This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – Lesson 1: The Early Church to the Rise of Islam (Part 1).
When you review God’s work of providence in the past, it won’t take you long to see that Christianity spread through two forms of oppositions: blatant persecution and false teaching as noted by Sinclair Ferguson in the second chapter of his book on Church History 101.
After the Apostolic foundations during the first century, where we witnessed the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 that He will build His church, His triumphant death and resurrection, followed by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, and the spread of the gospel unto the ends of the earth (Acts 10-28), the church in the second century were continued by the Martyrs. They gave their lives for the cause of the gospel.
The New Testament does not record the death of the apostles of Christ except in the case of James, the brother of John, who was killed by the sword of King Herod Agrippa 1. But there is little doubt that most, if not all, of the apostles were martyred. After the Apostles were the Apostolic Fathers.
These persons were Hermas, Ignatius (eaten alive by lions), Polycarp (the disciple of Apostle John who was burned alive), Cyprian (with whom Galerius took pleasure in having him executed with the sword) and others.
When our faith is challenged to forsake Christ as Lord and to bow down to the pagan gods and human kings, may we be like Polycarp who said, Eighty and six years have I served Christ and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me? You threaten the fire that burns for an hour and then is quenched; but you know not of the fire of the eternal punishment. Bring what you will!
It is recorded that all the multitude marveled at the great difference between the unbelievers and the elect. They saw what Christian obedience meant, for Jesus had said, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
They were the people who have conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (Revelation 12:10). We are called to forsake our comforts for the gospel’s sake. But the sad reality with Christianity today is that we can hardly sacrifice our time (not even our lives) for the sake of Christ. The church is filled with people who would choose comfort over affliction, people who would compromise for the sake of acceptance rather than carrying the shame of the cross to advance the truth, people who would exchange the eternal glories of heaven for the fading glories of this world.
During the third century, Flavius Valerius Constantinus who is commonly known as Constantine the Great made Christianity the state religion. As a bit of background, in the struggle for the throne Constantine had lost all confidence in the national gods, and therefore he was driven to call on the God of the Christians for help. Allegedly, shortly before the battle of Milvian Bridge the Emperor had seen in the sky a flaming cross with the inscription: “In hoc signo vinces” —“In this Sign Conquer.”
Rather than asking if he was a true convert, we should ask “Was it a change for the better?” We can boldly say “YES and NO!” Persecutions ended. Churches were built for Christian worship. Preachers received liberal salaries from the state. Sabbath was observed. A great blessing indeed! A great calm after a severe and prolonged storm! But…with toleration came danger. It now became an honor and a distinction to be a Christian. They became civic leaders everywhere with best salaries and positions. It was only natural that many pagans turned to Christianity, not because their hearts were converted to the living God, but to gain position and promotion.
But this is not the true Christianity that Jesus started! Jesus pronounces woes to them who were being spoken well by other people and lament on the fact that others only came to him because of temporal blessings (John 6:26; Luke 6:26). Most certainly worldly men were undesirable members of the Church! It was full of pride and pomp. Christianity in its outward manifestation was promoted. Constantine granted to the church the right to receive gifts and legacies, and he himself enriched it with gifts.
Before long bishops ruled in large cities as pagan governors had formerly done; they set an example of luxurious living, which contradicted the instruction of the Master, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.” (Matthew 11:29)
As an instrument in God’s hand, Constantine enabled Christians to worship freely; but the good that his reign brought was a mixed blessing. If peace came to the Church, so too did worldliness. Quality was sacrificed to quantity. The first of persecution had kept the Church pure; toleration resulted in the introduction of elements which boded ill for the future. Indeed, it was a blessing and a curse.
If the church of today won’t take heed, we might be swallowed by the lust of the eyes that haunts us daily. Let us not forget James’ warning, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4). To be favored by the world is not equal to gaining favor from God.
Would you choose the pompous church penetrated by the world or the persecuted church that penetrates the world through the glorious gospel? As we continue our reflections and studies on the past, may we take heed to the warnings so that we will not fall, and by doing so, be joined with those who have conquered death by the blood of the Lamb.
SOLI DEO GLORIA!