IN WHAT MANNER THE CHRISTIAN FAITH WAS PROPAGATED IN THE FIRST FEW CENTURIES
WHEN the Lord Jesus Christ began His work of preaching the Gospel, He chose from among His disciples twelve men, whom He trained for the duty of spreading the knowledge of the truth throughout all the world. This training included careful teaching about God's will and the way of salvation. But the manner in which He taught them was by making them witnesses of His holy life, wonderful works, and spiritual doctrine, that they might know Him and God the Father through Him (John 14:6-10; 17:3). He called these twelve men Apostles (Luke 6:13), because He was about to send them forth as His messengers. 1 After His Resurrection and shortly before His Ascension, He gave them their commission to make all nations disciples (Matthew 28:19) and to be His witnesses “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In order that they might not err in their teaching, but might be strengthened and enabled to do their work faithfully, fearlessly, and successfully, He promised that the Holy Spirit of God should within a few days descend upon them (Acts 1:5; see also John 14:16, 17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4, 8). In obedience to His command (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5) they awaited in Jerusalem the fulfilment of this promise. On the fiftieth day after Christ's Crucifixion and the seventh after His Ascension, when not only the eleven Apostles (one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, the traitor, was dead) but all other Christians in Jerusalem were gathered together for prayer, the Holy Spirit came down upon them all in the manner which is related in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-13), inspiring them with love, faith, zeal, courage, and remembrance of what Christ had taught them (John 14:26), and also gradually leading them to a perfect knowledge of the truth (John 16:13) which God wished them to know and teach. As a sign that they were to preach the Gospel among all nations, they were on that day enabled to speak foreign languages (Acts 2:4), though we never afterwards hear of their preaching in distant lands without having to study the languages of the people. God gave them for the moment the power of using other tongues, but only for a sign, not to encourage laziness in study. Some at least of the Apostles were also enabled to work miracles of healing, similar to those wrought by Christ Himself (Acts 2:43; 3:1-11; 5:12-16; 8:17; 9:31-43), but these were done in Christ's name and by His authority and power (Acts 3:6, 16), not by any power of their own. Some years afterwards, when Paul became an Apostle, he was given the same power and authority as the other Apostles. Many of his miracles of healing are mentioned in the Acts (Acts 14:8-10; 19:6, 11, 12; 20:9, 10; 28:8, 9). The power of working miracles of healing was given only for a limited time, and probably ceased on the death of the Apostles. Had it remained permanently among Christians, it would have become so common that miracles would have lost their evidential value. But at the beginning of the growth of the Christian Church such miraculous power was of great importance, to confirm the faith of those who had to endure persecution because they believed in Christ. We do not find that miracles were used either by Christ or by His Apostles to convince unbelievers.
The Apostles were aided by the Holy Spirit in their proclamation of the Gospel, so that they set forth not their own opinions, but the teaching which God gave them (Mark 13:11; John 14:26; Romans 15:18, 19; 1 Corinthians 2:12, 13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). Therefore what they and their disciples wrote by Divine inspiration we receive as God's message to the world, in accordance with Christ's own words, “He that heareth you heareth Me; and he that rejecteth you rejecteth Me; and he that rejecteth Me rejecteth Him that sent Me” (Luke 10:16). Hence the Apostles of Christ rightly laid claim to Apostleship (1 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1, &c.).
God's power and the influence of the holy life of Christ were so fully manifested through the preaching of the Apostles that in a short time many thousands of the Jews, and even of their priests, became Christians (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20). Among the Gentiles too the Gospel spread very steadily, and many 2 of them were brought from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God, from worshipping idols to serve the one Living and True God (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
The Christian miracles are mentioned not only in the New Testament and by early Christian writers, 3 but also by the Jews in their Talmud, though the latter blasphemously ascribe Christ's miracles to magic. Among heathen writers of the first few centuries of the Christian era not a few, among them Pliny, Tacitus, Celsus, and the Emperor Julian the Apostate, have testified to the rapid spread of Christianity. Every effort was made by many of the emperors to stamp it out; but, in spite of all that they could do, the new religion continued to spread, and could not be checked by the most fiery persecution and the most cruel martyrdoms.
Some of our Muslim brethren deny that the title of Apostle (يوقئي) should be applied to any of the disciples of Christ. But in saying this they are showing a want of acquaintance with their own Qur'an. For in Surahs 3:45; 5:111, 112; 61:14, they are called يوقئي: and all scholars are aware that this is the Æthiopiah (حَبَشِي) word for “Apostles”. In the Æthiopian version of the New Testament this word is used in Luke 6:13, and everywhere else, to translate the title “Apostles” (رَسُلاً) which Christ Himself gave to the Twelve. The Æthiopic word حواري is derived from a root in that language which means just what رَسَلَ (to send) does in Arabic. No pious Muslim will venture to oppose the teaching of the Qur'an on this point, or to deny that Christ was right in giving this title to the Twelve. Paul was afterwards appointed to the same office by Christ, speaking to him from heaven (Acts 22:21; Romans 11:13; 2 Corinthians 12:12; 1 Timothy 2:7). The success of these Apostles in preaching the Gospel and spreading the Christian faith was the proof of their Apostleship, because it stamped God's seal upon their work.
Christians, as is well known, were not permitted to engage in a Jihad in order to spread their religion. For Christ Himself had said to Peter, even when it was in defence of his Lord that he drew his sword, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Moreover, Christ hates, and used to denounce hypocrisy. When a man is forced to change his religion by persecution, is he not made a hypocrite? Force cannot make a man a true Christian. It was not by force therefore that Christianity spread in early days. Even now, when professedly Christian nations are very powerful, they never attempt to force anyone to adopt Christianity, for belief cannot be compelled by violence and cruelty. The use of such methods, if sanctioned by any religion, would prove that it did not come from God. Some of the Apostles, like Peter and Paul, drank the cup of martyrdom, after enduring long years of toil and suffering in their task of preaching the Gospel. They constantly exhorted their companions to endure with patience all kinds of suffering for Christ's sake. This patience and love and kindness convinced many that these men were indeed men of God, and that their religion was the truth. Thus the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. It was not by human learning and eloquence that the Apostles converted men to God. On the contrary, they used simple, homely, ordinary language (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 12, 13). And when, by the Holy Spirit's inspiration, they wrote out the Gospel (البِشارة) which they had been preaching, or taught converts by Epistles, they used a clear, unaffected style, the language of ordinary men and women, so that readers might be able the more easily to understand God's mercy, love, goodness, and wisdom, and to be embraced by that mercy and love and brought to salvation. The Word (كلام) of God is needed, not by the learned only, but by all men, for their guidance and enlightenment. There is no respect of persons with God, who is good to all (Psalms 145:9). Therefore it was in accordance with the highest wisdom that God's message should be so written as to be understood by the unlearned as well as by the learned. For a somewhat similar reason the great philosopher Plato, when he wrote the “Apology of Socrates”, used the ordinary conversational language of the time, in order that all might understand it.
The doctrines of the Gospel afford no encouragement to anyone to gratify his sensual passions, nor do they deceive men by telling them that the profession of Christianity will save them from punishment here and hereafter, if they continue in their sins (Matthew 1:21; John 8:34; Romans 6:1, 2, 11, 15-23). The way of salvation was declared not to be a broad road, with room in it for a man and his sins, but a narrow way, where sin had to be abandoned by him who would walk therein (Matthew 7:13,14). Christ and His Apostles taught that sin was slavery to the devil, and offered to believers release from bad passions and evil habits, calling upon them to abstain from fleshly lusts (1 Peter 2:11, 12) and to be faithful soldiers of Christ, ready to lay down their lives rather than return to idolatry and the service of Satan. It was not only or principally among uncivilized people that the Apostles laboured. They preached and made converts in Greece and Italy, then the most highly civilized countries in the world, and God's grace was seen in turning to righteousness some who had previously lived very wicked lives.
Even in the Apostles' days Christian congregations were gathered together in many of the cities and towns of Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, and Italy. At first, as we have seen, most of the converts were made among the Jews, but soon the Gospel spread to Gentiles also. Throughout a large part of the civilized world there were then to be found Israelite traders and travellers. When these were converted, they were instrumental in teaching others. Those Jews who rejected the Gospel were the first persecutors of the Christians, but the heathen soon began to imitate them in this conduct. Yet soon after the death of the Apostles the Gospel had spread to the most distant parts of the then known world, by reason of the zeal, faith, patience, and love of the preachers and teachers who followed them. At last the Roman emperors, fearing lest the worship of the heathen gods and even the empire itself should be overthrown by the new doctrine, began most cruel persecutions. The first persecution began under Nero, who is said to have put Peter and Paul to death, besides burning many Christians alive, 4 as lanterns to illuminate his palace gardens at night. The Romans at that time were very irreligious, but they adored the emperor as a god, and endeavoured in vain to make the Christians do so too. The persecutors seized and confiscated the property of the Christians, and put multitudes of them to death in the most barbarous ways. Some were thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre at Rome, others were burnt alive, others tortured to death. Again and again during nearly three hundred years did fierce persecution break out in all parts of the great Roman empire, which extended from Scotland to the Persian Gulf, from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of what is now Russia and the eastern shore of the Black Sea, thus including North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Turkey in Europe, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Britain, and other lands. Although the whole might of the Roman Empire long continued to strive to root out Christianity, yet the Christian Church, like an impregnable fortress, successfully withstood these attacks in the might of God Most High. Thus was fulfilled Christ's promise that the gates of Hades or Destruction should not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18). Nay more, the number of Christians steadily increased, in spite of persecution, until in many places the temples of the idols were almost deserted and the sacrifices at an end. Although they were so numerous, yet the persecuted Christians never rose in rebellion against their persecutors, but patiently endured all that the cruelty of their enemies could devise against them.
At last the Emperor Constantine received the Christian faith about the year 314 of the Christian era, though he was not baptized until at least several years later. The Christians were then delivered from persecution; but this led many people to enter the Church without true conversion and proper instruction. Many of them brought heathen ideas with them, and these led to the gradual corruption of religion. The Sacred Scriptures were not properly studied, saint-worship was introduced and spread. The love of many became cold, and religion began to grow formal and external, losing spirituality and purity. Hypocrisy and contentions prevailed, heresies multiplied. Instead of loving God and their fellow-men, too many of these baptized heathen began to hate one another, to quarrel about forms and ceremonies, and even to persecute one another. Hence many of them fell into deadly sin, and many introduced the worship of the Virgin Mary, of the saints, and of images. This was an abomination in the sight of the Holy One. Therefore, just as the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Macedonians, and the Roman's were used by God Most High to punish the Israelites when they sinned against Him and fell into idolatry, so God used the Arabs as His Sword to punish the corrupt Churches of the East (Revelation 9:20, 21). But in our own day many Oriental Christians are studying the Bible, and so the light of truth is shining into their hearts and lives. Thus many are becoming true and earnest Christians through the guidance of God's Holy Spirit. Some of them are being used by God to guide their Muslim fellow-countrymen to the light of the Gospel of Christ. All true Christians, whatever else they differ upon, accept the Gospel, and accordingly believe in the Kalimatu’llah, and put their trust in His Atonement for the sins of the whole world. May God grant to all the honoured readers of this Treatise that they too may share in the salvation which the living Christ offers freely to all who truly believe in Him!