“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Matthew 18:20 (NIV)
God’s plans are so completely awesome. I emphasize the word “completely” because he plans so thoroughly. No detail is ever overlooked by God. The perfectness of his planning is usually seen in hindsight. We understand his work better thousands of years later through the Bible. The beauty of the Bible is that the stories and teachings in it that are thousands of years old sometimes apply perfectly to our modern-day lives. God pre-planned the messages for us.
First, though, the Bible was written for ancient Jews and then later the Gentiles. Still, even Old Testament stories had clear messages for later Old and New Testament readers. There are countless New Testament scriptures that point to an Old Testament teaching in hindsight.
For example, in Deuteronomy 28:64, God predicted that he would have to scatter the Jews throughout the world because he knew they would eventually stray from worshipping him. In Jeremiah 29, when they are on the verge of being exiled to Babylon, God instructed the Jews to multiply and prosper while in the new city. It seems they did. Of the families exiled from Palestine to Babylon, it is believed that as many as 2,000 of them settled in Asia. They assimilated into the culture of their captors to a significant degree. They likely became successful in various businesses. Their pattern of assimilation was not just restricted to Asia. What is the hindsight? We’ll see that they also assimilated to the Roman Empire and it assisted evangelists.
Most often we view the exile to Babylon as punishment, and rightly so because that was the primary reason. The Hebrews lost their way with God and He used the exile to reconcile them to him. However, there was a secondary reason for the scattering of the Jews that is probably more important to the modern-day church. While we need to remember the consequences of not obeying God, we also need to understand that God even uses evil for long-term good. Logistically, the exile to Babylon and the greater disbursement of the Jews played a huge role in God’s master plan to establish the Church in the New Covenant in the first centuries.
In the last three posts we’ve read how God’s plans to establish the church in the first century depended on Roman roads and urban Roman cities. The third key element to the formation of the Church was the Jewish Diaspora. Literally, the Diaspora refers to the scattering of the Jewish nation after the exile to Babylon. The Book of 2 Chronicles 36:15-23 details the fall of Jerusalem, the final incident leading to captivity. The Book of Daniel is perhaps the most comprehensive account of that captivity. So, why is this so important to the modern-day church and why would God want to his chosen people to multiply and prosper in a foreign pagan land?
I don’t believe God meant for first-century apostles like Paul, Timothy and Silas to go out and evangelize the Roman world cold turkey. Of course, he could have set it up that way because he is God. Since they were humans, though, I believe he set them up for success by placing like-minded people of the faith in instrumental cities. The Greeks and Romans considered the Jewish faith (and subsequently the Christian faith) completely foreign because it was based on one god. They would not have been overly receptive to this new faith. In fact, the Romans rulers had to approve all religions so early Christians simply worshipped under the recognized Judaism faith.
By the first century millions of Jews were living all over the Middle East, northern Africa and southern Europe. The population numbers of the Jewish diaspora indicate it was a prime time for Christianity to rise. Estimates show 1-2 million Jews living in Palestine and upwards of six million living outside Palestine. Hellenized Jews, those assimilated into the Greek culture, lived primarily in urban areas. As in Alexandria, Egypt some became wealthy, even by sacrificing faith for wealth. While the Jews will always be God’s chosen ethnic people, the New Covenant also brought the Gentiles into his fold. Now, the church is God’s chosen people. Through the Hellenized Jews of the Roman Empire, it was an opportune era to spread the gospel.
After Jesus established the church with his Palestinian ministry, God sent the likes of Paul, Silas, Barnabas and Timothy out among the Gentiles to evangelize the Roman world. These men were four of the most important Jewish Christian missionaries in terms of church building and increasing the church converts. Christianity (The Way) probably worked well for the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire who wished to assimilate with society but found difficulty because Judaism was so misunderstood by the Greeks and Romans. Christianity represented less rigid form of faith where dispersed Jews could share Yahweh with Gentiles.
In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark points out that the Jews were the basis for significant growth in Christianity during the first and second centuries and possibly all the way up to the fifth century. He theorizes that many of the Hellenized Jews did eventually convert to Christianity. That would obviously make sense since the original 12 disciples, and other apostles like Paul and Silas, were Jews. Additionally, the crowds of 4,000 and 5,000 that first heard Jesus preach on Palestinian hillsides were also Jews and they likely spread the faith. Christians and Jews worshipped the same God so they had the same basis for belief. Stark maintains the church kept strong ties to the Jewish community through the middle of the second century.
The Roman roads led to heavily populated cities where Paul and other apostles could minister but those early church planters needed people familiar with Yahweh. They needed financial support and lodging, at the very least, and new converts of The Way. So, in most cases, Paul and the early apostles sought out Jewish population pockets in the urban areas to provide refuges. Priscilla, Aquila and Ananias were all prominent examples of Jews living in major Roman urban areas who provided assistance to early Christian apostles. The Jews had branched out all over the Roman Empire and were able to form what were the equivalent of “Little Palestines” in urban cities like Rome, Ephesus and Corinth. They had large enough contingents (tens of thousands in some cases) that they were pretty much left alone to practically self-rule, as they did on the left bank of the Tiber River in Rome, if they stayed didn’t violate Roman rules.
It’s been documented that one of the largest Jewish populations in North Africa, and the Roman Empire, was the 200,000 Jews located in Alexandria. If just a fraction of them converted, thatt would have accounted for one of the largest Christian populations in the world at the time.
Stark also concludes that there were an estimated one million Jews worldwide (or Roman Empire-wide) by 250 A.D. Through the first four centuries, the most active Christian communities were in Asia Minor, where Paul spent the majority of his mission work and planted instrumental churches, and also in North Africa. According to Ethiopian tradition, by the time Christianity reached that country, half of the population was Jewish. Furthermore, most of them apparently converted when faced with the proposition of Christianity. All this doesn’t even take into account Asia, the location of the ancient city of Babylon and site of the largest Jewish exile.
It is clear God had great plans for the Jewish Diaspora. In hindsight, it appears Jeremiah 29:11 could have also been written with the first-century church in mind, not just exiled Jews. He did have “plans to prosper (The Church) and not to harm (it), plans to give (The Church) hope and a future.” God dispersed thousands of Jews worldwide in advance of the establishment of his church. Without the prophesied scattering, first-century church growth would have been stunted.
How did you view the exile to Babylon?
How do you think the early apostles evangelized?
How did you think the ancient Greeks and Romans treated Jews (not Christians)?