The Big Picture of Early Christian History

In his 1914 book on Clement of Alexandria, R B Tollinton wrote the following words as he surveyed the earliest centuries of Christian history.

“If a line can be drawn at any date between the period of its [Christian] ‘Origins’ and that of its ‘Development’, this must be done at the close of the second century, rather than at the end of the Apostolic age, or at the period of Constantine’s Edict and the Council of Nicaea.

Thus, on the one hand, the Church of Clement’s day [c.200 AD] had attained its complete independence of Judaism. On the other, it was already too powerful to be permanently suppressed or controlled by the forces of the Empire.”

R B Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria, A Study in Christian Liberalism, 1914 (85).

This short quote, written over 100 years ago, throws up some interesting insights into the church of the second century. A hundred years from the Apostolic Era, and nearly 150 years before the famous Council of Nicaea, what was the Church really like?

“Complete independence of Judaism…”

Tollinton suggests that we ought to draw a line between the missional expansion of the first century, and the huge growth of the second. Over 150 years since Christ ascended to Heaven, the ‘Origins’ period of Church History ought to be closed off, now we reach a period he labels ‘Development.’ In part, he suggests, this is because the faith has escaped its Jewish roots.

When Christianity first began to spread, it was very much seen as a product of the Jewish faith. Originating from the Jewish communities of ancient Palestine, with a first generation leadership comprised almost entirely of Jewish males, it was a label the faith found hard to shake. Ancient commentators repeatedly grouped these two strange ‘non-Roman’ faiths together. An example of this is seen in a fragment of Tacitus preserved in the Sacred History of Sulpicius Severus.

“Titus himself thought that the temple ought specially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish.

Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, 30.2.6 (quoting Tacitus).

Tacitus wrote at the end of the first century, and his surviving works are an invaluable source for both Imperial history and the rise of Christianity over the first few decades of this new faith. He gives us a clear example of how Christianity was then viewed: the offshoot of the Jewish faith.

Yet as the second century progressed, these Jewish roots were further and further removed from the identity of the Early Church. As we read in the New Testament, efforts were quickly made to establish churches in towns and cities across the Empire, and non-Jewish converts are repeatedly found in the pages of Scripture. But over the next century or so, this spread only increased. Though the faith originated in the Jewish heartland of ancient Palestine, it quickly outgrew its roots. Such that, writing at the end of the second century, the apologist Tertullian could say:

“The outcry is… that both sexes, every age and condition, even high rank, are passing over to the profession of the Christian faith.”

Tertullian, Apology, 1.

By the end of the second century the Jewish roots of the Christian faith had been thoroughly outgrown. Men and women from across the Empire, from every class and status, were joining this young faith. Tollinton is quite correct, the ‘Origin’ of the faith is over, and we are very much in an early phase of ‘Development’.

“… too powerful to be permanently suppressed or controlled by the forces of the Empire.

Tollinton’s second point is that the faith was too wide-spread and too well established to be suppressed by Imperial intention. This again is certainly backed up by the historical situation at the end of the second century.

Based on numbers alone, we can see that the development and close of the second century offers a turning point in Early Church History. In AD 40, shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, it is estimated that there were only a few thousand believers. By 100 AD there may have been around 7000 – 10000 Christians in an Empire of around 60 million. By 200 AD there were around 200 000. By 250 AD, 1.1 million. By the time of Constantine’s famous ‘conversion’ in 312 AD, there were nearly 9 million Christian believers in the Empire. (Numbers based on the work of R Stark, Cities of God, 2006 p67.)

None of these figures show that Christianity was anywhere near being the majority faith in the Empire by the time the reign of Constantine began in 312 AD, but they do illustrate that from humble beginnings in the Imperial backwaters of Judea, a movement grew. Men and women across the Emperor, as Tertullian tells us, had passed over to the Christian faith.


Tollinton is certainly right: it is too late to say that, come Constantine, Christianity has only just moved out of the ‘Origin’ phase of its history. To view Church History through this broad lens risks missing so much of what God did in the intervening years. In a hostile Empire and a lost world, the Lord was faithful to grow His church during those first centuries. The history of the Early Church is a great testament to the work of God at keeping and growing His Church. We shouldn’t write off the first centuries of Christian history as simply a protracted ‘Origin’, there is much that happened, and much worth looking into.

On the flip side of this, how incredible is it to look at these first centuries and see God at work? From just a handful of believers in Jerusalem to millions across the globe. Our God did this, in the face of one of the greatest superpowers the world has ever known. Let’s not forget how great our God of history is.

Want some more reasons to study Early Church History? Try these 10.

Review: Life in a Covid-19 World (Tim Dennis, 10Publishing 2020)


At the height of Lockdown One, I reviewed (and previewed) three really helpful books that considered the Christian response to the unfolding pandemic.

Now, as we approach Christmas, I want to very quickly review a new tract that 10ofthose have produced, written by Tim Dennis. Life in a Covid-19 World is a short booklet, and a wonderful little packet of hope.

This evangelistic tract offers the reader a lasting hope. We’ve read the news in recent weeks of ‘liquid hope’ in the form of vaccines. We’ve seen the feel good stories throughout the year of those who smiled through the suffering, and those who kept on when it seemed so hard. Everyone has a hope. But is your hope in the right place? Ultimately, can your hope deliver?

Hope Centre Stage

Tim’s booklet seeks to answer those questions. This whole year, we’ve longed for a return to ‘normal life.’ Hope has been the watchword of the race to develop a vaccine, the long term goal of lockdowns and so much more. This short booklet confronts what it is we put our hope in. It challenges whether that hope can really deliver, and then it offers something even better.

Covid-19 has highlighted just how central
hope is to enabling us to live well. Hope gives
us purpose. Hope keeps us going. And on our
deathbed, hope will be all we have. So, what’s
your hope in? And can it deliver to you all that
you want?

Through this challenge to the hopes of a world far from God, Tim offers a clear and biblical Gospel presentation. Christ is displayed, His authority, divinity and compassion are examined, and the offer is made. Put your hope in Him.

A Clear Gospel Presentation, Rooted in Scripture

This tract has a really apparent Gospel heart, and honestly sets out the challenge to the unbeliever. Through accessible language, the truth of Scripture is examined and explained.

The Gospel case is clearly made in this short booklet, and Tim does not shy away from confronting the reader with the reality of sin and the just punishment that every sin deserves. Nor does he hide from the fact that placing our hope in Jesus doesn’t mean that everything that happens to us in this life will be plain sailing.

So often Gospel tracts can hold out the joyful offer of Christ without recognising our painful need of Him. Or they present our glorious future in Christ without being honest about our present reality. But Life in a Covid-19 World doesn’t do this. Under his overarching theme of hope, Tim presents a full and clear Gospel presentation. Our need is great, our situation is grave, but our Saviour is greater and our hope in Him is certain.

What is equally as encouraging is that this case is made simply on the words of Scripture. The whole booklet is rooted in the Bible and no claims are made that are not backed up by references to or printed sections of God’s Word. This dependance on the Bible only makes the booklet more attractive, as the truth of the Gospel is shown to be compelling, coherent and full of hope.

A Brilliant Resource

All in all, Life in a Covid-19 World is a really helpful booklet, and a brilliant resource for personal or church evangelism over the coming weeks. Christmas is traditionally a time when churches make an extra effort to engage the local community, and perhaps this year that effort will be even greater. Life in a Covid-19 World would be a worthy addition to Christmas cards or packs for the local community. It would also make a great follow-up resource for carol services this year, as well as more generally as a tool for evangelistic outreach over the coming months. It’s not a Christmas tract, but it is a tract for the here and now, and so as Christmas looks a little different, maybe it’s just the tract you need! I think it’s a cracking resource, and if you’re looking for a short booklet that clearly sets out the Gospel message to a frustrated and suffering world, Life in a Covid-19 World would be a great choice.

Book Review: The Christmas We Didn’t Expect, David Mathis (The Good Book Company, 2020)

The Christmas We Didn't Expect

There are plenty of Advent devotionals, and there are many good ones that I could commend to you. David Mathis’ new book The Christmas We Didn’t Expect offers a set of twenty-four daily reflections on the coming of Christ. It is a fantastic book, and one that this reviewer would highly recommend. In fact, I’m looking forward to picking it back up in a few weeks as my wife and I plan to work through these devotions together this December.

These short Advent devotionals are designed to help us wait rightly for Christmas morning. Taking as our example the likes of the Shepherds and Mary, Mathis encourages us to marvel at God made man. These devotions will help prepare your heart for the day when we most obviously gather around the truth of the incarnation. Advent is a period of waiting: waiting for the day, for the Lord, to arrive. This book helps us to wait well, expectantly and with anticipation, as we long for that day.

Our God Made Man

At the heart of Mathis’ book is a desire to cause his reader to wonder at Christ Himself. To that end the studies are simple, yet full of delight in the glorious truth of the incarnation. Mathis sums up his own amazement in his introduction (12-13).

“What God so stunningly reveals at that first Noël is that when he himself finally does come, it is not in cloud or wind or fire or earthquake, or even simply in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12). But he comes in the fullness of his creation: as human. He comes as one of us and dignifies our own species in doing so.”

Christ coming down was the seismic event that all of history had been building towards. It’s no exaggeration to say that; indeed it’s a painful understatement! It’s all too easy to see a truth like the incarnation as an abstract, or academic ideal. Yet to marvel at what it truly means, that God Himself dignified our species by becoming one of us, to save us, is a real joy. The incarnation is the incredible truth at the heart of Christmas and these Advent devotions so helpfully point us to it.

A Helpful Structure and a Heavenly Focus.

Mathis has written a series of gentle studies that simply and humbly bring the reader face to face with the God of the Bible. Each study is followed by a reflective and honest prayer that helps us speak with God in light of what we have read. This book is simply laid out, all to help the reader focus on the glorious God who came down at Christmas.

In his introduction, Mathis calls Christ’s birth “humility on mission” (14). God came down, fully God and fully man, to carry out the greatest rescue plan. The first Christmas was no accident, the incarnation was no afterthought. It was God’s glorious plan unfolding.

Through the helpful structure of these twenty-four short studies, Mathis helps the reader focus on the divine truth at the heart of Christmas. Our God came down. In a year when Christmas can seem like salvation in and of itself – we’re longing for it to bring a bit of normality and stability – Mathis turns our eyes back to Heaven.


These Advent devotionals are winsome and clear, yet full of wonder and delight at the joyful truth of the incarnation. In any year this would be a great book to help you explore God’s word in the run-up to Christmas. But perhaps this year this book is even more pertinent. This Christmas will look different, no matter how much we might hope otherwise, and we may find that hard. But whether or not this Christmas is what we hope or expect, in The Christmas We Didn’t Expect we are reminded of the single truth that really does make Christmas the most special of days. That God came down to save us, and He did it in the person of Jesus Christ.

This review is, once again, a longer version of a review for Free Church Books. You can buy The Christmas We Didn’t Expect from 10ofThose or The Good Book Company.

A prayer for the day: pray for the government.

The Evangelical Alliance has led calls recently to make today, Friday 13th November, a national day of prayer.

Many churches up and down the country have taken up that call and are gathering virtually to pray for our nation. We live in a world that so often feels far from God, and we live in a world where suffering and pain seem so prevalent.

But this is not some theoretical suffering. Our own nation is in the grips of a major epidemic, and the social, economic, physical and mental toll of this will continue to affect us all. The Evangelical Alliance was right to call churches to prayer, we do not have the answers, but our hope is in a God who does. So let’s pray earnestly for our nation today.

Pray for your government

Of the many things and people to be praying for today, our government is certainly one of them. We desperately need to be praying for our leaders. Whatever we may think of them politically, they are the men and women that God has at this time appointed to rule our nation and we must pray for them.

Scripture reminds us of this. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 urges us to pray for our leaders, Romans 13:1 asks that we submit rightly to them. It is right and proper to pray for those who rule over us, to ask that they might strive for the good of their subjects and seek the Lord in their rule. In the midst of the pandemic and the accompanying economic woes, we must ask that the government would humble themselves before our God, look to Him as their only hope, and rule with justice, wisdom and mercy over this land.

So below I have reproduced a prayer of Clement of Rome. Writing at the very end of the first century, Clement is one of the earliest non-canonical Christian writers, with at least one (possibly two) extant letters to the church in Corinth. This short prayer asks that God might cause our leaders to govern with a heart for the Lord, seeking peace and righteousness. And it asks this of a God who alone is able to affect the changes this land so desperately needs. So join me in echoing this prayer as part of your day of prayer today, and let us submit our government to the Lord.

Grant unto all Kings and Rulers, O Lord, health, peace, concord, and stability, that they may administer the government which You have given them without failure. For You, O heavenly Master, King of the Ages, give to the sons of men glory and honour and power over all things that are upon the earth. Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well pleasing in Your sight, that administering in peace and gentleness, with godliness, the power which You hast given them, they may obtain Your favour. O Lord you alone are able to do these things, and indeed things far greater than these! We praise You, through the High Priest and Saviour of our souls, Jesus Christ; through Whom be the glory and the majesty, unto You, both now and for all generations, and forever and ever. 


This is the third post I’ve recently uploaded looking at prayers from the first Christians, you can find the others through the links below.

Church in lockdown: weary and burdened? A second century prayer of intercession.

Church in Lockdown: Weary and Burdened? A 4th Century Prayer for Refreshment.

Church in lockdown: weary and burdened? A second century prayer of intercession.

Many of us are weary. Many of us are merely plodding on, and the race feels hard to run.

With lockdown and restrictions on our churches gathering, and with many Anglican brothers and sisters concerned about the publication of LLF today and the fallout and implications of that, we deeply need to be resting on our true source of strength.

During the last lockdown I posted some reflections on a fourth century prayer encouraging us to rest in our Lord, and you can find that here.

This time I want to publish a very short second century prayer, and a simple encouragement with that.

This prayer is from the mouth of Polycarp, an early second-century Christian martyr. This short prayer is found close to the end of the account of Polycarps’s life and death, when he faces the vicious persecution of the Roman state, and has been condemned to die at the hands of the Roman executioners. Polycarp was an old man when he faced this trial (86 years old) – yet he persevered through the strength of the God he depended on in prayer. Our God is so much stronger than our weaknesses, and His power is so much more than our fears. We were encouraged at our church on Sunday morning by the joy of 1 Peter 5:7: “cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.

Our God is great. He cares deeply for us. And He is strong enough to bear our fears and anxieties. So do not be afraid to come to Him for all that you need, even as strains and worries seem to be mounting. In times of great trial and weariness, of suffering and pain, we can wonderfully come to Him who cares for us.

Polycarp knew this and even in his final hours he looked to the one who had saved him, and the one who sustained him even to the end.

So let us trust in God alone to equip us. Let us trust in God alone to sustain us and bless us with what we need to face each day. And pray that this may be so for one another. As we cast our anxieties on Him, may we rest in His strength and depend on His mercies.

Find below the prayer of Polycarp, and whatever burdens you carry at the moment, take time to reflect on this ancient prayer in your own heart, cast your anxieties upon Him, and ask that He might equip you and sustain you as He has long promised to do.

May God the Father, and the Eternal High Priest Jesus Christ, build us up in faith and truth and love, and grant to us our portion among the saints with all those who believe on our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray for all saints, for kings and rulers, for the enemies of the Cross of Christ, and for ourselves we pray that our fruit may abound and we may be made perfect in Christ Jesus our Lord. 


Book Review: Merry Christmas And a Happy New Year (reflections) by Timothy Cross (DayOne 2020)

This is an unusual little book of reflections, and to be totally honest, before opening it up I was sceptical at what it was trying to do. Cross doesn’t offer a series of dated studies, or a series of deeply structured devotions. Instead, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year offers the reader 30 short reflections for the festive season. These aren’t necessarily designed to be read along with the days of December (it’s one short for that, and the chapters would have Christmas fall on the fifteenth if you did try!)

Instead, this short book offers 30 reflections to be read throughout the festive period, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Simple and short, yet packed full of Biblical truth and helpful commentary, Cross provides a book packed full of Christian wisdom. The reflections are also augmented with stanzas from poems or carols, that support the message of each study and help the reader dwell on the Biblical truth they have seen.

A particular point worth highlighting: Cross ends each reflection with a few short points to consider. He doesn’t leave the reader with lengthy study questions, or even with a suggested prayer. Instead he leaves simply a few thoughts for the reader to take the time to mull over. It’s a different way of doing Christmas devotions, but it’s a helpful pattern to gently and humbly rest in God’s truth at the end of each of these reflections.

I really enjoyed this book. Whilst sceptical at first, I was won over by Cross’ honest style, pastoral heart and Scriptural grounding. Although not perfect, I enjoyed how the reflections were short, simple and open-ended. You could make as much or as little of his points for reflection at the end of each chapter as you like. I also enjoyed the fact that Cross writes studies not only for the Christmas period, but also some for the time around New Year. At a time of year when many people, believers or not, are prone to question certain aspects of their lives, consider hopes and dreams for the year ahead, and plan out their next steps, I found these to be helpful reflections to point us back towards Scripture and ground us in the words of our Heavenly Father. Cross was also honest in his approach; he doesn’t ignore the fact that this isn’t always ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ for us all. Loved ones are absent, perhaps permanently, and things might not be how we would like. But these reflections turn our attention back to Christ, our hope and joy at Christmas, in the New Year, and at all times.

I would recommend this book, unusual though it is. It’s not your standard Advent devotion, nor is it really a daily Quiet Time aide. It’s more of a supplement to both of the above. It makes for easy reading, whilst challenging the heart with the truths that lie at the centre of what this season is all about. It would be a good book to have by your bedside, or on your desk over the coming months, to dip into once or twice a day for a short read and a prayerful meditation.

In a world dominated by the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Christmas looks more and more likely to be ‘cancelled’ this year, this book is a helpful read to remember what the festive season is really all about. Christmas cannot really be cancelled, because the glorious truth of God made man is ever sure. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, and this book is a simple, Biblical and gracious testament to that glorious Good News.

Epictetus: ancient philosophy and the question of hope.

A Classical account I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a small fragment of the Roman philosopher Epictetus. Preserved only as a few lines of text, this ancient philosophical musing reads like much of the worldly wisdom we are offered today.

Οὔτε ναῦν ἐξ ἑνὸς ἀγκυρίου οὔτε βίον ἐκ μιᾶς ἐλπίδος ἁρμοστέον.

We ought neither to secure our ship to a single anchor, nor our life to a single hope.

Epictetus, Frag.30 (89).

Epictetus is making a simple point with these words, likely written in the early 2nd century AD. (Epictetus lived c.50 AD – 135 AD.) It’s the ancient equivalent of the idiom ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Epictetus sees a world where hopes are continuously dashed. A world where there is no certainty, no lasting stability. To live out a good life, Epictetus teaches, don’t fix your hopes on one thing.

A Radical Alternative

Epictetus was writing at a time when the first Christians were establishing some of the earliest church communities, and the Gospel was starting to spread throughout the Empire and beyond. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher, teaching a worldview that had roots in the ancient world stretching back hundreds of years. Yet the first Christian communities began sharing a new message. Rather than the hopeless impermanence of the pagan philosophies of the day, the Early Church offered a message of eternal security.

At the heart of their message was a Jewish man named Jesus Christ, whom they claimed was the Son of God Himself. And it was in Him, and Him alone, that the early Christians placed their hope.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The offer of this Son of God was eternal life, for whoever should believe in Him alone. And this is a claim made by Jesus Himself, recorded just a little later in John’s Gospel.

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6

Epictetus looked out at an uncertain world and called for a sceptical approach, one matched by our modern world. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t hope and trust in one thing alone. Be flexible, it’s all relative. The first Christians countered that with a living hope. And it equipped them to step out in boldness and live out their faith in a hostile Roman Empire.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

1 Peter 1:3

Because their hope was so secure, it gave them confidence for this life and the next. Theirs was a living hope. Not a fragile anchor, or merely another fleeting hope in a long list of disappointments. The hope of the Early Church was in Christ alone, a true and living hope, a sure and certain hope.

That Living Hope Today

Some 1800 years later, this hope remains. In Christ alone can true human hope be found. All other sources of hope and security will disappoint us, all others will let us down. Our hopes will be dashed if they are continually misplaced. But in Christ alone, our hope is in the sovereign and all-powerful Creator God. And if our God is for us, who can be against us?

I write this brief reflection on a day when America counts the ballots from their Presidential Election, and tensions are running high. I write this on a day when the British Parliament votes on implementing a national lockdown for a month from tomorrow, to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.

So many people, myself included, are tempted to hope in our governments and our democracies. We hope for change, for improvement, for victory. We hope for better, for our side to triumph, for our interests to be recognised. But we shouldn’t listen to Epictetus, casting our hopes onto anything and everything that we can. We should anchor our hope in the one sure and certain truth. We should anchor our hope in the eternal security of Christ alone.

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ Alone, v.1 Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.