I’ve been reading Stephen Neil’s A History of Christian Missions. It is an overwhelming thing to be caught up in the spirit of those early centuries when Christianity spread far and wide by countless, nameless saints in totally pagan cultures. By A.D. 300 there was no part of the Roman Empire which had not been to some extent penetrated by the Gospel. What human factors did God ordain to bring about this amazing spread of the Christian Movement? Stephen Neil suggests six.
- First and foremost was the burning conviction which possessed a great number of the early Christians. The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340) described the way the gospel spread:
At that time [about the beginning of the second century] many Christians felt their souls inspired by the holy word with a passionate desire for perfection. Their first action, in obedience to the instructions of the Savior, was to sell their goods and to distribute them to the poor. Then, leaving their home, they set out to fulfill the work of an evangelist, making it their ambition to preach the word of the faith to those who as yet had heard nothing of it, and to commit to them the books of the divine Gospels. They were content simply to lay the foundations of the faith among these foreign peoples: they then appointed other pastors, and committed to them the responsibility for building up those whom they had merely brought to the faith. Then they passed on to other countries and nations with the grace and help of God (Ecclesiastical History, III, 37, 2-3).
- The solid historical message which Christians brought was indeed good news, and a welcome alternative to the mystery religions of the day.
- The new Christian communities commended themselves by the purity of their lives.
- The Christian communities were marked by mutual loyalty and an overcoming of antagonisms between alienated classes.
- The Christians were known for an elaborate development of charitable service, especially to those within the fellowship. Emperor Julian, writing in the early fourth century regretted the progress of Christianity because it pulled people away from the Roman gods. He said,
Atheism [i.e. Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
- The persecution of Christians and their readiness to suffer made a dramatic impact on unbelievers. Neil observes, “Under the Roman Empire Christians had no legal right to exist ... Every Christian knew that sooner or later he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.”
Here we are at the end of the second millennium. May God raise up hundreds of thousands of super-ordinary Christians and Christian communities with this kind of passion.