Explosive Growth of the First Century Church

Tommy Boland, Cross Community Church

Last month we studied the reality of the Resurrection by sharpening our focus on two different eyewitness accounts: the embarrassing eyewitness accounts and the enemy eyewitness accounts. In the ancient world, women were regarded as second-class citizens whose testimony was inadmissible in a court of law; therefore, no gospel writer would ever invent a story of the Resurrection with women being the first to peer into the empty tomb and see Jesus alive. To say that a woman was the first to see the risen Savior was too embarrassing.

Then we looked at the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus, an avowed enemy of Christ. This savage persecutor of the church was transformed into a passionate evangelist for the church after his personal encounter with the risen Christ. This enemy eyewitness testimony stands as one of the most convincing proofs of the Resurrection.

This month I would like to build upon these accounts by explaining the explosive growth of the Christian church under two headings: Christian Worldview and Christian Witness.

 

Christian Worldview

The worldview for the Jewish community in the ancient world was rooted in a resurrection at the end of the age in which all God’s faithful and righteous people would be raised to life. It was utterly unthinkable that a resurrection would take place in the middle of history. But that is exactly what happened when Jesus walked out of the grave on that first Easter morning. The first-century church, led by the Jewish disciples, immediately adopted a new set of beliefs — a new worldview — in which Jesus was the first fruit of the promised resurrection at the end of the age.

  1. T. Wright adds this valuable insight in The Resurrection of the Son of God: “Such a massive shift in thinking at the worldview level only happens to a group of people over a period of time.” Listen, worldviews don’t change overnight. It takes years of investigation, discussion, debate and argument for a particular worldview to be accepted and adopted by a group of people. Yet the first-century Christian church adopted a resurrection-centered worldview almost overnight. Why? Because there was no need for years of investigation, discussion, debate and argument; a dead Jesus walked out of the grave and into the hearts and minds of hundreds of eyewitnesses over a period of forty days.

Tim Keller explains, “The Christian view of resurrection, absolutely unprecedented in history, sprang up full-blown immediately after the death of Jesus. There was no process or development. His followers said that their beliefs did not come from debating and discussing. They were just telling others what they had seen themselves.”

The explosive growth of the early church was rooted in a sudden, seismic shift in worldview. We must remember how the disciples changed from scattering in fear when Jesus was arrested to faithfully preaching His resurrection just weeks later. There is simply no way to account for this change that cost all but John their lives other than the fact that Jesus really rose from the dead and presented Himself to them with many convincing proofs.

Pascal observed, “I believe those witnesses that get their throats cut.” If a skeptic objects, “Many over the centuries people have died for a lie,” we confidently respond, “That’s true, but Jesus’ disciples would have known it was a lie.” I have never read an account of someone dying for a lie when they knew it was a lie . . . have you?

 

Christian Witness

I have no desire to romanticize the era of the first-century church as a time we would wish to return to. The early church was made up of the same stuff of the 21st century church: sinners in moment-by-moment need of a Savior. But there was something special that distinguished that community from all others in the eyes of the watching world: their love. Unbelievers said, “See how these Christians love one another!”

It was the love of God in Christ Jesus that set the Christian community apart from all others. But their love did not stop there; they bent their love out toward others. They loved the poor and marginalized. They loved the widow and the orphan. They loved their enemies even at the cost of their own blood. In the early Greco-Roman world, Christians made a difference by being different.

Justin Martyr, writing to Emperor Antoninus Pius, described the believers: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.”

How can we explain a miniscule movement from a corner of Palestine in the first century that rapidly grew into the dominant faith of the entire Roman Empire, which was formerly steeped in a myriad of pagan religions? The early Christians had no church buildings . . . no mass media . . . no social status . . . yet in the face of unimaginable and unrelenting persecution, Christianity not only survived, it thrived.

The watching world could not deny the changed lives of those who became followers of the Way. In the city centers of the Roman Empire, everyone lived in close proximity, which meant everyone knew how you lived. You could not hide the way you used your money or your body, and the way the early Christians used both brought light into a very dark world. In living for the glory of God and the good of all others, the church grew explosively — not so much because of their faithfulness to God, but simply because of His faithfulness to them.

And the same is true for the church today. The just shall live by faith!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

 

Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.

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