What if we studied history more like we remember our own lives? We don’t look back on our lives as a series of events that happened on certain dates. Instead of dates, we remember where we were, what we were doing, how old we were, and how old our children were.
So here is an experimental way of looking at early church history: Imagine you lived in the first century, and you had a child born on the day of Pentecost, when Peter preached his famous sermon. Your child would grow as the church grew.
I have constructed such a scenario below. Of course, the exact dates for a lot of important events are uncertain, and I have added details based on speculation. But maybe tying church history to the life of your own child will give you an idea of how quickly, or how slowly, things happened after that sermon on the day of Pentecost.
So here it is:
Miriam is born. Your first daughter is born on the day of Pentecost. In fact, this is the reason you did not go to Jerusalem for Pentecost this year. Many members of your family went, but you stayed home, in Caesarea. Caesarea is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, west of Galilee. The trip to Jerusalem is several days by foot.
Your family does not return from Jerusalem when expected. Weeks pass, and still they do not return. When they eventually return, Enoch, your brother-in-law, is not with them. He stayed in Jerusalem.
Your family tells you about the events of the feast, about the preaching of Peter, about the miracles they witnessed. They are all followers of Jesus now. You also believe and are baptized.
Miriam is still a baby when Enoch finally comes back from Jerusalem. He tells everybody about the persecution that erupted, about how Stephen was stoned to death, and about a man named Saul, who may in fact be coming to persecute the believers here in Caesarea.
As it turns out, Saul did not bring his persecution to Caesarea. He went somewhere else. Eventually, however, the leader of your synagogue decided your new faith was incompatible with the community life. All the followers of Jesus, about half the synagogue, were required to leave. They now meet together in one another’s homes. However, it did not happen that way in every town. Many synagogues embraced the new movement.
Miriam is ten years old. The church in Caesarea has enjoyed several years of uninterrupted growth and peace. You even have a kind of celebrity in among you: Philip the evangelist. Enoch remembers him from the early days in Jerusalem. His daughters are friends with Miriam.
You begin to hear rumors that Saul, the persecutor, has become a believer.
At about his time, your church receives a gift from Jerusalem. It is a copy of a letter written by Jacob (James), the brother of Jesus.
When Miriam is fourteen, your church receives a special guest: Peter himself! He is passing through. He can only stay a few days. He has just left Jerusalem for an extended period of time. He tells the church about what has happened there: about how Jacob (James) the son of Zebedee was executed, and about how he himself escaped prison.
A few years later, while Miriam is still a teenager, Peter passes through again. This time, he is on his way back to Jerusalem. Not long after that, you hear reports of a big meeting that took place in Jerusalem. The end result was that Gentiles would be welcomed into fellowship with the rest of the saints.
Miriam is twenty-one. Your church again receives some special guests. One is a prophet named Silas. His partner is none other than Saul, the former persecutor (he now goes by the name Paul). They talk for hours about the miracles God has done among the Gentiles. They even have a prison escape story that rivals Peter’s. Miriam loves to hear about the miracles. She is also very enthusiastic about the outreach to the uncircumcised. She is more open to the idea than some of the older members of the church.
Miriam is twenty-four. Enoch, your brother-in-law, has decided to move to Rome. A few years ago, Claudius, the emperor, expelled all the Jews from Rome because of the controversy over the gospel. Now, Claudius is dead and the Jews are allowed back. The new emperor, Nero, seems like a reasonable guy. Believing Jews from all over the empire are moving back. In addition, some are moving there for the first time. There is even talk that Peter is going to relocate to Rome. Enoch is excited as he talks about the church establishing mission bases all over Rome, from which they will reach the world.
Miriam is twenty-seven. She has six children of her own now. The church receives another visit from Paul. There is a controversy this time, about whether he should go to Jerusalem. You are at Philip’s house when it is decided that he would go. Miriam’s husband and some other members of the church accompany Paul and his companions to Jerusalem.
Not long after that, Paul returns to Ceasarea, this time as a prisoner of Rome! He has appealed his case to Caesar, and is waiting to go to Rome. He would end up staying there for two years. You visit him often. You especially remember a certain slave who ran away from his master and came to Paul for help. Paul sent him back to his master with a private letter and a couple of letters for the churches in that area. You were privileged to sit in on some of the sessions in which Paul and his disciple Timothy discussed what those letters would say.
Miriam is thirty-four. It has been about six years since Paul left Caesarea as a prisoner. He has since been set free. Things have been quiet in the church. Philip the evangelist has moved away.
Two years ago, you received terrible news from Jerusalem: Jacob (James), the brother of Jesus, had been killed. That news shook the church, but it was nothing compared to the news that is now arriving from Rome:
Nero, the emperor, has lost his mind. There was a fire in Rome. He blamed the Christians. His government began persecuting them. By the time Miriam turns thirty-six, multitudes of believers have been killed. Enoch, your brother-in-law, is dead. Priscilla and Aquila, whose church he attended, are dead. Rufus from Antioch, whose father carried the cross of Jesus, is dead. Paul is dead. Peter is dead.
Miriam is thirty-seven. She visits you in your bed. She visits you every day now, knowing that any day might be your last. You know this too, and you are at peace. You are thankful for the life God has given you. Miriam’s children and grandchildren are a great comfort to you in your final days.
But you are concerned about the future of the church, not just in Caesarea, but everywhere.
Miriam brings news today, however, that lifts your spirit. John the son of Zebedee ministered in the church last night. He is setting sail today for Ephesus. He is relocating there. He has left Jerusalem and will never return. All the believers have left Jerusalem. The fighting there is escalating, and it is only going to get worse. Jerusalem will soon be destroyed. Jesus knew this. He warned his disciples. There is not a single follower of Jesus left in Jerusalem.
But it is what Miriam tells you about John himself that encourages you. He is happy! He is thrilled, as if everything were going perfectly. His brother has been killed. His closest friends have been killed. But he is rejoicing. He knows the church will live and thrive and grow. He knows the gospel will conquer the world. He has no doubt about it. And his joy has infected the church at Caesarea. You can see it on Miriam’s face. You see a peace about her that you have not seen in three years, since she received news of Enoch’s death.
You, too, are at peace. You know John is right. Jesus won.