The First Christians
The first recorded use of the term Christian was in the city of Antioch (present day Turkey). This occurred several years after the crucifixion of Christ. The account is referenced in the book of Acts after Barnabas brought the Apostle Paul back to the city where they would end up teaching new Christian disciples about the Gospel for about a year.
"Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,
and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch.
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church
and taught great numbers of people.
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."
- Acts 11:25-27 (NIV)
A Greek word (Christianos), meaning "follower of Christ", began as a derogatory slang term created by gentiles. But as time went by, those who followed the teachings of Jesus took pride in being called a Christian.
"Then Agrippa said unto Paul,
Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." -Acts 26:28 (NIV)
The third and final New Testament reference to the term is in 1 Peter 4, which exhorts believers:
"Yet if [any man suffer] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed;
but let him glorify God on this behalf." -1 Peter 4:16 (NIV)
The Early Church
Today, most people think of a church as a building. But in the infancy of Christianity, the term Church profoundly referred to a movement. The first church buildings did not start to appear until the 3rd century.
After the New Testament era ended with the apostle John writing the book of Revelation in the late 1st century AD, we don’t hear about many known characters within the Christian movement. Yet, the message of Christ continued to rapidly spread across the vast Roman Empire. During this crucial period, the Gospel grew through a multitude of humble, ordinary believers whose names, for the most part, have been long forgotten.
Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the various city centers that were connected by the broad network of ports and roads across the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believer’s close-up, on a daily basis.
"We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity;
before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything,
but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."
In another place Justin points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their honesty in business dealings and their extraordinary forbearance when abused or taken advantage of.
Break from Judaism
As we know, Christianity began as a movement or sect within Judaism. Most of the early Christian doctrine was discussed in Jewish homes and synagogues.
Found in the 23rd chapter of Matthew and the 12th chapter of Luke, the Pharisees and the Sadducees earned numerous rebukes from Jesus. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees is to not be like them. Unlike the Sadducees, we are to believe everything the Bible says, including the miraculous and the afterlife. Unlike the Pharisees, we are not to treat traditions as having equal authority as Scripture, and we are not to allow our relationship with God to be reduced to a legalistic list of rules and rituals.
The many rules and rituals of Judiam ended up being a critical issue. Cultural traditions like circumcision, and kosher laws regarding food, were major traditions that Christian gentiles did not follow. It was the apostle Paul who confronted the Council of Jerusalem and the early Christian community in Jerusalem who originally didn't want to allow newly converted gentiles into the Jewish led church.
In Acts Chapter 10 we find the story when Peter had a vision where God spoke and said “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Peter is ironically summoned by a Gentile named Cornelius who ends up becoming the first non-Jewish Christian.
God as Our Father
Perhaps we can better understand the remarkable spread of Christianity by remembering what a jolt it must have been to the Roman world for the early church leaders to teach about a God as "Our Father." In that world, people felt, like so many do today, they were at the mercy of fate, victims of chance, dependent on luck, their destiny determined by blind astrological forces. By contrast, Christian believers witnessed to a personal God who could be approached as "our Father." This radical idea liberated those who were captive to fatalistic resignation.
The Power of Compassion
Christians became known as those who cared for the sick and the poor. Many were known for the healing that resulted from their prayers. Christians also started the first "Meals on Wheels." By the year 250, they were feeding more than 1500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.
On the surface, the early Christians appeared powerless and weak, as they were easy targets for scorn and ridicule. They had no great financial resources, no buildings, no social status, no government approval and no respect from the educators. And after they became separated from their first-century association with the Jewish synagogues, they lacked institutional backing and an ancient tradition to appeal to.
But what finally mattered is what they did have. They had faith. They had a fellowship. They had a new way of life.They had a confidence that their Lord was alive in heaven and guiding their daily lives. These were the important things that regular people strive for. And it made all the difference in laying a Christian foundation for all of Western civilization.
The Early Culture of Baptism
The Christian writer Hippolytus, writing about 200 A.D., describes baptism in Rome. Candidates took off their old garments, were baptized three times after renouncing Satan and affirming the basic teachings of the faith and were given new clothes to wear. Then they joined the rest of the church in the Lord's Supper.
During this early period of the church, baptism was not entered into lightly. First one went through an extensive period of preparation as a "catechumen." This period could last as long as three years, involving close scrutiny of the catechumen's behavior. The church would only admit those who proved to be sincere in seeking a totally new life within the Christian community.
False Prophets, Greed and the Gospel
Misusing the Gospel for financial gain is by no means the invention of the 20th-century. One of the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, The Didache, a kind of manual on church practice, warns about traveling preachers who come and ask for money. The satirist Lucian in the second century ridiculed Christians for being so easily taken in by charlatans, often giving them money. Lucian recorded the notorious case of the philosopher Peregrinus, who attracted a devoted following among Christians (and a lot of money) before he was found out. The showman instincts of Peregrinus reached their climax when he died by publicly cremating himself at the close of the Olympic games in 165AD.
The early Christians were the targets of repeated persecutions - some of unspeakable cruelty. For example, the emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire that destroyed 10 of the 14 city wards at Rome in 64 A.D., a fire that Nero apparently had ordered himself. The historian Tacitus, not a Christian, said that Nero had the believers "torn by dogs, nailed to crosses, and even used as human torches to illuminate his gardens at night."
The persecutions were sporadic, with peaceful intervals in between. They varied in their intensity and were mostly localized.
There were two all-out empire-wide persecutions intended to utterly destroy the church. The first, under the emperor Decius, began in December, 249. Everyone in the empire had to get a certificate from a government officer verifying that he or she had offered a sacrifice to the gods - an act that most Christians in good conscience could not do.
The second, called "The Great Persecution," began on February 23, 303, under Emperor Diocletian. Galerius, the empire's second-in-command, was behind this persecution policy and continued it after Diocletian's death. For eight long years, official decrees ordered Christians out of public office, scriptures confiscated, church buildings destroyed, leaders arrested, and pagan sacrifices required. All the reliable methods of torture were mercilessly employed - wild beasts, burning, stabbing, crucifixion, the rack. But they were all to no avail. The penetration of the faith across the empire was so pervasive that the church could not be intimidated nor destroyed. In 311, the same Galerius, shortly before his death, weak and diseased, issued an "edict of toleration." This included the statement that it was the duty of Christians "to pray to their god for our good estate."
The gradual growth of the organized Christian Church uprooted and transformed the Roman Empire.
The (Western) half of the Roman Empire (based in Rome) declined over time due to corruption, financial ruin, and invasion by Vandals and Visigoths, etc. The Byzantine Empire under the leadership of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, rose to power in the Eastern Roman territory.
The Edict of Milan in 313AD was a important agreement to treat Christians benevolently within the Roman Empire. Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met in Milan and among other things, agreed to change policies towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration by Galerius issued two years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire; this took place under Emperor Theodosius I in 380 AD.
Christian Growth and Persecution Today
In many ways the spread of Christianity in our present generation is as amazing as in the first three centuries. For example, over the past 40 years the church under the communist regime in China has multiplied many times over. Despite official opposition, they have developed a rapidly spreading network of house churches that is reminiscent of the early church in the Roman Empire.
The rapid growth of the Gospel is also mirrored in many other 3rd World regions around the globe. For example, Christianity is currently experiencing rapid growth across the continent of Africa and Southern Asia.
Prelude to Democracy
Ultimately, the early Christian church started a movement that transformed individuals, societies, nations and the entire continent of Europe. It truly was a revolution for a new perspective on life and the universe that would eventually change mankind.
In a culture that included slavery, the class system across the Roman Empire was quite stark. A small minority were wealthy and the vast majority were very poor. Equality was obviously not a part of the cultural equation.
Christians drew members into their fellowship from every rank and race, an affront to proper, class-conscious Romans. As Christians, all were treated as equals in the eyes of God. It is this Christian philosophy of moral guidance that countered inequality in Roman society and doomed the totalitarian leadership of the Roman Empire.
A great example during the infancy of Christianity, is that a former slave who had worked the mines actually became the bishop of Rome - Callistus in 217AD.
The cornerstones of modern democracy and the Western world are rooted in the early Christian church. These elements are freedom of religion, assembly and speech, voting, inclusiveness, equality, consent, the right to life as well as women's and minority rights.
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