The History of the Church of God
From the Good News Magazine
Christianity is by far the largest single religion on earth, with more than 1.9 billion professing Christians.
But Christianity is not one harmonious group of believers. The Christian world is divided into hundreds of denominations, splits, schisms and sects.
What happened? How did Christianity become so divided? Even more important. where is the Church Jesus founded?
Is the true Church composed of all these groups? Or is it just one of them? As we search through nearly 2,000 years of history, can we find where the true disciples of Jesus were? Can we know what they believed? Can we know who they are today?
Yes, we can, but our search is not an easy one. Large gaps often appear in the historical records. Information is sometimes very
sketchy, at other times spurious. The true followers of Jesus of Nazareth were often persecuted. During some periods of history, what we know about then comes only from their adversaries.
So sometimes the line of history is thin and questionable.
But there is a line.
Our search is based on this truth: Jesus himself clearly said, "I will build My church, and the gates of Hades [the grave, or death] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
He also said, "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).
A small Church. An often persecuted Church. But a church that would always be there. That's what the Bible prophesied. And that's what history reveals.
Before there was a Church
Let's begin our story in the first century B C.
By the time Jesus was born the boundaries of the Roman Empire extended from Britain on the north to the Sahara on the south. Roman banners flew over cities from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. The clatter of horses' hooves, the rumble of war machines and the clamor of marching legions had long since been familiar sounds in the Middle East.
The entire empire was at peace and was prospering. Roman occupation armies now busied themselves with games, tournaments, gambling, talking over valiant battles of the past.
In the confines of this great empire, the New Testament Church began.
Planned in advance
It was not an accident that God established the New Testament Church at exactly this time. He had set the stage.
Since the days of Moses, the Hebrew prophets had written of the coming Messiah. In 4 A.D. the time came.
Later, when the apostle Paul wrote of the momentous appearance of the Son of God on earth, he said. "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4).
One of the most important preparations for the establishment of the Church was the Jewish dispersion throughout the Western world.
Beginning in the Persian period and continuing through the time of the Greek empire, the Jews established settlements in almost every important city in the Western world.
It would be in the Jewish synagogues where early New Testament ministers would first proclaim the message Jesus gave them. Gradually, then in increasing numbers, gentiles in the cities where the apostles preached were convicted of God's way.
They were baptized. Churches grew. Yet for many years the growth of the Christian Church went practically unnoticed by Roman officials. For all outward intents and purposes, Christians appeared little different from other Jewish sects.
By the time the Roman world really became aware that Christians were not just another Jewish party, tens of thousands of Christians were scattered from one end of the empire to the other.
The Roman background
Though they didn't realize it. the Romans had actually prepared the way for the gospel to be taken to the world in the first century of the new era.
Romans were great road builders. Roads that at first were constructed to move troops swiftly to battle, could also take Christian ministers to far-flung corners of the empire.
"The Policy of the Romans was opposed to the existence of separate political unions in countries dependant on them. On the other hand, they seldom interfered with the religions of their subjects or allies if these religions neither disturbed the peace nor encouraged barbarities ... since it was part of their political tradition to win the good-will of other nations by respecting their gods "
Jackson-Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, p.199
`Jews were found in large numbers in almost all parts of the empire. A multitude of exiles had planted themselves permanently in Babylonia instead of returning to Jerusalem with the caravans that followed Ezra (457 B.C.) and Nehemiah (444 B. C) and this version called the Septuagint, was in general use among the Hellenists, or Jews
• the dispersion, beyond the limits of Palestine. In Antioch and other places in Syria, in the numerous cities of Asia Minor, in Cyprus, Crete and other islands of the Mediterranean, in the cities of Greece, in Illyricum, In Rome, and in other towns Italy, Jews had settled in large numbers. They followed the example of the Phoenicians: wherever there was a prospect of gain through trade and commerce, Jewish Merchants swarmed. "
George Park Fisher,
The History of the Christian Church, p.14
"The rights of persons and property were well protected. The conquered nations, though often and justly complaining of the rapacity of provincial governors, yet, on the whole, enjoy greater security against domestic feuds and foreign invasion, a larger share of social comfort, and rose to a higher degree of secular civilization. The ends of the empire were brought into military, commercial, and literary communication by carefully constructing roads, the traces of which still exist in Syria, on the Alps, on the banks
• the Rhine. The facilities and security of travel were greater in the reign
• the Caesars than in any subsequent period before the 19th century" Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 1, p.81).
After peace was established a few years before the birth of Christ, trade routes, sea lanes, business and commerce began to flourish. The apostles of Jesus could travel by sea or land to
cities throughout the empire.
An effective mail system also played a role. Most of our readers will recall the epistles, or letters, of Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude.
Another important step preparing the way for the New Testament Church was the Hellenization of the pre-Christian world, or the imparting of Greek culture and language.
God had given the Israelite tribe of Judah the responsibility to preserve the sacred Scriptures now known as the Old Testament. But when the New Testament was written, it was preserved, not in Hebrew, not even in the Latin of Rome, but mostly in the Greek language.
Greek had become the language of culture and education more than three centuries before Christ. When the Romans conquered the world, they respected and retained Greek language, literature and architecture.
The coming of the Messiah
Into this Roman world, then, when the fullness of times had come, God sent his Son.
Jesus was born in the autumn of 4 B.C. When he was about 30 years of age, in the fall of A.D. 27, he began his ministry.
Jesus actively taught a comparatively short time-only threeand-a-half years. During that time perhaps many thousands heard him, but only a few hundred really believed what he said. From among those few hundred, Jesus trained 12 to be apostles the leading ministers of his Church.
On the day of the Passover in A.D. 31, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.
It appeared for the moment that the movement was over.
But three days after his death, the most momentous event in history took place. Jesus was raised from the dead-not back to mortal, human existence, but to spirit, self-contained life.
For 40 days, he appeared to his apostles and to many of his disciples. They were thoroughly convinced he who had been dead was now alive.
He left them with these final instructions: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Ahead lay the Work of the Church to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to all the world. That Work was to continue till Jesus Christ returns to this earth.
The Church begins
Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem. He promised he would send them help.
Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, the New Testament Church was born. The help Jesus promised was the Holy Spirit-a spiritual power sent from God to inspire those God called into his Church.
We'll see what happened in the early days of that Church, and how it survived the first tumultuous century of its existence.
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