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The Big Picture of Church History

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I've mentioned before the tragic story of the young man who led me to Christ. In the fall of 1990, he explained to me the good news of Jesus Christ, taking me into his Bible study—even giving me my very first Bible. But shortly after that time, he began watching a number of television preachers whose message was that the world would end some time around the year 2000. This young man drank deeply of their pessimism, focusing all his attention on the darkness in the world. He felt called to seminary, but thought it would be a waste of time. He’d be finishing seminary around 1995, with only a couple years left to use his training. In despair, this young man chose to do nothing. He took a retail job locally, stopped going to church, and gave up on his ministry plans. God was no longer working on planet earth, and he was ready to count down the minutes until history’s end.


He really got into books and videos like this ->


This friend of mine focused on the darkness instead of on the light God was shining in it. The Christian who fails to grasp what God is doing in history is a Christian who is destined for a life of discouragement. Jesus told us what he was doing in human history. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Mt 16:18). We become so bogged down in the world’s evil, in our own evil, in the church’s failing, in our own lives and needs and worries and concerns. We fail to see the proverbial forest for the trees. I want to take the next few minutes to help us see the ‘big picture’ of God’s work on earth: the first 4200 years of the Christian church.

I. The Church didn’t begin with Peter, but with Abraham.


Yes. The first 4200 years, not the first 2000 years. Remember:


Scripture doesn’t present the early Christians as the beginnings of a new people of God, but as the continuation of God’s people, Israel—the descendents of Abraham.


“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).


God called Abraham and his decedents out from the nations to become God’s people. Salvation (belonging to God) relied on God’s promise to them, not on their promises to God (Gen 12:1-3).


From the very beginning, salvation was received through faith alone, not by works (Gen 15:6). The law was given to Moses (Ex 20 and following) in the context of this already-established, grace-based, faith-fueled relationship—not as a means of salvation.


God disciplined his people as a Father disciplines his sons (i.e. blessings & cursings to keep us seeking him, Deut 28), just as he does today.


Those Jews who rejected Jesus were cut off from God’s covenant with Abraham. (Paul even wished he could trade places with them and be cursed in their place, Rom 9:1-5).


In this era, Jew and Gentile alike are engrafted into this covenant with Abraham by faith in God’s messiah Jesus (Rom 11:17-18).

Old Testament Israel’s story is therefore our story. Or—to get the order correct—our story is really believing Israel’s story, continued into the messianic age. The Old Testament is not a book from a different religion. It is OUR story, our history, our background. God brought US out of Egypt. God spoke to US through his prophets. God took US into exile in Babylon. God brought US back to the Promised Land. God sent US his Son to redeem us. We have been given citizenship among God’s people.


II. In the Messianic age all the earth will honor Yahweh.


Central to God’s church from the time of Abraham was the promise that all the nations—not just the Jews—would be blessed through Abraham. Throughout this Old Testament history, God was preparing our spiritual ancestors for a great age of blessing, an age when God would raise up a messiah, who would rule the nations. At a time when the Jewish people (and, presumably, their tribe’s God, Yahweh) were threatened with extinction, the prophet Daniel received a vision of the coming messiah—a vision that must have seemed absurd at the time:


In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days, and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).


This was the picture the prophets gave centuries before Christ came. Isaiah was given a vision of the last days—a term used in the New Testament not in reference to the last few years before the second coming, but used in reference to the entire Messianic era, the age between Christ’s two comings, that being right now (Acts 2:17, 1 Tim. 4:1, Heb. 1:2). In this age:


This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:


In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains... and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, that we may walk in his paths.”


The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.


He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for may peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Is 2:1-4).


What better picture to communicate to a Jew in 700 BC that all the world would one day worship the God of the Jews, and that the world would be transformed by the power of God? Around the globe the coming Christ will establish the truth. Even far-off islanders will honor God in the coming age. God’s messianic Servant “will not falter or be discouraged until he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope” (Is 42:4).


“The earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9). Habakkuk foresaw it as well (Hab 2:14). In the messianic age, he said, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

III. Messiah Jesus came, so why’s there still so much darkness?


So when the Son of Man came to redeem the earth, why weren’t the results so, um... clear? Surely Christ’s disciples were questioning whether they had the right Son of Man. The prophets had been clear: when messiah comes, God’s word goes out to the ends of the earth, the gentiles worship Yahweh, and peace and justice are established on earth. Simple enough, right?


The thirteenth chapter of Matthew marks the low point of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In chapter 11, John the Baptist was wondering whether Jesus really was the Christ. The most righteous of God’s people—the Pharisees—had begun plotting to kill him in chapter 12, and later in that chapter Jesus was accused of being demon-possessed, performing his miracles in the power of Beelzebub. Jesus answered his apparent failure as messiah with a series of parables. Among other points, Jesus explained to his disciples:


• His messianic rule starts small, but will grow huge. He explained to his disciples that God’s rule on earth would be like a mustard seed that began tiny but grew huge (Mt 13:31-32). This was what the disciples hadn’t understood about the ancient visions of the messianic age. It won’t happen at once by military conquest, but gradually, one heart at a time.


• His kingdom would will eventually transform the nations—like yeast through dough (Mt 13:33). Again, this isn’t immediate. But as the mustard tree grows, more an more people will be submitting their hearts and lives to the Son of Man, and his grace will transform the cultures of the world.


Jesus, the Light of the World ->


IV. The ends of the earth will honor Him.


In the book of Acts, we see this steady growth begin in earnest at Pentecost, when Christ’s Spirit fell upon the church, energizing every believer to become God’s change-agent on planet earth. We see the gospel advance “in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). While Luke’s gospel was “about all that Jesus began to do” (Acts 1:1), Acts tells us what Jesus continued to do after his ascension.


But as stories go, Acts has no climax. the whole book is rising action, as the gospel advances to yet further nations—Asia, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy. But there it abruptly stops, with a not-so-powerful concluding discussion of Paul renting a house to stay in (Acts 28:30). Why the abrupt end? Because that’s as far as the word of the Lord had reached when Luke wrote his account. The point? The story continues. Messiah Jesus continues to carry his word out to the nations, and the islanders and Gentiles are still coming to Yahweh in worship. John saw in his vision that one day God will be worshipped by “a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9-10).


This is where the ‘traditional’ study of church history enters into play—in the middle of the story! Still, the story continues. But while ‘traditional’ church historians have focused their attention on technical theological debates, bishops and popes, and official church councils, the really juicy story is the story of the gospel’s advance through the nations. Consider a few of the people Christ used to further his rule over the Gentiles:


• Thomas, Missionary to India—Early histories in the West and in India are agreed that, while Paul was missionary to the Greeks, Thomas—one of the Twelve—took the gospel to the pagan land of India. Actually, though, the accounts aren’t so glorious. We’re told that Thomas was directly told by God to go to India, and when he refused, God had him sold as a slave and shipped off to India. While in India, Thomas was able to preach the gospel to King Gundaphoras (who we’ve since confirmed did reign in first century India). The King was converted and a church begun before Thomas was martyred by Hindu Brahmin. Christians in southern India continue to trace their churches back to the witness of Thomas.


• Aedisius and Frumentius, Missionaries to Ethiopia—In the early 300s, these two young Christian men from Tyre were shipwrecked on the southern side of the Red Sea, on the African coast. Captured by the region's inhabitants, this duo was taken inland to the Ethiopian capital of Axum, where they preached the gospel, started a church, and were eventually consecrated the first two bishops of Ethiopia by Athanasius.


• Ulfias, Missionary to the Goths—Ulfias was a Christian man in the early fourth century who lived in what is today Turkey. When his homeland was attacked and destroyed by the invading Goths (nomadic terrorists from north of the Caspian Sea), Ulfias was taken captive. In 341, concerned that Christ be honored by his captors, Ulfias started preaching the gospel to the Goths. Eventually, he created a Gothic written language (they had none) and translated the Bible for them. (Actually he left out the book of Kings—he thought the Goths too violent already wanted to avoid misunderstanding).


• Patrick, Missionary to the Irish—Born in 389 in Britain, Patrick was captured by the pagan Irish when he was sixteen. After six years of captivity, he escaped to France, but soon returned to preach the gospel out of love for his Irish captors. Patrick's one missionary life paid off well for Christendom, however—nearly all global evangelization between 300 and 600 AD would be done by the Celtic church he planted with missionary centers such as Iona and Lindisfarne.


• Anonymous slaves, Missionaries to the Vikings—The Vikings were known as the most ruthless people in Europe in the dark ages, and no mission was ever established among them in Scandinavia and Iceland. Raping and looting the British Isles, they repeatedly attacked and destroyed coastal churches and villages. But the Christians there kept rebuilding, though many monks were killed and others enslaved. But these same English and Irish slaves were the ones whom God used to convert their Viking masters to Christ.


The rule of the Son of Man was spreading through the nations, and the peoples were being transformed. Sometimes the gospel went out from the church., Sometimes the gospel went out despite the church. But the church has continued to grow throughout history. God is doing precisely what he said he would do, such that the outrageous visions of the prophets don’t sound so impossible today.

V. The Current Revival


The mustard seed continues to grow, and is growing at an accelerated rate today. I’m convinced that we’re living in an age of great covenantal blessing promised by God’s prophets long ago. I realize that the Christian bestseller list is usually filled with books promising that this world is getting worse and worse, implying there are fewer true believers every year. The golden age has come and gone, some argue, and now we have a hopeless future until Jesus returns. Sometimes it sounds as if God’s work is all past, and only judgment remains.


I utterly reject that vision.


It is not only destructive to the church’s joy and ministry; as we’ve seen it is patently unbiblical. Further, though, it fails to acknowledge the great work of God we see all around us. Is the world filled with evil? Of course. That’s why we need a gospel to begin with. Have the moral standards of Western culture declined in recent decades? You bet. But the kingdom of God is not limited to the moral standards of fickle Americans. Even if America should falter, God stands by his covenant promise.


If we take a break from examining our proverbial trees, what kind of forest is out there? What is Jesus Christ doing on planet Earth right now? When I turn my ears away from the doom-and-gloom discouragers, I’m astounded by the sheer numbers of people committing their lives to him. In 30 AD, only a handful of men and women were following Jesus. Yet God took a few men and women and, remembering his promise to Abraham to bless the nations, remembering the visions he gave through his prophets, and building on the firm foundation of his Son’s death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, God turned the world upside down.


Of course, worlds don’t turn over overnight. According to estimates from the U.S. Center for World Mission, it took until about 1430 just to reach the 1% milestone—one in a hundred people were biblical Christians. I’m not sure how they came up with the estimates, but the numbers I’ve seen are staggering. It took another three and half centuries to double the percentage of the world’s population that knew Messiah Jesus—to about 2% by 1790. Since then, God has given his people rapid, exponential growth:


3% by 1940

4% by 1960

5% by 1970

6% by 1980

7% by 1983

8% by 1986

9% by 1989

10% by 1993

11% by 1997


I haven’t come across more recent numbers, but God has continued to fulfill his promises since 1997. I remember hearing one secular historian observe that the growth of biblical Christianity has been the religious story of the past fifty years. Even if these numbers are only half right, we are living in the greatest revival in Christian history.


Asia: Today almost half the population of South Korea—once a Buddhist nation—claims to have become Christian. There are more Presbyterians in Korea than in America, and they’re less likely to be liberal. Korea is now sending over 3,000 missionaries to other parts of the world so that people in places like America can know Jesus too.


Africa: Over a third of the people of Kenya have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. In neighboring Uganda, one person in four professes saving faith in Christ, despite years of political turbulence. Indeed, it was Zambia—not the U.S.—that declared itself a ‘Christian nation’ in the 1990s. At the beginning of a new millennium, the gospel of Jesus Christ is bringing millions into covenant with Yahweh.


Latin America: In Chile, once home to the deadest Catholicism, a third of the people are now affiliated with Bible-believing Protestant churches. Or consider Brazil. By 1990, there were 7,466 Catholic churches in this Catholic land, and 60% of the people were involved in occult practices. But don’t stop with the bad news; God did something big. By 1990, there were 148,976 Protestant churches—twenty times as many as Catholic churches—and most of them gospel-centered and Bible-based. About one in five Brazilians today claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian.



VI. Paradigm Shift: Are we the Early Church?


Despite constant counterattacks from the evil one, this age is increasingly coming to look the way Habakkuk foresaw it (Hab 2:14); “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” I don’t know how much of this will be accomplished before the Lord returns. We could be drawing near to the end, or it could still be a long way off. Who knows? Maybe fifty thousand years from now, Christians will be reading about us in church history textbooks under the heading Chapter One: The Early Church


Whenever the Lord returns, I’m confident that God stands by his promises. His people will be a great multitude and will be the light, not only of Israel, but of the whole earth (Mt 5:14). The word of God is going out to the nations, and the nations are worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Son of Man is conquering his earth. - by Gregory Johnson

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