THE HISTORY OF EUROPE & THE CHURCH Part One THE CHURCH STRUGGLES FOR SURVIVAL
Keith W Stump
ROME, A.D. 64 — The capital of the world is in flames! For six days and nights the great fire races out of control through the most populous districts of the imperial city. In its fury, the blaze reduces half the metropolis to ashes. Many of the architectural glories of ancient Rome are devoured in the flames. Thousands of terror-stricken Romans are made homeless, all their worldly possessions lost. From atop his palace roof, the Emperor Nero views the awesome panorama. Some Romans suspect the truth. They believe that Nero-inhuman, maniacal, insane — has personally triggered the conflagration. Fancying himself a great builder, he desires to erase the old Rome that he might have the glory of founding a new and grander city — Nero's Rome! A rumor begins to circulate that the fire was contrived by the emperor himself. Nero fears for his safety. He must find someone to bear the blame — and quickly! To divert suspicion away from himself, Nero lays the guilt at the door of a new religious group — the Christians of Rome. It is the logical choice. Christians are already despised and distrusted by many. They spurn the worship of the old Roman gods and "treasonably" refuse to give divine honors to the emperor. Their preaching of a new King sounds like revolution. They have no influence, no power — the perfect scapegoats. Nero orders their punishment. The bloodbath begins! The emperor inflicts on the falsely accused Christians horrible tortures and executions. Some are nailed to crosses; others are covered with animal skins and torn apart by wild dogs in the Colosseum; still others are nailed to stakes and set ablaze as illumination for Nero's nightly garden parties. For years the persecution rages. It is a perpetual open season on Christians. Among those imprisoned and brought to trial by Nero is a man who has been instrumental in establishing the fledgling Church of God at Rome — Paul, the apostle to the Greek-speaking gentiles.
For many years Paul had warned the churches of impending persecutions. He had reminded them of Jesus' own words to his disciples: "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you." Paul had assured them that "all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (II Tim. 3:12). The world, he had told them, would not be an easy place for Christians. Yet despite persecutions — as Jesus himself had declared — "the gates of hell [hades, the grave] shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Church of God would never be completely stamped out! Paul himself had endured much suffering and persecution during the course of his long ministry. For more than two decades he had persevered in preaching the gospel of the coming kingdom of God through many of the provinces of the Roman Empire. Now, at last, his sufferings are nearing an end. Nero sends his servants to bring Paul word of his impending death. Shortly afterward, soldiers arrive and lead him out of the city to the place of execution. Paul prays, then gives his neck to the sword. He is buried on the Ostian Way. The year is A.D. 68; it is early summer. Most of the leading elders and members of the congregation at Rome are also martyred in the Neronian persecution. Peter — chief among the original twelve apostles — also meets his end in A.D. 68. He is condemned to death — as Jesus himself had foretold many years earlier (John 21:18-19) — by crucifixion.
Turmoil in Judea
Unfortunately, the headquarters church in Jerusalem — toward which Christians look for truth and for leadership — is in no position to render effective assistance to the persecuted Christians of Rome. It, too, is caught in the midst of upheaval, stemming from the Jewish wars with Rome. In A.D. 66, the oppressed Jews of Palestine erupt into general revolt-defying the military might of the Roman Empire! Heeding Jesus' warning (Luke 21:20-21), the Christians of Judea flee to the hills. Later, in the spring of A.D. 69, the Roman general Titus finally sweeps from east of Jordan into Judea with his legions. The Christians escape impending calamity in the hills by journeying northeast to the out-of-the-way city of Pella, in the Gilead mountains east of the Jordan River. It is now A.D. 70. Titus conquers Jerusalem. He burns the Temple to the ground and tears down its foundations. The city is laid waste. Some 600,000 Jews are slaughtered and multiple thousands of others sold into slavery. It is a time of unparalleled calamity!
Amid all the upheaval in Rome, Judea and elsewhere in the Empire, what is the mood of the Christian community? What thoughts course through the minds of Christians at this time? Though many are suffering — uprooted from homes, imprisoned, tortured, bereaved of family and friends — the prevailing spirit among Christians is one of hope and anticipation! Christians are sustained by the knowledge that Jesus and the prophets of old had foretold these tumultuous events — and their glorious outcome! As events swirl around them, they watch with breathless expectation. They take hope in the great picture laid out by Jesus from the beginning of his earthly ministry — the return of Jesus Christ and the reestablishment of the kingdom of God! As Mark records: "Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel [good news] of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15). Everywhere Jesus went, he focused on this major theme — the good news of the coming kingdom of God. The twelve disciples were sent out to preach the same message (Luke 9:1-2). The apostle Paul also preached the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Christians — in that first century — are in no doubt as to what that kingdom is. It is a literal kingdom — a real government, with a King, and laws and subjects — destined to rule over the earth. It is the government of God, supplanting the governments of man! Christians rehearse and discuss among themselves the many prophecies about this coming government. By now they know the passages by heart. The prophet Daniel, for example, had written of a succession of world-ruling governments through the ages (Daniel 2) — four universal world-empires: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. (Request your free copy of Who Is the Beast? for details.) After the demise of these earthly kingdoms, Daniel recorded that then "shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed... but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever" (Dan. 2:44). This kingdom will rule over the nations. It will "break in pieces and consume" the Roman Empire — surely very soon, Christians feel! Soon the swords and spears now spilling blood across the vast territories of the Empire would be beaten into plowshares and pruning-hooks, as Isaiah had prophesied (Isa. 2:4). Jesus would return and "the government shall be upon his shoulder" (Isa. 9:6). For more than four millennia the righteous ancients had looked for the triumph of this kingdom. Now, with Jerusalem the focus of world events in A.D. 60-70, surely it is about to arrive!
During the days of Jesus' earthly ministry, some had thought he would establish the kingdom of God then and there. "Because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear," Jesus had told his disciples the parable of the nobleman who went on a journey into a far country "to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return" (Luke 19:11-12). As Jesus later told Pilate, he was born to be a king. But his kingdom was not of this world (age) (John 18:36). He would return at a later time to establish his kingdom and reward his servants. His disciples no more understood that than did Pilate. After his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus' disciples again asked him, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus told them that it was not for them to know the times or the seasons (verse 7). They found that hard to comprehend. But Jesus nevertheless commissioned them to "be witnesses unto me... unto the uttermost part of the earth" (verse 8). For nearly four decades they had preached the gospel throughout the Roman world and beyond. Now, tumultuous events signal a change in world affairs. Signs of the end of the age — given by Jesus in the Olivet prophecy (Matthew 24)seem to become increasingly evident on the world scene. Rome, with civil war in A.D. 69, appears to be on a fast road to destruction. Wars, moral decay, economic crisis, political-turmoil, social upheaval, religious confusion, natural disasters — all these signs are here. The very fabric of Roman society is disintegrating. It is a rotten and a degraded world. Surely Jesus will soon come to correct all that? That the Roman Empire is the fourth "beast" of Daniel's prophecy (Daniel 7) is clear to Christians. With that fourth kingdom in the throes of revolution, God's kingdom surely will be next! Amid horrendous persecutions, martyrdoms and national upheavals, they wait for their change from material to spirit (I Cor. 15:50-53) and their reward of positions of authority and rulership in God's kingdom (Luke 19:17-19). "I will come again," said Jesus (John 14:3). Christians pray, "Thy kingdom come." They wait. And wait. But it doesn't happen.
When Jesus does not return at the height — and in the aftermath — of the cataclysmic events of A.D. 66-70, the shock is great. Many Christians are puzzled, disturbed, demoralized. It is a surprising development — or nondevelopment. It is a mystery — an enigma. What has "gone wrong"? The Church is tested. Many face agonizing decisions. Many begin to doubt, and question. The apostle Paul had once faced this issue. He had long expected Jesus' return in his own lifetime. In A.D. 50, he had written to the Thessalonians of "we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord..." (I Thess. 4:15). Five years later, in a letter to the Corinthians, he had written that "we shall not all sleep [die]" before Jesus' coming (I Cor. 15:51). But in a letter to Timothy in the days just before his death, Paul clearly sees a different picture. He writes of the "last days" in a future context (II Tim. 3:1-2). He declares: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course..." (4:7). He speaks of receiving his reward at some future time (4:8). Unlike Paul, however, many Christians become disheartened and demoralized. Their hopes are shattered. "Where is the promise of his coming?" many complain. But some Christians understand. They realize that God intends that they face this question, to see how they will react. They continue to wait and watch patiently, continuing in well-doing. They remember the words of Jesus to his disciples, "Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come... for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh" (Matt. 24:42, 44). It would be those who "endure unto the end" — whenever that was — who would be saved (verse 13). Some Christians — misunderstanding the final verses of the gospel of John — believe that Jesus will yet return in the apostle John's life-time (John 21:20-23). As John grows progressively older — outliving his contemporaries — many see support for this view. They still hope for Jesus' return in their generation. They wait. But others are not so patient. They are restless, uneasy. They begin to look for other answers. Their eyes begin to turn from the vision of God's kingdom and the true purpose of life. They lose the sense of urgency they once had. They begin to stray from the straight path. They become confused — and vulnerable. Until the "disappointment," false teachers had not made significant headway among Christians. Christians expected Jesus' return at any time — they had to be faithful, and ready at any moment! But now a large segment of the Christian community grows more receptive to "innovations" in doctrine. The ground is now ready to receive the evil seeds of heresy!
Following the martyrdom of many of their faithful leaders, many Christians fall victim to error. Confused and disheartened, they become easy prey for wolves. False teachers were nothing new to the Church. The crisis had been a long time in the making. As early as A.D. 50, Paul had declared to the Thessalonians that a conspiracy to supplant the truth was already under way. "For the mystery of iniquity doth ALREADY work," he had written to them (II Thess. 2:7). Paul also warned the Galatians that some were perverting the gospel of Christ, trying to stamp out the preaching of the true gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached (Gal. 1:6-7). He told the Corinthians that some were beginning to preach "another Jesus" and "another gospel" (II Cor. 11:4). He branded them "false apostles" and ministers of Satan (verses 13-15). Paul had often reminded the churches of the words of Jesus, that MANY would come in his name, proclaiming that Jesus was Christ, yet, deceiving MANY (Matt. 24:4-5, 11). The MANY — not the few — would be led down the paths of error, deceived by a counterfeit faith masquerading as Christianity! The prophecy now comes to pass. The situation grows increasingly acute. The introduction of false doctrines by clever teachers divides the beleaguered Christian community. It is split into contending factions, rent asunder by heresy and false teaching!
Simon the Sorcerer
Unknown to most, this havoc in the Church represents a posthumous victory for a man who had sown the first seeds of the problem decades earlier. Notice what had occurred: A sorcerer named Simon, from Samaria (the one-time capital of the house of Israel), had appeared in Rome in A.D. 45, during the days of Claudius Caesar. This Simon was high priest of the Babylonian-Samaritan mystery religion (Rev. 17:5), brought to Samaria by the Assyrians after the captivity of the house of Israel (II Kings 17:24). Simon made a great impression in Rome with his demonic miracle-working — so much so that he was deified as a god by many of its superstitious citizens. Earlier, in A.D. 33, while still in Samaria, Simon (often known as Simon Magus — "The Magician") had been impressed by the power of Christianity. He had been baptized, without adequate counseling, by Philip the deacon. Yet Simon, in his heart, had not been willing to lay aside the prestige and influence he had as a magician over the Samaritans. So he asked for the office of an apostle and offered a sum of money to buy it. Jesus' chief apostle, Simon Peter, sternly rebuked Simon the magician, told him to change his bitter attitude and banned him from all fellowship in hope of future repentance (Acts 8). Traveling to Rome years later, Simon conspired to sow the seeds of division in the rapidly growing Christian churches of the West. His goal: to gain a personal following for himself. He seized upon the name of Christ as a cloak for his teachings, which were a mixture of Babylonian paganism, Judaism and Christianity. He appropriated a Christian vocabulary and other outward trappings to give a surface appearance of Christianity to his insidious dogmas. Simon was the first Gnostic teacher of Christian times. His efforts led to the spread of gnosticism over wide areas, seducing congregations from the true faith. Gnostics were religious dualists who often thought of themselves as a new kind of Christian. They taught that matter was evil and spirit good and that salvation was attained through secret knowledge. By the time of his death, Simon had not fully succeeded. But there were those who were attracted to certain of his compromising syncretistic ideas. Slipping unobtrusively into the Church of God, they subtly introduce elements of Simon's teachings. Many fall victim to these false teachings. Luke, writing the book of Acts in A.D. 62, exposes Simon in an attempt to stem his growing influence. Luke explains that Simon was never a converted member of the true Church of God, relating how he had tried unsuccessfully to purchase an apostleship. With Simon now exposed, those who had crept into Church fellowship, and who thought in part as he did, disassociate themselves from his name yet continue to promote his errors. They are no longer recognized as Simonites — but they hold the same doctrine! They assume the outward appearance of being Christians — preaching about the person of Christ — yet deny Christ's message, the gospel of the coming kingdom of God. (Read our free booklets, What Is the True Gospel? and Just What Do You Mean... Kingdom Of God? for full details.) A few years after Luke exposes Simon Magus, Jude writes of these Simonians as "certain men crept in unawares" (Jude, verse 4) and exhorts Christians to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered" (verse 3). Also — as Paul had earlier prophesied (Acts 20:29-30) — some even within the Church of God depart from the original faith and because of personal vanity, a love of money or because of personal hurts, begin to draw disciples away after themselves. Heresies are rife! Sometimes they are recognized, but often they are disguised and go undetected. Error creeps in slowly and imperceptibly, gradually undermining the very truths of the Church of God that Jesus founded!
There remains one last obstacle to the complete triumph of heresy — the apostle John. John is the last survivor of the original twelve apostles. He works tirelessly to stem the tide of error and apostasy. Writing early in the last quarter of the first century, John declares that "many deceivers are entered into the world" (II John 7). He writes of the many who have already left the fellowship of the Church of God ("They went out from us, but they were not of us" — I John 2:19). He reveals that some apostate church leaders are even casting true Christians out of the church! (III John 9-10.) During the persecutions of the Roman emperor Domitian, John is banished to the Aegean island of Patmos. There he receives an astounding revelation. In a series of visions, John is carried forward into the future, to the "day of the Lord" — a time when God will supernaturally intervene in world affairs, sending plagues upon the unrighteous and sinning nations of the earth. And a time that will climax in the glorious Second Coming of Jesus Christ! The picture laid out in vision to John represents another major shock for the first-century Church. Here are astounding, almost unbelievable revelations! Images of multi-headed beasts, of great armies, of strange new weapons, of devastating plagues and natural disasters! What does it all mean? After publication of the Revelation, those with understanding begin to grasp the message. It becomes clear to them that Jesus' coming is not as imminent as once believed. Whole sections of the book of Daniel, previously obscure, now become clearer. These great events revealed to John by Jesus Christ will not occur' overnight. Great periods of time appear to be implied — centuries, possibly two millennia! (Read The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last! for an in-depth look at these prophecies.) Some few begin to see the teachings of Jesus in new light. He had stated in his Olivet prophecy (Matt. 24:22) that "except those [last] days be shortened, there should NO FLESH be saved...." Many had wondered about this statement. They could not understand how there could ever be enough swords, spears, arrows — and men to use them — to ever threaten the GLOBAL annihilation of all mankind. Now, John's visions provide an answer. There would one day come a time when never-before-heard-of superweapons — described by John in strange symbolic language — would make total annihilation possible! One day... but not now. There will yet come a future crisis over Jerusalem, many also realize. There will come a time when Jerusalem will again be compassed with armies (Luke 21:20), triggering a crisis even greater than that of A.D. 66-70! Some also begin to realize that Jesus' commission to his disciples to take the gospel "to the uttermost parts of the earth" might be meant literally! Jesus had prophesied that "this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and THEN shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14). And that worldwide undertaking would require time — a great deal of time! Some few begin to see clearly. But many cannot handle this new truth. Some even begin to teach that the kingdom is already here — that it is the Church itself, or in the hearts of Christians. John is released from imprisonment in A.D. 96. In his remaining. days he and faithful disciples strive to keep the Church true to the faith as he was personally instructed in it by Jesus himself. The First Century closes with the death of the aged apostle John in the city of Ephesus. Jesus has not yet come. Some continue to wait. Others within and without the fellowship of the true Church of God begin to take matters into their own hands. (NEXT MONTH: "The Fateful Union.")