God is the Same Then and Now: A Lesson from Church History
By Peeter Lukas
Acts 1:15, the Upper Room – “…Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said,…”
Acts 2:41, Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost – “…and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Dr. Thomas Kidd, history professor at Baylor University, in a blog asking the question, “How Many Christians Were There in 200 AD?”, quoted fellow Baylor professor Rodney Stark, who provided these statistics. He “estimated a global Christian population of 40,000 in AD 150, rising to 218,000 in 200, and 1.17 million by 250.” Dr. Kidd finished his article by quoting another Baylor professor, Dr. Philip Jenkins: “Jenkins concludes his post with a tantalizing observation, given the faith’s small presence in 200 AD — ‘to think that little over a century after that point, Christianity would be the dominant religion in the whole Roman Empire…’”
How does a small company become a dominant Fortune 500 power? With the right mix of brilliant, bold leadership, a large infusion of capital investment, and a fortuitous set of circumstances. How did the 3rd century church do it? B.K. Kuiper, late church professor at Calvin College, wrote the following in his book The Church in History:
“”The first emperor who ordered a general persecution with the definite purpose of destroying the Church was Decius. Happily his reign lasted only two years, from 249 to 251. After a brief respite of seven years the Church suffered persecution under Valerian. Thereafter the Church was granted another period of tranquility, which lasted forty years. In the year 303 the emperor Diocletian started a persecution which was continued by his successor Galerius until the year 311. Many Christians in the city of Rome found a place of refuge in the catacombs, which were underground passageways…There were so many of them that if they were all end to end they would be some five hundred miles long.”
In 311 AD Galerius, near death, granted permission for Christians to openly worship. And they found themselves the “dominant religion in the whole Roman Empire.” As an unconverted young person I viewed these people in almost mythological terms — as angelic beings who floated above the trials with tranquil, undeterred hearts. No, they had the same distractions in their day as we do in ours, but Christ became their “first love.” The catacombs had been transformed into God’s spiritual greenhouse, and the saints grew both inwardly and outwardly.
The catacombs were what one writer called a “momentary refuge to celebrate communion.” The brethren were together as a body.
God always has a remnant of His elect that He keeps through the plagues of man and nature.
We’re now being refined by our benevolent Sovereign for an indefinite season. “What’s important?” is the question I’ve been asking these days. The saints back then had an answer: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil.4:13) because we are “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,…” (Hebrews 12:2)
And Paul’s words in Acts 14:21-23 weren’t so much prophetic as they were God’s wisdom, then and now:
“When they (Paul and Barnabas) had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
Preaching – strengthening – encouraging – many tribulations – prayer and fasting. God is the same, then and now. And so is our great need for Him.