To be honest, the success of Jesus’ church is absolutely unfathomable.
You don’t have to be a Christian, you don’t have to be nice, you don’t have to be easily amused, you don’t even have to like history to be dumbfounded at its success, then and now. In terms of organizational growth, there’s been no business, no corporation, no organization, that has exploded like this. Against all odds, this movement, 2,000 years later, has influenced and permeated all aspects of history in unimaginable ways. Morality, ethics, education, government, economics, art, music, architecture, philanthropy. Heck man, their book has been a bestseller since they started printing it.
I would venture to say that The growth of the church is one of great mysteries of history. It is absolutely undeniable but absolutely unexplainable (outside of dumb luck or divine intervention – though books like this help). In fact, the circumstances surrounding the birth of the early church stand against the reality of its explosive growth.
Take for example the historical person of Jesus. In purely human terms, all you have here is an uneducated, thirty-year old, Jewish construction worker, who hailed from a hick-town in the middle of nowhere called Nazareth, population approximately 200. Quite the unlikely leader to ignite a world-shaking movement.
And during his ministry, his campaign tactics were down-right foolish. He didn’t flatter the religious elite or lobby the political powers that be. He challenged them, often even offending them, all the while befriending the average, marginalized, and downtrodden. Generally, when you want power or influence in any life-context, it must be given to you by those who already have it or earned, and yet we see Jesus throw his influence away with all the power brokers of his day, completely rejecting their social hierarchy.
Then (in part, because of his cavalier campaign tactics) after only three years of public action, Jesus was arrested, drug before the governor, tortured, tried, publicly humiliated, convicted, and sentenced to capital punishment, death by crucifixion. This, as most of you know, was literally the most humiliating and degrading form of execution around (particularly for a Jewish man). Not to mention how excruciatingly painful it must’ve been.
And it was at this moment when Jesus’ disciples should’ve called it, “Ladies, Gentlemen, this whole Jesus thing has been real, but it’s time to move on. Don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to end up on a cross too. A new messiah will come. On to the next one. We all know anyways that a crucified king is no king at all. A messiah, vanquished at the hands of our evil Roman oppressors, is no messiah at all.”
But they didn’t. They didn’t disperse. They didn’t fizzle. In fact, they did the most outrageous thing yet. They began to march around the Mediterranean Rim proclaiming to all who’d listen that Jesus had risen from the dead. Ludicrous!
And they started in Jerusalem! Of all places, really? Jerusalem. Peter preached the Pentecost sermon in front of a crowd that, no doubt, less than two months earlier watched Jesus pinned to a tree, bled out, and killed. No pulling the wool over their eyes. Perhaps in Peter’s crowd that day were people who were part of the mob that cried “Crucify him! Give us Barabbas!” Yet when Peter finished this legendary sermon, the congregation jumped from 120 to 3,120 in a day. That’s 2500% growth.
And the message, “He’s alive!” What? Seriously. What? Could you imagine how we might react today if a small religious contingent of about 120 people lost their leader to capital punishment within our justice system, but then a couple months later began proclaiming on all the major news networks that, “You killed him! But God raised him! So say you’re sorry! And really really mean it! Because he’s alive! Promise! I ate with him. And he talked to me. And he taught me important stuff. We even sat around a campfire for fish, together. He’s alive!”
We’d laugh. But for some reason, many of the Jews and Gentiles of the Roman Empire didn’t. And understand, all ye chronological snobs, they knew then what we know now, they weren’t dumb: Dead people stay dead. But for some reason, not this one.
Briefly, let’s take a second to speak about first century resurrection beliefs (I learned everything I know about resurrection from HERE). What the disciples claimed about Jesus was unashamedly provocative. To be honest, it was beyond imagination. It’s one of those things that you just can’t/don’t make up.
Nobody had any mental space for a one-time, one-man, physical, bodily resurrection like Jesus. In Greco-Roman thinking, the spiritual part of man was good, while the physical was bad and corrupt. Therefore, to them, no soul that ever escaped from its body would opt to return. Needless to say, the Jesus resurrection would’ve been pretty outlandish and unappealing to them.
In popular Jewish thinking by the time of Jesus, resurrection was a universal hope for all the righteous that would take place as part of a worldwide renewal project completed by God, all at once. Therefore, the idea of a one-man, one-time resurrection located in the middle of history while the world kept spinning forward in all of its sickness, death, and brokenness, was simply unthinkable. This belief was unprecedented.
Some scholars suggest Jesus’ disciples imagined a risen Jesus and from their combined imaginations the movement blasted off. Well, they must’ve had quite the wild imagination, because this was truly unimaginable within their first-century Jewish, Greco-Roman context. This is not how you dream a resurrection story up.
I could go on with this stuff, but I won’t bore you… Let’s just suffice it to say this:
The circumstances surrounding the birth of the early church stand against the reality of its explosive growth. It’s a great mystery of history. A mystery that’s worth doubting whatever doubts you might have and taking a second to reconsider.
Because all I know is Christianity eventually became Rome’s national religion. Now that’s odd! Can you imagine? First Rome crucified Jesus, but later they worshipped him? All I know is that today, 2,000 years later, over one-third of the world’s population claims Jesus as the head of their religious experience. He ministered for three years and twenty centuries later he’s known on every continent.
A great mystery, indeed.
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