Tonight CNN presented a two-hour special called After Jesus: The First Christians. Featuring strong narration by Liam Neeson, the program traces the beginnings of the Christian religion from its days as a sect within Judaism to its recognition as a favored religion by Emperor Constantine in AD 313. The show attempts to grapple with a question that is both historical and theological: How did a movement that started with a handful of followers in Galilee and Judea became the dominant religion in Europe within three centuries? How did Christianity survive when by all rights it ought to have disappeared within a generation?
How do you get from an itinerant Galilean rabbi who was crucified by the Romans because he was a political problem to a religion that spread across the Roman Empire and today claims the allegiance of one-third of the world's population? As Christianity grew, it faced challenges both internal and external. From the inside there was always the problem of increasing cultural diversity as the church went from being 100% Jewish to almost 100% Gentile. Then there was the challenge of counterfeit gospels and the rise of Gnosticism in the second century. Christians eventually had to define themselves apart from Judaism and also apart from the prevailing pagan religions. And they faced waves of persecution, starting with the attempt by Nero in AD 64 to blame Christians for the burning of Rome. Although believers were burned at the stake and attacked by wild animals before cheering crowds, the church seemed to grow stronger as a result of the opposition.
The program paints a clear picture of the danger of eventual success. Once Constantine made Christianity a favored religion, there was always the problem of false conversions and the corruption that comes with wielding earthly power.
Somewhere along the way, one person asks a very good question. Why didn't Christianity simply disappear within one or two generations? What kept it going after the death of the apostles? Why did the message have enduring power? The answer is, Christianity speaks to two problems every person faces:
1) What happens when I die?
2) How can my sins be forgiven?
Death and sin. The two greatest problems of the human face. Here is our answer:
The death of Jesus solves the sin problem.
The resurrection of Jesus solves the death problem.
Thus as the gospel spread, and the church adapted to changing cultural conditions, the message endured because it met the needs of men and women across the Roman Empire.
The program is particularly good at explaining the importance of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) that issued the first formal statement regarding the deity of Jesus Christ. He is not merely "like God," he is (as one of our beloved Christmas carols puts it) "true God of true God," co-equal with the Father, not only the Son of God but also God the Son.
As you might expect, "After Jesus" offers no final answer to the question of how Christianity spread so far so fast in the face of unending opposition. One speaker noted that there were other Jews in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah. But they are gone and forgotten while the followers of Jesus of Nazareth number over two billion. Why Jesus? At this point we have gone as far as CNN can take us. History cannot give final answers to questions of faith. But this much is true. The early church spread because Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God from heaven who rose from the dead. They not only believed it, they couldn't stop talking about it, and eventually they convinced millions of others to believe with them.
In a way the whole two hours seemed like an explanation of Galatians 4:4, "But when the right time came, God sent his Son" (NLT). Was Christianity (as one person suggested) simply the right religion at the right time? Yes, but it's much more than that. The coming of Christ was "good news that will bring great joy to all people" (Luke 2:10 NLT).
Do you think I am exaggerating? Think of the birthday we celebrate five days from now. It's been 2000 years, and we still can't stop talking about Jesus.
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