Was it with John the Baptist? Christ's earthly ministry? The Crucifixion? Pentecost?
Well, if the answer was any of the above options, we would probably conclude that it doesn’t matter, that it is rather arbitrary. But none of these is the correct answer, so that makes the question more interesting.
I agree with many who say that church history begins long before any of the options I provided. It starts with Abraham, for is to him that the gospel was first preached:
The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." (Gal 3:8)
The church is not "the New Testament Israel." Israel is the Old Testament church. And so we must begin with Abraham.
Abram (born ~2000 B.C.) was a native of Ur, located in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). His father Terah moved the family from Ur to Haran, which would today be on the Syrian border with Turkey. This is described in Genesis:
Terah took his son Abram [Abraham], his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Gen 11:31)
There are several interesting things to note.
- I am sure you all know that eventually God changed the patriarch’s name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) (Gen 17:5).
- You might be tempted to conclude that they named their new city Haran after Abraham’s dead brother (and Lot’s father), who died before the move, but they didn’t. It’s a different word.
- At first this initial migration, from Ur to Haran, appears to be “routine” in some sense. If this were all that scripture had to say about the more from Ur to Haran, you might conclude it was at the impetus of Terah, Abraham’s father. But nearly two thousand years later Stephen, when speaking to the Sanhedrin, tells them:
2To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 3'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'
4"So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. (Acts 7:2-4)
So even this first leg of the journey, from Ur (in Mesopotamia, the land of the Chaldeans) was at God's direct instruction to Abraham.
Abraham's father Terah died in Haran. You know what happens next:
1 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.
5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (Gen 12:1-5)
Abraham and his immediate descendants lived in the Promised Land, but they did so as aliens. Before his descendents could conquer and claim the land that God had set aside for them, they had to grow in number, witness God’s grace for His special people, and harden themselves for battle .
The third generation of Abraham’s descendents, in a time of famine, traveled to Egypt, around 1750 B.C. There they thrived, living a pastoral life in the vicinity of where the Suez Canal would be built.
During a frenzy of building under Rameses II, the Jews, the descendents of Abraham, now large in number, were enslaved. After a few decades they were freed under miraculous circumstances and led out of Egypt by Moses. It was time to conquer and occupy Palestine.
The conquest was not an easy one, with many setbacks due to their lack of faith in God and their disobedience.
Finally, around 1000 B.C., King David was able to win an Empire for Israel.
This time of victory was short-lived. David's empire didn’t even last through the reign of his son, Solomon. It divided into two small kingdoms, each nominally worshipping the God of their fathers. Israel was the kingdom in the north and Judah, which included Jerusalem, in the south. These two kingdoms had ignominious fates: the north was conquered (and utterly annihilated) by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and the south by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. (and were carried off into captivity).
There are some interesting facts about the kings of the northern and southern kingdoms. While the southern kingdom lasted about 136 years longer, they both had the same number of kings (20). However, in the north there were nine dynasties, meaning nine different families ruled, even some foreigners. In the southern kingdom their was only one dynasty: the house of David.
In the time of the two kingdoms, a series of prophets arose. These prophets assured that some of the Jews remembered the covenant that God had made with their race. The whole earth was to be blessed through the descendants of Abraham. But the Jews had been disobedient servants, so the task of bringing the message to the world is entrusted to another servant. Isaiah the prophet wrote, around 740 B.C.:
He says, "It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isa. 49:6)
In this coming servant is the hope of promise of the covenant. He will be despised and murdered, but the result if his coming will be liberation for many.
Thus at this point in church history, we have one national hope: A servant of Yahweh will raise up the tribes and restore Israel, making her a light to all nations. It is easy to see how this would be thought of politically, as some grander version of David's empire.
During the captivity in Babylon, the hope of the nation is kept alive in visions of the prophet Daniel, who tells the people that the pagan rulers are empowered by God and they reign will not last forever:
"In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. (Dan. 2:44)
"This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers
And the decision is a command of the holy ones,
In order that the living may know
That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind,
And bestows it on whom He wishes
And sets over it the lowliest of men." (Dan. 4:17)
The idea of this coming servant of Yahweh and his kingdom drew during the closing centuries B.C., strengthened by the nation suffering the rule of a sequence of empires. After domination by the Babylonians came Persian domination, and then Greco-Macedonian. One mad Macedonian king, Antiochus IV, attempted, about 175 B.C., to abolish the Jewish religion, replacing temple worship with worship of Zeus. We can read about this in the non-canonical (but useful) 1 Maccabees:
43 And king Antiochus wrote to all his kingdom, that all the people should be one: and every one should leave his own law.
44 And all nations consented, according to the word of king Antiochus.
45 And many of Israel consented to his service, and they sacrificed to idols, and profaned the sabbath.
46 And the king sent letters by the hands of messengers to Jerusalem, and to all the cities of Juda; that they should follow the law of the nations of the earth.
47 And should forbid holocausts and sacrifices, and atonements to be made in the temple of God.
48 And should prohibit the sabbath, and the festival days to be celebrated.
49 And he commanded the holy places to be profaned, and the holy people of Israel.
50 And he commanded altars to be built, and temples, and idols, and swine's flesh to be immolated, and unclean beasts,
51 And that they should leave their children uncircumcised, and let their souls be defiled with all uncleannesses, and abominations, to the end that they should forget the law, and should change all the justifications of God.
52 And that whosoever would not do according to the word of king Antiochus, should be put to death. (1 Macabees 43:54)
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century A.D., writes about this terrible time:
And when the king had built an idol altar upon God's altar, he [Antiochus] slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day. He [Antiochus] also commanded them not to circumcise their sons, and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII.5.4)
The Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, members of the priestly Hasmonean family, led the nation against Antiochus. For eighty years the Jews maintained their national independence. Many Jews mistook this brief respite as the dawn of a long-awaited golden age.
Then the Romans took control of Palestine in 63 B.C.
In a way it was a relief, because the ruling Hasmoneans turned out to be just about as bad as the pagan rulers before them.
The time is very ripe. The arrival of the servant of Yahweh is at hand.
Virtually everyone agrees that the Roman Empire was a logistical necessity:
This great empire prepared the physical scene for the spread of the gospel. It gave peace in place of constant tribal warfare; it built a great network of roads and bridges that made travel possible all over the then known world; it cleared the sea of pirates so that trade by sea and travel by ship became common practice; it protected its citizens from robbers and rioting. All of these conditions favored the easy movement of the messengers of Christ so that along the many roads which Rome had set up for her military purposes, the gospel of peace went out to the world. (B. K. Kuniper, The Church in History, p. 4.)
Rome could even demand a census, when that was necessary for prophesy to be fulfilled (c.f. Luke 2).
Although Rome dominated politically, Greece dominated culturally, and her language and culture were adopted by the admiring Roman conquerors.
The Greek language had become the world language, one that would enable Paul to communicate with all his hearers in the part of the Roman Empire where he did most of his work. When Paul quoted the Old Testament to the Jews whom he met on his journeys, his quotations were from the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament made as early as two hundred years before Christ. (B. K. Kuniper, The Church in History, p. 5.)
However, there is more that was ripe, something beyond the infrastructure provided by Rome and the culture and language provide by Greece.
The constant subjugation of the Jews for over five centuries, and especially under the domination maniacal Antiochus, had led the pious minority of Jews to attach more importance to the concept of resurrection. After all, obedience to God’s word no longer (it seemed) led a lengthening of one's days. Quite the contrary, it often meant a short life terminating in a painful death.
The idea of resurrection was not unknown before the last century B.C, it just wasn't emphasized. Jesus pointed out where it was there for the Jews all along, plain as day in the Old Testament. Addressing the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, He said
26Now about the dead rising--have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? 27He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:26-27)
Once again we can look at the inter-testament literature to find a clue. In the book of second Macabees, we read about the martyrdom of a piuous family, seven brothers and their mother. As one brother is about to die, he says to the king:
And when he was at the last gasp, he said thus: Thou indeed, O most wicked man, destroyest us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life. (2 Macabees 7:9)
The writer of Hebrews refers to the martyrdom of the period of the Maccabean revolt, also associating the idea of resurrection:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. (Heb 11:35)
In addition to the idea of resurrection, the notion of coming Messiah king was still strong among Jews during the last century before Christ, though it begins to change somewhat in the details of the expectation. For example, in the curious Book of Enoch (the grandfather of Noah), written about 100 B.C. and quoted in several places in the New Testament (e.g., Jude 14-15, James 5:1) we read:
4 And this Son of Man whom thou hast seen
Shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats,
[And the strong from their thrones]
And shall loosen the reins of the strong,
And break the teeth of the sinners.
5 [And he shall put down the kings from their thrones and kingdoms]
Because they do not extol and praise Him,
Nor humbly acknowledge whence the kingdom was bestowed upon them.
6 And he shall put down the countenance of the strong,
And shall fill them with shame. (Book of Enoch 46:4-6)
And this amazing text:
3 Yea, before the sun and the signs were created,
Before the stars of the heaven were made,
His name was named before the Lord of Spirits.
4 He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall,
And he shall be the light of the Gentiles,
And the hope of those who are troubled of heart. (Book of Enoch, 48:3-4)
As last century B.C. closed, many complex and odd ideas were percolating among the Jews. For example, some believed that if all Israel kept the law perfectly for one entire day, the Messiah would come (imaging the frustration). Others essentially started the monastic lifestyle, including the sectaries of the Qumran, whose caves held the Dead Sea scrolls. Others formed fellowship communities where the members encouraged one another, much like modern churches.
Yes the time was ripe. The infrastructure was in place. The language and culture were in place. The Jewish mindset was anticipatory; it expected the onset of the kingdom of God like never before.
But there was just one more thing, one final preparation.
John the Baptist
About A.D. 28, in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley.
The prophets had been silent for four hundred years; finally a new prophet had arisen. But this prophet had a message like no other. His message was not of hope of things to come at some unspecified future date; his message had unprecedented urgency. He preach a message of repentance, but no so to quicken the arrival of the kingdom of God, too late for that, for John the Baptist spoke of the kingdom as being at hand (Matt 3:1).
There was no ambiguity in John’s words. He spoke with conviction—absolute certainty that the Messiah was already among them. He told them to prepare through an initiation rite, a baptism by water that he performed in the Jordan river. This itself was a fulfillment of prophecy:
"On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech 13:1)
This was not only a completely new message, it was an unthinkable requirement. Gentiles had to be baptized if they wanted to convert to the Jewish faith, but for Jews to be baptized was, to many Jews, scandalous. John explains by being the first to point out that the seed of Abraham is no longer a genetic but a spiritual lineage.
And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Matt. 3:9)
John's ministry was powerful, vital, but short lived. He made an enemy of king Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) who feared John because of his following, yet dared not move against him lest his martyrdom spark a rebellion. Eventually he imprisoned and killed John after John criticized his marriage to his own sister-in-law, Herodias.
A few years later Antipas was defeated in battle by his father-in-law. They both agreed that this was a divine judgment for the execution of John. We know this in part from the writings of Josephus:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him. (Josephus, Antiquities, XVII.5.2)
Here we pause, for indeed the stage is set.