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(Ring Pastor Jeffrey Khoo 62561189 Anytime)
|“The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep SILENCE before him.”|
History is His story, God’s story. It is the story of His unfolding plan of salvation since the fall of man until the end of the world. As such it is important to study how God worked in time.
God is the Maker and Maintainer of the world He had created (Dan 2:20, 21, 1 Thess 5:1). The God of the Bible is the God of providence (God is still on the throne and He is in control). There is a great need to remember past events and examples in order to know the good and reject the evil, so that the human mistakes in history will not be repeated (Deut 8:2, 9:7, Heb 13:7).
In Church history, we see the greatness of God and the weakness of man. It shows how the Gospel is truly good not just in terms of giving salvation to sinners (which is most important), but also the humanitarian works to provide education, build hospitals, shelter the poor, the widows and the orphans through many Christian agencies.
Despite the good news and good deeds of the Church, the Church was often opposed and persecuted by political and religious governments. Christians did no harm to people, only good; yet they were arrested, imprisoned and executed. You read this in the book of Acts.
Peace or Persecution
Although persecuted frequently, the Church did enjoy some moments of peace. In the first half of the third century, the Roman emperors Alexander Severus (222–235) and Marcus Julius Philippus (244–249) were friendly to the Church. During this period, the Church grew in membership and prestige.
Then terrible persecution came under Decius (249–51) and Valerian (254–60). This was the time when the barbarians invaded the Roman empire. Goths (an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin) began to make incursions into the Roman Empire in 238. The Roman Empire by this time was weakening and the invasions by the barbarians threatened the downfall of the empire. Decius felt that the only way to regain the power and glory of Rome was to revive the ancient culture of the Romans. The ancient Roman culture was idolatrous and immoral. Decius revived emperor worship and promoted paganism. Christianity which rejected emperor worship was an obstacle to Decius’ programme to revive Rome. So what did he do? He rooted out Christianity. It was the first empire-wide persecution of Christians. After Decius, Valerian continued the persecution. His attempt to exterminate Christianity was more systematic and ruthless. He decreed that properties belonging to Christians must be confiscated. Christians were also forbidden to assemble for worship. Many of the bishops were martyred during this time. Cyprian of Carthage was one of them. After the Valerian persecution, the Church was left alone for about 40 years. But again, it was only the lull before the storm.
By the end of the third century, Christianity had grown tremendously throughout the Roman Empire. There were Christians in every sphere of life. The Christians were left unharmed because persecution of them might bring down the whole Roman Empire. But in 303, Emperor Diocletian began the most terrible attempt to exterminate Christianity. He issued a decree to destroy all Christian places of worship and all sacred Christian books including the Bible. For instance, there was a beautiful church in Nicomedia the capital of the Eastern part of the Roman empire. When the soldiers entered the church, they were surprised to find no idols or images to burn. But they had to burn something—they burned the Scriptures and looted whatever was valuable, and razed the building to the ground. So, it was a time when many copies of the Scriptures were thrown into the fire. Can God protect and preserve His Scriptures from being destroyed or erased out of existence? The answer is in Jeremiah 36.
Constantine and Corruption
The year 311 saw the end of the persecution of Christianity. By this time, the Roman Empire had already been divided into two parts—Eastern and Western. Both were fighting for supremacy. A battle was fought at Milvian Bridge near Rome. This battle was won by Constantine. He attributed this victory to the Christian God because he saw a vision—a cross in the sky with the words “By this, conquer.” He adopted the cross as his symbol and with this standard he led his soldiers to victory. Constantine became sole emperor, and by this time had lost all confidence in the Roman gods. He began to rely on the God of the Christians for help, and believed that it was this God that helped him to victory.
After his victory, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from West (Rome) to East (Byzantium). Byzantium was renamed Constantinople. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the city was later renamed Istanbul.
The emperor had now become a defender of the Christian faith. It was a turning point in the history of the Christian Church. Was this good for the Church? Yes because persecutions ceased, churches were built, there was freedom of worship, clergy received generous salaries from the government, Sunday was recognised as a day of rest and Christian worship, and even Christian soldiers were given time off to attend services.
But such liberality and freedom was also detrimental to the Church for pagans converted to Christianity not because of genuine faith but for gain and fame (cf John 6:26, Luke 6:26).The building of elaborate churches with expensive furnishings caused the image of Christianity to change—no more simple and humble, but proud and pompous. Furthermore, Constantine granted the Church the right to receive gifts and legacies, and so the Church became very wealthy. With all such perks and privileges, a worldly spirit crept in. Bishops became involved in secular business, owning properties and governing large towns. The Emperor decided that he was the head of the Church which was actually Christ’s position, and His alone. The Emperor acted as if he was the one who called the shots, calling for meetings of bishops and other church leaders and presiding over these meetings, and making decisions based on political interests and expediencies, and not on biblical principles. All this led to worldliness, heresies and apostasy. The Roman Church became more and more corrupt doctrinally and morally. A time of great darkness fell upon the land, until light shone once more in the time of the Renaissance which prepared the ground for the Reformation.
Renaissance to Reformation
The Renaissance was not a religious but a cultural movement. The word “renaissance” means “rebirth.” It refers to the revival of the study of literature and a return to the sources and the need to study the languages especially Latin, Hebrew and Greek. The spirit of inquiry and discovery was pervasive. There was a return to the studying of the Holy Scriptures in the original languages. The invention of the printing press in 15th century promoted the spread of knowledge among the masses like never before, much like the information explosion in this internet age. This opened the minds of the people and broke the shackles imposed by the ruling and religious elite during the Dark Ages and prepared the way for the Reformers to do their work of reformation.
In 1453, Constantinople was taken over by the Turks. Many of the great scholars of the East fled to the West, bringing with them their libraries of Greek literature and manuscripts. The pursuit for knowledge and truth became increasingly more dominant in the universities. Biblical theology took first place and human philosophy began to take a back seat. A new breed of scholars began to emerge, who armed with biblical and theological truth began to see that the Roman Church was seriously wrong in its doctrines and practices.
One such Renaissance scholar was Jerome Savonarola (1452–1498). Savonarola was born in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1452 and was a very serious-minded man since young. He lived in a Dominican monastery for a time until he reached 38 years of age when he went to Florence—the cultural and science centre of Italy. In Florence, he began to preach against the unbiblical teachings and the moral corruptions of the Catholic Church. Although few paid attention to him because his voice was rough and unpleasant, he was undeterred for truth must be told and heard.
God by His Spirit was working. Soon, vast crowds came to hear him and they never grew tired of hearing about repentance from sin which he preached with great earnestness. Many a hardened sinner became broken by the Word and repented of their ways. There was a revival. Savonarola was so popular with the people that he was chosen to be governor of Florence. He accepted the position thinking that it would make his work of reform easier, but it was not to be.
Savonarola certainly gave good government to Florence, and applied very strict rules against gambling, pornography, prostitution and other vices. This made him very unpopular with many who were addicted to such worldly and carnal pleasures. They began to oppose him strongly and agitated others to do so. Pope Alexander VI who was known to be notoriously evil and unscrupulous began to lead in the attack of Savonarola. He first tried to bribe the reformer by offering to make him a cardinal if he would stop his reforms. He rejected the offer saying, “I do not desire any other crown than the crown of a martyr.” The Pope then tried to weaken the influence of Savonarola by getting the monks to spread fake news to undermine his credibility. The people began to be swayed and they too joined in the criticising of Savonarola.
Savonarola was finally put into prison where he was severely tortured. He was forced to deny his teachings but remained unmoved and could not be shaken in his convictions. When he could no longer bear the pain, he prayed in agony, “It is enough Lord; now take my soul.” In May 1498, the reformer was burned at the stake at the age of 45.
Another significant man was Desiderius Erasmus (1467–1536). He was born in Rotterdam and grew to become the greatest of the Renaissance scholars. He was at first forced to enter a monastery but later freed himself to study the humanities and came under the tutorship of John Colet in Oxford. Colet advised him to pursue biblical studies instead of secular studies. Erasmus excelled in his studies, and became professor of Divinity and Greek at the University of Cambridge.
Erasmus saw the corruptions of Catholic Church, and exposed them in his book In Praise of Folly. Erasmus worked to reform the Church but was unsuccessful. This was because he did not do it God’s way. God’s way was separation, but Erasmus chose infiltration. Renwick wrote, “His aim was to reform the Church of Rome from within and when, during the Reformation, many were leaving her, he refused to do so. He was scathingly attacked by both Roman Catholics and Protestants and was accused of lack of courage.” At any rate, it is commonly said, “Erasmus laid the egg of the Reformation and Luther hatched it.”
His greatest contribution to the Reformation was his Greek New Testament (Textus Receptus) published in 1516, which led to the translation of the Scriptures into many languages. With the invention of the printing press, many Bibles could be printed inexpensively. More and more could read the Bible in their own language which was eye-opening and faith-producing. This in no small way propelled the Reformation.
God used Erasmus to introduce the Reformation even though Erasmus himself lacked the conviction of Luther. Luther said of Erasmus, “He has pointed out the evil, but he is unable to point out the good and to lead into the promised land. Perhaps he will at length die with Moses in the fields of Moab, for he does not lead into the better studies of God’s Word, those which concern piety.”
Martin Luther would be the one God would use mightily to spearhead the great 16th century Reformation. And the rest as they say is history or rather His-Story. JK
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