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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity

The problems for Roman citizens

In both Thessalonica and Philippi, strong opposition arose to the preaching of the Gospel because it was held that it was preaching another King, Jesus, in opposition to Caesar, and that the obligations of this new religion were at variance with the Imperial Cult (Acts 16:21; 17:7). In a sense, these allegations were true.  Christianity taught that the convert became a member of a new, spiritual Israel. It was irrelevant whether he or she was a Jew, Roman or Gentile. And the convert had to act inclusively rather than exclusively towards other converts. It must have been hard for a Roman citizen to willingly become as it were a ‘citizen’ of ‘spiritual Israel’, a ‘member’ of the despised and captive Jewish race. To not participate in the cult of emperor worship was serious indeed; Roman citizenship could be lost over this matter. Pliny wrote that Christians were therefore “unable by temperament or unwilling by conviction to participate in the common activities of a group or community”. They were seen as any true living Christian is: a bit weird, unsociable, aloof from worldly pleasure, and thereby a silent critic of those who indulge. “The Christian would not attend gladiatorial shows or games or plays. He would not read pagan literature. He would not enlist as a soldier, for then he would come under orders that might conflict with his standards and with his loyalty to Jesus Christ. He would not be a painter or sculptor , for that would be to acquiesce to idolatry. Nor would he be a schoolmaster, for then he would inevitably have to tell the immoral stories of the pagan gods. The Christian had better steer clear of business contracts, because they required the taking of oaths, which the Christian abjured. They had better keep out of administrative office because of the idolatry involved…and so on” (1). The Romans considered anyone outside the Roman world or who rejected Roman manners and laws as being a barbarian; and yet the Gospel appealed to Roman citizens to reject these very manners and laws. Thus Ramsay comments: “To the Romans genus humanum meant not the human race in general but the Roman world, men who lived according to Roman manners and laws; the rest were enemies and barbarians. The Christians, then, were enemies to civilised man, and to the customs and laws which regulated civilised society…they introduced divisions into families and set children against their parents” (2).  

The Roman view of things seems to have been consciously questioned by the language of the New Testament preachers; they set up God’s Kingdom and the things of the Lord Jesus in conscious contradistinction to those of the Roman kingdom and lords.  

The Roman empire / system Versus The Kingdom of the Lord Jesus

The denarius of Tiberius which Jesus used bore the words: Tiberius CAESAR DIVI AUGusti Filius AUGUSTUS Pontifex Maximus. Caesar was to be seen as the Son of God.The Lord Jesus was the only, and  begotten Son of God. The implication is that no other ‘son of God’ was begotten as Jesus was- He was the real Son of God, the one and only (Jn. 1:14,18; 3:16,18). Caesar was to be worshipped as God (see L.R. Taylor, The Divinity Of The Roman Emperor). Julius Caesar was known as Divus Julius after his death; indeed, many of the Caesars were held to have ‘resurrected’ to heaven and been granted Divine status. “To us [and this is the emphasis] there is only one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:4-6) takes on a vital radicality in the light of this. As does NT teaching about His resurrection and subsequent Divine glorification.  

The Roman proconsuls were to be called “Saviour”. But for Christians, there was only one Saviour, the Lord Jesus. The Caesars were frequently called "Saviour"- Josephus thus addressed Vespasian. Hence the radical import of the way that Jude 25 calls the Lord Jesus our only Saviour. ‘Caesar is Lord’ was the cry of the Roman empire. Pliny wrote that he considered refusal to make the customary gesture to the emperor’s statue to be a criminal act punishable by death. But “To us there is but one Lord, Jesus” the Christ, i.e. Jesus the Messiah of the despised, weird Jewish race.  The Roman concept of religio allowed each subject nation to have their own gods, so long as the cult of the emperor was also worshipped. But Rom. 3:29 states that the God of Israel was the one God of the Gentiles too. This is in sharp distinction to the way the Romans thought of the god of the Jews as just another national deity .Caesar was king of many subject kings, Lord of many conquered and inferior lords. In this we see the radical challenge of 1 Tim. 6:15,16: that Jesus Christ is the only potentate, the Lord of Lords, the King of all Kings. The RV margin brings out the Greek even more radically: “them that rule as lords”- those who think they are lords when compared to the Lord Jesus they are nothing. Many of the terms used in relation to Caesar worship are deliberately used in the New Testament and redefined in an exclusive Christian context, setting the Christian view of them up against any other use of them, and insisting upon it as the only valid meaning of the term. Thus ‘evangelion’ was a well known concept. It meant the good news of victory, and the corresponding duty to make thank and praise offerings for it. The Imperial Cult used the word for announcing Caesar’s victories, his birthdays, his accession to power, his granting of salvation to his people…Mark’s Gospel especially uses the word evangelion in a way which sets it up in contrast to the way it was used in the Imperial Cult. It is the good news of the birth, victory, resurrection and Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, and the evangelion calls men and women to make self-sacrifice in response to it.        

The wider family / household of the emperor bore a special name related to the name of the emperor; thus at the time of Augustus, they were called the Augustiani. They were his distant relatives and personal servants who were known for their loyalty to him. It was an honour to be part of this empire-wide extended household. The name ‘Christian’ was coined in Antioch in parody of this. These men were the honoured members of another empire-wide household of relatives and servants, yet their emperor was the Christ. This title for them would have been an open and defiant rebellion against the cult of the emperor. Some Caesars such as Gaius, Nero and Domitian felt that they would not only become Divine on their death, but they were to be treated as Divine in their lives. They wished to be considered as mediators between the gods and Roman citizens. The NT passages which speak in such exalted terms of Christ’s present exaltation were not just written to provide trinitarians with pseudo-ammunition against us. They used that exalted language for a very real purpose- to highlight how the Lord Jesus was the one who had become ‘Divine’ and been ‘highly exalted’ on His death, and how even in His life He had been worthy of the honour due to God alone, on account of the degree to which He manifested the Father. And to Jesus alone had been given world-wide authority, not to Caesar [as they claimed]. And moreover, He had been given all power in Heaven as well as earth. He alone was the only mediator between God and all men, rather than Caesar. The Lord’s own words were radical enough, when He taught that Caesar should be honoured but not worshipped.  

Although Thomas’ exaltation “My Lord and my God!” may appear an off-the-cuff gasping out of praise, can I suggest there was far more to it than that. I suggest he was alluding to or quoting Ps. 35:23: " Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment, my God and my Lord" . The Lord Jesus had indeed arisen and stirred up in resurrection, and Thomas realized that it was to his judgment. When we look closer at the Psalm, it seems to reveal something of the thoughts of the Lord Jesus. He had desired God to awake to his need. And now Thomas shares those same thoughts, through his relationship to Jesus. And this is a very Johannine theme; that the relationship between Father and Son is to be shared by the believers, on account of the way they relate to the risen Lord Jesus. Or perhaps Thomas had Ps. 91:2 in mind: " I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge, my fortress, my God; in him will I trust" . When Thomas  addressed Jesus as  " My Lord and my God" , he was likely alluding to the way the Emperors [Domitian especially, according to Seutonius] demanded to be called " Dominus et Deus noster" - Our Lord and our God. Thomas was saying something radical- he was applying to the Lord Jesus the titles which those living in the Roman empire were only to apply to Caesar. And our exaltation of the Lord Jesus should be just as radical in practice.  Further, I note that Yahweh Elohim is usually translated in the Septuagint 'Kyrios, ho theos mou'- " Lord, my God" . Am I going too far in thinking that Thomas saw in the risen Jesus the fulfillment of the Yahweh Elohim name? He would thus have been fulfilling the Lord's prophecy in Jn. 8:28: " When you lift up the Son of man, then you will realize that I Am..." . Finally the disciples were grasping that " All men may honour the Son just as they honour the Father" (Jn. 5:23). Thomas’ expression of praise was thus blasphemy to both Jews and Romans. A true perception of the exaltation of the Lord Jesus leads us to a unique position which cannot be accepted by any who are not truly of Him. 

The names of the Roman emperors were to be greatly revered. The cult of emperor worship grew very strongly in the 1st century. Yet Rev. 13:2 describes the names of the leaders of the beast, which on one level represented the Roman empire in the 1st century, as “blasphemous names”. To assign divine titles to the emperor was, to the Jewish and Christian mind, a blasphemy (Dt. 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:4). This would have made the Apocalypse an outlawed document in the first century. Consider too the clear references to the evil of the emperor worship cult later in Rev. 13: one of its heads. . .is set up as the very opposite of the true Christ. Like the Lamb, who was killed and then raised up (5:6), the Beast seems to disappear and then return to life (17:8). This passage may be a reference to some definite event, such as the murder of Caesar and the healing of the empire under Augustus, the legend of Nero redivivus, whereby Nero was believed to have returned from the dead. The marvellous cure of the Beast excites admiration and leads to the adoration of the dragon and the Beast (17:8). This is an allusion to the rapid progress of the emperor cult and to the ready acceptance of the immoral example of the emperors. The beast of the earth in Rev. 13:11-18 seems to have some application to the cult of emperor worship which became so popular throughout the Roman empire: it speaks in the voice of the dragon (v. 11), from whom it receives its power; and like the first Beast, it attempts to mimic the Lamb (v. 12, 13). It seems to be a personification of an Antichrist embodied in the pagan priesthood, which endeavoured to draw all men to the cult of the emperor. In these thoughts we see just how radical was the Apocalypse in its first century context. 

“The image to the beast” (13:13) would refer to representations of the divinized Roman emperors. “The wound of the sword” (13:13) is possibly an allusion to the mortal wound Nero inflicted upon himself in ad 68. Nero was perceived to live again in the persecutor Domitian (Tertullian, Apol. 5). Note how it is “the beast” who appears to have died or been wounded and then revives (17:8)- and yet these are references to what happened to Nero. The symbolism correctly perceives how the empire was incarnated in one man, the emperor. 

The beast of 17:4 was “full of blasphemous names”. Not only the heads of the Beast (13:1), but its whole body is covered with them, indicating that the entire empire sanctioned the emperors’ arrogation of divine titles; such titles could be found throughout the Roman world, inscribed on public buildings and monuments. The  golden cup which the whore has (cp. 18:6; Jer 51:7) has contents which would have been understood as  idolatrous cults and the vices of Rome-all in sharp contrast with its outward beauty and the splendour of the woman. These prophecies were therefore in direct and open criticism of the Roman empire which surrounded the early ecclesia. Rome boasted that “I sit a queen” (18:7). The chief sin of Rome as of all pagan empires consists in their assertion that their power and their authority derive exclusively from themselves, that they are their own masters, recognizing no superior law. Please note that in seeing a first century fulfillment of Revelation I in no way thereby necessarily exclude a continuous historic or latter day fulfillment of it also.  

The Roman empire was thus painted in the most awful colours; and yet it must have seemed just the ordinary world to the early believers; the place they grew up in, outside of which they generally had no experience. And yet the message of Rev. is to “flee” from Babylon / Rome- " flight" consists in refusing to participate in the sins of the Romans. Paul admits that we are unable to leave the world (1 Cor 5:10), and therefore we are to see this as symbolic. And surely there are similarities with our own position at the end of another age- we need this apocalyptic language to make us realize exactly how evil is the world around us and the need to flee it. The description of Rome’s trading in chapter 18 would have been especially powerful- it would have seemed that Rome was invincible, economically and politically unshakeable, admired by the whole world. And yet it was to be brought down by Divine judgment. Note too how these passages are also applicable to Jerusalem- as if there in the city that was so defiantly anti-Roman, the same abuses in essence were going on, and would meet a like judgment.  

I am of the view that the seals and vials of Revelation have such strong connection with both the Olivet prophecy and the actual events in the land in AD66-70 that it is impossible to discount the application of Revelation to this period. This means that it would have been written some time before AD70. A major theme is the need to resist the Caesar worship and maintain their separation from the world around them. Indeed, the whole of Revelation can be read, in its’ AD70 application, as an account of the struggle between Christ and Caesar. Such strong imagery is used in order to emphasise that there could be no third road. It was one or the other. Thus Rev. 4,5 presents a picture of the throne of Heaven, but it is replete with reference to the imperial ceremonial court. Consider the points of contact and contrast: 

- Greco-Roman kings were considered to be divine, and their courtrooms were arranged in concentric circles centring upon the Caesar / King- just as with the true throne room

- Their attendants were often arranged in groups of 7s and 12s- after the supposed seven planetary spheres and the 12 signs of the zodiac. Compare this with the 7s, 12s and 24s [2 x 12] in Revelation (4:4,5,10; 5:6-10).

- These attendants sung hymns of praise to the Caesar (cp. 4:8-11; 5:9-14)

- The Caesar dispersed justice to the empire / kingdom, symbolised by a scroll (cp. 5:1-8).

- Language such as God, Son of God, Lord’s day, saviour of the world was used in the imperial cult (3).

Suffice it to say that today just as much as in the 1st century, there is a radical clash of cultures and belief systems between us and this present world. The radical nature of the conflict cannot be overstated. 

One of the most well known concepts in the empire was the Pax Romana- the idea that the Roman empire brought peace and blessing to those within its rulership and Kingdom. Yet this is consciously and explicitly alluded to in the NT passages which speak of the universal peace and goodwill which can only and exclusively come to mankind through the Gospel and reign of Jesus.  

Some of the Roman leaders initially pushed the idea of Plato, that all land should be state owned and be given up by individuals to the state. Yet Acts 2:44; 4:32 use language which is directly taken from Plato’s Republic: “All things common…no one called anything his own”. The early church was seeking to set up an idealized alternative to the Roman empire!  

Roman citizenship was the most coveted thing in the Roman empire. Phil. 3:20 claims that we all have the coveted citizenship.  Heb. 11:13-16 contains some radical demands in a first century context- to see the true city, when Rome was the city to be identified with; to be a non-citizen of any earthly state… how hard would that have been for Roman citizens to read, hear, and say ‘Amen’ to! And how hard it would be for Roman citizens, or those who aspired to it, to realize that the highest honour was to be part of “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12), that pokey, undeveloped, despised corner of the great Roman empire. And the call of Christ to middle class 21st century citizens is just as radical.

The way the sun was eclipsed at the Lord’s death is recorded in terms which clearly contrast with the prevailing view that at the demise of the emperors, the light of the sun was eclipsed. Both Plutarch (Caesar, 69.4) and Josephus (Antiquities 14.12.3,409) speak of eclipses of the sun at the death of Julius Caesar. The Lord Jesus in His death is thus being proclaimed as the true Caesar. Likewise Cassius Dio History 51.17.5) claims that at the fall of Alexandria to the Romans, “the disembodied spirits of the dead were made visible”. Similar claims were made for other Roman victories. And yet this is clearly put into context by the record that around the Lord’s victory, the graves were opened and the dead actually came forth.  

Martin Hengel concludes that the early Gospel records were so radical that they would’ve been part of an “underground literature”. He suggests that the Roman law forbidding oral or written prophecies about the fall of the Roman empire- on pain of death- was enough to make the Olivet prophecy alone a highly illegal document (4).

Social Problems

The stress of Christianity on individual conversion and responsibility meant that as Jesus had predicted, families were divided when one accepted Him. 1 Cor. 7 shows that there were times when a wife accepted Christianity but her husband didn’t. Yet society expected her to treat him as her head in all religious matters. Plutarch taught that “it is becoming for a wife to worship and know only the gods that her husband believes in, and to shut the front door tightly upon all queer rituals and superstitions. For with no god do stealthy and secret rites performed by a woman find any favour”. These comments were very relevant to the many sisters who must have discreetly broken bread alone or in small groups. One can imagine all the social and domestic conflicts that Christianity created. This is why the movement was so slandered. There were no temple, no priests, this religion was seen as weird. Just as many new converts today are mocked for the fact the believers in their area have no church building, no priests etc. The early Christians were slandered- their breaking of bread was misrepresented as cannibalism, the eating of a dead body; the ‘love feast’ was claimed to be an immoral gathering, and the Christian focus on loving each other was given overtones of immorality by their detractors. Their separation from the world likewise was wilfully misinterpreted as “hatred of the human race”. The tragedy is that the gross misbehaviour of the Corinthians and others gave the slander at least some basis.


(1) Michael Green, Evangelism In The Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p. 40 .

(2) W.M. Ramsay, The Church In The Roman Empire (New York: Putnam's, 1893) p. 236.

(3) These and many other links can be found in David Aune, “The influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John”, Papers Of The Chicago Society Of Biblical Research 28 (1983): 1-26.

(4) Martin Hengel, Studies In The Gospel Of Mark (London: SCM, 1985) p. 28.