There are lots of different ways to tackle the beast that is missions history. Volumes both can and have been written on it. Instead, I’m going to hit the highlights and focus on how the epicenter of Christianity moved literally around the world. Just because we’re focusing on broad strokes doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t advancing in lots of other places as well.
I really like how missiologist Ralph Winter broke it down in his Perspectives article, “The Kingdom Strikes Back“. He divides all of redemption history into ten ages. The first five are in the Old Testament: the Patriarchs, the captivity of Israel, the rule of the Judges, the reign of the Kings, and the post-exile of Israel. It’s fascinating that we see in them a similar cycle like we’ve already mentioned. The nations rage against God, God’s people suffer as they are slow to represent God among the nations, and yet God’s mission still advances.
Interestingly, Winters says that the next five ages are not all that different from the first five. Just like Israel, the people who receive the blessing of knowing God over time grow less eager to share that blessing with others. That’s the kingdom of God. It can’t be contained by a geopolitical people. It comes to purify a global bride for God’s own possession. So just about the time we think we have it cornered, it blazes on toward the day of Christ. True Christendom is only realized in heaven. Missions history reminds us that when we’ve lost the willingness to risk in the cause of Christ, the kingdom has most likely moved past us.
The first New Testament epoch Winter called the Age of the Romans. It obviously kicks off with the world’s greatest missionary, Jesus Christ. Missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter calls him the only 200% person, meaning he didn’t just go and acquire another language and culture, he was incarnated into it (24)! He perfectly contextualized the gospel so to speak. Yet, thank God we don’t look to him as just an example to follow, but as a Savior who frees us to be like him. And not just be like him, but to do even greater works than he did (John 14:12). What’s that look like? On day one of the Holy Spirit’s arrival, the apostles saw a greater harvest than Jesus had attained in all his ministry combined. Jesus started things off right.
During this age the epicenter of Christianity moved from Jerusalem to Rome. Think about this: in less than three hundred years the gospel went from a cave in Bethlehem to a palace in Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How does that happen?! Here was God’s perfect setup:
- Rome had built a massive system of roads. These roads became highways for the gospel to travel.
- Rome maintained a common language: Greek. This language became the vehicle to communicate the gospel.
- Rome dispersed Jews throughout their empire. Those Jews established synagogues which attracted God-fearing Gentiles who would welcome the gospel when it arrived.
Scripture tells the rest. The gospel exploded in Jerusalem through the coming of the Holy Spirit and the leadership of the apostles. And yet we see that until the great persecution that broke out in Acts 8, the church hesitated to take the gospel into Judea and Samaria. Paul’s amazing efforts to advance the gospel are recorded in Acts, but he certainly wasn’t alone in the task. The persecution he and others experienced continued pushing people beyond the confines of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, throughout the known Roman world and beyond.
From there we know the gospel roared into North Africa and the Middle East, granting us great church leaders like Athanasius in Alexandria and Ignatius in Syria. Stories like this took place:
A philosopher from Tyre came out of the Alexandrian church with two young men to preach the gospel in India. Along the way they were overtaken by tribesmen who killed everyone except for the two young men. They became slaves of the pagan king of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), instructing the prince in Greek—and also the gospel. When he became king he declared Ethiopia a Christian nation, and one of the young men, Frumentas, returned to Athanasius in Alexander to plead for a bishop to be sent to Ethiopia. Athanasius replied, “Who better than you.” Frumentas returned to Ethiopia to establish the church. And even after all this, there is still historical evidence that the gospel made its way into India.
We also know that Christians carried the gospel along the Silk Road into central Asia and China. It is believed by some historians that millions of Chinese Christians were slaughtered by the Mongols, or otherwise Asia may have been the initial epicenter of Christianity rather than Rome.
Back in Rome, by the time Constantine became emperor he had already been greatly influenced by the gospel, and even if he didn’t declare an official Christian empire, in many ways it already was. Justin Martyr summed up the wonder of this age:
“There is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or hersdmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus.”
In the next post we’ll consider the second, third, and fourth ages of missions history.