As we have seen, it was through Abraham that God called a nation into being which would serve as the vehicle through which Messiah would come into the world – to save the world. In Isaiah 49:3 God declared: “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Then in verse 6 He says: “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” (KJV) This chosen nation then; this Israel, is to serve as the light to the earth; to all of God’s called from every nation. As for what would become the primarily Gentile Church: They were given a different role. They are assigned to serve as a source of comfort and a means of prophetic fulfillment as they aid God’s people in their return to the Land. Isaiah 49:22 reads: “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will lift up my hand in an oath to the nations, and set up My standard for the peoples; they shall bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.’” And it is once they are in the Land that God promises to transform the hearts of His long-rebellious people. The First Testament chronicles this history of the Jewish nation replete with rebellion and repentance. The Bible promises that there will come God’s complete restoration. But history shows us the first centuries of the Church, where we saw a primarily Jewish institution morph into a Gentile one, in the process abandoning its Hebrew roots. What followed was violent and ugly. It was more than a rejection of the nation that had been used by God to bring His Saviour-Son into the world. It was a persecution of the people themselves – of the tribes that had brought the honored saints of the Church – Peter and Paul and Luke and James and John….and even Jesus Himelf.
A STUMBLING CHURCH
Here’s the basic truth. The earliest Church was a Jewish institution. Jesus was Jewish. The Apostles were Jewish. The 3,000 converted on the day of Pentecost were Jewish. And we see in the book of Acts a gradual / eventual inclusion of Gentiles in significant numbers. Still, the early Christianity remained Jewish in character and practice. The earlies Christians worshipped in the Temple, revered the Torah or the Law – and observed Jewish Holy Days.[i] But while, the Scripture was calling for “one new man” – Jew and Gentile together – in practice this was a hard thing to achieve. Looking back to the 6th Chapter of Acts we see that Jewish widows were treated more kindly than Greek widows, an issue that was addressed by the early Church. So the seeds of discord and separation were sown. Over the course of time, the Church became a mixture of Jew and Gentile. The earliest leadership, under the Apostles, was of course Jewish. But the emerging demographic – (after all, there were more Gentiles than Jews in the world) – was becoming increasingly Gentile. Over time this would have its effect. Then came some giant blows to the Jewish People that necessarily affected the make-up of the institution.
First came the events of the Jewish rebellion that culminated in 70AD. These events not only contributed to the composition of the Church – but exactly fulfilled a prophecy of Jesus Himself. Luke 19:41-44 gives us this account. “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” In Matthew 21:2, Jesus reiterates the same point regarding the Temple buildings. “Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
That is exactly what happened. In April of AD 70, Roman General Titus began a siege of Jerusalem against the rebelling Jews. The Romans constructed embankments as they systematically starved the city’s inhabitants.[ii] In the final assault in September of that year the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and killed an estimated 1.1 million Jews. During the destruction, fire was set to the Temple. The fire caused the gold-leaf ornamentation on the Temple ceiling to melt. The melting gold flowed down the walls and settled into crevices between the stones. The Romans pried apart the stones to remove the gold. (That destruction occurred on the 9th of Av, the exact same date on which the First Temple was destroyed.) This specifically and exactly fulfilled Jesus Christ’s[iii] prophecy that not one stone would be left standing on another. It is significant that the respected historian Josephus names no Christian victim of this Roman slaughter in his accounts of this great Jewish War. Believers were made aware, first of all by Luke’s account, of Christ’s warning. They clearly saw the approaching Roman Legions, gathering to surround Jerusalem. In addition, Eusebius, an early Church Father, known as the ‘Father of Church History’, tells us of a New Testament prophet that warned the Christian community to leave the city and escape the coming slaughter. It seems they did.[iv] Still, after the event the Jews were scattered – the Christian Jews leaving on their own account – and the others driven out by the Romans.
Another rebellion occurred six decades later led by Simon bar Kochba, whom some Rabbis anointed as a Messiah. For a short period of time he led a rather successful revolt against Roman rule. But that too ended tragically. This ‘Pretender Messiah’ saw his fortress fall – again – on the 9th of Av – and once again the Jews were scattered by imperial decree. The Jewish Virtual Library describes the aftermath. “The Romans plowed Jerusalem with a yoke of oxen. Jews were sold into slavery and many were transported to Egypt. Judean settlements were not rebuilt. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina and the Jews were forbidden to live there. They were permitted to enter only on the 9th of Av to mourn their losses in the revolt. Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judea to Syria Palestina.”[v] [vi]
So that’s the background for what is happening in the Church. As the Jewish nation is distributed across the Roman Empire in what became known as the Diaspora, the Christian Faith spread also from the Jewish elements in the Church. But now, instead of Jerusalem serving as the centerpiece of Christianity, you had several competing centers of ecclesiastical power. Alexandria, Antioch and Rome were among those centers of Church authority. At around the end of the 1st century the Jewish and Gentile elements of Christianity began to split. The former Jewish Pharisee Paul exempted Gentile Christians from the Jewish ceremonial law including circumcision. In 98 AD the Roman Emperor Nerva exempted Christians from an annual tax levied upon the Jews. This hurried along the process that was already taking place.[vii] [viii]
So we saw the Church beginning to change. By the 2nd century the influence of Greco-Roman culture began to surpass the Judaic orientation of the institution. Greek philosophy came creeping in and the Church began to get away from the literal interpretation of Scripture. So, as this Gentile-centric ethic began to take hold, the Church began to replace Israel in the minds of the leadership – when it came to the promises of God. And as institutional Christianity began to distance itself from the practice of Judaism, pagan ideas began to filter in to the body.
So to review, the original church started as a Jewish sect; – a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. It maintained Jewish practices, – with the earliest Christians organizing themselves as communities within the Jewish traditions. Indeed, they likely thought of themselves simply as Jews with an enhanced understanding of the Scriptures. Salvation comes not through the Law but as a “free gift of God” through His Son the Messiah.[ix] So many had seen those Scriptures fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew and therefore lived the truth of their faith.[x] The now dominant Gentile church began to throw off Jewish customs and practices in an effort to distance themselves from the persecuted Jewish population. In addition they began to twist apostolic teaching, slowly becoming anti-Semitic in character.[xi] This manifested itself in the year 317 AD when the Emperor Constantine of Rome made a decision that changed the direction of, and subsequently the whole historical character of the Christian faith. Caught in a power struggle for the supreme control of the Empire, Constantine responded to a vision of a Cross in the sky and immediately decided to fight under that banner, – the banner of Christ and the Church. In the event, he was victorious in battle. This set the stage for a transformation of both Roman society and the Church. Though he championed the ‘Christian’ cause, his conversion remains somewhat in doubt, only accepting baptism on his deathbed. Throughout his life he was part of a pagan sun-god cult that worshipped Isis, a Madonna figure with a ‘divine’ son, – that was modeled on the real Queen Semiramis, Nimrod’s consort. He even built a triumphal arch honoring the sun god after his supposed conversion to Christianity.[xii] In any case, Constantine was if nothing else, an astute politician. Genuine or not, he used the Christian faith to unite his empire. His aim was a revival of the religious / civil unified state that had been first dreamt of and established by Nimrod himself in Babylon. He was setting himself up as nearly a priest-king, placing giant statues of himself throughout the empire.
So as he adopted Christianity he used the power of his office to adapt it to his, and the Empire’s own ends. In 321 he put his approval on a practice that was already customary, moving the Christian day of rest from the Saturday Sabbath to Sunday, the day the Lord rose from the dead. By 430 Church councils had ratified this, making the change compulsory and outlawing any connection with the Jewish Sabbath. Other changes followed. Over the course of time pagan, religious traditions were incorporated by the church, including; the use of icons, festivals and holidays and rituals. Statues of the Queen mother goddess Isis nursing her child Horus were easily replaced by depictions of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus at her breast.[xiii] The ‘Saints’ Peter and Paul replaced Romulus and Remus as the ‘patrons’ of Rome. Christ’s birthday celebration was conveniently celebrated on December 25th, – to coincide with the culturally familiar Sol Invictus festival, – a pagan celebration complete with decorations of green branches and lights and the giving of presents.[xiv]
The new church was becoming pagan friendly to accommodate all of the ‘converts’ that were thronging into it by the early 5th century. Many church leaders felt this had to be, in order to welcome these former worshipers of the “creature rather than the Creator”, – who brought their superstitions and pagan customs. By order of Gregory the Great, temples were cleansed before being transformed into churches and “devil-sacrifices” were to be replaced “by processions in honor of some saint”. Animal sacrifices were to be continued where necessary. Such were the cavalier orders and attitudes of the presiding church leadership.[xv]
Thus the Church that had once been populated by ‘outsiders’ of the imperial system now became the state church. The Church became dependent on Caesar’s coffers for its support. Formerly, those claiming to be Christians had to be committed to the truth of the faith, as any believers faced persecution and even death for their faith. This had now absolutely reversed itself. Mass and even forced conversions (sometimes of whole army regiments) replaced the Holy Spirit driven ‘change of heart’ that characterized earlier believers. Now out to please the masses, the Church began to assimilate Babylonian ritualism and mysticism. Thus as the Church embraced this Babylonian spirit – it drifted farther from its founding architecture and the Judaic roots from which it had been birthed. The rejection of Israel and the persecution of the Jewish people became the natural by-product of the phenomenon.
[i] Michael L White, From Jesus to Christianity, Harper, 2004, pg 127
[ii] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, Thomas Neslon Bibles, 1997, – notes for Luke 19:43-44, pg 1,554-1,555
[iii] Image: http://www.jerusalemshots.com/Photo-en7323.html
[iv] Paul L Maier, The Catastrophic Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jesus Christology, July 13, 2008
[v] Ancient Jewish History: The Bar-Kokhba Revolt, Jewish Virtual Library, monitored November 12, 2015
[vi] Eli Kavon, Tisha B’Av Meditation: Bar Kokhba: rebel hero or failed Messiah?, The Free Library, 2007
[vii] Stephen Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus, Paulist Press, 1995, pgs 190-192
[viii] James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, SCM Press, 2006, pgs 33-34
[ix] Don Finto, Your People Shall Be My People, Promise Keepers, 2001, pg 78
[x] Norbert Brox, A Concise History of the Early Church, pg 4, as referenced by Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997
[xi] Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997
[xii] Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997
[xiii] Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997
[xiv] John Romer, Testament: The Bible and History, 1988, pgs 230-231, – as quoted by Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997
[xv] John Romer, Testament: The Bible and History, 1988, pg 214, – as quoted by Scott Ashley, Modern Christianity’s Forgotten Roots, GN Magazine, Nov / Dec 1997