When I look at the early church, and I mean the earliest church, a serious question comes to mind. How did a dozen or so early disciples even with a couple of add-ons like Paul turn the world upside-down? I would estimate in less than fifty years the Christian cult grew from a few adherents to perhaps a million disciples covering the whole span of the Roman Empire and beyond. It is kind of hard to imagine if you really think about it.
I suppose some would say those first few must have been very persuasive. But as I said, think about that for a minute. Peter was an illiterate working class laborer. Matthew was a tax collector – and no one liked tax collectors – would not be caught dead talking to one. What? Simon the zealot converted people by the sword? I don’t think so. Thomas? But he must have been from Missouri. He would not even believe it himself unless he saw it with his own eyes. And he was then going to persuade others with just his words? Phillip and Nathanial, as far as I know, were unemployed vagabonds. James and John and Andrew bring us back to Peter: working stiffs, and not salesmen. Which of these might be credited with persuading a million people in a mere thirty, forty, maybe fifty years? Answer: Not one of them.
So then we turn the page and find Paul walking on the road. He wandered around with Barnabas, sometimes Silas, Luke and sometimes Mark. But Mark ticked him off and got booted, Barnabas made everybody angry and upset whenever he spoke. I would like to think they separated amicably. Luke, the physician hung around, but he became something of a scribe to track the work and not so much an evangelist outside of his writing. So we credit Paul with bunches of mass conversions? I think not.
Paul (used to be Saul) was an intellectual dork, a scholar of the first order. He studied at the best schools, sat at the feet of the best teachers. He could probably rattle off scripture at the proverbial drop of a hat. He knew all the nuances, al the intellectual arguments and all the big words to elucidate the same. I have no doubt Luke the physician stayed with him because he was the only one who could understand Paul and follow his train of thought. In a way, Paul reminds me of Doctor E.
By a quirk of fate, Doctor E (MDiv., DMin., ThD), ended up ministering in a small church in the south side of Virginia. At least one of his charges, a woman named Alise swore he was the greatest preacher she ever heard.
“Oh? You got a lot out of his sermons?”
“No, nothing,” she said. “But I decided he must be a great preacher because I can’t understand a word he says.”
To be sure, it was not Doctor E’s fault. The poor man was educated way beyond his intelligence.
Paul, likewise probably had a hard time talking to regular folks. Here we see him sailing over to Macedonia, entering into Philippi and taking a stroll to the river where he might at least talk to some of the women there. There were likely any number women, but only one responded, and she was already a worshiper of God. It doesn’t surprise me. What could Paul say? He coud talk all day about Jesus, but they had to know what following Jesus meant in those days.
“Hi there. How would you like to become a part of this movement where you can be lowly, despised and hated by both Jew and Gentile alike. Where the Jews will want to throw you in prison like I used to do to followers of Jesus. Where the Romans will throw you to the lions if they don’t burn you at the stake or crucify you. Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
Seriously, I am sure Paul, when he was Saul, was not the only Jew attempting to stamp out these Christians. No doubt there were some right there in Philippi. Paul got driven from more than one town, and stoned And then there were the Romans. Don’t think Caesar Nero in 64AD was the only one to persecute the Christians. Persecutions broke out here and there, now and then throughout the empire. Yet, by the time Paul got to Rome, there was a big, thriving underground church. And they were literally underground, down in the catacombs with the bodies of the dead because it was the only safe place to meet. Where did all these Christians come from? How did they appear before the evangelist even arrived?
I have been puzzled. And the only way I can understand it is with these two thoughts. First, and foremost, is the one phrase Luke records with regards to Lydia. True, she was a seller of purple, a color hard to come by in those days which is why it became the color of royalty. She was an upscale salesperson who dealt with the rich and educated clientele. She was also already a worshiper of God. She may have been the only woman there who could understand and follow what Paul was saying. But Luke does not dwell on any of that. He gives both the simplest and best answer to Lydia’s conversion. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
That is the first key, and any examination of those first forty or so years and the massive conversions that took place has to give proper credit to God. Indeed, Paul himself came to understand that we are saved by grace through faith, and this (faith) is not of our own, but it is the gift of God. That is, even the faith by which we are converted to Christ is a gift of God’s grace, not something we can whip up. I understand. God is the persuader. We may carry the message, but it is God, the Holy Spirit that moves the heart toward Jesus. That is fine. That is how it should be.
But here, the second point raises its head – and it is rather obvious if you think about it. The only way so many people could have turned to the Lord, to a completely new and in most cases foreign way of thinking and believing, and in such a relatively short period of time, is if the good news was spread by plain, ordinary people. The evangelists did little. There was little they could do without auditoriums and microphones. Yes, the apostles gave the whole enterprise some stability at the top. The 4 gospels helped. The letters written by Paul and various apostles helped. But it had to be the person in the second pew going home to talk to their neighbor. And the person in the third pew talking to the people at work. And the person in the fourth pew talking to their distant relatives. And the fifth pew talking to the stranger in the street. And as the Lord opened hearts to respond to the message, soon there was a whole community of believers that surrounded Lydia – and the apostle Paul had long moved on and really had nothing to do with it.
I have often thought it might take ten or more years of love and encouragement to bring a recalcitrant soul into discipleship. It might take fifteen years of loving our neighbor as ourselves, fifteen years in the name of Jesus, maybe twenty to make a difference. But then, I have also thought if every Christian presently alive was willing to make that effort twice in their lifetime – just reach out and bring two people to the Lord, a brother and sister, the young couple living next door, a friend or two from work or from the club, the clerks where we shop, the people we see on the street every day, just two and the entire planet Earth could be Christian in thirty, maybe at most fifty years. Think about it.