The Providence of God in Early Christianity
In Revelation 7:9-12, John records that “there was a crowd so large that no one was able to count it! They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” This scene certainly showcases billions of humans standing together in worship before Jesus. Such a number means that Earth must be able to carry an enormous human population [so far, a total of ~108 billion humans throughout history]. John’s vision points to the fulfilment of God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be countless [Genesis 15:5; 22:17; 26:4; 32:12] and that he would father many nations [Genesis 17:4–5; 35:11]. The idea here is that Israel’s tribes [vv. 4–8] are joined by countless people of other tribes and nations [v. 9], much as the gates of the New Jerusalem are named for the sons of Israel, but stand open to the nations [later in Revelation 21:12, 24–26].
In addition to the meticulous orchestration of cosmic, planetary, and life history for our existence, the direction of human history also fits this redemptive plan and purpose. This is possible because of how humans reflect the image of the logos in them. For example, Paul describes the care we should exercise in our behaviour: “do not be unwise but wise” [Ephesians 5:15]. Here, the adjective “wise” describes the person who is skilled in determining “what pleases the Lord” [Ephesians 5:10]. Thus, wisdom embodies a theoretical scientific method, as in the case with Solomon [1 Kings 4:29–34]. Hence we are: “in God’s hands, as are our words, all our reasoning, and all our practical knowledge. He’s given me accurate knowledge of all that is—of how the world is made and holds together, and of the forces at work in the world’s essential elements. He’s given me knowledge of the beginning, end, and middle of time; of the alternation of the solstices and the changes of seasons; of the cycle of the year and the positions of the stars; of the nature of animals, the temperaments of beasts, the extraordinary powers of spirits, the thoughts of humans, the different types of plants, and the healing powers of roots. I now know everything, visible and hidden, for Wisdom, the designer of everything that is, has taught me.” [Wisdom of Solomon 7:16–22].
Severian [4th century Bishop of Gabala] states: “The image has come into the world and investigates nature. He looks for plants and finds them—investigating their roots, he understands. He becomes an artisan and the inventor of all things. But so that he does not think to have found these things by himself and not thanks to the power of him who gave this capacity to his nature, by a single discourse it is indicated that God is the teacher of all of these things to our nature.”
Notice that the theological emphasis lies in the continuous receiving and spreading of knowledge. Not just from Christians, but that the whole world is to receive a share in “the fruit that the light produces” [Ephesians 5:9]. How can knowledge be so important and become so inseparably tied to salvation? The character and effect of knowledge is dependent upon what is known. It is “the wisdom of God in all its variety” [Ephesians 3:10] that is continually being revealed, that makes every future moment in time, the scene of the gift of ever increasing knowledge [Romans 1:14–20]!
Bede [7th century] continues: “The same knowledge from which scripture itself was originally composed is always increased and never ceases to be multiplied. Moses acquired more knowledge than the patriarchs. Likewise the Lord himself declares the apostles to have known greater things than the prophets. ‘Many prophets desired to see the things you see and did not see them.’ [Matthew 13:17]. But he also promises them still greater grace of knowledge after his resurrection and ascension.”
If we took all the knowledge that humanity had accumulated by the 1st century [as equal to one unit of information], only until the 16th century would that knowledge double! But, the next doubling of knowledge took only another ~250 years, into the 18th century. By the 20th century, knowledge had doubled again. Thus, the speed at which information has doubled is exponential. Until the 1900s, human knowledge doubled approximately every ~100 years. By the end of World War 2, knowledge was doubling every ~25 years. Today things are not as simple, as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth. For example, knowledge in nanotechnology is doubling every ~2 years and knowledge in medicine every ~18 months. But currently on average, knowledge is doubling every ~13 months, and now with the internet, there is a doubling of knowledge every ~12 hours!
Humans reap the benefit of ~4 billion years worth of biodeposits. This is summarized in Psalm 104:27–30, showcasing God’s carefully timed and well–designed introductions, and later removals, of the just–right species at the just–right locations at the just–right population levels. Without easy–to–mine deposits of tin, zinc, lead, copper, iron, silver, and magnesium, humanity could never have risen beyond stone–age technology. Thus, construction of cities and all the transportations that link them depends on materials such as concrete, steel, sand, copper, limestone, marble, bricks, mortar, and asphalt. The energy that drives civilization also comes from the biodeposits: coal, oil, wood, natural gas, and kerogen. The fertilizers that support agricultural production come from the biodeposits: phosphates and nitrates. We take pride and joy in all that we have achieved, and we have accomplished a great deal since the rise of our species ~150,000 years ago. Although we are inclined to take full credit, we must acknowledge that whatever we have attained sprang from the preparation and provision that preceded us on a cosmic, galactic, solar system, planetary, societal, and personal scale. Whatever we have done was made possible by a generous endowment of physical, intellectual, relational, and volitional capacities. The perfect world we have not been able to attain [and yet still long for] gives a clue to the purpose of our existence. As we strive for peace, wars multiply. As we strive for unity, polarization intensifies. As we strive for liberty, bondage increases. As we strive for wealth, poverty spreads. As we strive for equality, intolerance grows. Of all the proposed explanations for these realities, the one that aligns most closely and completely with the available data emerges from these pages of scripture. We are fallen and alienated from God, but this condition need not mark our permanent state. We need redemption, and it is available. So far in this book, Jesus has accurately demonstrated “what you have seen, what is, and what is going to happen after this” [recall Revelation 1:19]. From this book, we are able to anticipate what each generation of humanity [including our own] needs to know in order to discover our origin and fulfil our destiny. Thus, John’s purpose is to identify for us the incarnate Logos, since he is the only source for nature’s laws, as well as for humans and their capabilities, including the compulsion to reason. This is why Deuteronomy 32:7–9 summarises the careful timing of Abraham’s migration to Canaan, the later sojourn of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt, and the subsequent exodus from Egypt back to Canaan.
The rest of the entire biblical story is about the rise of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, culminating in the timing of the coming of Jesus, to begin the reclamation of the nations [as seen in Acts 2]. With Canaan situated at the juncture of three continents [Africa, Asia, and Europe], by the 4th millennium b.c., large–scale agriculture, metallurgy, and trade had developed on these continents, allowing population levels to multiply. Abraham and his progeny lived in the one location where all civilized nations crossed paths. This unique location gave them opportunity to share as widely as possible the truth God had revealed to them, the truth of God’s delight in blessing all who will worship him [Genesis 12:1–3]. The first dominant world power, the Egyptian empire, emerged at the time of Abraham’s great–grandson, Joseph. This young foreigner’s unlikely rise to power saved countless lives, including those of his own relatives. From this family came Moses, the rescuer of an entire population of Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt, a vivid foreshadowing of God’s ultimate redemptive plan. The power by which this rescue was accomplished compelled a very large number of Egyptians to embrace the God of their former slaves and join them in becoming followers of God [Exodus 12:38]. By divine guidance these people came to occupy the land of Canaan, where they could employ new technologies to establish the magnificent kingdom of David, and then of Solomon. These kingdoms drew worldwide fame for their wealth and wisdom, a fame that motivated the heads of surrounding nations to seek insight from their God. When the people of Israel lost sight of their identity and purpose, they were thrust as exiles into the power centres of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, where technology was advancing rapidly. Some Jews showed such outstanding virtue, knowledge, and wisdom that the rulers of these empires promoted them to positions of great power. For example, Daniel ruled as prime minister of both the Babylonian and Persian empires [Daniel 2:48–49; 5:16, 29; 6:3, 25–28]. A Hebrew orphan named Esther became queen of Persia. Through her uncle Mordecai’s counsel and her own daring action, the Jews in all 127 of the empire’s far–flung provinces were rescued from annihilation [Esther 8:7–10:3]. Furthermore, the king of the Persian Empire appointed Mordecai as his prime minister over all 127 provinces [Esther 10:2–3]. The story of God’s power and care spread farther. During the rise of the Greeks and Romans, Jewish communities sprang up in major cities across the empires.
Caesar Augustus built a vast road system network, and along with an emerging Mediterranean shipping industry, facilitated Pax Romana, a period of relative peace throughout the Roman world. Jesus arrived on the scene during this period. He prepared his followers for a new communications strategy. Instead of encouraging them to huddle together in a few large cities, he commissioned them to take advantage of every new communications and transportation option available. As eyewitnesses to his morally perfect life, his sacrificial death to atone for all the violations of God’s ways committed by every human being, and his bodily resurrection from the dead, they began to spread the gospel of God’s redeeming love to all the people groups around them, and through them to the rest of the world. Today, we who follow Jesus possess the wealth and technology to do what Jesus assigned his disciples to do. Because of the Christian origins of the modern scientific method, knowledge and technology has increased exponentially, resulting in a direct proportion with those who identify as Christian over the centuries:
Even with so much still to discover and learn about the way the world is and how it came to be this way, everything we have learned is evidence that we are here to seek and find God, and then use all these resources he has so painstakingly and generously provided, within the amazingly stable and optimal epoch he has established, to encourage people from every ethnic and cultural group in the world to receive God’s redemptive offer.
Jerome [4th century] states: “Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, has risen. Rise up from the sleep of the age. Walk cautiously and prudently. Cast off folly. Take hold of wisdom. In this way you will be able to avoid changing yourself constantly as you walk through the vicissitudes of the times. Rather you will find a unity within yourself even amid the diversity of the times.”
Ever since Pentecost, we are living in a time where the “secret” [Ephesians 3:3–5] of election, of grace, of liberation, of inclusion of the gentiles into God’s people, is no longer locked away. Through men chosen by God, we have heard and learned that which the entire world is to know: “to usher in the fullness of the times and to bring together in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth” [Ephesians 1:10]. What good would be done by knowledge of a god who had decided against caring for his creation? Or knowledge restricted to the awareness of man’s alienation, man’s need, or man’s potential for higher aspirations? Or who would sing God’s praise if God had made his gracious decision and carried out his plan: without making it known to the beneficiaries of his goodness? Knowledge is inseparable from salvation because it is awareness of the covenant between God and man established in Jesus. No one can enjoy God without knowledge, for salvation without joy would not be true liberation. The rabbinic Pirkei Avot states: “Beloved is man in that he was created in the image of God. Greater love was it that it was known to him that he was made in the image. As it is said: ‘In the image of God he made man.’”
Since the “crowd” is drawn “from every nation, tribe, people, and language,” this recapitulates the Old Testament stress on the procession of the nations to God. Thus, Pentecost is an event remembered by all Christians each year. However, what Acts 2 describes as happening on that day, at first sounds strange:
“When the day of Pentecost was being celebrated, all of them were together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the roar of a mighty windstorm came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated, and one rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability. Now devout Jews from every nation were living in Jerusalem. When that sound came, a crowd quickly gathered, startled because each one heard the disciples speaking in his own language. Stunned and amazed, they asked, ‘All of these people who are speaking are Galileans, aren’t they? So how is it that each one of us hears them speaking in his own native language: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, Jewish and proselyte visitors from Rome, Cretans, and Arabs, listening to them talk in our own languages about the great deeds of God?’ All of them continued to be stunned and puzzled, and they kept asking one another, ‘What can this mean?’ But others kept saying in derision, ‘They’re drunk on sweet wine!’”
This description of the events at Pentecost is sprinkled with divine council imagery and has secure connections to Deuteronomy 32:8–9. Revealing those features is central to understanding what is happening in Acts 2 and the role it plays in God’s plan to reclaim the nations. The first two points of the description that deserve attention are the “mighty windstorm” and the “tongues like flames of fire that separated.” Both are images in the Old Testament associated with God’s presence: the disciples are being commissioned by God in his council like the prophets of old [recall John’s heavenly vision in Revelation 4]. Acts 2 signifies to readers a divine council scene where the gathered followers of Jesus were being commissioned by a divine encounter, to preach the gospel. Now, there are two key terms in Acts 2 that connect back to the Babel event. The first is the “tongues like flames” described as “separated” [the Greek word is diamerizomenai], and the second are the Jews from “every nation” that are said to have been “puzzled” [the Greek word is sygcheō]:
The word sygcheō is in the Babel story: “Come on! Let’s go down there and confuse [sygcheō] their language, so that they won’t understand each other’s speech.” [Genesis 11:7] The multiplicity of nations represented at Pentecost is a link to Babel, where each nation had a national language, and all those nations referred to in Acts 2:9–11 had been disinherited by God when they were divided.
The word diamerizomenai is not used in Genesis 11, but it is found here: “When the Most High gave nations as their inheritance, when he separated [diamerizomenai] the human race, he set boundaries for the people according to the number of the children of God” [Deuteronomy 32:8]. That last phrase in Hebrew literally reads: “to the number of the gods.”
Thus, at Pentecost, the tongues are “separated” among the disciples as they are commissioned to preach the gospel. Thus, Jews who embraced Jesus as their messiah would carry that message back to their home countries: the nations. Babel’s disinheritance was going to be rectified by the message of Jesus [the 2nd Yahweh incarnate]. The nations would again be his! The really amazing thing about Acts 2 is the list of nations. To understand what Luke is communicating, here is a map of the nations listed in Genesis 10 that were later divided in Genesis 11 [there are 70 nations in this context]:
The key idea to grasp here is that the nations in Genesis 10 represent the known world at the time it was written. The Old Testament is a product of the ancient Near Eastern environment in which the biblical writers lived. There are no references to locations like China, South America, North America, or Australia. What this means is that the Old Testament description of the disinheriting of the nations [in Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 32:8–9] is based on the nations known in biblical times. Moses lists nations east–to–west, from eastern Mesopotamia to Tarshish [Genesis 10:4], the most remote western point. What lay beyond Tarshish was a complete mystery to the biblical writers. The entire book of Acts is about the spread of the gospel to the known world at the time [Acts 1:8].
In terms of geographical coverage, the reach of the gospel chronicled in Acts constitutes an east–to–west sweep through the known world. Establishing that requires a closer inspection of the nations listed in the Pentecost. The list begins with the “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia” [Acts 2:9]. The Jewish population in Parthia [or Persia] were those who had migrated after choosing not to return to Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian exile. The Medes are known from the Old Testament in connection with where the northern tribes of Israel had been deported by the Assyrians [2 Kings 17:6]. Thus, the Parthians and Medes are mentioned together in the Old Testament [Daniel 6:15]. The kings of Media are mentioned with the Elamites [Jeremiah 25:25]. The list in Acts begins at the farthest points east, then progresses westward. After moving westward through Mesopotamia, the list naturally splits into southern and northern directions, following the land as it forks at the Mediterranean Sea. The southern fork extends through Judea and Arabia. Paul’s missionary journeys followed the north fork through Anatolia and Greece. Notice that the island “Crete” is mentioned, since Paul took the gospel there [Titus 1:5]. But there were people at Pentecost from the nations of the south fork. We know that the gospel followed the Nile down into Ethiopia [Acts 8:26–40], and bore fruit in Cyrene [Acts 11:20]. But the list keeps moving westward to Rome. Thus, the list confirms God’s “secret” strategy articulated by Paul, who said that the gospel was for “the Jew first and of the Greek as well” [Romans 1:16]. Notice also that “3,000 people were added to their number,” as a result of the events at Pentecost [Acts 2:41; a reversal of the loss in Exodus 32:28]. Those 3,000 Jewish converts went back to their homelands after the Pentecost pilgrimage. These new disciples were the seeds of God’s plan to reclaim the nations. Acts ends with Rome, the destination of the imprisoned Paul on his way to appeal to Caesar. Thus, Luke’s account has Rome as the most distant western progression.
But, reversing the disinheritance of the nations required going farther than Rome! The most westerly point was Tarshish. Does the pattern of reversal initiated at Pentecost include Tarshish? Yes! Paul was released from his bondage and went farther west before being taken into custody by the Romans for a second and final time [2 Timothy 4:6–7]. In fact, Paul told people that he fully expected to go to Spain [after the Roman imprisonment mentioned in Acts]. In his letter to the Romans, Paul told them twice that he intended to go to Spain: “This is why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, having no further opportunities in these regions, I want to come to you, as I’ve desired to do for many years. Now that I am on my way to Spain, I hope to see you when I come your way and, after I have enjoyed your company for a while, to be sent on by you. Right now, however, I’m going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints, because the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have been eager to share their resources with the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were eager to do this, and in fact they are obligated to help them, for if the gentiles have shared in their spiritual blessings, they are obligated to be of service to them in material things. So when I have completed this task and have put my seal on this contribution of theirs, I will visit you on my way to Spain.” [Romans 15:22–28].
The point is profound: Paul was convinced that his life’s mission as apostle to the gentiles [the disinherited nations] would only be finished when he got to Spain. Paul was conscious that his mission for Jesus actually involved spreading the gospel to the westernmost part of the known world, so that the disinheritance at Babel would be reversed! Paul highlights this belief here: “For I want to let you know about this secret, brothers, so that you will not claim to be wiser than you are: Stubbornness has come to part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles comes to faith. In this way, all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. This is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” [Romans 11:25–27].
Why did Paul want to go to Spain? Spain was once Tarshish, a Phoenician colony that later became Spain. Here is Christianity by 45 a.d:
Here is Christianity by 65 a.d., at the end of Paul’s life [he died in 67 a.d.]:
What is the “secret”? That God’s own “portion” [Deuteronomy 32:9] rebelled “until the full number of the gentiles comes to faith.” Thus, the inclusion of the gentiles results in “all Israel will be saved.” Paul includes people from the disinherited nations to Israel, God’s family. This family reunion will only happen when the “Deliverer will come from Zion.” Paul links “the full number of the gentiles” with Spain [Tarshish] because of Isaiah 66:15–23. This passage has a number of correlations with Acts 2!
Notice what Paul says to the Galatians: “You see, then, that those who have faith are Abraham’s real descendants. Because the Scripture saw ahead of time that God would justify the gentiles by faith, it announced the gospel to Abraham beforehand when it said, ‘Through you all nations will be blessed.’ Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham, the one who believed ... For all of you are God’s children through faith in the Messiah Jesus. Indeed, all of you who were baptized into the Messiah have clothed yourselves with the Messiah. Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female. And if you belong to the Messiah, then you are Abraham’s descendants indeed, and heirs according to the promise.” [Galatians 3:7–9, 27–29].
Pentecost marked the beginning of an unstoppable march across the known world [and our world, a world they did not know], that would culminate in a global Eden. Here is Christianity in 325 a.d:
Thus, we are reminded of Gamaliel’s wise instruction: “I’m telling you to keep away from these men for now. Leave them alone, because if this plan or movement is of human origin, it will fail. However, if it is from God, you won’t be able to stop them, and you may even discover that you are fighting against God!” [Acts 5:38–39]
Even though the evil “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm” have played a role in leading all humanity into transgression, sin, and death, God in his wisdom will make “known” the glorious nature of his salvation in the new creation [Ephesians 3:10]. The evil “rulers and authorities” had tried to thwart God’s plan of redemption by inspiring human rulers to put Jesus to death. They profoundly underestimated the incredible wisdom of God because it was by sacrificial death if Jesus on the cross that God can now forgive the sins of humanity and thereby take away the power of Satan to justly accuse. Jews and gentiles, who were formerly “slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe” [Galatians 4:3], have now been redeemed. The very existence of the church provides a constant witness of Jesus toward the evil angelic realm, highlighting God’s extraordinary wisdom. God has not only created the universe with its endless variety [the principle of plenitude], but in a wholly surprising way he has also begun to restore the crowning achievement of his creation [humanity], to its original unity. Thus, these powers are conquered and beneath the feet of Jesus [Ephesians 1:20–22], and since the church is one with the risen and enthroned Jesus [Ephesians 2:6], the powers are also conquered and beneath the church’s feet [Romans 16:20]!
Is it ever a wonder why Jesus “appointed 70 other disciples and was about to send them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place that he intended to go” [Luke 10:1]? The number “70” is not accidental. It is deliberate. Earlier in Genesis 10, the nations numbered a total of 70, disposed at Babel in Genesis 11, and began to be reclaimed again in Acts 2 [fulfilling Deuteronomy 32:8–9]. After their evangelising, “the 70 disciples came back and joyously reported, ‘Lord, even the demons are submitting to us in your name!’ He told them, ‘I watched Satan falling from heaven like lightning. Look! I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to destroy all the enemy’s power, and nothing will ever hurt you. However, stop rejoicing because the spirits are submitting to you. Rather, rejoice because your names are written in heaven.’” [Luke 10:17–20]
It could not be any clearer. Jesus was the beginning of the end for Satan and the gods of the nations. The church can now testify and showcase the utter failure of these powers.
Bede [7th century] concludes: “This can be interpreted to mean that when the tribes of Israel to whom the gospel was first preached have been named, John then wishes to recall the salvation of the nations.”
Finally, attempts to estimate the Christian population of the Roman Empire during the first three centuries vary greatly because of the paucity of evidence. Some estimate [on the basis of Acts 21:20] that there were ~75,000 Jewish Christians in Palestine in 58 a.d. Others estimate that there were ~40,000 Christians in 67 a.d., with a total of ~320,000 at the end of the 1st century [where ~80,000 lived in Anatolia]. Still others estimate that by the end of the 1st century there were fewer than ~50,000 Christians living in ~50 different cities of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 3rd century, some estimate that there were about ~2,000,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. Thus, the Christian population of the empire was ~2% of the population of the Roman Empire. By the 4th century, some estimate the Christian population to have been ~5,000,000.