Within a few generations it became one of fastest growing religions on the planet, spreading to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire… Northern Africa. Israel. Turkey. Germany. England.
Its followers worshiped a god who came to earth in human form.
According to some legends, he was born of a virgin… in a cave.
He shared a last meal of bread and wine with his followers, before ascending to his father in heaven.
His followers met on Sundays and celebrated his birthday every December 25.
The name of this god was Mithra. His legend predates the birth of Jesus by sixty years.
Asclepius was known for healing the sick and restoring sight to the blind. He even raised the dead, which made Zeus so angry that he killed Asclepius…
Shortly after that, Asclepius rose from the dead.
People began worshiping him some 300 years before Jesus.
Now… imagine you’re one of the first Christians. You travel from city to city, all over the Empire. You tell everyone you meet about this Jesus, born of a virgin, who turned the water into wine. Healed the sick. Gave sight to the blind. Raised the dead. He was killed, buried, and rose from the dead.
Not very original, is it?
The problem wasn’t convincing people that Jesus could do miracles like these. The problem was, the Roman world already had a pantheon full of gods who did them—long before Jesus did.
And yet, within a few generations of Jesus, his followers had turned the world upside down. They had transformed entire cities. Christianity became one of the fastest growing religions in the Roman Empire.
So what was it that made Christianity so compelling? What was so unique about these followers of Jesus, if not their story? I’d like to suggest three possibilities…
1. The belief that God is for us.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
— Paul, Romans 8:31 (TNIV)
Most of us who are Christians have heard this verse so many times, our eyes begin to glaze over when someone quotes it… and we miss its absolutely revolutionary message:
God is for us.
In the Greco-Roman world, you could not count on the gods being for you. There was no sense hoping they had your best interests at heart. They might help you out of a jam one minute, only to curse you the next. They were unpredictable, unreliable.
A God who died and rose again was not unique. But a God who died and rose again because he loved us? That was almost unheard of.
2. It was such good news, they couldn’t keep it to themselves.
Many religions in Jesus’ day were so secretive, they became known as “mystery cults.” They claimed to possess secret knowledge or divine wisdom—known as the musterion—available only to their initiates.
Paul uses the same language to describe Jesus’ movement. He called it “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations” (Colossians 1:26). But there was one crucial difference:
This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.
— Colossians 1:24 (TNIV)
This musterion was for everybody.
3. Christianity upended the social hierarchy of the Western world.
When they said “everybody,” they meant everybody. Many religions had membership restrictions. Mithraism, especially popular among Roman soldiers, was for men only. The priests of Asclepius would heal just about anyone (provided they had enough money)… except for pregnant women. (Lots of them died in childbirth, so they were considered something of a liability.)
And in guild temples across the empire, whenever worshipers gathered to feast (and to participate in, um, other activities), everyone ate according to their class. First to eat were the rich—the aristocracy, the elite, the high society. Anyone holding Roman citizenship was guaranteed a decent spot in line, followed by freedmen (former slaves). As for the slaves, they might get to eat scraps from the tables… if they were lucky.
Then there was a guy named Paul, with the audacity to write:
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
— Galatian 3:28 (TNIV)
Jesus is for everybody. Women, men. Slave, free. When they gathered to eat, rich and poor ate together, served one another, loved one another. In Christ, social distinctions became meaningless. Everyone had equal value and dignity in the eyes of God.
Is it any wonder Christianity turned the world upside down?