Church History: Rome and the Apostolic Era

Our Wednesday night dinners and classes at church started this evening, and I joined the “Back to the Future” class that is being co-taught by Ken Rees and John Gruel. It will be a 15 week course, and as a text we’re using Church History In Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley. This may sound like an extremely dry subject to some, but I am actually very enthused about it– in no small part due to the fact that both Ken and John are fantastic teachers and scholars, and I know I’ll learn a great deal just going to class! However, unlike many of my high school, undergraduate, and (sadly, yes) even graduate classes– I really want to do the assigned readings each week to get even more out of the study. Yes, the road to certain places is paved with good intentions… and I’ve started out courses with similar pledges (“Yes, I WILL do all the assigned readings!”) but hopefully this will be different. The fact that I’ll be able to blog my reflections and notes will certainly help, I think. I considered tonight starting an “Eyes Right” podcast, and among other things I may see if Ken and/or John will let me record and podcast some of their lessons.

Mainly for my own edification (but perhaps for yours as well) here are my re-written notes from tonight’s class. I actually didn’t take a laptop to class (gasp!) and took hand-written notes (a rare occurance for me these days) but that oversight shall be remedied next week!

There are several reasons we are doing this study of church history:

  1. To better understand each other! Even in a “Presbyterian” church, we have a very diverse group of members who share a diverse set of religious experiences. It is important to know “where we come from” and where the church has been, to better understand its present as well as its future.
  2. We are studying the history of the church to better understand how God has preserved His church. One major evidence of God’s active hand in the affairs of men and women today as well as throughout history is the fact that the church still exists and is strong! At so many points of its history, you would think the church was going to be killed off! Yet it still survives. This is good to know and appreciate, because it is a testament to God’s faithfulness as well as his active role in our lives.
  3. As a church congregation, we are seeking to recapture for our own time the real missional calling of THE CHURCH. Like the old kid’s rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a meeting place THE CHURCH IS THE PEOPLE!” And we are called to be missional! We are not supposed to go to a church building on Sundays and maybe other days of the week, and just fellowship and be “fed.” We are also to go and SERVE. Studying the history of the church will give us all a better understanding and perspective on what it means to be “missional” today in the 21st century.

Early Roman Church History

The circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christian church really were remarkable and unique. It was no accident that God chose to send his Son into the world at the precise moment of history that he had chosen. Had Jesus lived 100 years earlier, or 200 or so years later, the Roman empire would have been at a very different stage in its development. At that time, Rome was a very unique innovation in the world. Rome represented about 20% of the world’s population and a large percentage of its commerce. Rome’s government was very unique: People could be Roman citizens (like Saul of Tarsus, later to be named Paul) even if they were not born in Italy, and even if they were Jewish. Rome was one of the first truly multi-ethnic states. Jews were even given special dispensations by the Roman Caesars. They did not have to have Roman images in their temples, for example. This was a quid-pro-quo for assistance the nation of Israel had given to Rome in previous years.

Rome introduced roads to many parts of the world, and although these were established primarily for military purposes they also brought many associated benefits. Rome was the first nation with the strength to have a navy which patrolled sea lanes in the Mediterranean, and their suppression of piracy (at least some of it) was a historic first.

The Romans didn’t push their language on everyone. Latin was spoken in Italy, but Greek was the predominant language in much of the Mediterranean and was a common and unifying language to a large extent. About one third of the population in Rome during this era were slaves, and they had a pretty hopeless existance with little chance for freedom. Slavery at that time was NOT based on race. There were many ways a person could become a slave, and not many ways to become free.

People during this era were alert to the idea of a Messiah coming. The Jewish Zealots would periodically have a leader arise who would claim to be the Messiah, and that person along with his followers were violently put down by the Romans. Still, people were attuned to this idea and alert to the possible arrival of a Savior.

When the dark ages came (approx. 500 – 1500 AD) a real window of opportunity for the spreading of the Christian gospel throughout the Mediterranean via the Roman empire closed down.

I HAD SEVERAL THOUGHTS OF MY OWN DURING THIS LESSON TONIGHT, NOT MENTIONED BY THE TEACHER BUT WORTH RECORDING HERE:

  • I THINK A CASE CAN BE MADE THAT A “WINDOW” FOR SPREADING THE GOSPEL AGAIN OPENED AROUND 1500 THROUGH THE WORK OF LUTHER AND THE OTHER REFORMERS. TO A LARGE EXTENT, DURING THE DARK AGES I THINK THE PERPETUATION OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE WAS RELEGATED TO MONKS ISOLATED IN THEIR MONASTERIES. LUTHER BROUGHT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE AGAIN TO STAGE CENTER AND HELPED THE CAUSE OF CHRIST IN MANY WAYS. OF COURSE TECHNOLOGY (THE PRINTING PRESS) PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN THIS PROCESS OF DYNAMIC CHANGE– WHICH WAS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED BY THE CHURCH WHICH HAD BY THAT TIME BECOME INSTITUTIONALIZED.
  • ALL OF JESUS’ TEACHINGS WERE BASED ON THE OLD TESTAMENT. WE NEED TO REMEMBER THAT HE DIDN’T HAVE THE NEW TESTAMENT TO REFER TO OR TEACH FROM, BECAUSE IT HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN. WHEN PEOPLE ASK QUESTIONS REVEALING THEIR MISCONCEPTION THAT THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WAS A DIFFERENT GOD THAN THE GOD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, IT MIGHT BE HELPFUL TO POINT THIS OUT. JESUS WAS THE FULFILLMENT OF OT PROPHESY, AND IT WAS HIS LITERACY OF THE OT (AS WELL AS THE LITERACY OF OTHERS, LIKE PAUL) WHICH WAS PIVOTAL IN CARRYING THE MESSAGE TO MANY OF THE JEWS.
  • JESUS HAD MANY ROLES IN LIFE, BUT ONE OF HIS PRIMARY ROLES WAS THAT OF AN EDUCATOR!
  • PAUL WAS A WRITER, AN ENCOURAGER, A COMMUNICATOR, AND AN EXHORTER!

Jesus’ message was unique and contrasted sharply with that of many others living at the same time.

  • The Essenes were a monastic group that retreated away from the world. Jesus always remained in and engaged with the world. He did retreat at times to the wilderness and other places to rest and restore his body and spirit, but he always returned to engage. This is a good model we should keep in mind and follow in our own lives!
  • Unlike the Jewish Zealots, Jesus advocated peacemaking and coexistance with Roman rule.
  • The message of Jesus consistently focused on the concept of a “new kingdom.” At times it was unclear if that kingdom was in the present or future, and if in the future in the near or long term. “Kingdom” was a unifying theme, however.

The Sadducees were the elite in Jewish culture because they were in charge of Temple worship. They were very “cozy” with the Romans. The Pharisees’ name means “separated ones.” They were not necessarily wealthy, but were distinguished primarily by their focus on legalism and following the law. They were interested in purity and generally withdrawing from “unclean ones,” which contrasted sharply with the example of Jesus who embraced the sick, the poor, and the ritually unclean. Pharisees were focused on synogogue worship, which had sustained the Jews throughout the Babylonian captivity when the Temple was destroyed and not available for worship.

Jesus didn’t give his disciples a standardized test to measure their aptitudes! He was also very unique in his day because he included women in his circle of close confidants. Leaders selected by Jesus were empowered with a variety of charismatic gifts, which means “gifts of the spirit.” His instructional model included direct instruction followed by internships as the disciples went out two by two, and then came back to report, reflect, and share. Jesus modeled his servant-style of leadership during the Last Supper as he washed the feet of his disciples.

After the death/crucifixtion and resurrection of Jesus, Peter is transformed from a coward and a very awkward speaker to a powerful spokesman challenging established Judaism. In the early church, Christians were called “the way” and both thought of themselves as a sect of Jews and were regarded that way by others. They practiced traditional Jewish customs and rituals but also added their own, like gathering on Sundays to share about their faith.

There were two primary groups of Jews in this era. The Hellenistic Jews were Greek speaking, and had a more rationalistic/scientific approach to thinking. They generally preferred Greek to Hebrew. The family of Jesus was very important in the early years following his death and resurrection. We don’t read much about Jesus’ half-brother, James, during the years of his ministry. However, James played a very important role in leading the early church after Jesus’ resurrection. After Stephen’s death in 36 AD, most of the Hellenistic Jews left Jeruselum for Antioch and other locations. This was a phase of the Jewish diaspora.

Much of the growth of the early church happened in the cities rather than in smaller, rural towns. About 60 AD, Nero led Rome and he really thought he was a “god.” Paul and Peter were both executed in Rome approximately 66 AD as part of Nero’s persecutions of the Christians. Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome. This period of persecution led to a final breach between those who continued to call themselves “Jews” and those who become known as “Christians.”

THIS WAS A GREAT START TO THIS CLASS AND I LOOK FORWARD TO LEARNING MORE! OUR LESSON FOR NEXT WEEK IS TITLED, “PERSECUTION AND ORTHODOXY.” OUR ASSIGNED READING IS CHAPTERS 4, 5 AND 6 OF OUR TEXT, SO I BETTER START READING SOON! 🙂

21st Century Gideons’ Guide

One of the things I have always noticed about Gideons’ Bibles in motel rooms is that they include an excellent guide of verses, categorized by topic and issue. A Lubbock friend (Billy Hull) sent me a link to God’s Yellow Pages today, which is like a 21st century Gideons’ guide to the Bible.

The entry that caught my attention tonight was one for “courage.” I blogged earlier today about courage— how it is not the lack of fear, but rather the ability to act despite fear– but this verse (Psalm 27:14) puts yet a different spin on courage that I need to be reminded of.

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

Courage, in a Christian sense, also means remembering WHO IS IN CONTROL of this world and what my place in it actually is. I think we often think of “courageous people” as folks who went out and “made things happen” — I at least don’t always think of courage as something that involves God’s will– often I think of it as something that is a product of human will. Certainly the choices we make matter… I think a great part of the Christian walk is the struggle to make GOOD and BETTER choices, when faced with temptations and adversity– but in the end we need to recognize the existance of God’s will and His sovereignty.

I am not sure about others, but I know that I RARELY want to wait. For anything. Waiting is not really considered virtuous anymore, in popular culture. Perhaps it never was, but it seems that it was held in higher regard by previous generations. The emphasis now in our consumer-driven society is to NEVER wait: always buy now, always satisfy your urges with rash spending and impulsive decision-making.

Those are poor habits. The Psalmist reminds us that we should strive to be courageous people– and we should take courage in the strength and in the perfect plan of the LORD. Waiting is difficult for adults, at times, just as it seems excruciatingly difficult for my two year old. Yet in waiting, we all should take heart– and have courage. For we may not know the future, but we know who holds the future…. and we can rest easy knowing that the future is in good hands. 🙂

For additional links like these, refer to the official website of the Gideons and click on “Bible Helps” and then “Help in Time of Need.”

Indeed you are powerful

I am thrilled to have found a wonderful Friday morning men’s fellowship group at our new church here in Edmond, Oklahoma, very similar to a Friday morning men’s group I participated in back in Lubbock for the past few years. Ever since I went to my first Promisekeepers event, which was probably back in 1998 or so, seeking the fellowship, accountability, laughter and levity of another group of Christian guys has become a very important part of my life.

Our Edmond men’s group is about 50 or 60 men strong each week, and one of the best things about it is that we have men who are all different ages. There are probably more retired guys than younger ones, but I think the age range is very good– it runs from 30s (I don’t think we have any in their 20s in there currently) up to 70s and maybe even 80s. Older guys have so much more “lived experiences” and wisdom than us young whippersnappers, that it is a great opportunity usually to just hang out and listen. I want to have the “margin” and perspective on life that these older guys do NOW, and not wait another forty years to get it. That is a real struggle, but hanging out with these fellows, listening to them and learning from them seems like a good recipie for learning their secrets. Maybe some of that patient, gentle spirit will rub off on me! I am not sure if it is working, but I think there’s a good chance it might be doing some good.

We have started a new book study on John Eldredge’s book, “Wild At Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul.” I read this book at least three years ago, it was published in in 2001– and I am so glad to have this encouragement to read the book again, reflect on it, and share about it with other guys. I am also very glad to have this blog as a place to record my thoughts and offer them up for feedback and response. I will try and “chunk” my ideas a bit better for this blog than I sometimes do for my primary blog– because I think people are more likely to read shorter posts and part of my purpose is to encourage dialog and responses.

The first excerpt I want to respond to from the book comes from page 10, in chapter 1. Eldredge writes:

Capes and swords, camouflage, bandannas and six-shooters– these are the uniforms of boyhood. Little boys yearn to know they are powerful, they are dangerous, they are someone to be reckoned with.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the movie series “Star Wars.” This is from Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi,” and Darth Vader is speaking to Luke on the planet Endor before he takes him up to his star ship to meet the Emperor. Vader says:

Indeed you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.

I love that statement and observation. Yes, Luke has grown powerful in his own right under the guidance of his mentors, Obi-Wan and Yoda. And now, his own father is recognizing him. All children yearn to be acknowledged and recognized by their parents, I think, for the men and women they have and are continuing to grow up to be.

I got in the habit many years ago of having my own children repeat certain phrases that I would tell them. I know that “self-talk” is very important in terms of shaping identity, and there are so many terrible messages in our popular culture today that reinforce the WRONG messages to both young people and adults alike. For my daughters, I often have them repeat the following after me:

I AM powerful.
I AM strong.
I AM beautiful.
I AM smart.
I AM a good thinker.
I AM good.
I AM nice.
I AM sweet.

I want my own children to speak this reality into their own lives: They ARE powerful because God has created them in his own image to be his children, and to do his work. He has equipped them each with talents and gifts that they are called to discover and to use, and part of my role as their father is to help them discover their identity and learn at the end of the day– or rather on the path of their own journey of faith, that they each ARE powerful…. Powerful beyond words, or as Miguel has written before, “powerful beyond measure.”

I think it is very important as parents, teachers and just adults in our society that we help empower young people to believe in themselves and in the calling which they each have in this world to do important work. I have no idea what my children will do in the future, but I do know that I want them to move forward into that future with confidence and sureity about WHOSE they are, and how wonderfully he has crafted them to be his agents on this often dark planet.

Fixing my eyes on Jesus

Hebrews 12:2 to me is a reminder that I should fix my eyes on Jesus every day. Our world is filled with distractions and its media-centric nature makes it (perhaps) more difficult than ever to concentrate on anything for a sustained period of time. Even when I am listening to a sermon at church, my mind often wanders to think about other things. It is a real struggle to keep focused on a Biblical message even when I am in a church on a Sunday morning! How much more difficult it is to stay focused on Christ and his calling for my life out in “the real world?!”

I am working on making time each day to study God’s Word and spend time in prayer with Him. This is a huge challenge for me. I know I need to spend time not only talking to God, but also being quiet so I can listen to Him! God speaks to us, and he speaks to me, but I find myself often in such motion and a buzz of activity that I think I find it hard to listen to him. Being still and listening is a counter-cultural act today, I think. I am reminded of the Biblical exhortation, which was a song our high school choir sang incidentally many years ago: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

God is the creator of the universe, and he is the Father of us all. I think having an opportunity to write about my own journey of faith in this blogspace is going to be a good process for me personally, and hopefully an encouragement to others who are also on a personal journey of faith. I have previously blogged about my Christian faith on my main blog, “Moving at the Speed of Creativity,” but am now going to post those sorts of thoughts here. By doing this, I in no way want to hide or conceal my faith and my beliefs. To the contrary, I want to have access to a specific forum that is oriented towards topics relating to faith, Christianity, God and Jesus. Because my primary blog focuses mainly on issues relating to educational technology, I have (at times) been a bit reluctant to post ideas, reflections and resources which specifically related to Christianity there. Now that I have access to this dedicated Christian webspace, I do not anticipate having such reservations again!

I do not have all the answers, and I probably don’t have many answers, but I am on a journey of faith that I know in my heart of hearts is the right pathway. God has the answers, and in his time I know he will reveal more to me. He does each day. One of the best things about blogs is the potential they give for authentic sharing and communication. Hopefully the opportunity to share and reflect about our faith will be a blessing to all who visit here. 🙂

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