On a late afternoon, in about the year AD 33, two men were walking from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. Their conversation centered on events that had occurred the previous week. As they journeyed, a stranger who seemed ignorant of these events joined them. Surprised, they asked him: “Are you the only person staying in Jerusalem not to know what has happened there in the last few days?” So they explained to him about a certain Jesus of Nazareth, “a prophet powerful in speech and action before God and the whole people. Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to the Roman authorities to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. But we were hoping that he was the man to liberate Israel.” Even more amazing, they went on to say, were reports from some women who visited his tomb that he was alive again, raised from the dead. Suddenly the stranger spoke: “How dull-witted you two are! And how slow to believe all that the prophets said. Was not the messiah bound to suffer thus before entering upon his glory?” Then he went on to clarify from the Hebrew scriptures all the passages that referred to himself. For the stranger was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom the two had been speaking.
Based on the life, death and coming to life again of Jesus Christ there has developed the world’s largest religion, Christianity.
Expectation and Reality
The two men on the road to Emmaus were not simple common folk. They were a selected group of twelve followers, called disciples or learners, of Jesus who had known him for at least three years. During this period they had listened to all he said and had witnessed his amazing actions, such as healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and even bringing people back to life. They had become convinced that he was the Messiah who was to redeem Israel.
Israel wanted and expected redemption. This small Jewish nation, located in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, had for centuries looked forward to a time when their God would, through some decisive action, free them from outside oppression and establish Israel as the preeminent nation in the world.
The word messiah means “the lord’s anointed,” someone God has set aside for a specific task. Christians believe that Jesus, from the small town of Nazareth in Galilee, was that Messiah. They also believe that what he accomplished far exceeded the expectations of Israel. The Jews looked for a messiah exclusively for themselves, though his power and love would be such as to draw Jews and gentiles to a belief in the same God. Christians believe that Jesus, as God’s son, accomplished something that was intended to benefit the whole world.
The Man and the Message
What Jesus said and did can be learned from the first four books of the Bible’s New Testament. These books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called Gospels, a word that means “good news,” because they are his followers’ written testimonies of what his life was all about.
The Gospels depict a man who was thoroughly inborn with the entire tradition of Israel’s religion from the time of Abraham onward.
From what Jesus said and did his followers came to believe that God was perhaps acting through him in a very special way. Very possibly he was the one long awaited who would inaugurate God’s kingdom on Earth. It was reasonable that they should think this, for they too were Israelites; and they saw in his words and deeds what portended to be the dawning of a new age. What dashed their hopes was his death, crucifixion was a punishment reserved for criminals. Then came the great surprise: He was raised from the dead and appeared to them again over a period of 40 days. This stunning event required a complete reassessment of what Jesus was all about.
It is this reassessment that forms the basis for the writings of the New Testament. The Gospels themselves are part of it, but it is more strikingly conveyed by the other 23 books, all written by his followers over the subsequent decades after he had left them.
For he had left them. How and where to could only be explained as his returning to the God who had sent him. But he did not leave them forever: He promised that he would one day return, and he gave them a mission to perform to carry the message about his life and work to the whole world.
The Believers: the Church
The small group of Jesus’ followers that gathered in Jerusalem after his departure did not call themselves anything special, they considered themselves to be Jews. The word Christian came into use years later and was originally a derogatory term used by outsiders. This group of Jews became known as Jews of the Way. During the first decades of the church’s existence several significant events occurred: The assembly of believers separated themselves from the religion of Israel; they formulated an extensive assessment of what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus meant; the first Christian martyrs died for their beliefs; and new congregations of believers were founded in all parts of the Roman Empire.
Jews of the Way
The early Christians were all Jews. They remained in Jerusalem partook of the religious observances in the Temple, and ate according to Jewish dietary laws. They differed from their fellow Jews only in that they believed that the Messiah, Jesus, had come. Had they remained quiet about their conviction, they might well have remained a sect within Judaism. However, they insisted on preaching to all who would listen that Jesus whom the Jewish authorities had persecuted was the one Israel had long awaited. This preaching aroused great hostility on the part of religious leaders and the early Christians were persecuted because of it. A young follower of Jesus, a deacon by the name of Stephen, was stoned to death for preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. The mob of Jews drug him from the city, as they stoned him and as a young Pharisee by the name of Saul watched, Stephen died as a Christian, he died praying for his murders.
Yet these Christians had no thought of venturing beyond the confines of Israel with their message. It was only after the joining of a man named Saul of Tarsus that the assembly of believers enlarged its horizons to include the whole known world.
From Saul to Paul
Saul, a strict Jew and Pharisee, was a persecutor of the church. While riding through the desert he was blinded by a vision from God, and he was converted. Saul made it to Damascus where he met Ananias, who restored his sight and baptized him. After changing his name to Paul, he began what is called the mission to the gentiles. Paul and another follower of Jesus, Barnabas, more than any others, pulled the church out from temple and synagogue and set it apart as a separate institution.
But, for Paul, the separation was more than a physical one. It was also a separation of law. Paul wished to extend Gods love to the gentiles.
Mission to the gentiles
Based in Antioch, Paul and his associates took this message to most of the urban centers of the Mediterranean world. He began baptizing Samaritans in the name of Christ. The Jews thought it bad enough that not pure breed Jews could join the Way, but Paul pushed the envelope by baptizing gentiles who were not circumcised. It was his belief that Christians did not have to become Jews, and that they were not subject to all the rites, rituals, and laws of the Jewish religion. This aroused an intense anger in the Jews of the Way and, finally, led to a separation of the two groups.
The Christians become the Christians
The Jews of the Way believed that if the gentiles ate unkosher food, then they could not share a table of fellowship with the gentile believers of Christ. Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to the Christian center in Antioch to find out the condition of the mixing of Jews and gentiles. He became part of the mixer church, but there were still many debates on how to handle the group in Antioch. Until, the Council of Jerusalem where it was decided that the newly baptized followers of The Way did not have to eat kosher food or be circumcised. These followers of the Way were called Christians to distinguish them from the rest of the Jewish people. After that was settled, Paul and Barnabas set out to spread the Gospel, and this under taking was called Pauls 1st Missionary Journey.
1. The Catholic Church: Journey, Wisdom, and Mission
2. Comptons Encyclopedia
4. www.encyclopedia.com, entries on the early church