Establishment of the Church: The Phoenix Arises

To get to Jesus and what he did the stage must be set going back to about 60 B.C. The Persian Empire was long dead and Israel had been left to be lead by the Hasmonean dynasty in relative autonomy. That is until the bloody years that started about 60 years B.C. The Roman conquest had its rebellions that had to be crushed and this is largely due to, as Keddie points out, the fact that much of the Jewish apocalyptic literature can been seen as anti-empire; in other words the Jews were a people that did not want to be ruled (Keddie, 2013). After the rebellions came Herod the Great who, through blood and bribe, wiped out all of the Hasmonean descendants and their supporters to establish the Herodian dynasty (Atkinson, 1996, P. 319). It is not surprising that when Herod the Great heard of this king in Bethlehem that he employed the same tactics that he used with the Hasmonean descendants; after all in Herod’s mind a king could not cause problems for him if he was dead (Matthew 2:16 NIV). But that understanding that Herod had was followed by the Jews and Jesus proved that killing him would not only not stop him, but it would start something that is still moving over 2000 years later. Into this world of blood, fear and poverty walked Jesus; though his enemies killed him they could not stop him from first rebuilding Israel and second reforming the world; by 70 A.D. the wheels were turning and  the Christian Church was set on a trajectory that would alter the face of the world.

The rebuilding of Israel can be seen in the way Jesus conducted himself. Shelley put it this way, the gospel writers go out of their way to describe the things Jesus did to demonstrate himself as the real Israel: time in the wilderness, Baptism, 12 disciples, 5 sermons and 3 days in a tomb (Shelley, 2013, P. 4).  Shelley finishes with this explanation of Jesus’ actions, “Where Israel had failed, Jesus had been a faithful Son” (Shelley, 2013, P. 4). When Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the Law this is what he meant, in him Israel was complete (Matthew 5:17, NIV). Fear and jealousy lead to his murder, the Jews that had been brutalized for years under Herod had finally found a small tenuous peace with the Roman overlords and that peace was worth keeping at whatever price. What Caiaphas said out of fear of Rome and jealousy of Jesus was far truer than he had known: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50, NIV). So this Jesus who taught others to turn the other cheek was force to turn the other cheek as the Jews hauled him before the Roman Governor Pilate and demanded his execution on the grounds that he was a rabblerousing enemy of Caesar.

Jesus reforms the world by his death. In life Jesus had perfected Israel now as his body lay in the grave those 11 that remained of the ones he had chosen were sheep without a shepherd. Hope, however, came when the words “Do not be afraid … He is not here; he has risen” rang out from angelic vocals (Matthew 28:5-6). Meeting after meeting, sighting after sighting, by witness after witness confirmed the Lords resurrection; finally he stood on a hill and told his followers to wait in Jerusalem and he would empower them to take his message to the whole world (Luke 24:46-49). On the day of Pentecost a uneducated fisherman by the name of Peter stood in front of thousands of Jews and proclaimed “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” and in that moment the first Church was born and it had about 3000 members (Acts 2:38-41). The Church did not escape the eyes of the Jewish leaders. Just like Herod the Great they thought they had done away with Jesus by killing him but the Jesus followers were only growing and the fears and jealousy that lead to Jesus’ murder lead to intense persecution of the Church. This persecution was a blessing in disguise because as the persecuted believers fled Jerusalem they carried this message with them. There was a man bent on ending the way, his name was Paul. When Paul was busy organizing the murder of Stephen he did not know it but he would become the most powerful gospel preacher of this new way (Acts 8:1, NIV). Paul was the climax of this apostolic age. As Paul road north from Jerusalem to Damascus Jesus was waiting for him. Once Paul had met Christ there was no stopping him. He would take the gospel to the corners of the Roman Empire. By the time of Paul’s death at the hands of Nero, Paul had planted churches in nearly 20 of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire and written two thirds of the New Testament.

Jesus didn’t change the world by human means. He changed it by changing people from the inside out: uneducated fishermen became fearless preachers, men became martyrs for Jesus, and hardened Jewish persecutors became unrelenting missionaries. The fear of what Rome might do became a reality in 70 A.D. when Titus smashed Jerusalem and ended Jewish life in the holy land. But Maier tells us that what has started as a branch of Judaism “was now composed almost entirely of Gentiles” (Maier, 2008, P. 11). But out of the ashes that Titus left in Jerusalem the Phoenix that was the Christian Church had already risen.  Even though out of fear and jealousy Jesus had been killed, it did not stop him from rebuilding Israel and empowering his followers to reform the world. It would not be long before Christianity itself would become catholic and imperial.

 

 

Resources

Atkinson, K. (1996). Herod the Great, Sosius, and the Siege of Jerusalem (37 BCE) in Psalm of Solomon 17. Novum Testamentum, 38(4), 313-322.

Keddie, G. A. (2013). Judaean apocalypticism and the unmasking of ideology: foreign and national rulers in the Testament of Moses. Journal For The Study Of Judaism In The Persian, Hellenistic And Roman Period, 44(3), 301-338. doi:10.1163/15700631-12340380

Maier, P. L. (2008). Not one stone left upon another: the catastrophic fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 forever changed the face of Judaism–and the fate of Christians in the Holy Land. Christian History And Biography, (97), 8.

Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Posted in Blog, Church, History.