Historian Edward Gibbon in his famous work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, gives several reasons for the amazing triumph of Christianity in its first centuries. In this post we’ll look briefly at the first of these: The zeal of the early generations of Christians.
The early church were definitely zealous – all were committed to preaching the gospel far and wide. Christ’s command to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ (Mark 16:15) was never considered to be an optional task for particularly keen church members, but was the commission over the whole church. The Book of Acts is a testimony to the zeal of the first generation of believers. And the next generation were the same!
‘These earnest disciples of great men built on the foundations of the churches everywhere laid by the apostles, spreading the message still further…far and wide through the entire world.
Very many of the disciples…first fulfilled the Saviour’s command by distributing their possessions among the needy; then, leaving their homes behind, they carried out the work of evangelists, ambitious to preach to those who had never yet heard the message of the faith and to give them the inspired gospels in writing.
Staying only to lay the foundations of the faith in one foreign place or another, appoint others as pastors, and entrust to them the tending of those newly brought in, they set off again for other lands and peoples…[and] many miraculous powers of the divine Spirit worked through them, so that at the first hearing whole crowds in a body embraced with whole hearted eagerness the worship of the universal Creator.’ (i)
E. Glenn Hinson, writing in Christian History Magazine, says,
‘Churches were founded in almost every way possible. Sometimes a bishop, presbyters, or deacons were sent to evangelize and organize a new church. For example, in the mid-third century, Cornelius of Rome was reputed to have sent seven bishops to Gaul (modern France) to plant churches. Other times, churches that had spontaneously formed through lay evangelism asked for a bishop to instruct them. Most churches had the same goal: evangelism…
Some converts learned about the faith through friendship with church members. Others saw or heard about exorcisms or healings. Some witnessed the arrest of a Christian or even a martyrdom. Others lived in Christian households as slaves or indentured servants. By the end of the third century, Christians had built formal churches near pagan temples across the empire.’(ii)
Next time we’ll see how the early believers’ assurance of their eternal security made them unstoppable in service and in risk taking in a dangerously hostile environment.
Read more here
i. Quoted in Eusebius, The History of the Church (Leicester: Penguin Classics, 1981) p.148
© 2008 Lex Loizides