This entry is part 16 of 30 in the series Featured Bible Study: 30 Christian Basics

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Christianity is the largest religion in the world with about 2.2 billion followers. Today, one quarter of the population of the entire world are Christians; it is the state religion in several countries, but what is it about Christianity that makes it so special? Why do 1 out of every 3 people living on planet earth claim to follow this belief system?

Christian history

The answer lies in two important reasons. One reason is a historical/political one while the other is a spiritual one.  When we study history, we will understand that certain political regimes helped bring Christianity to the forefront and caused its spread on a national and global scale. History teaches us that several religions have been spread by the use of political force; however, they are by no means as popular as Christianity.

History also bears witness to the fact that Christianity wasn’t always so popular; over the ages people and nations have rejected it, waged war against it and resolved to wipe it off the face of the earth. Nevertheless, ever since its humble inception in the obscure villages of the Judean countryside, no human or demonic power has been able to destroy it or stunt its growth by any means.  It has always flourished and bloomed in every corner of the globe it has been taken to regardless of how it was initially received there. This brings us to the second reason. There has to have been an invisible supernatural force propagating and advancing it through the centuries. Let’s trace through this very interesting journey that Christianity has travelled on, through the centuries.

Why is It Important to Study History?

You may think to yourself that studying history is irrelevant to us or even ‘unspiritual’. However the reason why every Christian should know this history is because, Christianity, unlike any other religion, is deeply rooted in history. The fact that God came to earth as a man – Jesus Christ, is central to Christianity. He lived, loved and taught amongst humans over 2000 years ago. The historical reality of Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross, His burial and glorious resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christianity. They are facts that history cannot deny. The Holy Bible is not a book written based on fairy tales or man’s imagination; it is a divinely inspired historical record of God’s plan of redemption for the world.

In I Corinthians 10:1-13, the apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to learn from the examples of Israel’s past, and learn from their mistakes. Similarly, we can learn from the history of Christianity today. In today’s world we often find new and bizarre practices and doctrine appearing everywhere and even claim to be a part of Christianity. This is nothing new. History is filled with examples of times when heresies and false teachings tried to infiltrate the church and destroy the sanctity of Christianity. Learning Christian doctrine with an understanding of Christian history will help us separate fiction from facts and give us good appreciation of sound doctrine.

Christianity’s Origin and Rise

The first chapter in the two thousand year long story of Christian history is the glorious century that began with the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Most of the events that took place during this century have been meticulously recorded in the book of Acts by Dr. Luke (the Gospel writer). Just as the book of Acts records, the Christian Church was born on the day of Pentecost as three thousand people were saved and added to the Church. Soon five thousand more people were saved and added to the Church. As we continue reading, we find that the church continued to grow rapidly. God was doing some amazing things in and through the Church. Things however, didn’t remain so rosy for too much longer. Satan soon began to stir up trouble for the first believers in very much the same way he does today. The early church faced a lot of trouble, but God was with them and in them! God was building His church (Matthew 16:18) and just as He had promised, not even men or demons or Satan himself could stop what God was doing!

Persecution in the Church however intensified to the point where they killed Christians. Stephen was the first Christian who died for his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a terrible, yet glorious way to die. As we read on in the book of Acts, we see that following the death of Stephen, trouble against the Church began to severely intensify. Up until now, we learned that the Church is Jerusalem faced problems, which the enemy stirred up against it, in order to destroy it. Now however, the word ‘trouble’ isn’t sufficient to describe what the believers faced; these faithful followers of Jesus faced persecution. There came a point when it was no longer safe for them to remain in Jerusalem because their men and women were being thrown into prison.

Christianity is Persecuted, Yet Spreads

The Church in Jerusalem was therefore scattered and demolished. The once amazing and beautifully growing Church in Jerusalem, now laid ruined because after all the Church, we know is the people; since the people had fled the city, the Church became empty! Scholars say that there had been approximately eight to ten thousand believers at the Church in Jerusalem at that time. The pastoral team (consisting of the apostles and designated leaders) of the Church had worked very hard, preaching the gospel in spite of threats, imprisonment and even martyrdom; now however, it seemed as if all their labour had been in vain and their beloved Church had been reduced to rubble. Satan must have been rejoicing, thinking that his plan to destroy the Church had succeeded. The Lord however, was still very much in control; He had an amazing plan for the Church in the midst of all of their suffering. Even though the Lord never brings suffering to His children, if He allows it in their lives, it always has a purpose. What Satan meant for evil, God turned it around for good (Genesis 50:20).

The Bible tells us in Acts 8:4, ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ As they carried whatever little belongings they had gathered together on their hurried escape from their homes, they did exactly what caused them to lose their homes and lands!  The devil was again the loser here because even becoming refugees could not shut them up. So everywhere they went throughout Judea and Samaria, all the believers took the gospel with them and preached it. They had been effective witnesses in Jerusalem all this while, and it was time for God to fulfill the next step of His plan through their lives.

Sure, the Church in Jerusalem looked very good with nearly ten thousand amazing believers all together worshipping Him as one; but God was interested in His precious gospel spreading to the four corners of the globe so He allowed them to be scattered. The seed of the gospel planted on the day of Pentecost had grown beautifully into a large tree bearing ten thousand fragrant fruits; however, it was now time for each of those fruits to scatter its seeds to the farthest ends of the earth so that more beautiful trees would spread the fragrance of Christ.  Those who persecuted them could separate the Christians and scatter them out of one Church but they could not separate Christ from out of the Christians’ hearts!

The Roman Anger

As they saw Christians growing in spite of persecution, the Roman government was angered. In the first 250 years of the church, the Romans put hundreds of Christians to death. Some were even fed to the lions in Roman colosseum as spectators watched (much the same as people go to watch football games today for entertainment). History tells us that Peter was crucified upside down for the Lord. Many others were split in half by being tied to horses, which then galloped in opposite directions, tearing them apart; while still others were dipped into giant vats of boiling oil. In the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, coins were released bearing the imprint “The Christians are completely destroyed, the worship of our gods has been renewed.” He built a monument in memory of the “destruction of Christianity”.

The Church and the State

It wasn’t long before they realized that the Church could not be suppressed. No matter how intense the persecution became, the growth of the Church and the Christians did not stop. At end of the persecution, it has been calculated that there were approximately 120 million people living in the Roman empire. It is believed that half the population was Christian (60 million). The enemy realized that he could not destroy the church by simply persecuting it.  He came up with a far more crafty and cunning way to carry out his plans. He used Christians to destroy Christians. Constantine, the great Roman emperor was amazed by the steadfastness and truthfulness of the Christians. One day he saw a shinning cross in his dream with a voice saying, ‘receive victory through the symbol’. He implemented this and was victorious therefore he became a Christian. He proclaimed himself to be the custodian of the Christian religion.

In 324 AD, he combined the church and state. He granted several privileges to the churches and to Christians. Large sums of money from the empire’s treasury were given to pastors to build their Churches. Elders of the church were given exorbitant, building called ‘basilicas’. Ceremonies for religious conversion were carried out. The persecution of Christians finally stopped. It became a great privilege to be a Christian. Scores of people became Christians in order to receive government benefits and privileges. People became pastors and leaders in order to receive a better life style and more money. Even though Christianity began spreading the world over, the church started to lose its holiness a little by little. People who had not repented or truly accepted Christ started to fill the pews of the Church, while those who were not truly called by Christ became preachers and pastors and filled the pulpits. Everyone chose Christianity for other reasons.

Therefore, the power of the Holy Spirit declined and money increased in power. Preaching from the pulpit became a mere show of oratory skills. The Word of God was forgotten and churches were filled with unrepentant people. The government met all of the Church’s needs. Many temples to pagan gods were converted into Churches. In order to bring people from foreign religions to church, they started adapting pagan practices into the church. Foolish rituals from these pagan religions became sacred ceremonies within the church. The foundational truths of the Bible were no longer being preached. Therefore, no one was able to differentiate the true foundational Christian doctrine and false teaching against the fundamentals of Christianity. The church of Jesus Christ was pushed to state where they practiced all the practices of the foreign pagan religions. When the hundreds of people started entering the church, they brought their Babylonian rituals into the church. Church leaders were eager to incorporate foreign and pagan practices into sacred church ceremony just to bring new people to church.

As we keep go through history, we see that during the Middle Ages, most of the remainder of Europe was Christianized. Christians also soon became a large religious minority in the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia and parts of India. Following this, through missionary work and colonization, Christianity spread to the Americas, Australasia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the rest of the world. Missionary work had a huge impact in making Christianity so prevalent. Spreading the word of the Lord was considered both an honour and a duty; history is overflowing with the names of Christian missionaries and evangelists who travelled the world, sacrificing their lives to convert people to the way of the living God.

Conclusion

The story of Christianity is very exciting to study but what makes it special is this: it is much more than a religion; it is a relationship, a way of life and a commitment. It is the only religion that is based on your personal relationship with God (through Jesus). Many factors contributed to the rise of Christianity. No one factor can be said to be the reason for Christianity’s overwhelming success. However, through everything, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit helped spread Christianity into places where other religions faded away. Heaven and earth will pass away but Christianity, founded on the life-giving words of Jesus Christ will endure forever. We have a choice, we can either be inspired by the story of Christianity and be inspired to further the Gospel realizing that victory will be ours; or we can shrink back into our complacency and fear a lead nominal Christian lives. Whatever we choose, one thing is a fact: The kingdom of our God will be established on this earth and those who served Him faithfully will be given their fair reward.

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