When we ask God to let his will be done in our lives, how much do we mean it? Though we seek to avoid putting our agenda before God’s will, perhaps the bigger problem is that we often don’t take God seriously enough in his statements about how he will use us to his glory and honor.
God desires to take our daily life and spend it in a way that yields results we could not produce or predict. The net result will be so much greater than anything we could “do for the Lord”—and the impact can be magnified even further when we allow God to work through us as a community of believers.
Here are two powerful examples that illustrate this point. In both cases, the people involved didn’t perceive any particular dramatic value to what they were doing. Yet Christ used them to help bring the ancient Roman Empire face to face with Jesus Christ.
When the first house church believers followed Christ’s example in their communities, something started small, but soon grew large. The early church became attractive to women. The rate of conversion of women from paganism to Christianity became such a problem to the pagans that Emperor Julian issued a written order to Pope Damascus I banning Christian missionaries from calling at the homes of pagan women.
In order to appreciate how the daily walk of the individual Christian was used by Christ to create this history-shaping dynamic, we need to contrast the Christian community with that of the pagan.
New converts who undertook to follow Jesus would have stopped practicing abortion and infanticide. Because of the need for a large male population for war and food production, female infanticide was widely practiced in the time of the early church. It would have been a part of most family’s circumstances.
A study of the Delphi inscription enabled historians to reconstruct about 600 families. Only six families had raised more than one daughter. We would call that gendercide today. Abortion was also widely practiced in Greco-Roman society. When Christians obeyed God, it became visibly evident to the pagan community around them—it made a difference.
This simple act of obedience made the Christian way of life much more attractive to Greco-Roman women, and in a fairly short time the Christian church’s dominant population was women, while the pagan religion was primarily populated by men.
Christ made them ‘fishers of people’
These women journeyed with Christ; their lives began to take on the character of their Lord. They were transformed into something desirable, that men could not find anywhere else. It’s not that there were no virtuous pagan women, it’s just that proportionately there were so many virtuous Christian women that any man looking for a virtuous woman would tend to be drawn to the Christian community.
Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7 were primarily intended to guide a phenomenon that was happening with increasing frequency. Pagan men were coming to the church to find wives.
Quality of life
Over time, Christian women also came to enjoy a significantly better quality of life than did many pagan women of Greco-Roman society. This is where the Christian community, all journeying together in response to Christ, made a huge difference:
1. The Christian community rejected the double standard that expected women to be chaste but allowed men extensive sexual license. This changed the pattern of life for the community and everyone whom they touched. It extended to the subsequent generations. This exponentially increased the impact of that simple obedience.
2. Christians also reflected God’s love for widows. Pagan widows were often forced to remarry against their will. They often became the property of the new husband and lost all inheritance and personal control of their assets. They could be put away and left with nothing. Not so with Christians. The Christian community would help sustain Christian widows without means.
3. Christian women were able to marry at an older age. That may not seem important until one realizes that in the Greco-Roman world, girls were often forced into pre-pubertal marriage. Some historians estimate that nearly 50 percent of pagan females were married before the age of 14. Christian women had it much better because of the intentional walk of the community on a journey with Jesus.
4. Leadership roles were available to Christian women—they were ordained deacons right along with the men. Origen and others commented on the women who were deservedly part of the diaconate. (The term deaconess is a modern invention and does not reflect the original, where a deacon was a deacon, male or female.)
Two serious plagues swept the Roman Empire. The first ravaged the region between A.D. 165 and 180, the second about 100 years later. During its 15-year duration, the first plague took the lives of between one fourth and one third of the population of the empire. It even claimed the life of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. (His death was portrayed at the beginning of the movie The Gladiator.)
Christians were affected by the plagues along with their pagan neighbors. But unlike the pagans, most Christians were following Jesus and were emulating him in the way they lived—and in some cases the way they died. Jesus used the fact that his people followed him to rock the empire.
Imagine yourself caught in the plague. The stench of death surrounds you. Caravans of carts work their way through the streets and out of the city carrying diseased bodies to a communal dumping ground where they are either buried or burned. People all around you are dropping dead. Who will be next? In the midst of circumstances like these, people ask searching questions about life, death and God.
Pagans had no one to turn to. Their priests did not have answers. Their gods were of no help. Pagan gods were to be appeased so they would not cause harm. But the pagan gods did not offer to have a loving relationship with the pagan people. Only Jesus did. The pagan gods offered no eternal life—except in the dismal underworld.
So there was a hope and peace in Christians that was nurtured by the Holy Spirit. There was an attitude of outgoing love even in the sore trial they faced. Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.
Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the houses of the pagans and care for their sick as well.
This act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. Here are some of the ways they made such a difference: The Christian example was in such stark contrast to the pagan example that large numbers of those who survived the plague were drawn to look at the Christians around them with open hearts. Their own belief system had let them down, but their Christian neighbors seemed to know a better way. Many were brought to Christ.
Pure religion … undefiled
Epidemiologists estimate that basic health care, such as providing adequate water and warmth, can result in as much as a 30 percent higher survival rate. Hence there were many more Christian survivors than pagan survivors. This by itself was enough to change the ratio of pagans to Christians. Also, pagans who were cared for by Christians also enjoyed a higher survival rate. These survivors then would tend to have loving relationships with Christians in place of the suspicions of the past. Conversion rates soared.
This change of the status quo had such a dramatic impact that we find the Emperor Julian writing to his chief priest of Galatia, complaining that they needed to equal the virtues of Christians.
In a letter to another priest Julian wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And he also wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Poor Julian, like many today, could only see things in marketing terms. He had no idea that he and his system were being confronted by Jesus himself through the collective lives of those who heeded the call to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Author: Randal Dick