Sharing God’s Word - Part 1
Before we begin this lesson, let me set the stage for you. Tell you a little about what it was like to live in the 1st Century, which is when the book of Acts took place.
The Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the northwest, through present day France and Spain to the west, across Europe to Turkey and Syria in the east and along North Africa to the south. Rome ruled an estimated 60 – 65 million people of diverse ethnicities and cultures.
For the very elite, about 2-3% of the population, life was very comfortable. For the rest it was most often miserable.
The Emperor, based in Rome, was top man. The power of the position was a strong draw and of the men who were Emperors during the Acts period a great percentage were murdered and a few committed suicide.
In this world religion and politics were not separate. They were partners in reinforcing the imperial status quo and civic order by seeking divine blessing on it.
Members of the elite served as priests for the soul purpose of displaying and augmenting their wealth, status and power. They provided temples, shrines, images, offerings, processions, street festivals and feasting to honor imperial birthdays, anniversaries of gaining power and military victories. The message was that the gods had chosen Rome to rule and cooperation was the only course of action.
The non-elites experienced considerable social unrest and distress in the cities. Estimates of population density during that time suggested overcrowding higher then in our modern cities. Many were displaced by loss of land through inability to pay taxes and rents. Ethnic tensions often ran high.
Most people lived in small, dark, damp and dirty cubicles in poorly constructed wooden, multi-storied tenements with narrow streets, minimal privacy, numerous animals, poor sanitation, little sewage and garbage disposal, limited fresh water, pervasive crime, unpleasant odors, risk of fire and constant social disputes.
I think we tend to picture white woolly lambs on rolling green hills and people walking around in nice clean robes, don’t we?
Well, it wasn’t like that.
Food shortages were common. And like oil is power in our world, food was power in Rome’s world. Shortages caused urban riots, attacks on city officials and merchants, stealing and problems paying taxes. The urban elites did not store surplus for times of shortage. They didn’t seem to care about the poor.
You know it was Christianity that developed most of the outreach programs we have today. Acts 11:28-29 shows one of the first examples when the Christians in Antioch responded to the prophecy of famine by sending relief “according to their ability” to believers in Judea.
Lack of food, lack of variety of food and poor quality food led to disease. From skeletal remains we see that the non-elites suffered extensive malnutrition. Painful bladder stones from deficiency of dairy products. Eye diseases from lack of vitamin A and vegetables. Ricketts from inadequate vitamins and minerals. Lots of contagious diseases: diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, typhus, skin rashes and swollen eyes.
Where as the elite might live to their 60s and 70s, the non-elites lived to about 40. 50% of their children didn’t make to age 10. Jesus, we remember, was kept busy healing and He always had a special place in His heart for the poor. Early Christianity was a work that transformed the damage caused by the Roman imperial world.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus told the disciples they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came on them and they would be His witness in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Acts 17:6 tells us that this “turned the world upside down.”
God made His word spread fast and far beginning at Pentecost to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem who had come from all over the world. They took it home with them and it spread across vast geographical, economic, cultural, religious and ethnic boundaries. A church formed that included Greeks and Jews, men and women, Roman citizens and barbarians, slaves and freed. While it clearly was a mighty act of God, He used His people to witness. And we are still called to witness.