There is a well known sociologist of religion by the name of Rodney Stark. He produced research on how the early church went from a small, hated and despised little group of Jews of around 1000 people in 40 A.D. to became a major force throughout the Roman Empire in less than 300 years. So, what was it that made this happen?
It happened while Christians were being heavily persecuted and, as I said, everyone hated them, but Christianity grew to be over 50% of the Roman world and reach every corner of the Empire by 350 A.D. Although Stark leaves out two important reasons for this happening (the supernatural and the phenomena of Christians praying for healing and miracles), but for the most part, I think he got it right. So, what was it that changed everything? It basically came down to two reasons:
1. The supernatural/otherworldly love of the Christians.
Imagine, to some degree, hundreds, and then thousands, of little Jesus's running around the Roman Empire. They were called by, and infused with, the Holy Spirit to love like Jesus loved. They fought their worldly war like Jesus did, not by killing their enemies, but by dying for them. They loved like God loved. God's love is indiscriminate. His love rains like the rain rains and the sun shines. The rain and sun are no respecter of persons and rains and shines on everybody in exactly the same way. God loves because that's who He is at His core, and these Christians now had a piece of God living within them.
"I kept wondering about the people who met Christ who were losers..., the crippled and the blind, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene and Zacchaeus. Entire communities had shunned them and told them they were no good, but God, the King of the universe, comes walking down the street and looks them in the eye, holds their hands, embraces them, eats at their tables, in their homes, for all the town to see. That must have been the greatest moment of their lives." Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
2. They believed that they would live forever and they had no fear of death.
They not only didn't mind suffering but they counted it an honor to suffer the way Jesus suffered. Jesus created a community of the first suicide bombers👹 but their weapon was love and embracing death. That's an unbeatable combination.
Paul was a perfect example of this. He worshiped the obsolete and invalid Law (Hebrews 8:13, Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17) and lived and would have died for it. Eventually he met the Living Word instead of the dead Law and spent the rest of his life living and eventually dying for the one who supernaturally loved him. Jesus reached into history and chose his greatest enemy, using the one who hated Him and killed his followers to become, maybe, the greatest suicide bomber of love in history and an unstoppable force of nature for Jesus instead of His greatest persecutor.
The way the Christians lived and the way they died couldn't help but change the hearts and the lives of those they encountered. They were able to calmly bless the crowds as they were set on fire or fed to the lions.
Probably even more important was the way they reacted to disasters and plagues. Two historic plagues ravaged the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.) and the Cyprian Plague (249-262 A.D.). The plagues killed roughly a quarter to a third of the population (30%-40%), killing emperors (Marcus Aurelius, Hostilian, and Claudius II Gothicus), and devastated the empire. In the same way as the corona virus today, panic spread because the society did not understand the disease.
The way Christians reacted was in strict contrast to how the pagans reacted: Bishop Dionysius recounted the events in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Cyprian Plague: "At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease."
In stark contrast Christians sought to help the sick, even risking their own lives. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote, "Although this mortality had contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. 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," Dionysius recalled of his fellow Christians. "Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead ... [a death that] seems in every way the equal to martyrdom."
The Corona virus is not even a blip on the screen of life in comparison to what the early church faced. In the plagues of the Roman Empire everyone left the city including doctors and pagan priests. As everyone was leaving the city the Christians came into the city to take care of those left behind. Some estimate that 80% of the deaths could have been prevented by basic care. Death rates also went down as the church grew. The death rate for Christians was far less than the pagan population because they lived in community which naturally built up their immune system.
It was clear the hand of God was on the Christians because of their supernatural and reckless love. This won multitudes to Christ (an estimated 33 million Christians by 350 A.D.).
What does this say to us personally? We are not facing anything like the plagues of the Roman Empire. Whatever happens and however bad it gets we should know these facts: Life is a war zone and the source of our motivation for everything is King Jesus and we need to get our life from Him and Him alone.
As D.L. Moody said, "“When I was converted , I made this mistake: I thought the battle was already mine, the victory already won, the crown already in my grasp. I thought the old things had passed away, that all things had become new and that my old, corrupt nature, the old life was gone. But I found out after serving Christ for a few months, that conversion was only like enlisting in the army – that there was a battle on hand.
"The lazy person says, There's a lion out there! If I go outside I might be killed." (Proverbs 22:13)
“When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands, the captain of the ship sought to turn him back. ‘You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages,’ he cried. Calvert only replied, “We died before we came here.”
There is a great movie called "To End All Wars" and it takes place in a prisoner of war camp during world war II. The courageous, experienced, older sergeant and leader of the prisoners in the camp is asked by one of the other men what he will do after the war. His reply is one that we should cultivate as soldiers of our king, "I will get ready for the next war."