The Great Persecution and the Final Victory, Part 5

The History of Christianity #79

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is 1 Peter 4:12 which reads: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from J. C. Ryle. He said: “Let it never surprise us, if we have to endure mockery, and ridicule, and false reports, because we belong to Christ. The disciple is not greater than His Master, nor the servant than His Lord. If lies and insults were heaped upon our Savior, we need not wonder if the same weapons are constantly used against His people. It is one of Satan’s great devices to blacken the characters of godly men, and bring them into contempt.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Great Persecution and the Final Victory” (Part 5) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

But a great political change was about to take place which would put an end to persecution. Constantine, who during the previous intrigues and civil wars had limited his intervention to diplomatic maneuvering, began a campaign that would eventually make him master of the empire. Suddenly, when least expected to do so, Constantine gathered his armies in Gaul, crossed the Alps and marched on Rome, Maxentius’ capital. Taken by surprise, Maxentius was unable to defend his strongholds, which Constantine’s troops rapidly occupied. All that he could do was to collect his army before Rome, and there fight the invader from Gaul. Rome itself was well-defended, and if Maxentius had chosen the wiser course, and remained behind the city walls, perhaps history would have taken a different turn. But instead, he consulted his augurs, who advised him to present battle.

According to two Christian chroniclers who knew Constantine, on the eve of the battle he had a revelation. One of our sources, Lactantius, says that it was in a dream that Constantine received the command to place a Christian symbol on the shields of his soldiers. The other chronicler, Eusebius, says that the vision appeared in the sky, with the words “in this you shall conquer.” In any case, the fact remains that Constantine ordered that his soldiers should use on their shield and on their standard or labarum a symbol that looked like the superimposition of the Greek letters chi and rho. Since these are the first two letters of the name, “Christ,” this labarum could well have been a Christian symbol. Although eventually Christians saw in this the great moment of Constantine’s conversion, historians point out that even after this event Constantine continued worshiping the Unconquered Sun. In truth, Constantine’s conversion was a long process, to which we shall return in a later broadcast.

The important fact is that Maxentius was defeated, and that as he fought on the Milvian bridge he fell into the river and drowned. Constantine thus became master of the entire Western half of the empire.

Once his campaign had begun, Constantine moved rapidly. After the battle of the Milvian bridge, he met with Licinius at Milan, and there concluded an alliance with him. Part of what was agreed there was that the persecution of Christians would stop, and that their buildings, cemeteries, and other properties would be returned to them. This agreement, commonly known as the Edict of Milan, marks the date usually given for the end of persecution (313 AD), although in truth Galerius’ edict was much more important, and even after the Edict of Milan Maximinus Daia continued his policy of persecution. Eventually, through a series of steps that will be told in a later broadcast, Constantine became sole emperor, and persecution came to an end.

Whether this was in truth a victory, or the beginning of new and perhaps greater difficulties, will be the theme of many of the chapters to follow. Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt that the conversion of Constantine had enormous consequences for Christianity, which was forced to face new questions. What would happen when those who called themselves servants of a carpenter, and whose great heroes were fisherfolk, slaves, and criminals condemned to death by the state, suddenly saw themselves surrounded by imperial pomp and power? Would they remain firm in their faith? Or would it be that those who had stood firm before tortures and before beasts would give way to the temptations of an easy life and of social prestige? These were the burning issues that the Christian church had to face in the next period of its history.

Next time, we will look at The Imperial Church – Constantine.

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