The 22 books that make up the New Testament were written between 20-50 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. The earliest books of the New Testament were the letters of Paul, and in later decades other Apostles and their followers composed the four gospels as well as the letters we call “General Epistles” (James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Hebrews, Jude) and the Book of Revelation. While the content of the earliest letters of Paul show us that the earliest Christian communities struggled with ethnic harmony and articulating what exactly God’s grace means, these later documents show us that as the church grew in the world, it encountered hostility and persecution from its neighbors.
The lifestyles of Christians were very different from their pagan neighbors. They did not participate in idol worship or emperor worship, they practiced sexual chastity and abstained from things like prostitution, they adopted discarded children, practiced non-violence, and simply lived by a different set of values. Additionally, they were often misunderstood in their beliefs (when Christians talked about communion, some people thought they were cannibals!). For all of these reasons, Christians were a despised minority in the first centuries of the church.
The Roman Emperors Nero, Domition, and Diocletian chose to use the small Christian movement as a scapegoat for the decline of Roman power. So thousands of Christians were martyred between 50AD and 280AD.
You’ll find the letters of Peter, John, Hebrews, and Revelation are very concerned with these persecutions. The book of Revelation in particular speaks to this situation; not only to encourage Christians to keep the faith in the face of their struggles, but to explain how the suffering of the early church is simply a reflection of the entire human story of God’s work against sin and evil. Revelation is a book difficult to understand, full of strange and confusing imagery, but ultimately it is the reassurance that God will bring about the completion of his creative work by raising us to life, sparing us from judgment, and reuniting heaven and earth.
Within all of the complicated and confusing images of the book of Revelation, we find a vision of the completion of what Jesus had promised: one day he will return to complete the solution to the problems of sin and death. We are called to be faithful to following Christ, to persevere in the face of struggle, and to reject the temptations of life apart from Christ.
By the late first century, all of the original Apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus life had died. Yet the Christian church persisted, and without the living witnesses of Jesus and his life, the church begins a many decade process of assembling the writings of the Apostles as the New Testament to be the authoritative instruction on Christian doctrine. The early centuries of the church would proceed with incredible challenges.
- What are the things that make it hard for you to live a Christian life?
- What is Peter’s advice for those who suffer for their belief?
- Define “perseverance”. What does it mean to persevere as a disciple of Jesus?