Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition

Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition

by Bruce L. Shelley

ISBN: 9780718025533

Publisher Thomas Nelson

Published in Religion & Spirituality

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


CHRISTIANITY is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.

"Dear dying Lamb," believers sing, "thy precious Blood Shall never lose its power, Till all the ransomed Church of God Be saved to sin no more."

Crucifixion was a barbarous death, reserved for agitators, pirates and slaves. Jewish law cursed "everyone who hangs on a tree" and the Roman statesman, Cicero, warned: "Let the very name of the cross be far, not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears."

Part of the victim's punishment was to be whipped, and then to carry the heavy cross-beam to the place of his own death. When the cross was raised, a notice was pinned to it giving the culprit's name and crime. In Jesus' case I NRI: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Pontius Pilate, Jesus' Roman judge, apparently intended it as a final thrust of malice aimed at the Jews, but like the cross itself Jesus' followers found a special meaning in the message.


Jesus was a Jew. He came from a Jewish family, he studied the Jewish law, he observed the Jewish religion. Any serious study of his life makes this so clear that many people have asked if Jesus ever intended to create that company of followers we call "the church." Albert Schweitzer, the famous missionary to Africa, believed that Jesus was obsessed with a dream of the impending end of the world and died to make the dream come true. Rudolf Bultmann, an influential German theologian, taught that Jesus was a prophet who challenged people to make a radical decision for or against God. Other Christians have held that Jesus' kingdom was a brotherhood of love and forgiveness. If he founded a society at all, they say, it was an invisible one, a moral or spiritual company; not an institution with rites and creeds.

This anti-institutional view of Christianity is so widespread that we had better face the question straightaway. Did Jesus have anything to do with the formation of the Christian church? And if he did, how did he shape its special character?

Every reader of the Gospels is free, of course, to judge for himself, but surely an unprejudiced reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John reveals Jesus' plans for a company of followers to carry on his work. For two years he worked with a faithful band of disciples; he taught them about life in what he called "the kingdom of God"; and he introduced them to the "new covenant" that bound them together in forgiveness and love.

Granted, that simple company lacked many of the laws, officials, ceremonies, and beliefs of later Christendom, but it was a society apart. Jesus made a persistent point about the special kind of life that separated "the kingdom of God" from rival authorities among men. Little by little his disciples came to see that following him meant saying "no" to the other voices calling for their loyalties. In one sense that was the birth of the Jesus movement. And in that sense, at least, Jesus "founded" the church.


During the days of Jesus, Palestine never lacked for loyalties. It was a crossroads of culture and peoples. Its 2,000,000 or more people—ruled by Rome—were divided by region, religion and politics. "In a day's journey a man could travel from rural villages where farmers tilled their fields with primitive plows to bustling cities where men enjoyed the comforts of Roman civilization. In the Holy City of Jerusalem, Jewish priests offered sacrifices to the Lord of Israel, while at Sebaste, only 30 miles away, pagan priests held rites in honor of the Roman god Jupiter."

The Jews, who represented only half the population, despised their foreign overlords and deeply resented the signs of pagan culture in their alien conquerors. They were representatives of a hated way of life. Their imperial reign brought to Palestine the Hellenistic (Greek) culture that the Syrians had tried to impose forcibly on the Jews over a century before. All the children of Abraham despised their overlords; they simply disagreed about how to resist them.

Centuries earlier the prophets of Israel had promised a day when the Lord would deliver his people from their pagan rulers and establish his kingdom over the whole earth. On that day, they said, he would send an anointed ruler—a messiah—to bring an end to the corrupt world of the present and replace it with an eternal paradise. He would raise the dead and judge their actions in this world. The wicked would be punished, but the righteous would be rewarded with eternal life in the kingdom of God.

According to the Book of Daniel and other popular Jewish writings, the Lord's kingdom would be established only after a final, cosmic struggle between the forces of evil, led by Satan; and the forces of good, led by the Lord. It would end with the destruction of the existing world order and the creation of a kingdom without end (Dan. 7:13-22). This belief, along with ideas about the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment, was in Jesus' day very much a part of popular Jewish faith.

Out of the distaste for life under the Romans several factions arose among the Jews, each interpreting the crisis in a different way. The Jesus movement was one of them.

One group, the Pharisees, emphasized those Jewish traditions and practices that set them apart from pagan culture. Their name means "separated ones" and they prided themselves on their strict observance of every detail of Jewish law and their extreme intolerance of people whom they considered ritually unclean. This piety and patriotism made them respected leaders among their people.

On the other hand, some Jews found Roman rule a distinct advantage. Among them were members of Jerusalem's aristocracy. From this small group of wealthy, pedigreed families came the high priest and the lesser priests of the temple. Many of them enjoyed the sophisticated manners and fashions of Greco-Roman culture. Some even took Greek names. Their interests were represented by the conservative political group known as the Sadducees. At the time of Jesus, these men still controlled the high Jewish council, or Sanhedrin, but they had little influence among the common people. Another party, the Zealots, were bent on armed resistance to all Romans in the fatherland. They looked back two centuries to the glorious days of the Maccabees when religious zeal combined with a ready sword to overthrow the pagan Greek overlords. Thus, the hills of Galilee often concealed a number of guerrilla bands ready to ignite a revolt or destroy some symbol of Roman authority in Palestine.

Finally came the Essenes, who had little or no interest in politics or in warfare. Instead, they withdrew to the Judean wilderness. There, in isolated monastic communities, they studied the Scriptures and prepared themselves for the Lord's kingdom.

Jesus had to call for the loyalty of his followers without confusing the purpose of his mission with the objectives of these other parties among the Jews. It was a tough assignment.


Jesus chose to begin by joining a new movement in the Judean wilderness led by a prophet named John. The ford of the Jordan, just north of the Dead Sea, was one of the busiest parts of the whole region so John the Baptist got the crowds he wanted to hear him. Wearing a garment of camel's hair, his eyes ablaze, he stood on the riverbank and warned all who passed by to repent of their sins and prepare for the coming day of judgment by receiving baptism in the Jordan.

Many thought John was the promised Messiah but he vehemently denied any such role. He explained his mission in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Matt. 3:3). He was, he claimed, only the forerunner of the Messiah. "I baptize you with water ..." he said, "but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16).

John's call to repentance and righteousness drew Jesus to the Jordan. He found in John's message the truth of God, so "to fulfill all righteousness" he submitted to John's baptism and soon afterward began his own mission, proclaiming: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).

Jesus, however, rather than remaining in the deserts, chose to begin his mission in Galilee, a land of gentle hills and warm, green valleys. During those early weeks and months he traveled from village to village throughout Galilee, preaching in synagogues in the evening and on the Sabbath. Carrying a bundle of bread, a wineskin and a walking stick, he hiked along the dusty highways. He probably dressed as any other traveler, in a rough linen tunic covered by a heavier red or blue mantle.

On a typical day Jesus would set out at dawn and walk mile after mile. Toward sunset he would enter a village and proceed to its synagogue. As one popular history puts it, "There he probably received a warm welcome from the townspeople, who often had no resident rabbi and relied on the services of wandering teachers like Jesus. When the lamps had been lit and the men of the village had taken their places, Jesus would seat himself on the raised central platform" and begin reading a passage from the sacred Scriptures. In a clear, forceful voice, he would announce the fulfillment of some prophecy or relate some parable.

The main theme of Jesus' teaching was the kingdom of God. What did he mean by that? Did he believe in a dramatic intervention of God in the history of the world? Or did he mean that the kingdom is already here in some sense? He probably meant both. The two can be reconciled if we recognize that the phrase stands for the sovereignty of a personal and gracious God, not a geographical or local realm.

Jesus hinted that the rule of God was already present in saving power in his own person. And he offered proof of the point. His miracles of healing were apparently not just marvels; they were signs, the powers of the age to come already manifest in the present age. "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons," he once said, "then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). Yet he feared that his cures would be misinterpreted, that people would see him as just another magician, and he often cautioned those he healed to be silent.

Of course, the news spread, and before long people in every town and village in Galilee were talking excitedly of the new wonder-worker who could cure the blind, the lame, and the sick with the power of his voice and the mere touch of his strong carpenter's hands. Soon large crowds gathered wherever he spoke.

Jesus' growing popularity aroused controversy, especially among the Pharisees, who hated to see people following to listen to a man who had never studied under their learned scribes. They didn't hesitate to question his credentials openly.


Jesus welcomed their challenge for it gave him a chance to contrast his message of repentance and grace with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees.

On one occasion, probably as pilgrims were on their way to Jerusalem for one of the great feasts, Jesus told about two men who went to the temple to pray. What a striking contrast they made! One was a Pharisee; the other, surprisingly, was a despised tax collector.

With a touch of showmanship the holy man took his stand and prayed: "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get" (Luke 18:11, 12). That, at any rate, is what he prayed to himself and it was not a hollow boast. Pharisees excelled in those "works of righteousness"—fasting and tithing—that set them apart from wicked men.

The fault of the prayer was in its spirit of self-righteousness and its cruel contempt for others. The Pharisee alone was righteous and all his fellow-mortals were included under one sweeping condemnation.

Meanwhile, the tax collector, said Jesus, was standing at a distance, the very image of contrition. His eyes were downcast, his head bowed in guilt. His prayer was a sob of remorse, a cry for mercy: "O God, be merciful to me the sinner!"

"I tell you," said Jesus, "this man went down to his house justified rather than the other" (Luke 18:14). The contrast between the piety of the Pharisees and the attitude of the Jesus movement could hardly be greater. One was based on the observance of the hundreds of religious laws of the Jews; the other rested upon a denial of self-righteousness and a trust in the mercy of God.

Out of his hundreds of followers Jesus called a handful to travel with him full-time. They came to be called "apostles," meaning "sent ones." But at first they were a rather motley group—twelve in all—drawn from fishing boats and tax tables, but their loyalty to Jesus was strong.

So for them Jesus drew the distinction between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. His followers, he said, represented another type of society and another type of greatness. In the kingdoms of this world, powerful leaders lord it over others; but God's kingdom is governed in a wholly different way, by love and service.

"Fear not," he told them, "it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom."

The highwater mark of Jesus' popularity came about a year before his arrest in Jerusalem. After he fed over 5,000 Passover pilgrims on a grassy hillside in Galilee, many of his disciples tried to proclaim him king. Jesus knew, however, that they had no idea of God's unfolding plan for his life—and death. So he fled to the hills with a committed few.

Jesus knew that he had a unique role in God's plan of redemption, but he feared the traditional titles for a messianic redeemer. Crowds were too likely to misunderstand them. The picture that appears in his teaching of the twelve is along the lines of Isaiah's portrait of the Suffering Servant, "despised and rejected by men ... with his stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:3, 5) and the image of Zechariah's predicted king who would be "humble and riding on an ass" (Zech. 9:9).


Apparently with these prophetic portraits in mind on the Sunday before his last Passover, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah's prediction. Crowds threw palm branches in his path and shouted: "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

This seems to be the only occasion when Jesus openly identified himself with the Messiah of Jewish prophecies. He apparently intended to challenge the Jerusalem authorities to make up their minds: Would they or would they not accept the rule of his kingdom? The Holy City was stirred, asking, "Who is this?"

The next day Jesus led a procession through Jerusalem's teeming, narrow streets, to the temple. There, in an act of protest reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets he "entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of those who sold pigeons" (Matt. 21:12). He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers" (Matt. 21:13).

News of this dramatic event quickly swept through Jerusalem, and people began flocking to the temple, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Rumors spread of the appearance of the Messiah and the imminent destruction of the temple.

Such talk of a messiah alarmed the temple authorities. What if this Galilean were to ignite another revolt against the Roman government? Yet they were hesitant to arrest him for fear of provoking a riot.

A man like Jesus presented a real danger to the Sadducees, because they held their privileged position with the support of the Roman authorities. Anyone who aroused talk of a messiah undermined the people's allegiance to the established political order and endangered the relationship the Sadducees had with the Romans. Such a man, they concluded, had to be silenced before he sparked an uprising, which the Romans would crush with characteristic brutality. If that happened, the Sadducees stood to lose their privileges.


Excerpted from "Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition" by Bruce L. Shelley. Copyright © 0 by Bruce L. Shelley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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