The providence of God gets lost in the singular discussion regarding salvation. When we talk about this topic this is the main idea. However, as I continue to look through a historical lens I see more than that. Maybe we do not think beyond salvific things in reference to God’s providence and allow ourselves to see His hand moving throughout history. It might be that we accept God’s providential work through the Scriptures, but somehow, someway, we lose sight of that same work after revelation stops.
Have you ever thought about how God raised and crushed empires before the time of Christ, for the sole purpose of paving the way? I see three major influences upon the known world leading up to the time of Christ: Greece, Rome, and Judaism. All three contributed uniquely toward the appointed time of the incarnation of Jesus. All three are uniquely directed by the hand of God to supply instrumental components to the expansion of Christianity in the first century and beyond.
First, let’s go back and remember the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that captured the Northern and Southern Kingdoms; the North by Assyria in 722, the South by Babylon in 586. The Babylonian Empire would not last much longer, for the Mighty Persians would come in and take control in 539. Cyrus graciously, under the direction of God, allowed the people to return, but it was also during the captivity that the Jews established the synagogues, something that will be key for the apostle Paul’s ministry in the first-century. The Jews who remained in the land under the exile began to intermarry and a new ethnicity of people, the Samaritans, arrived. Persia wouldn’t last forever, and in the mid 300’s BC Philip of Macedon led the Greeks to take control of Palestine. He was assassinated in 336, and Alexander “the Great,” his son, would take the throne at 20 years of age. Alexander provided some strategic factors that the Empire used to help pave the way for Christian expansion. He continued the effort of Greek city-states and provided a universal language, koine Greek. Philosophy develops a dominant new way of thinking. Men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle helped to fashion new schools of thought and educational methods.
All of these influences became instrumental to the first-century Christian expansion. I assert they are all under the directive hand of The sovereign God.
The Greek Empire would not last, and a brief period of Jewish independence under the Hasmoneaon Period takes place, roughly 167-63 BC. During this time of intertestamental history some Jewish religious groups develop. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and others are some of those groups. Eventually they will play a substantial role in the life and ministry of Jesus. It will be these religious groups that work in tandem to execute Jesus. Rolled into the voluntarily work of Christ to lay down His life is the strategic providential hand of God (Acts 2: 22-24). The Jews always carried the teaching of monotheism everywhere they went. This one true God was personal and directly involved with the people for centuries. They also longed for a promised eschatological Messiah, albeit a wrong concept, but a Messiah nonetheless. No other empire processed a teaching like the Jews concerning God and Messiahship. Finally, the production and composition of the Septuagint established the OT Scriptures in the common language. Scribes took these OT Scriptures and copied them for others.
All good things come to an end, and Pompey led the Romans to take control of Palestine around 63 BC. They slowly and methodically took control of the entire empire. Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius ruled throughout the early NT era. While the Romans had many faults, I still think God was using them for a specific purpose. They provided a strong centralized government and instituted civil law. They brought civility to a less than civilized empire. They implemented an impressive legal system and constructed roads, shipping routes, and began to trade; “All roads lead to Rome.” It became the center of the empire, and even the Apostle Paul wanted to travel there. Latin eventually became a common language. From 30 BC-180 AD Rome experienced a time of peace known as Pax Romana, in which no other nations sought to overthrow the Empire. This meant they could focus on establishing cities, commerce, trade, and civilization. God’s hand was at work, preparing and setting up what was to come!
All three groups provided unique aspects to the rise of Christianity. The Greeks establishing one universal language, making it possible for someone to speak to all people when traveling from one side of the Empire to the other. Anyone who has traveled today knows this would be a major benefit to the spreading of the Gospel. Also, the philosophical systems would influence many of the early church fathers, providing us with some of the greatest literature in Christian history. The Jews provided religious leaders who would oppose the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They would eventually be the ones God used to bring about the voluntary death of His Son. They also would give the example of hypocritical religious elite spiritually dead persons. However, they promote a monotheistic religious worship, which was unique to the Greco-Roman cultures. The Romans provided the access to the cities. Roads and ship routes made traveling from location to location much more accessible. One could get from point A to point B in a timely manner. Paul’s 3 missionary journeys were possible because of these roads and routes.
You see God was at work, even through the development and diminishing of world empires. He did all of it for a reason. No stone of any empire was left unturned without a strategic and specific purpose. Viewing history in this way should provide the 21st-century believer with confidence, faith, and trust that the same God who did that is working the same today!