Each in its own era and region embraced the Gospel and grew strong in faith.
Each pursued the Great Commission and dispatched missionaries to the outer reaches of its known world.
Each allowed love to cool and faith to fragment to the point that the Macedonian Call once heard from Europe and answered from the Middle E#ast has become their common cry: "Come over and help us."
DECLINE OF JERUSALEM
Jerusalem was the starting p;oint of the original Christian missionary movement. The Book of Acts records that many Jewish pilgrims heard the Gospel for the first time in the Holy city of Pentecost. They carried the Good News back home to their ciommunities and synagogues.
Tradition claims that the eleven apostles got together in Jerusalem after Pentecost and partitioned the known world into areas of individual responsibility. Their intention was to fulfill the Great Commission mandate, 'Go into all the world and peach the Gospel."
Eusebuius Pamphilus (2560-339), one of the Early Church fathers and church historian, listed the nmissionary activities of several apostles.
"But the holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour, being scattered over the whole world," he wrote, "Thomas, according to tradition, received Parthia as his allotted region; Andrew received Scythia, and John, Asia, wwere, after continuing for sdome time, he died at Ephesus. Peter appears to have preached through Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia and Asia, to the Jews that were scattered abroad."
Those who remained in the Holy City wanted it to become the religious capital for Jesus' followers, as it already was for Judaism.
"Jerusalem was to them the centre of the world; this was where the Lord had died and risen; this was where he would shortly descend again from heaven to proclaim his sovereignty and to acciomplish what was still unfulfilled in the purposes of God."
Those Jewish believers would have continued in Jerusalem keeping the Mosaic Law, attending temple prayers and services, formalizing a message distinctly Jewish and proclaiming a suffering Messiah. They did not foresee the danger that "Jerusalem might have become the Mecca of the Christian world; and the Jordan River might have become to Christians what the Ganges River is to Hindus."
A series of events--and nonevents--freed the infant movement from Jerusalem's confining boundaries. Christ did nto quickly return to set up His kingdom. Movement of the new religion was outward from Jerusalem, not inward toward it.
Three individuals played a key role in the decline of Jerusalem as the center of Christianity: Stephen, Paul and Peter.
Stephen was martyred, igniting a persecution that scattered most of the believers. Saul of Tarsus, converted on the road to Damascus, became Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Peter, senior member of the Jerusalem church, was the recipient of a vision lthat undeniably opened the door of salvation to Gentiles on an equal basis with Jews.
The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by Roman legions ended the city's future as a geographical centger for the followers of Christ. The congregation disbanded and its members scattered before Roman legions surrounded the city. Christendom was set free "to become what its Founder intended it to be--spiritual and not temporal, universal and not provincial."
RISE OF ANTIOCH
As would happen repeated throughout church history, the center of Christianity moved closer tot he area of most response. In the first century, that meant moving northward from Jerusalem to Antioch.
Founded in 300 B.C., by the time of Christ Antioch had become one of the three most important cities of the Roman Empire [this was a city God had blessed, obviously, for this kind of growth was unheard of, for most other cities of magnitude and renown had existed many centuries longer, yet this "new city" flourished so greatly, it grew in just a few centuries to nearly head the list of Rome's premier cities. Perhaps in time it might even overtake Alexandria and Rome itself--except for the Emperor Constantine's removal of the Roman capital to Constantinople in the 4th century. This city then was blessed to serve as the chief promoter of the Gospel to the Gentile world. Again, God raised up Alexander the Great, also in the 300s B.C., who spread the Greek language and culture from Greece to India, enabling the Gospel and the Greek New Testament scriptures later to travel the same immense territories and take root.--Ed.]
Only twenty miles from the Mediterranean Sea on a fertile plain of what isnow Syria, Antioch served as a crossroads for some of the main trade routes between east and west, north and south.
The domination of Greek culture and stability of Roman administration made Antioch a safe place for the fledgling movement to grow rapidly. The Gospel naturally flowed along the caravan routes radiating from the city.
[Now we scarcely credit the eastward flowing, and overemphasize the westward flowing. The eastward flowing from Antioch to India and possibly China and Japan is scarcely known today--but it was a great movement for many centuries. Why is the emphasis and focus on the westward expansion of the Christian faith? Is it not because of Paul, who wrote so much, that we naturally read his writings and see only the workings of the Christian faith among the Western Gentiles--but this is to miss at least half the story of what happened in the first century.--Ed.]
The Apostle Paul started on his three epochal missionary tours from Antioch. His travels lasted less than fifteen years, but covered the four most populous provinces under Roman rule. His work laid the foundation for the spiritual conquest of history's most enduring empire.
Paul, however, was not alone in achieving this. Although he is considered the greatest missionary in chuch history, his efforts were supported, and in sheer numbers even surpassed, by a host of unnamed laypeople. They knew nothing of missionary organization or strategy, but they freely shared the experience of their faith.
Historian Will Durant notes, "Nearly every convert, with the ardor of a revolutionary, made himself an office of propaganda." Stephen Neill adds: "The church of the first Christian generation wasd a genuinely missionary church...The church could count on the anonymous and unchronicled witness of all the faithful."
The total number of Christians rose to approximately one million by A.D. 100, with churches located as far west as Rome and Spain [and quite possibly Lutetia (Paris) and Britain--Ed.]. The total number of Christians rose to approximately one million by A.D. 100, with churches located as far west as Rome and Spain. A century later, Christian communities were still small scattered, but they had spread throughout the empire a universality remarkable for the times.
J. Herbert Kane estimates that by A.D. 250, the believers in Rome numbered 50,000, supported 100 clergy and cared for 1,500 poor people. Fifty years later, Antioch’s population of one-half million was between 20 and 50 percent Christian.
About the same time, perhaps as many as five million of the Roman Empire’s fifty million people called themselves Christian, though the distribution was uneven. Up to one-half the population in some parts of Asia Minor were considered followers of Christ, while in Greece the born-again population was almost nil [pretty much the situation today too—Ed.]
P)liny the Younger (61-113), ruler of Bithynia, complained Trajan. “The contagion of this superstitution has spread not only in the cities but in villag S and rural districts….The temples have been almost deserted and the social rites neglected.”
The missionary zeal of the church aroused alarm and resentment among Roman rulers who normally exercised a religious policy of “live and let live.” They viewed this new religion as a threat to the empire as it spread everywhere and taught that people should worship o9nly God, not Caesar. Christianity Therefore became the only religion in the Roman Empire to suffer violent opposition as an official policy over a long period of time [this seems to be the case with the Muslim Countries, the “Empire of Islam,” too, as Islam is a state religion and a Christian is perforce an enemy of the Muslim state religion and marked as such in law and in Society—Ed.}
The church suffered numerous periods of persecution, beginning with Nero in A.D. 64. Like the last convulsive thrashings of a mortally wounded beast, the final ten-year tribulation mounted by Diocletian was the most sustained and cruel. When it ended in A.D. 303, over 1,500 Christian had been martyred, thousands had lost their homes and passions and many churches had either been destroyed or confiscated.
Persecution, however, only served to strengthen the church and give it added visibility.
“It was severe enough to at least serve a partial deterrent to light-hearted adoption of the faith,” according to historian Kenneth Scott Latourette. “It gave tone to the morale of the church and strengthened the sense of solidarity against paganism. Yet it was not severe enough seriously to threaten the existence of Christianity or even greatly to weaken the Christian community. [certainly there is the modern parallel, that to adopt Christian faith in Muslim lands cannot be done light-heartedly either, as there is persecution and quite possibly even death for any Muslim who takes Christ as Savior and is baptized.—Ed.}. HOLLOW TRIUMPH
When Constantine fought his way to the throne in A.D. 306, the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire suddenly and drastically changed. Believing he had been aided by the Christian’s God in his struggle for power, the emperor ended persecution of the church
More secure on his throne by the year 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting toleration of religions in general and restitution in particular for Christians who had suffered losses under Diocletian [which Constantine had viewed first-hand, as he had in his younger years resided in Diocletian’s imperial palace in Nicomedia—Ed.].
The edict began an unaccustomed era of peace, prosperity and popularity for the church.
Constantine himself converted to Christianity ten years later, thus making it the preferred religion of Rome. The whole realm opened to missionary work, pagans stampeded intot he church, and becoming Christian was fashionable, even profitable. Christian clergy, for example, were exempted from paying taxes [don’t we have tax-exempt Churches and Christian ministries in America, and in Britain and the Scandinavian countries, you Find the tax-supported state Christian church, certainly a continuation of Constantine’s imperial policy toward the Christian church, and a very bad idea in its effects upon the faith.—Ed.].
The Christian Sunday became a legal holiday. Constantine erected and enlarged churches, authorizing bishops to call upon civil authorities for help in building churches.
“It seems likely,” believes Neill, “that the number of Christians in the empire at least quadrupled in the century that followed the Edict of Milan.”
Constantine’s generous policy, unfortunately, did as much harm as the ten preceding periods of persecution.
John Caldwell Thiessen points out that once Christianity became popular, it declined in vitality. Great numbers of unconverted pagans brought their practices into the church. Simplicity of worship gave way to elaborate ceremonies. True missionary activity declined, while conquered peoples were forcibly converted.
The group that seemed most resistant to the Gospel was the Jewish community. Though lay missionaries persisted in witness to the Jews over a long period of time, they encountered the same frustrations experienced by the Apostle Paul, who was rebuffed when he went to the synagogues first in his missionary travels. Even the shrinking number of Jewish believers failed to win a following among their own people, and the Jewish Church eventually disappeared.
“Jewish Christendom waned and dwindled and finally died away in heresy.” Centuries would pass before the Jewish church would be reborn in the land of its birth though the witness of Gentile believers.
Judaism suffered a fate no less tragic, though not terminal. As the Jews continued to reject the Gospel, the impatience of Christians soured into frustration, then to anger and finally hatred. The church that had so recently paid dearly for its faith under the Caesars now instituted persecution as an accepted weapon of coercion in an attempt to convert the followers of Judaism [we might question whether this “Christian church” was Christian, or not a heresy that later formulated the Jew-persecuting Catholic religion—Ed.].
“Such an injustice as that done by the Gentile church to Judaism is almost unprecedented in the annals of history,” judged Adolf Harnack. “The daughter first robbed her mother and then repudiated her.”
Everything considered—the lowered level of spirituality in the church [which you see Evidence today, along with a growth in the Catholic church and in mainline Protestant denominations of Replacement Theology which is igniting again the fires of anti-Semitism under the guise of being merely anti-Israel or anti-Zionism in support of “Palestianian rights”—Ed.] and its heightened aggressiveness [“divestiture,” or attacking Israel’s right to its Covenanted lands and boycotting businesses that do business with Israeli companies—Ed.] against those of differing persuasions—the Edict of Milan became something of a hollow triumph for Christendom.