I’ve been reading a new book “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider. It has been especially interesting to see the discussion on how the church in the first three centuries after Jesus lived on this earth, died on the cross and was raised from the dead grew. One of the primary points he makes is that evangelism or missions as we tend to think of it, was not a fundamental part of the work of the church during that time. They continued to grow, even during times of persecution, but it is primarily based on the life of the Christians. He noted that during the worst of times and treatment the Christians maintained a patient, persistent attitude of devotion to Christ and service to their fellow men. In times when they were mistreated, rather than retaliating against the Roman authorities or even the local society that were treating them badly, they responded with love, compassion and helpfulness to the ones in trouble. He noted the fact that there were certain Scriptures both from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings and of the prophesies of the Old Testament that were huge in their thinking, teaching, writing and preaching.
One passage that Kreider said was on the mind and lips of the early teachers and preachers among them was Isaiah 2:1-5 and it’s twin Micah 4:1-5. Look closely at Isaiah’s words, “The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many people; and they shall beat theirs swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Isaiah and Micah were anticipating the day when the kingdom of the Lord would be established in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 2. The word of the Lord went out from Jerusalem. God’s house was established in the top of the mountains. People came flowing into the kingdom of the Lord. Just as Peter stood on Pentecost to preach to the multitudes about Jesus and how he was delivered by the determined council and foreknowledge of God and they had taken him and by wicked hands had crucified and killed him, people were cut to their heart and cried out what shall we do. Peter explained to them that the opportunity was for all people. Everyone was commanded to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise was for them, their children and for all who were afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call. 3,000 people that day made the commitment to Jesus and were baptized into Christ and into his church. As Isaiah foretold people went out from there saying to others “Come, let’s go up to the house of the Lord, the house of the God of Jacob, so he can teach us His ways and we will walk in his paths.” The message spread from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria to the rest of the world. Within thirty years Paul would write to the church of the Colossians that the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven.
But I want to focus on the promise of the change that would be made in people. The history of Israel was one of war. They had conquered nations and destroyed enemies as God led them as his people. But the new kingdom Jesus established, over which he would reign as king on David’s throne, was to be different. It wouldn’t spread it’s borders by conquest. Instead in this spiritual kingdom we usually refer to as the church it wouldn’t be a war like people any more. They would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. In our day this passage has been largely applied to the notion of a thousand year reign that is mentioned in Revelation 20:1-6. But the church in the first centuries after it was established didn’t see it that way. They understood the passage as referring to the church and how those who come to Christ would live. Instead of being like Israel to fight and kill their enemies, the house of God would be made up of people who didn’t see war as their way of life anymore. They instead would spread the message of the kingdom by means of peace. Their message would be the gospel of peace and the effect of the message on people would be that they would have peace with God and with each other.
They didn’t take it to mean that everyone would be at peace or that people would treat them peacefully all the time. But they would be at peace with each other and would react to mistreatment with peace. Compare that thought with Paul’s instruction to Timothy in I Timothy 2:1-5 where he told him to pray for all people, then specifically said to pray for kings and all who were in authority, THAT WE MAY LEAD A QUIET AND PEACEABLE LIFE IN ALL GODLINESS. He tied the prayer with the fact that God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Nothing in the world turns the hearts of people away from Christ and Christianity quicker than Christians at war with each other and with everyone else. The appeal of the godly life was to be the peaceful spirit that was in them as was in Jesus. When he was reviled, he didn’t revile in return. When he was threatened he returned a blessing on the ones who threatened him.
The church in the first three centuries continued to grow even though they were mostly made up of poor and often rejected people. But their life was very different from the world around them. People could see the difference God was making in them. They cared for, blessed and helped the very people who were mistreating them. It seems to me that we have a tremendous need to pull Isaiah 2 back out and remind ourselves of the need to beat the swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks and instead of living in fear, to put our trust in the God who made the worlds and all that is in them. Maybe then people will see the difference God has made in his people and be drawn to take another look at his gospel. God’s plan for us isn’t in a premillennial reign in Jerusalem. It is for the Christians to show a habit of life that demonstrates the effects of the Holy Spirit in them.