The Greatness of Early Christianity
Who is the greatest person you’ve ever met? What made them great? What was the greatest church you’ve ever been a part of? What made it great?
Having considered these questions, let me inquire, what does it mean to be “great”? Dictionary definitions would tell us that to be “great” implies someone or something that is superior in quality, remarkable in effectiveness, beyond the ordinary, powerful, or strong.
Glimpse of Greatness
The early church had none of the trappings of greatness as we typically measure it. They had no impressive facilities, large budgets, rock star leaders, or sophisticated programs. Yet, their impact was truly great. Born from an extraordinary reliance on the Holy Spirit and a bold embrace of the gospel, they saw three thousand come to Christ on their opening day (Acts 2:41). The Lord added new converts to the church every day (Acts 2:47) and in short order, the power of the work resulted in the number of just men reaching 5,000, not even counting the women and children. Soon the impact of the church went from addition to multiplication to a GREAT multiplication of devoted disciples (Act 6:7). The secular observers of the day concluded that the early disciples of Jesus “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Reports of Regression
John S. Dickerson is a nationally-awarded journalist with expertise in summarizing boxes of data. In recent years, he set out to take the pulse of Bible-believing Christianity in the U.S., aggregating thousands of pages from multiple researchers. The resulting book, The Great Evangelical Recession, unveils a mosaic of the Church in the U.S. (John will also be a keynote speaker at our upcoming national conference – see www.64fellowship.com/national).
In summary, Dickerson concluded:
- As true evangelicals we are smaller than we think we are. We are a movement that is declining as a percentage of the population and probably now somewhere near or below 10%.
- We have failed to disciple the next generation. Generally, the millennials have closed the door on church involvement. Among those who grew up in church, nearly six in ten have dropped out at some point. Seven in ten millennials, in general, are disinterested or ambivalent about church. It will only get worse as the leading segments of society that influence them are generally anti-Christian.
- We are facing increasing hostility from the surrounding culture. Many evidences of this sentiment can be found in the news on a regular basis.
- Large ministries will experience significant financial shortfalls in the coming years because the majority of their funding comes from the oldest two generations, which will fade from the scene.
Clearly, in an overall sense we are not great in our influence as the early church was. We would do well to see what made the early church so effective.
I have discovered three specific references to some of the great characteristics of the early church. They exhibited great power, experienced great grace, and embraced great fear of God.
Exhibiting Great Power
Acts chapter four tells of the response of the early church to the first wave of persecution. Peter and John are arrested, threatened, and ordered to stop preaching Christ. They return to their fellow believers and a massive prayer meeting breaks out as they practice Scripture-fed, Spirit-led, worship-based prayer. The Holy Spirit fills them all and they are empowered to preach the gospel with boldness (Acts 4:23-31).
Then notice this verse: “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus…” (Acts 4:33a). These early leaders had a compelling understanding of the life and supremacy of Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection. They had witnessed the risen Christ, were filled with His life and convinced of the need to preach His gospel by the power of His Spirit.
Too often today we look at our problems and fixate on the challenges of the world around us. Taking our eye off the risen Savior, we get defeated, lose our spiritual passion, and compromise our testimony, either through disobedience or timidity.
These early Christians were truly remarkable in their effectiveness in declaring Christ, even to the point of being willing to die a martyr’s death. They were fully convinced and completely committed to the uniqueness of the gospel.
A Story of Powerful Witness
A compelling story illustrates the commitment of the early Christians. In the days of Nero, the Emperor of Rome, he had a band of elite soldiers known as “The Emperor’s Wrestlers.” These men were the best athletes in the Roman Amphitheater, and the bravest soldiers in all of the Roman army. They wrestled for the Emperor against all who challenged them. Before each contest they would stand before the Emperor’s throne and cry out, “We the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
One year, in mid-winter, there was a rebellion waged in Gaul (modern-day France). The Emperor sent for his wrestlers and told them to go to Gaul to end the war that was raging on. This brave group of wrestlers left Rome under the command of Vespasian.
While in Gaul rumors spread to Rome that many of the Emperor’s Wrestlers had become Christians. When news of this reached Nero, he sent a message to Vespasian, and made this decree: “If there be any among your soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christians, they must die!”
It was in the dead of winter that Vespasian received the message while his soldiers were camped beside a frozen lake in Gaul. Vespasian assembled his troops and asked, “Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christians? If so, let him step forward.”
Forty soldiers instantly stepped forward two paces, saluted, and stood at attention. Vespasian was stunned! He had not expected any to step forward. He said, “Until sundown I shall give you time to recant and to deny your faith.”
At sundown the soldiers were again assembled together and Vespasian asked, “Who still clings to the Christian faith, even if it means death?”
Again forty soldiers stepped forward and stood at attention. Vespasian pleaded with them to deny their faith, but not one soldier would deny Christ.
Vespasian did not want these men he loved and respected, who fought side by side together, to die at the hands of their fellow wrestlers, so he had them strip naked. Vespasian reluctantly said, “The decree of the Emperor must be obeyed, so you shall stand out on the frozen lake, exposed to the elements until you freeze to death. Should you recant and deny Christ, the fire will remain burning on shore, and by returning to the shelter of the fire, you will be denouncing Christ and you shall live.”
The forty soldiers stripped off their clothing, fell into four columns of ten each, and marched toward the center of the frozen lake to their death. But as they marched onto the ice, they chanted, “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
All night long Vespasian stood by his campfire and watched those forty brave wrestlers out on the ice as they slowly succumbed to the elements. As they grew weaker and weaker, their chanting grew fainter and fainter: “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
As morning drew near, one wrestler, no longer able to stand the freezing cold, walked off the ice and came to the edge of the fire, renouncing Christ. Vespasian could hear faintly from the frozen lake, “Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.”
Vespasian, standing by the fire all night, was confronted by the faith and sacrifice of these Christ-followers. God touched his heart. Vespasian slowly removed his cloak, helmet, and armor and calmly walked down upon the frozen lake to join his men, and as he walked, he chanted, “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Christ, to win for thee the victory and from thee the victor’s crown.” [i]
Our Resurrection Reality
We can exhibit this kind of greatness as we embrace the truth of Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Next week we will examine two other qualities of greatness in the early church in hopes that we will live, even as they did, for His glory.
Copyright © 2016 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.