Europe's First Churches

February 26, 2007

This WW begins a series from Paul’s time to today via the Moravian church, in preparation for the Festival of the Nations in Herrnhut, May 25-28, 2007

When Paul for the first time stepped ashore in ‘Europe’ around the year AD50, he had no notion of the continent as we do today. The classical world was seen as a ring of civilisation bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Beyond the Roman Empire lay the ‘wild and dangerous‘ regions of the barbarians.

Paul, as we know, was a visionary. He had had several visions. One, on the Damascus Road, had totally transformed his life and personal future. Another, while travelling through what today’s western Turkey, had totally redirected his ministry. A ‘European’ had appeared one night in this vision and urged Paul to ‘come across to Macedonia (northern Greece today) and help us’.

This second vision led directly to the planting of the first ‘European’ churches. He spent his first sabbath on ‘the continent’ with a handful of women on the riverbanks outside of Philippi, Yet even Paul the visionary probably had no inkling how the message he shared that day would eventually become the single greatest influence in shaping Europe’s identity.

Innocent as this small band would have appeared to passersby, it quickly led to a public uproar. Paul delivered a slave-girl from a fortune-telling spirit. Paul and Silas were accused of disturbing the peace. Her owners brought charges, and the two men were flogged and imprisoned.

Miracles

That night, God intervened yet again. As Paul and Silas were entertaining the other prisoners with their singing, there was a violent and convenient earthquake. Chains fell off. Doors swung open. And the greatest miracle of all: the prisoners stayed put!. The hardened Roman jailer, realising he was in the presence of holy men whom he had treated as common criminals, threw himself at their feet, asking, “What do I have to do to be saved?”

A pretty dramatic start to the church in Europe!

Similar divine interventions had occurred in Jerusalem less then two decades earlier, after the birth of the church at Pentecost. Angelic deliverances from prison on at least two occasion had followed speaking in tongues, flames nestling on the disciples‚Äô heads, bold proclamation by the previously-timid Peter and others, instant healings of the lame, sick and blind, Ananias and Sapphira suddenly dropping dead, unity and community among the believers… and on the list goes!

The church was thus born in suffering, but also experienced grace and glory–as it would throughout the ages to come.

Paul’s conversion, however, was one miracle the early Christians seemed reluctant to accept. Understandably. For the young man known as Saul, a promising pharisee-student of Gamaliel, had watched in agreement as Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned. “Saul entirely approved of the killing,” Luke tells us (Acts 8:1), and adds two verses later that “Saul then worked for the total destruction of the Church.”

It was Barnabas, ‚Äòson of encouragement‚Äô, who had taken Saul the convert under his wing, when the rest of the Jerusalem leadership had doubted his sincerity. After his dramatic encounter with the Risen Jesus en route to Damascus, Saul had spent some three years as a desert recluse before making a two-week visit with Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17-18). After the rather cool reception there, Saul retreated back home to Tarsus … to make tents!

Once again, it was Barnabas who came to Saul’s rescue. He fetched him from Tarsus to help disciple young non-Jewish converts in Antioch. A cosmopolitan Jew, a Roman citizen schooled in Latin and Greek, Saul would understand the culture of these new ‘Christ-ians’, as they were being nick-named.

Who knows? Humanly speaking, had Barnabas not reached out to him, Saul may have spent the rest of his life in Tarsus tent-making. And the first missionary team of Barnabas and Saul would never have been sent off from Antioch to Cyprus. But Cyprus in fact was where Saul received new authority and a new name: we now read of ‘Paul and his companions’ rather than ‚ÄòBarnabas and Saul‚Äô (Acts 13:13).

Riots

Later unfortunately, Paul and Barnabas parted ways arguing over Barnabas’ young nephew John Mark. The fact that the Gospel of Mark later came from this young man’s pen suggests that Barnabas saw potential which Paul missed.

So on Paul’s second missionary journey, it was Silas who was his fellow prisoner in Philippi. Now on their release, embarrassed officials begged them to leave town.

Their next stop was Thessalonica. Again their preaching led to riots–and a reputation of ‘turning the whole world upside down’! Again, after a short three weeks, Paul and Silas had to leave town, this time under the cover of darkness. Thessalonian Jews hounded them further on their travels, forcing them to keep moving on. Hardly ideal circumstances for church planting!

Further down the coast in Corinth, Paul wrote his first epistle to the Thessalonians–the first written to any ‘European’ church. The second he wrote a few months later to clarify some points from the first. The believers received Paul’s instructions to “be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, and not to put out the Spirit’s fire” (I Thess. 5:16-19).

Paul here introduces themes of suffering, grace and glory that he expands in later letters, e.g. to the Corinthians and Romans (see 2 Corinthians 4, Romans 8).

The Thessalonian church, despite suffering and opposition, withstood the tests of time. Centuries later, it would produce two of the most influential missionaries Europe has ever known.

More about that next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


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