The Gospel in the World: No. 2 - The Early Centuries After Christ

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 12
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S. L. Jacob
No. 2 — The Early Centuries after Christ
The Scriptures record for us the great blessing that was given in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, of the thousands of Jews who early embraced the faith of Christ, and the extraordinary unity and love which characterized the first days of the Church of God on earth. We are also told (Acts 10) how that being especially instructed by a vision, the apostle Peter went to the centurion Cornelius, and by preaching the gospel to his household opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, to whom God also granted repentance unto life.
Yet the marvelous brightness of the early dawn did not long continue; failure soon set in within the Church, while from without came fierce persecution. Stephen was martyred, and all were scattered abroad from Jerusalem (except the apostles), and these went everywhere preaching the word. In the meantime, the chief persecutor, Saul, been converted in a miraculous manner, and became Paul, the mighty apostle to the Gentiles, and with marvelous energy he carried the gospel into the western parts of Asia, and into the south eastern portion of Europe. We know also that he was long a prisoner at Rome, and in all probability he also, being let out of prison, visited Spain, after which he was again imprisoned, and finally beheaded. Wherever he went he founded churches, and great grace was upon the work which God gave him to accomplish, while his missionary journeys were extraordinary and his sufferings unsurpassed.
At the time of his death, the faith of Christ had taken a firm hold in many parts of the mighty Roman Empire, and the converts had become conspicuous by their numbers, their zeal and devotion, the purity of their lives and the love they bore one to another. But they were not allowed to rest from persecution; the Jews hated them with the most bitter hatred; the Greeks attacked them with their philosophy and keen satire; while the Romans began the attempt to crush out Christianity in the dire struggle which lasted about two-and-a-half centuries.
Nevertheless in spite of the wonderful amount of purity, love, and zeal, which remained, there were not lacking symptoms to show that deterioration had already set in.
The Apostle Paul had solemnly warned the elders at Ephesus, where some of his best work was done, saying, “After my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them “(Acts 20:29, 3029For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29‑30)). And in his last epistle, the second to Timothy, it is clear, in spite of the manifest faith and courage of the lion-hearted apostle, that very serious defection had set in. All in his beloved Asia had departed from him, he was left much alone, the word of false teachers was eating like a canker, and Timothy is most solemnly enjoined to faithfulness to the testimony of the Lord, in view of all that was coming to pass, yet the work of the evangelist was not to be neglected.
Looking back, that time seems to us one of wonderful purity, but to the spiritual and prophetic eye of the apostle the germs of all subsequent evils were evident.
The Apostle Peter, who died about the same time as the apostle Paul, also warned his hearers, most solemnly, against the damnable heresies which would come in; while Jude told of the apostasy which would be the culmination of evil.
The Apostle John (the last, we believe, of the apostles to die) was not only sent to banishment at Patmos by the world powers, but was even rejected by the church of which Diotrephes was the leading spirit. This apostle also gives us in Revelation 2-3 the only inspired account of the history — prophetically pictured for our learning in the condition of the seven Churches of Asia — of the responsible church on earth. From that time we have but human records as to the state of affairs in the Church, but these may teach us something.
The era succeeding the times of the apostles, was generally one of dire persecution until the time of Constantine the Great in the fourth century. This epoch would doubtless correspond historically to the epistle to the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2), when the Lord was purifying His people — as silver is refined — by the cruel persecutions they endured. Vast numbers were martyred: The Christians to the lions,’ became the common cry, and many and grievous were the tortures to which they were subjected. Still the faith grew and prospered, the area which was Christianized was extended, and the civilized world was astounded at the vitality which could not be crushed, and which prospered all the more as the persecutions grew fiercer. The attacks made on them drove the Christians to God and to His Word; when there was respite heresies often increased. Even the leading teachers were sometimes not quite sound in the faith, but on the whole, the attacks and persecutions had a most beneficial effect.
There is no doubt that evangelists in this period penetrated to Gaul, England, and many parts of the then known world, but the records of what happened are legendary, and not much is known with certainty about the spread of Christianity in the outlying parts of the empire and outside it, in Parthia, China, India, etc., though we know much of what was going on in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Northern Africa, and the better known portions of the Empire on the shores of the Mediterranean.
During this period the gross and horrible idolatry of Greece and Rome had greatly lost its hold upon the people of the Empire, and there was not anything like the intense veneration we find in the East for the great religious systems there.
Early in the 4th century Constantine became emperor and embraced the Christian faith, though whether he was really a Christian in heart we cannot say. It seems very doubtful. Whether or not, great consequences resulted therefrom; the persecutions ceased, and to be a Christian meant the favor of the world instead of the former hatred and enmity. Naturally, accessions in great numbers took place, and often-times pressure was put upon the heathen to become Christian; as a natural consequence, corruption set in fast, and the question is, did Christianity conquer paganism, or paganism conquer Christianity, adopting the name of the latter while retaining the spirit of the old faiths?
The history of the times is sad reading, nevertheless there were many bright names during this period, i.e., from the early part of the 4th to the early part of the 7th century, and as so often happens the greatest brightness was rather on the outskirts of Christendom, while corruption grew apace in the center.
Parts of England, Scotland and Ireland had been early evangelized, but a great set-back Occurred in England when the Romans left the land, and the Angles and Saxons (fierce idolaters) came in. We know but little of those early days except in legends, but in the period we are now come to we are on firmer ground. Martin of Tours evangelized Gaul in the fourth century, he seems to have been a mighty man of God, albeit rough. About 440, a Briton called Ninian settled in north-west England, and worked round about in England and Scotland. A little later Kentigern carried on apostolic labors in pagan Wales, in Scotland, along the Clyde and in the North of England; and about the same time (6th century) Columba came from the Scots in Ireland to the Scots and Picts north of the Clyde. He and his companions settled in Isle of Iona, and a grand work in the gospel was done by them, and when Columba died in A.D. 597 the Highlands were occupied for Christ. At this time Ireland seems to have been far ahead of England and Scotland in the Christian faith, how far this was due under God to Patrick we cannot say. Some speak of his as a mighty work, and others that the credit was due to other men. God knows.
From Iona the work spread. Aidan went thence to Lindisfarne, and a splendid work was done there as to the evangelization of England, of which more later. From Iona men went out to the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, and even to Iceland, braving seas and storms and bearing great hardships.
Before the death of Columba, a namesake of his, called also Columbian, born in Leinster and trained at Ulster, sailed with twelve helpers to the Continent. They settled in the Vosges Mountains, built their wattled homes, felled trees, tilled the land; they copied Bibles and prayed much. Great numbers were converted, and all the north of that country was won for Christ by these and other Irish missionaries. Driven by persecution from France he went to Switzerland, and there he and his faithful Gallus and others were much used, and St. Gall became a missionary center from which much blessing spread, while Columban passed over the Alps, founded another center in Bobbio in the Alps, and pushed on into North Italy where heathen still abounded.
Towards the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory sent Augustine and others on a mission to England. It is often stated that they brought Christianity to the land. This is untrue and in all probability the faith would have been much purer in England had the Roman missionaries never come.
Meanwhile, how had it fared elsewhere? Northern Africa was won to Christ, at all events in name, the great Augustine labored there, living at Carthage, which had previously given many noble martyrs to the cause, but the corruption was also very great. This was the epoch of councils, and of fierce strife among Christians, and idolatry began to pollute the Christian centers.
In Asia the work did not prosper well. The gospel at the beginning was carried far, a church was founded in the extreme south of India in Travancore, early in the Christian era, the legend says, by Thomas the apostle. The gospel knocked at the door of North India in vain, though Hinduism was modified by it, and apparently the story of Rama, who is worshipped by so many in India, is a corrupted form of the story of Christ. The gospel was carried to China, in, alas, a corrupted form, but after some triumphs all died down. No vernacular translation of the Bible seemed to have been given to the people in these parts, and this was doubtless a cause of much failure.
Much of Parthia or Persia was Christianized. Edessa was one center, and Nisibis succeeded it. Babylon was another center. Armenia and Asia Minor were mainly Christian, also Syria and Palestine, with some Christians in Arabia, which was generally idolatrous. Purity, however, was greatly lacking, and at the end of the period we are considering, the state of these Christians in Asia was very bad.
Those generally known as Paulicians seem to have made a bold stand for the truth, and gained many adherents. They seem to have stood mainly for the truth given in Paul’s epistles, whence the name, but all we, know of them is written by their enemies. They were bitterly persecuted, they furnished many noble martyrs, but were eventually wiped out, to the apparent great loss of the Christians in Asia amongst whom they stood for the truth.
Thus at the end of the first period corruption had become great, yet many faithful souls were found, and especially in the outskirts of that which bore the name of Christ.