Jesus and the apostles expected the nations of the world to be won for him. This is a historical statement that is historically true that will stand in the face of even the most stringent, critical analysis.
Consider how improbable such a vision must have been.
‘Make disciples of all nations’ he said but those to whom he said it were but eleven in number, simple uneducated men, without friends in high places. Their own track record had not been good; one was a betrayer, another a denier and all were deserters.
He, their leader, had been handed over by the temple hierarchs and crucified by the Romans.
Yet he expected world conquest, but not achieved by naked power but by mere words backed up by an ethical life.
His apostle Paul looked for the full ingathering of the Nations and the salvation of all Israel. But the members of the church in the city of Corinth were at odds with one another and with him. And they were a mere handful of people, perhaps 150 in a city of 250,000. Yet these issues did not seem to faze him.
The Christians in Rome were probably not more than few hundred and they were divided into separate groups that could not yet find a way to meet together as a single ‘church’.
Another apostle, John, wrote that the whole creation would worship God and the Lamb. How improbable those words must have seemed to the tiny membership in the seven churches in Roman Asia, that were probably less than 1000 altogether. These churches were fractured doctrinally, their members compromised by association with pagan cults and under extreme pressure to abandon worship of the crucified Lamb for the worship of the seemingly all-powerful Caesar.
If we exercise a little historical imagination we reach the staggering conclusion that these visions of a world won for Christ would have seemed absolutely implausible at the time.
And yet, within a few years there were signs of remarkable growth in early Christianity. Two hundred years after Paul wrote the church in Rome had ‘an immense and countless laity’ who supported ‘no less than 1500 widows and persons in distress’ who were served by forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons and fifty two exorcists (Eusebius, History of the Church VI. 43.11-12). This is a spectacular reversal of the broken and scattered communities Paul wrote to in his Letter to the Romans.
Historians debate the genuineness of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ early in the fourth century. What cannot be disputed, however, is that the new ‘Roman Empire’ based on Constantinople (‘the city of Constantine’) was founded on Christianity. That Christian empire stretched from the Balkans, through Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt to North Africa and it lasted from the mid-300s until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the siege of the Muslim Ottomans.
A Nestorian version of Christianity captured Mesopotamia, the Caspian region of Central Asia and extended eastward through India into China and southward into Africa. Christianity in that massive geographical expanse continued until the twelfth until it was eventually extinguished by Islam. See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
Meanwhile Christianity spread north into Russia and northwest into Europe, Ireland and Britain.
Jenkins points out that for centuries there were three great geographical expression of Christianity ? Byzantine Christianity that ringed the eastern Mediterranean Christianity, European Christianity that extended from Russia to Britain and Nestorian Christianity that extended east Mesopotamia and Central Asia to China and southwards into Africa. Jenkins’ argument is that we know about the Byzantine and European versions of the faith, but have forgotten the very extensive church of the Middle East and Central Asia and its expression in Africa.
In the Colonial Era Christianity spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia and New Zealand.
Thus the expansion of Christianity from its tiny beginnings is as amazing and improbable as the initial vision of Jesus was as re-stated by his apostles. That expansion has occurred in the face of great opposition ? from Jews and pagans in the early centuries, from Jihardist Islam from the eighth century, from secular humanism from the era of the Enlightenment. That opposition has often brought with it considerable suffering, even death. The symbol of Christianity was and remains an instrument for killing people in Roman times, a cross.
As a consequence of that opposition Christianity has but disappeared from the the Middle East, Asia Minor and Central Asia and it is significantly diminished in secular Western Europe. Nevertheless, it has survived the repression of atheistic communism in China, Russia and Eastern bloc countries. Christianity has grown dramatically in Korea, China and Africa.
Thus despite all the issues, many of them created by Christians themselves, there is a remarkable statistic to note. It is that 31% of the people in the world still identify themselves as ‘Christian’. While there may be debate about the level of understanding and commitment in that statistic, it is nevertheless amazing in light of the impossible circumstances of Jesus and the apostle two thousand years ago.
There are two critical conclusions we draw from these observations.
One is that Jesus’ vision has been fulfilled by God and not man. Men and women could not have brought made such an an unlikely dream the reality it still is. Despite claims to the contrary God is emphatically not dead. We think that God will continue to expand his kingdom in human hearts throughout the world.
The second conclusion is that we ordinary mortals are offered a partnership in this great project. Ultimately God doesn’t need us. He will do it regardless.
But should we choose to join hand with God what would be involved?
John and Paul give us some strong clues.
John, in writing to his seven churches, encouraged their hope that God would bring them out of ‘Babylon’ to ‘the New Jerusalem’, the City of God. Their’s was to be a life and death commitment to the Lamb, who had been slain for them, and a disengagement from the worship of the Caesar and the pagan religions around them.
Paul encouraged the Romans each to present their whole selves to God in loving service of one another in the wholehearted exercise of their gifts. In Romans 16 Paul calls on the readers to ‘greet’ twenty-six named members on account of their ‘work’.
‘Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you’; ‘Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord’; ‘Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’. Their ‘work’ is not specified, except in some cases ? Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…greet the church in their house’. Prisca and Aquila were church planters, who were also tent makers. Note that word ‘also’. It’s not in the text, but sits there between the lines. Not one of the twenty-six is identified as a ‘presbyter’ or ‘bishop’, or any other church official. Women were as prominent as men.
From Romans it is absolutely clear that they did not ‘work for’ their salvation since that was God’s gift in the crucified and resurrected Lord. But the apostle certainly expected them to ‘work out’ that salvation in the hard work of ministry to others, both within and outside the community of faith.
Today we need to support our church institutions, but only if they are worthy of our support. At the same time individual Christians and local churches should not depend on the central institution. Like the laymen Shaftsbury and Wilberforce who took initiatives independently of ‘organised religion’ Christians in all ages need to be opportunists for the kingdom, entrepreneurs for Jesus.
Above all Christians need to get the idea ‘also’ right. I must not think of myself a husband who is ‘also’ a Christian, a Christian who is ‘also’ a father, ‘also’ a neighbour, ‘also’ a friend. I will seek to express my Christianity ethically and spiritually as a husband, father, neighbour and friend. My engagement with the idea ‘also’ tells me about my ‘heart’ and my ‘heart’ regarding Jesus reveals everything.
Recently I visited the home of a woman I know well to be a great wife, mother and friend. On her dining room table were dozens of gingerbread figures (dare I call them gingerbread ‘men’?). They were all neatly wrapped in cellophane and there was a message inside.
She replied to my question that they were gifts for the other children in her boys’ school classes. ‘What’s the message inside’, I asked. Her answer: ‘Today to you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.
It took her initiative, her hard work, her love and it set a great example to her two young boys. It is an example of godly opportunism, doing a simple thing that draws people to Jesus.