despite the likelihood that he would be arrested upon his return to Jerusalem. Paul made several stops along the way; he greeted the elders of the Ephesian church in Miletus, where they had come to meet him. Paul encouraged them to “be shepherds of the Church of God, which [Christ] bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). He told them to remain steadfast in faith as they would likely be persecuted by outsiders. Even insiders would lead people astray by distorting the truth as false teachers. After a moment of prayer, the elders sent Paul on his way, knowing they would likely never see him again.

Paul arrived in Caesarea, where he stayed with Philip, one of the seven deacons mentioned earlier. When the prophet Agabus informed Paul of his certain arrest in Jerusalem, many of the disciples cried for him.
However, Paul was not worried. He said, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

Paul was indeed taken captive shortly after arriving in Jerusalem in 57 A.D. As he was led away from the crowd, which demanded his imprisonment, Paul spoke to the arresting officer in Greek and received permission to address his accusers. Paul then spoke to the crowd in Aramaic, momentarily earning their respect.

He gave his testimony, explaining how he was born a Jew and Roman citizen, how he studied the law under Gamaliel and was zealous in the Jewish faith, how he desired to put an end to the early Christian movement by persecuting and arresting all who professed faith in the Risen Christ, how he saw the Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, how he was converted to Christianity by God, and how God had led him to preach the Good News of Christ to the Gentiles. At this testimony, the crowd demanded for his death, and the guard placed Paul in prison.

The next day, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, where he caused a riot among the religious leaders. The Sadducees and Pharisees began arguing over Paul’s life; that night, God promised Paul that he would give his defense before Caesar in Rome. The next day, many of the Jews conspired to kill Paul, but Paul’s nephew found out about the plot and warned him. The Roman guard, who had respect for Paul, sent him from Jerusalem to Caesarea to await trial in safety.

Days later, the Jews from Jerusalem visited Caesarea to press charges; Paul again gave his defense before the court. Two years passed without a formal decision in Paul’s case. The leaders were baffled by his case; there seemed to be no reason for a trial!

Paul took advantage of many opportunities to share the Gospel with the leaders, including Herod Agrippa II. Nevertheless, he was kept on house arrest in the palace of Herod in Caesarea and, after asking to appeal his case to Caesar, was sent with Luke and some other prisoners to Rome in 59 or 60 A.D.

The voyage to Rome was slow going; it turned out to be a disaster. When a storm hit, the ship they were on was tossed about and eventually lost at sea. Paul encouraged the men to remain calm, for he had a vision that all of them would be kept alive. After fourteen days lost at sea, they found land; it turned out to be the island of Malta, and everyone on board got to shore safely. Remaining in Malta for three months, Paul healed every ailing person on the entire island! After many additional stops, the prisoners arrived in Rome, where Paul, still under arrest, was allowed to live in a house with only one guard.

Paul remained under house arrest in Rome for two years until 62 A.D., and he wrote letters to the churches at Ephesus, Colosse, and Philippi, as well as to an individual named Philemon. Paul preached to the Jews and converted many to Christianity. He met with everyone who wanted to speak with him. Apparently, Paul was released after two years, possibly because the statute of limitations expired on his case, which had been pending for at least five years.

Paul may have traveled west to Spain and revisited many of his friends at the churches he had established in Greece and Galatia. During this time, he wrote two letters: One to Titus, the administrator of the Christian churches on the island of Crete, and one to Timothy, his traveling companion and understudy who would continue his work.

Paul was then arrested again, perhaps in 64 or 65 A.D., after the great fire in Rome under the reign of Emperor Nero. When Nero blamed the fire on Christians, persecution against all believers dramatically increased. Paul’s confines were not so likeable this time; he was probably alone in a dungeon, where he managed to write his final letter to Timothy.

Christianity expanded its territory, reaching throughout the entire world, thanks to the efforts of courageous men and women like Paul, John, Peter, Barnabas, James, Timothy, Silas, Mark, Luke, Aquila and Priscilla, and Apollos, among countless others. Led by these strong, devoted followers of Christ, the Church grew rapidly. It was condemned and persecuted harshly, but still it continued to grow and thrive. People were willing to die for what they knew to be the truth. Their love for Jesus Christ was greater than their love for this world.

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