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How did Christianity spread so fast ?! (Acts 2/2)

21 Dec
           Set of events described in Acts gave birth to fast expansion of Christianity in inconceivable short time. Approximately in thirty years Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Samaria and eventually it reached, in that time known, end of the earth. How could this happen? Disseminating the message about a man called Jesus who died on the cross, to practically every place around Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. Was it a coincidence, miracle or profoundly elaborated plan? After examining the setting in which all of this took place we will surely be able to recognize Gods divine leading behind these miraculous series of occurrences which were altogether fitting perfectly into his anticipated plan. 
Course of actualities that happened before Christ came, truly prepared a perfect environment for spreading the gospel message. Roman Empire, Greek Culture, Septuagint, Dispersion of Jews or Jewish people as well as other religions each one of these notions or factors contributed to a process forwarding this matter.

Roman Empire
In that time Romans ruled the area from today’s Spain and England in the west and north all the way down to Egypt in south-east. This whole territory could not be effectively governed from one place, neither from Rome nor from anywhere else, therefore it was divided into smaller provinces also mentioned in scriptures (Macedonia, Syria, Galatia…) each with its military base. Before different nations with their own leaders, interests and armies where involved in various disputes, battles and wars, so any further peregrination was extremely dangerous, thus after Roman subjugation of these various nations they all were brought under one rule, peace was established and the combats within the land were stopped. As we can also see in Paul’s case[1], it was excessively advantageous to have a Roman citizenship for they could travel without fear of harm or unjust arrest. As never before the seas were free from pirates and roads were clean from thieves.
 
Greek Culture
The idea of union in Rome carried by Alexander the Great was also containing the unification of language. Greek, also called Hellenistic, culture, was in that time widely spread for it was offering deeper ideology for life. In Athens, Rhodes or Tarsus were universities, the centers of the wisdom and knowledge, where all the scholars got their education, consequently the Greek language naturally covered the entire Empire including Rome itself. For it was convenient for Romans to use this language in relation to newly captured territories it became to be used by aristocracy, rulers through common population all the way down to the slaves. Entire communication, literature, books, was written in Greek, it was the “English” of that time. Regarding the Christian message the Greek language was an ideal way of passing it on. New Testament was written in Greek, hence apostles spoke Greek and that made it easy for them to speak anywhere without a need of translation.
 
Jewish people
Before Roman Empire or Greek culture ever appeared on the large scale, an event called Jewish dispersion happened. Around sixth century B.C. many Jews from northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah were exiled to Mesopotamia and Babylon for Assyrians conquered their lands; later on Persian and Hellenistic period around third century moved Jews around the whole eastern region of Mediterranean. For God revealed himself to Jews through prophecies about Messiah. They knew about him and they expected him. As they were scattered far and wide through the world this message was scattered along with them, written down in the Old Testament. Old Testament was ultimately translated into Greek. This translation called Septuagint again assisted everyone in spreading the teaching before Christ as well as it helped to the first converts and preachers of the gospel after Christ. For they had no temple to go to, they were meeting in groups called synagogues consisting of ten or more male members. In these, Jews read from the Law and prophets, studied the scripture and slowly they started to seek this redeemer, for the dominion was suppressing their nation. Throughout these years other nations became familiarized with the Jewish God. The book of Daniel clearly records a story of three friends that demonstrated the power of God to Nebuchadnezzar who at that time, around year 580 B.C., was the king of Babylon[2]. Another indication of the vast expansion of the Jewish teaching stands in Matthew 2:1-2: 1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Jews eventually journeyed to all the locations like Rome, Egypt, Macedonia and Greece and to all the great cities of Asia Minor. This was the reason why many gentiles, pagans, converted to Jewish religion and became Proselytes[3] or God-fearers[4]. Cornelius was also one of the God-fearers. His prayers and alms reached God, and his household became the first gentile family, Holy Spirit fell upon[5]. Next, the first big revival after Peter’s Sermon in Acts 2:40, 41 came to pass on the day of Pentecost. It is important to comprehend that even though Jews of Diaspora (dispersion) lived in everyplace of the eastern Roman Empire, they were obliged to attend the Passover[6] Feast each year by the Law[7]. Pentecost[8] was likewise a significant festival that each year thousands of them, together with many God-fearers and proselytes travelled to be a part of[9]. These Jews lived in Greek culture; therefore they were called Hellenistic Jews. There was a relatively big difference between them, while Hebrew Jews were obeying all the rituals and ceremonies, being very religious and traditional their Hellenistic brothers moved on and have forsaken the old ways, making compromises, being liberal in the new setting they were put in. For this reason it was easier for them to accept the good news about Jesus Christ for the transformation from low grace to grace based Christianity was exactly fitting into their diverse setup and many who were there, after witnessing first “Peters revival” went back to distant parts of country and shared with others what they have experienced. So it was once again a special occasion in Jerusalem that brought a good deal of people in this city who afterwards distributed the message even further.
 
Other religions
Today colossal number of people claims to be atheist, even though after further examination we often find something else, comparing to the situation of our topic where it is right to say that people had a prevalent interest in religion and in answers, which where at least in a way satisfactory. Commonality besides Christianity had a wide variety of options to choose from. There were eastern religions coming mainly from Asia Minor and Egypt, secondly Greek mythology and thereafter philosophy, thirdly different deities and spirits which were forming cults and at last Roman state had a religion itself by venerating statues of Roman emperors. In this tangle of confusion when people where severely looking for a solution, Jesus Christ came to bring light to those who strayed in a gloom.
 
Discipleship
This was the situation and reality of that time, but there was much more God did than just prepare the field. Jesus trained twelve disciples and deeply influenced many more, which then followed his example; a commission to go, make disciples, baptizing them in water, teaching them so they would obey and do the same[10]. If we are to do the math this is the most effective way of reaching multitudes. Jesus did not instruct us to prepare great evangelical events or mega concerts with powerful worship bands and speakers, for he knew the best way. Though both of these are good things and I am sure they are pleasing God, he primarily directed us for disciple ministry, which we see fulfilled by Barnabas by accepting and later utilizing Paul in Antioch[11], who subsequently also took leaders (e.g. Timothy) from all the big cities he went through discipling them.
 
Mission
Everybody perceives the world, events and people around from his own perspective, being influenced by the country which he was born in, family and community he was part of, by belief system in that environment or just by the school he attended. This gives each of us a specific worldview we live in. Most people are used to only one worldview, because usually their friends and acquaintances around more or less share very similar one and when any unusual inputs disrupts this state with new beliefs, ideas and notion we tend to be defensive. This would be called mono-cultural worldview or way of thinking that says: “What I believe is right and all the others are wrong.” In Acts 10:9-16 we can sense that Apostle Peter was also carrying mono-cultural worldview, as he knew that he must not eat anything common or unclean. As we read further on the story about Cornelius we see the application of this vision in Acts 10:9-16 for Cornelius’ Household, since it was unthinkable for a Jew to be in the household and eat with a pagan for he himself would become unclean. God is here distinctly opening new doors and is showing another piece of his already commenced plan; for Jesus already indicated this in the Great Commission, this time in Mark 16:15, by saying: “Go into all the world and preach the good
news to all creation
(NIV)”. Peter went from mono-cultural worldview to a cross-cultural one without having any theological backup for his action, but the guidance of the Spirit was so strong that he could not refuse it. After coming back to Jerusalem he solely defended the previous happening by referring to vision itself[12], Paul only much later developed more detailed theological background for the Gentile mission.
  
Contextualization
It is correct when it is being said that we need to speak about Jesus, carry the good news or preach the gospel, but what actually the gospel is?  Can it be defined by few words as repent, accept Christ, believe in him and live Godly life? I believe that it is possible, but how much relevant would these few words be for an unbelievers from various parts of the earth? Going back to the Acts and watching Paul on his missionary journeys we can observe his strategy behind proposing the gospel in different locations over Eastern Europe and Minor Asia. For illustration I will briefly introduce three different cases:
Sermon in Antioch (Acts 13:41)
Similarly to Stephens’s speech in chapter 7 Paul started with a review of the Old Testament to secure the common ground on which they would both agree with, for both Jews and Gentile God-fearers were present. Thereafter he brought up John the Baptist who introduced the One after him. Now he retold the story of Jesus’ accusation, crucifixion and resurrection after which he pointed to prophets that supported his words[13]. These people knew and respected the scriptures and on that account he chose to preach the gospel through the lens of history.
Sermon in Lystra (Acts 14:15-17)
In this very short sermon they cleared up their human nature and then pointed to God as supreme creator of all the nature who is in full control. Lystra was an ancient, native city where its inhabitants worship Greek deities, thus they had absolute no knowledge of the Old Testament or Judaism itself[14].
Sermon in Athens (Acts 17:22-31)
Right in the beginning he acclaims them, and then he mentions the statue of unknown God from which his main body starts. Anew the idea of common ground appears. In main body he “carefully crafted and evangelistic sermon in which he does not quote an Old Testament unfamiliar to pagan Greeks, but uses a philosopher’s approach to lead hearers to the central truth of Paul’s message: the resurrection of Jesus[15]. To advert to our point we do not have to go deeper in this sermon, as we see that a third completely different approach was used.
Paul’s strategy was contextualization. While the core of the message always stayed the same, the form in which it was passed on was always different, depending on the audience he preached to.
Today we have all the options they had if not even more. We can freely travel or speak to anyone through widely used English while using Bible translation from almost any kind of language. People are equally hungry for the truth and are tossed from side to side by all kinds of earthly idols, philosophical orientation or by variety of religions. The Great Commission invariably works for us as well and calls us to set ourselves on a track of disciple making, yet be open to doings of Holy Spirit in us. Having more and more great multicultural cities and environments where people from completely different settings meet, it becomes inevitable to loose the mono-cultural way of thinking and equip ourselves with a mind considerably open to a fact that there are also cultures that can bring something good to the society, to the fellowship. We ought to educate ourselves in finding out how to present gospel to these various groups, understanding the background they are living in and then bringing the good news closer to them, by contextualizing it so they can grasp it thoroughly.
 
Conclusion:
In Acts the trustworthy interception of the mission to Gentiles by Luke is giving us an example to follow, that when I have discovered, convicted me of being unaware of. Now I have confidence that these truths are speaking to each one of us, urging us to rise up and apply them daily in our lives.
  
Bibliography:
Stott, John R. W. (1990). “The Message of Acts”. Zondervan Publishing House.

[1] Acts 16:38; 22:27-29
[2] Daniel 3:19-29
[3] Non-Jews, who submitted to all the requirements of the Law including circumcision. They were treated as full members of the Jewish community.
[4] Non-Jews, who accepted the Jewish teachings but did not take on themselves an obligation to fulfill the Law. These people did not have full membership.
[5] Acts 10:1-4, 44
[6] This festival marked the anniversary of the deliverance of the Jews from the Egyptians and their beginnings as an independent nation.
[7] Exodus 12:24-28
[8] This festival celebrated the anniversary of the giving of the Law to Moses. Name Pentecost means “fifty days,” because it was held fifty days after the Passover.
[9]Stott, John R. W. (1990). “The Message of Acts”. Zondervan Publishing House.p.p. 64-65
[10] Matthew 28:19-20
[11] Acts 9:27, 11:25
[12] Osborne, G. (1992). Peter, the Apostle. In J. Douglas & P. W. Comfort (Eds.), Who’s Who in Christian history (J. Douglas & P. W. Comfort, Ed.). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House. p.p. 553-554
[13] Utley, R. J. D. (2003). Vol. Volume 3B: Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts. Study Guide Commentary Series (164–169). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
[14] Richards, L. O. (1991). The Bible readers companion (electronic ed.). Wheaton: Victor Books. p.p. 721
[15] Richards, L. O. (1991). The Bible readers companion (electronic ed.). Wheaton: Victor Books. p.p. 724
 written by Peter Makovíni
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Posted by on December 21, 2010 in Theology

 

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