At Just The Right Time
Christians believe in a sovereign God who has all power, all authority, and who governs all. He is active. He does not sit idly in heaven and allow His creation to slip into chaos. He directs all things, governs all things, and sustains all things. This world and everything in it moves at His command. The church began with a few dozen or so individuals whose leader was crucified as a criminal. The disciples enjoyed no position or prestige. They had been together for a short period of time; yet, from this small group spread a religion that not only came to exist throughout the Roman empire, but eventually dominated it. How did this happen?
Of course, as Christians, we would quickly answer, "God made the church prosper." It was by His power, His authority, and His government. And nothing could be more accurate or true. Yet, saying that the church was established and spread by God does not somehow dismiss God doing so through secondary causes. Many Christians are reluctant to acknowledge secondary causes thinking that this somehow steals glory away from God. However, God uses means to accomplish His purposes. The Westminster Confession of Faith states it like this:
“Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”
But having said that, God doesn't always have to use secondary causes. As the Confession goes on to say, "God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure." However, as historians look at the spread of the early church, it is clear that God used secondary causes to spread the Christian faith. In truth, it is hard to imagine somewhere other than the Mediterranean world being a more ideal place for the spread of Christianity. There were a number of ideal conditions for the spread of Christianity. Here are a few:
Judaism--The apostle Paul told the Roman Christians, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Judaism provided an informed and fertile landscape for the spread of Christianity. Jews were scattered throughout the empire (Diaspora), their synagogues provided a base for Christian preachers and evangelists, and they had translated the Hebrew Old Testament into the common language of the Mediterranean world, Greek. Furthermore, there were many Gentiles who had taken an interest in the Jewish faith, but were reluctant to join the religion due to its ceremonial requirements. As Everett Ferguson noted, “Christianity did not carry the liabilities that Judaism did: the association with a single nationality, the rite of circumcision, restrictions that seemed meaningless (Sabbath, food laws, etc). Christianity offered a contact with antiquity through its claim to the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but it also offered satisfaction of the newer religious aspirations: salvation and deliverance through a personal redeemer.”
The Roman Empire--The Roman Empire united the Mediterranean world in a way in which it had never been united before. It was under one rule to a degree that even surpassed even what it enjoyed during the days of the Greek Empire. This provided a ready playing field for the spread of Christianity. Koine Greek reigned as the common language among the peoples of the Mediterranean world. An individual from Phrygia and another from Gaul could speak to one another unhindered. Though their primary languages provided a barrier, Koine Greek was the bridge across tribes, people-groups, and differing cultures. The Roman Empire also provided a relatively safe environment for the spread of Christianity. Not only would Christianity spread by means of missionaries and traveling evangelists-- it would also advance through tradesman, travelers, and soldiers on well-established roads. Bandits, robbers, and thieves were kept at bay by Roman soldiers. Trade flourished, people moved, and new ideas quickly circulated.
Greek Philosophy-- The Roman Empire spread Hellenistic thought throughout the Mediterranean world and the Greek emphasis upon beauty and morality provided a foundation for Gospel acceptance. Stoicism and Platonism each played a key role. The Stoic emphasized the importance of denial. Nothing should be desired that a man cannot obtain and keep. Stoicism advocated a means by which one might find contentment and show love toward others. Christians not only taught something similar, but seemed to realize this type of living, which even many Stoics found elusive. And Christianity's understanding of this way of living was seasoned with a note of grace which many found more palatable than Stoicism. The Logos in Platonic thought provided a foundation for introducing Christ as the divine Logos. Many early Christian apologists seized upon this idea and it provided a conduit for dialogue about the person of Christ.
Syncretism--The Mediterranean world was a world of religions. There was a god(s) for everything under the sun and the sun itself! The average person was willing to consider a new god alongside others that he worshipped. Ears and minds were open to hearing about a new god. There were also many fears related to magic, fate, the unknown, and offending the gods that drove many weary and oppressed in a supercharged religious environment to the safe-haven of Christianity.
Persecution—Nero began Rome's persecution of the Christian faith. One might be inclined to think that this was a setback to the spread of Christianity when in reality it actually helped to publicize this new faith. Martyr means "witness;" and the great martyrs of the Christian faith were surely witnesses to the watching world that subsequently led to the salvation of many.
The Christian church was born into the world at just the right time. One would almost think a sovereign God orchestrated history so that these secondary causes would be present for the spread of Christianity. As Christians, we can not only think such, we can confess such. Emphasizing secondary causes in God's role of spreading Christianity (or any other action) does not take glory away from God, rather it reinforces that He does receive His due glory.
Helpful Resources on Early Christianity
Justo Gonzalez The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Prince Press, 1999)
Bruce Shelley Church History in Plain Language (Word Publishing, 1995)
D. Jeffrey Bingham Pocket History of the Church (Intervarsity Press, 2002)
Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity(Eerdmans Publishing, 1994)
J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History