In the following parable, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of the commencement and growth of that kingdom He was planning to establish.
“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Mt. 13:31-32).
The master Teacher, employing the tiny mustard seed as an object lesson, suggested that his kingdom would start in a small, relatively obscure fashion; exhibit extraordinary growth; and increase to a large size in proportion to its beginning.
History has wonderfully demonstrated the fulfillment of the Savior’s words.
The Kingdom’s Founder
From the very beginning, as the natural eye would evaluate things, it must have appeared that the Christian movement was destined for failure. For the fact of the matter is, Jesus Christ, its founder, had none of those qualities that are normally associated with the establishment of great empires. But this, of course, was by divine design.
The prophet Isaiah had foretold that Christ would grow up “as a root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2). How unlikely it is that a “tender plant” could even survive in “dry ground.” But the Lord not only survived, he shook this planet to its very core.
Let us observe how the odds, so to speak, were stacked against Christ.
First, contrary to the usual Jewish expectation, Jesus came to the earth as a baby. Many Jews expected the Messiah to be a valient conqueror on a prancing charger, violenting overthrowing the pagan Romans (and that sect known as the Zealots sought to implement that concept).
But contrary to such crude expectations, God sent forth his Son “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). The poet, George MacDonald, captures this truth beautifully:
They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high:
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
Secondly, from the very beginning evil men attempted to kill the Lord. Matthew dramatically reveals how Herod the Great “inquired” [the imperfect tense stresses his repeated investigation] where the Christ should be born (Mt. 2:3).
He ultimately murdered all the male babes of Bethlehem in hopes of eliminating the Savior (Mt. 2:16).
Thirdly, Jesus was reared in the despised Nazareth — not exactly an enhancement to his reputation (cf. Mt. 2:23; Jn. 1:46; 7:52).
Fourthly, the Lord had no formal rabbinical training. The Jews once said: “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (Jn. 7:15). They were amazed at his knowledge in view of the fact that he had not been trained at the feet of some prominent rabbi.
Fifthly, he had no vast financial resources with which to found his kingdom. The scripture plainly affirms that he was “poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). and the Greek term means “to be poor as a beggar” (Vine 1952, 192). Christ acknowledged that he had no place to lay his head (Lk. 9:57).
Sixthly, Jesus certainly had no political machine, nor even any worldly fame by which to launch a world-wide movement. Secular history virtually ignored him altogether. In fact, initially, even his own kinsmen were unimpressed with his exalted claims (cf. Jn. 7:5).
In short, it would appear that Christ possessed all of those elements which, from the human viewpoint, would absolutely spell disaster! How could he possibly succeed?
Add to this the fact that he was killed in the prime of his life, and one wonders how could his movement survive, let alone accomplish anything significant? Yet here it is — Christianity — the most dominant force in civilization!
The Kingdom’s Ambassadors
The apostles of the Lord certainly were not endowed with any natural qualities which would, on that basis alone, explain the phenomenal expansion of the church of Christ. They were, as a matter of fact, very ordinary men.
Several of them were mere humble fishermen who would have been for ever lost in the obscurity of antiquity had it not been for their involvement with Jesus. By their contemporaries, the apostles were assessed as “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13). This expression really denotes those who lack rabbinic training, those who are not expert or skilled (i.e., non-professional men).
There were also, within the apostolic band, those potentially explosive components, which had it not been for the guiding hand of the divine Master, could easily have destroyed the infant movement.
For example, there was Matthew, a tax-collector who had been in the employ of the Roman government (cf. Mt. 9:9). As a publican, Matthew was from a hated class of men. But the Lord called him to, “Follow me.”
Yet, along with him came Simon, who is called “Zelotes” (Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13), and that means he had been a member of the Zealot sect. Now Zealots were haters. They hated the Romans, and they especially hated Jews who “sold out” to the Romans by cooperating with them.
Under any other circumstances, Simon would have killed Matthew in a moment! But Christ brought them together!
How did this group, so different in many ways, launch the mighty kingdom of Christ into the ancient world?
Further, it should be noted that the apostles were not men of great wealth, for they forsook their businesses to follow Jesus (cf. Mk.1:18; Lk.5:28). On their preaching tours, the apostles’ provisions were quite meager (Mt. 10:9, 10). so that Peter could honestly say, when solicited by a beggar, “Silver and gold have I none” (Acts 3:6).
And so, the establishment and expansion of the kingdom of Christ cannot be explained on any natural basis, and yet, grow it did. The word “grow” is almost too mild. Really, it exploded!
The unprecedented growth of God’s divine kingdom was clearly foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament era.
For example, Isaiah declared that when Jehovah’s house was established “all nations shall flow into it” (Isa. 2:2).
Again, of the glorious gospel age the prophet announced: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9) — and this is not a prophecy of some future millennial reign of Christ on earth, for Isaiah 11:10 is quoted by Paul in Romans 15:12 of the Gentile influx into the church (cf. Ezek. 47:1ff).
The rapid growth of the early church, therefore, was to be expected.
The Kingdom Explosion
As one examines the record of the founding and growth of the first century church he cannot but be stunned by the explosive nature of those events. Note the following.
On the day of Pentecost some three thousand souls were ushered into the kingdom of God (Acts 2:41), and subsequently, day by day, others were added to that number (2:47).
Soon, the number the men was five thousand (Acts 4:4), and “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14). The apostles were presently charged with having “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel (Acts 5:28). So the “number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly” with even a great company of priests obeying the faith (Acts 6:7).
Before long, persecution came and the disciples were scattered abroad, but they went about preaching the word and so the gospel went into Samaria where great multitudes gave heed to its precepts (Acts 8:4, 5).
In Acts 8, the saving word was dispatched to Ethiopia in Africa by means of the conversion of the eunuch, and in Acts 9, in connection with Saul’s conversion, we discover that Christianity had already been planted in Damascus, Syria (cf. Acts 9:10). In Acts 9:31 there is evidence that the church had spread throughout “all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria.”
The Gentiles are introduced to the Christian message in Acts 10, and in the latter part of chapter eleven, the word goes into Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Syria) with a “great number” turning to the Lord (Acts 11:21). Again, in Acts 12:24, “the word of God grew and multiplied.”
The missionary endeavors of Paul commence in Acts 13. He and Barnabas take the gospel to Cyprus and then on to Asia Minor where many converts were made (cf. Acts 14:21). On the second missionary campaign (Acts 15:40ff) Paul again forged westward, along with Silas (and later Luke and Timothy) where, in Asia Minor, “churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5).
In Acts 16 the kingdom spreads into Europe and the Christian system burns like a fire out of control. Great multitudes are led to the truth (cf. Acts 17:4) and presently the disciples are accused of having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
On and on they went. As Paul says it,
“Their sound went out into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18).
The Divine Explanation
How does one explain this remarkable expansion of primitive Christianity?
Any attempt to view it in the light of strictly natural bases is doomed to utter failure. The growth of the kingdom of Jesus Christ can only be explained on the basis of its divine origin!
But let us consider several aspects of this matter.
God’s Love for Sinners
Doubtless multitudes were converted to the Christ because of the love that was manifest at the cross.
In a world that is enslaved by sin and weighted with guilt, the message of forgiveness through the death of Jesus Christ just has to be the most thrilling message of history. The gospel has thus found a happy home in millions of honest hearts.
Christianity would never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the demonstration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The church of God stands or falls on whether or not Christ was raised from the dead. If he was not, our faith and preaching are vain, we are yet in our sins, and of all men, we are most pitiable (1 Cor. 15:14ff).
But the truth is, Jesus was resurrected, and so, by the resurrection, he was declared to be the Son of God with power (Rom. 1:4). The great classical scholar, Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), who served as Professor of Modern History at Oxford, once characterized the Lord’s resurrection as the “best-attested fact in human history” (1939, 2569).
Many were won to the cause of Christ because of the loving benevolence of the early saints. When the need arose, they generously cared for one another (cf. Acts 2:44, 45; 11:29). Jesus had said that their love for each other would identify them as his disciples (Jn. 13:35), and the power of that love was infectious.
The unity of doctrine was certainly an attractive element of Christianity. The Lord has fervently prayed that all of his disciples might be “one.” The effect of this would be “that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (Jn. 17:21).
It is not without significance that the church experienced its greatest period of growth when “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
Religious division, contrary to the doctrine (Rom. 16:17), has been a woeful curse upon the Lord’s cause. And those who applaud it, promote it, and support it are worse than those who initially crucified the Son of God.
Purity of morals was a unique feature of the Lord’s church as it stood in stark contrast to the sordid filth of the ancient pagan religions. Thousands were revolted by the lasciviousness of the heathen systems and so sought relief in the refreshing spiritual climate of the Savior’s people.
Peace in the Face of Persecution
The serenity of spirit characteristic of the early Christians must have been a source of wonder to many. How were they able to sweetly endure persecution? How could they bless even their enemies? What source of strength did they have? Surely this must have aroused the interest of many.
A Final Word
Yes, the kingdom of Jesus Christ, from a seeming insignificant beginning. became a great and powerful force to be reckoned with in this world. May each of us do our part to see that it continues so!