“As first-century skeptics and seekers read Acts, those who sincerely sought the truth came to better understand God’s way. Many no doubt followed that way.”
That’s how the quote ends. When I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder — if people looked at us (Christians) today, would they come to the same conclusion? When they look at us, what do they think is “God’s way”? Furthermore, is what they see something they’d want to follow?
Here’s the whole paragraph from which the leading sentences were drawn –
“Pagan Romans may have felt that Christianity threatened the peace of society. Luke wrote for these skeptics, too. He points out that the Christians do nothing to harm life and do much to help it. The God who made and who loves the world is behind … better yet, is in … the Christians. God, through them, wishes to give His peace to all people. As first-century skeptics and seekers read Acts, those who sincerely sought the truth came to better understand God’s way. Many no doubt followed that way.”
So, where does this paragraph come from? It’s from About Acts: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition.
You may or may not be aware, but Christianity did “conquer” Rome – in a sense. Not a military battle, but a battle in the way Jesus and Paul said it really is –
From Jesus, we learn that His Kingdom, and the real battle, are not of this world.
Jn 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
And from Paul, we read more specifics –
2Co 10:3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
And finally, this –
The Armor of God
Eph 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
In the world today, we want to fight evil with guns, bombs, drone strikes, the “mother of all bombs”, and whatever kind of military firepower we can come up with. And while it’s true they didn’t have any of these weapons back in the first century – it’s not true that they were without weapons at all. The Roman army on Jesus’ time was the most brutal army that had ever existed, up to that time.
War, in the time of the early church
To give some idea of how war was viewed by the Roman government, see this –
Roman Warfare in New Testament Times (27 BC–AD 198)
At the time of Christ’s birth, Rome had transitioned from a republic to an autocracy with professional armies. The government was called the “Principate,” named after the princeps (“first citizen”)—the emperor. The emperors of the Principate legally established the first-century BC practice of requiring all soldiers to take an oath to the emperor. The emperor Severus (AD 193–211) reportedly instructed his heir Caracalla to “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men” (Cassius Dio, 77.15). 1)Brand, S. (2016). War in the Roman World. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Wars existed back then, and with wars comes the need for weapons. As I said, not to the level of ours today, but still deadly weapons.
And here’s a historical look at how the Christians viewed all of this –
Early Christian Views of Roman Warfare
In the New Testament, Jesus tells the Pharisees to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” which seems to theoretically validate the authority and purpose of human government (Matt 22:21). Christ’s own life demonstrates that the Roman military could be used for both good or for ill. He offers praise to a centurion for the soldier’s insightful comparison of military authority to divine authority (Matt 8:8–10; Luke 7:5–9). Another centurion took part in the execution of Jesus and appeared to have questioned his own violent actions at the moment of Christ’s death (Matt 27:50–54; Luke 23:46–47).
Peter and Paul knew Roman soldiers who were also devout Christians, had been protected by Roman soldiers, and exhorted fellow Christians to act as “soldiers” for Christ (Acts 10:1–2, 22; 21:31–40; 23:16–31; Phil 2:25; 2 Tim 2:3–4; Phlm 1:2). Yet Paul was also punished by Roman soldiers, and both Peter and Paul were reportedly executed by Roman soldiers at the behest of Emperor Nero (Acts 22:25–29; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25). In their writings, Paul and Peter provided Christians a more thorough assessment of Roman government and warfare, but they emphasized the same tensions implied by Christ. Governing institutions were divinely ordained and were granted authority to punish evil and promote order—even through violent force (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17). 2)Brand, S. (2016). War in the Roman World. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
To save you the trouble of looking up those verses, I’ll include the ones from the Gospels below, with the full passage, for context –
Paying Taxes to Caesar
Mt 22:15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Mt 22:18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
Mt 22:21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Mt 22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
It’s not what the people expected. It’s not what many of them wanted to hear. And, it’s not what many want to hear today either. We want an excuse to not pay taxes – maybe to just keep more of our money, and maybe because we truly don’t want to pay for things that work against us or that we consider evil. But Jesus says to pay the taxes.
I wrote a couple pieces on our own leaders today – among other things, talking about how God “raises up” or more literally sometimes “allows” leaders to come to power. If you’d like to check out that thought, it applies to the Roman times – as well as any other time in our history or in our future. They are –
Do we have the leader we deserve, need, or both?
Do we have the leader we deserve, need or both? Revisited
The Faith of the Centurion
Mt 8:5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”
Mt 8:7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”
Mt 8:8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Mt 8:10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Mt 8:13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.
We see here a Roman soldier that would have been hated by the Jews, since he was part of the Roman empire that was crushing them and even stealing from the Temple. And yet he believes in Jesus’ ability to heal his son. And then look at what Jesus says about that Roman centurion – that He hasn’t seen anyone else with faith like his. Clearly, Jesus doesn’t hold this mans status as a Roman centurion against him.
While we’re here, I feel a need to point something out about this passage. Sometimes well meaning Christians tell others that God hasn’t answered their prayers for healing because of weak faith. This is not at all true. There are a couple points to make here. First – we must realize that physical healing isn’t the end goal of being Christian – after all, every single person that Jesus healed of a physical ailment still died as we all do. The goal is eternal life – after our physical death in this world. Second – physical healing wasn’t Jesus’ actual desire either. It was a sign to us – not an objective of it’s own. When we feel that physical healing is the end goal of a Christian, rather than a gift that some Christians may have been given – we totally miss the point of what Jesus did and what He taught.
OK – back to the verses.
The Death of Jesus
Mt 27:45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Mt 27:47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
Mt 27:48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
Mt 27:50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
Mt 27:51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. 52 The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Mt 27:54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Mt 27:55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
We read here, not just the soldier but everyone who was with him said “Surely he was the Son of God”.
This reminds me of one of the two men who were on the crosses next to Jesus –
Lk 23:39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Lk 23:40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Lk 23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”
Lk 23:43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In both cases, the Roman Centurion and those with him – and the second man on the cross with Jesus – believing that Jesus is the Son of God saves them. In neither case did Jesus hold their position in life against them. For more on that event, see Who were the other two men on the crosses?.
From all that, plus the other passages (which you can examine by just clicking on the links) it’s obvious that Jesus did not fight a physical war, with traditional weapons, against the Romans. From the passages in Acts and others in the reference, the early Christians followed Jesus’ lead – and did the same. And they had amazing results.
In the times after those covered in the Bible, we also read –
Christian views on warfare changed dramatically when the edicts of AD 311 and 313 called for the toleration of Christianity and the emperor Constantine adopted the Christian faith. The ecclesiastical Council of Arles in AD 314 was actually summoned by Constantine. It discouraged soldiers from leaving Constantine’s army, reflecting a new strain of thought regarding Roman warfare. Constantine’s conversion was an important factor in this decision, especially given that the emperor had cited Christ’s favor in winning the recent civil war. Eusebius reflected the change of thinking in his Speech on the Dedication of the Holy Sepulcher Church, where he argued that the course of the church had now joined with the course of Roman civil authority and a new epoch of peace was at hand. 3)Brand, S. (2016). War in the Roman World. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Yes – in the middle of that paragraph, it says that the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. With no “shots fired” – no knives, no swords, no javelins (which used to be weapons, not track and field instruments).
If people – Christian or non-Christian – were to look at us today, would they see the same things in us?
I’m assuming I don’t have to actually answer that question – but I’m going to anyway.
I regret to say, all too often, no – they wouldn’t.
The “party of war”, the Republican Party – is also the “party of the religious right”, where it is assumed that most Christians would vote for them. It’s an odd state of affairs. Totally opposite of what one would expect from what we’ve just read about the early church.
Unfortunately, it seems it didn’t take long for the early church to start to morph into what we have today.
Augustine (AD 356–430) responded to pagans’ challenge that Christian views on warfare had hastened Rome’s demise. In many ways, his City of God returned to the New Testament approach on Roman warfare: Human governments and their use of violence may be divinely ordained, but war was inherently flawed. In Letter 189, Augustine wrote that military service need not conflict with Christianity, but he emphasized that “Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace” (as translated in O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius). Augustine’s tension between legitimate, human warfare and the transcendent peace of Christianity is evident in his City of God, which praises Rome as the greatest empire to have existed while critiquing its propensity for war. 4)Brand, S. (2016). War in the Roman World. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
What we would call the “slippery slope” appears to have started way back then – not long after the battle won with “spiritual weapons” – not with weapons of a physical war.
I suppose one could say that at least there was a recognition of the tension between legitimate, human warfare and the transcendent peace of Christianity.
But, even in that statement, there’s an assumption that there are “legitimate” needs for human warfare. I say that because the mighty Roman Empire had just been brought to its knees without a physical battle – when it’s Emperor bowed on his knee before God, as it was written –
Ro 14:9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ ” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
That could be a most difficult explanation to give God, if there are no legitimate human wars – especially if we, not God, decide they are legitimate – and if we fight them without real prayer and support from God.
Like so many of the Old Testament instances where God showed His power, saved / rescued His people when they returned to following Him – it wasn’t long before the people forgot the lessons they had just learned. And here were those early Christians – winning the spiritual battle – and already starting to say there were legitimate reasons for having the very same weapons / wars that the Romans had just oppressed them with!
Today, while pretty much every side on nearly any position claims to have God on their side – I cannot help but wonder if they even asked God – let alone really follow God, or even care about God. One thing for sure – they are not all following the will of God.
As Jesus said –
Lk 11:17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
Lk 11:21 “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. 22 But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils.
Lk 11:23 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.”
And that’s me – a Christian – making that observation.
I can only imagine what a non-Christian would say. Actually – no, I can’t. The whole scenario just seems so impossible. If all I knew of Christianity was what I see on TV, read on the web, Etc. – I’m not sure it’s something I’d be drawn to – other than maybe curiosity as to how something so chaotic could have survived for 2,000 + years.
It’s a sad state of affairs. Jesus left us to spread His message of hope. But we, in this country, don’t see enough of it. It’s not that the hope no longer exists – it’s just that God’s name has been co-opted for so many things that have little, if anything, to do with Jesus’ message for us, it’s to the point that the message itself has been lost.
Back to the original question –
is this true today?
As [today’s] skeptics and seekers read Acts, those who sincerely sought the truth came to better understand God’s way. Many no doubt followed that way.
That very much depends on whether or not everything they’ve already seen and heard wasn’t so bad that they wouldn’t even finish reading the book of Acts. It also, unfortunately, also depends on which “religious” sources they went to in order to find the truth and to better understand God’s way.
Back then, yes – there were false teachers. But there were also people to call out those false teachers.
2Pe 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3 In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
Back then. there were literally a few handfuls of people that could be trusted to give the true message. But now? It’s hard to know.
It often feels to me like things have to get pretty bad before people honestly seek the truth – and are willing to take the time to tell the difference between the truth and false teaching. It’s time consuming. I’ve spent a great deal of time on reading, research, comparisons, evaluation, praying – time that most people just don’t have. But if we look at some parts of the world – like China, like the Middle East, like Africa – where things are so bad, Christianity is growing rapidly in those places, while it shrinks in places like the U.S. and Europe.
If you’re in one of those first places – I pray that you find the truth – find Jesus – and find His peace.
If you’re in one of the latter places (U.S., Europe) – I pray that you recognize your need for the truth before (1) it’s too late or (2) things getting so much worse is what drives you to search for that truth. There are places to do this. But there are also too many that seem to be lost – not following the path of the early church. Unfortunately, these are the ones that make the news. Don’t be led astray by that – search for a church like the early church in Acts. Pray to God for his help and guidance in finding one of them. They do exist.
The quote fro the book and info on the book are available at biblia.com –> https://ref.ly/o/wescom65ac/88112?length=499
References [ + ]
|1, 2, 3, 4.||↑||Brand, S. (2016). War in the Roman World. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|