The first Christians expected Jesus Christ to return in their lifetime, bringing an end to the Roman Empire. But the empire was set to continue for many centuries. The relationship between the early Church and the state caused turmoil in the Church and led to the development of a very different church.
Jesus Christ came "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14).
In Luke 9:1-2 we see the 12 disciples were also sent out to preach this central message of the coming Kingdom of God. "Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick."
After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the apostles preaching the same message. The apostle Paul, who was called to be an apostle after the original 12, "went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8). At the end of the same book we see Paul continuing in "preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him" (Acts 28:31).
The Jews of Christ's time and the early Christians, many of whom were Jewish by birth, were very aware of Old Testament prophecies about the Kingdom. They were familiar with the prophecies revealed in the book of Daniel, which had been revealed to Daniel in the sixth century before Christ.
When the disciples asked Jesus: "What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of this age?" (Matthew 24:3), He replied with a quote from the book of Daniel: "Therefore, when you see the 'abomination of desolation,' spoken of by Daniel the prophet..." (Matthew 24:15).
The same book of Daniel revealed a sequence of successive gentile empires that would all have a profound impact on the Jewish people. Daniel had been taken as a slave to Babylon, the first of these empires, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C. God used him powerfully. In Daniel chapter 2 we see God using this prophet to reveal to Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of a dream. In his dream, the king saw a progression of four great empires, the first of which was his (Daniel 2:36-38). After Babylon another great kingdom would arise, Persia, "then another," Greece (verse 39).
After these three, there would come a "fourth kingdom," the Roman Empire (verse 40). This would be followed by the Kingdom of God: "And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed" (verse 44).
Inevitably, the expectation of the early Christians was of the imminent return of the Messiah.
For much of his ministry the apostle Paul himself thought that Christ's return was near. He wrote to the Thessalonians: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep" (1 Thessalonians 4:15). He wrote similar words to the Corinthian church: "We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51).
What they did not understand was that the Roman Empire would last for centuries. After the final demise of the Latin Western Empire in A.D. 476, there were to be 10 prophesied revivals of the empire down through history, culminating eventually in the second coming of the Messiah. God prophesied this in Daniel 7:7:
"After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible and exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth; it was devouring, breaking in pieces, and trampling the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns."
A horn is a symbol of royal power. After the fall of the Western Empire, there were to be 10 revivals of the empire, leading ultimately to Christ's return.
"I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated...and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him" (verses 9, 13).
It was not for the early Christians to know how long it would be before Christ's return. The disciples' asked Christ immediately prior to His ascension into heaven: "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Consider Christ's answer: "It is not for you to know times and seasons which the Father has put in His own authority" (Acts 1:6-7).
Not only was the Messiah returning after their lifetime, the early Church was to come under an onslaught of persecution.
After much of central Rome was destroyed in the disastrous fire of A.D. 64, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians. Nero himself is thought to have been the likely arsonist, but he blamed Christians as convenient scapegoats. They were a new religion that rejected the Roman gods and refused to worship the supposedly divine emperors. Additionally, their preaching of a coming King and Kingdom could be considered treasonous.
Terrible persecution resulted as Christians were cruelly martyred for their beliefs. The apostle Paul was among those arrested and apparently executed. He reminded Christians that Jesus Christ had predicted His followers would suffer persecution (John 15:20), adding, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12).
It appears that the apostle Peter was executed about the same time as Paul. Persecution was only set to worsen.
Between A.D. 66 and 70, the province of Judea revolted against the Romans, which helped to turn the peoples of the empire against the Jews. As the early Christians were considered a sect of Judaism and shared many beliefs in common with the Jews, including observance of the seventh-day Sabbath and the annual Holy Days, Christians also suffered the wrath that came down upon the Jews.
Turmoil in the Church
By this time, some of Christ's followers had left the faith. Others were compromising with the pagan religion of Rome. Eventually, such compromising would lead to a form of Christianity that was very different from that of the early Christians.
There had been false Christians from the beginning, the "tares" mixed in with the wheat that Jesus Himself had warned about in Matthew 13:24-30. Judas Iscariot had betrayed Him. Later, the apostles had to contend with Simon the Sorcerer, who "also believed," but who corrupted the faith (Acts 8:9-24).
The apostle Paul warned the Galatians about their "turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel" (Galatians 1:6). A similar warning was given to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 11:4.
Later, Paul warned that after his "departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (Acts 20:29-30). He even said that Satan's ministers would actually transform themselves into "ministers of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:15), just as "Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" (verse 14), passing himself off as a fake Messiah.
After the death of the apostles Paul and Peter, later in his ministry the apostle John observed that many members had left the fledgling Church. "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19).
In his second epistle he wrote that "many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist" (2 John 7).
Things worsened. In his final epistle he wrote about a Church leader, perhaps the pastor, casting the truly faithful out of the congregation (3 John 9-10).
Jude wrote, encouraging the faithful "to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed...ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 3-4).
Syncretism was taking place. (This is a mixture of religious philosophies, which in this case was a blend of human-devised concepts with the original teachings of Scripture.) Some Christians were compromising to fit more into Roman society.
The apostle John was the last surviving apostle. Under the Emperor Domitian (81-96) he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. Domitian cruelly persecuted the Jews and the Christians, who were indistinguishable to the Romans.
There on Patmos John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ. This book finally helped the true followers of Jesus Christ to see that His return would be in the distant future.
In the first century of the Christian era, Church and state were in conflict. The relationship between Church and state was to be a constant theme throughout history. It wasn't until the fourth century, over 200 years later, that an attempt would be made to reconcile the two—but by that time, the church (a physical and political organization) was very different from the Church (the spiritual body) of Jesus Christ and the apostles. WNP