St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is not the only epiphany that influenced the course of Christianity, there was another one you may want to know more about. After the Day of Pentecost mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1 between 30-36 AD, the Gospel began to spread across Asia and the Middle East. Churches were established and their numbers increased daily. This was aided by the freedom and safety of travel provided by the Roman Empire and facilitated by the universal language of Greece. Between 62-68 AD the Apostle Paul traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar concerning the charges brought against him by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Between 95-100 AD John would have his great revelation on the Isle of Patmos and the second generation of Christian leaders would began to take the reins of the church.

Just before this period in history occurred, on March 15, 44 BC, the Roman world was shaken to it’s foundation with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Though the effect would prove to be staggering, no Roman was as profoundly affected as Gaius Octavius. Octavian served under Julius Caesar in the Spanish expedition of 46 BC despite his delicate health. And he was to take a senior military command in Caesar’s planned Parthian expedition of 44 BC, although at the time being only 18 years old.  But Octavian was with his friends Marcus Agrippa and Marcus Salvidienus Rufus in Apollonia in Epirus completing his academic and military studies, when news reached him of Caesar’s assassination.  At once he returned to Rome, learning on the way that Caesar had adopted him in his will. No doubt this only increased his desire to avenge Caesar’s murder.

Augustus was undoubtedly one of the most talented, energetic and skillful administrators that the world has ever known. The enormously far-reaching work of reorganization and rehabilitation which he undertook in every branch of his vast empire created a new Roman peace with unprecedented prosperity. Following in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, he won genuine popular support by hosting games, erecting new buildings, and by other measures to the general good. Augustus himself claimed to have restored 82 temples in one year alone. But further there were grand new buildings like the Theater of Apollo, the Horologium (a giant sun dial) and the great Mausoleum of Augustus. But during his final years Augustus withdrew more and more from public life. Intending to travel with Tiberius to Capri, and then on to Beneventum, he left Rome for the last time in AD 14. He fell ill on the way to Capri and, after four days resting on Capri, when they crossed back to the mainland Augustus at last passed away. He died at Nola on 19 August AD 14, only one month away of his 76th birthday. The body was taken to Rome and given a stately funeral and his ashes were then placed in his Mausoleum.

The Roman Empire then limped along with various successes and setbacks until 161 AD when Marcus Aurelius became emperor of the Roman Empire. He brought stability and prosperity back to the great nation. Some historians called it the happiest time to be Roman, and rightly so. It was the center of a world economy, the bastion of the greatest fighting force on earth, and it had influence over a great part of the civilized world. It would be termed by some as the “Golden Age” of the Roman Empire.

But when Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD the nation was plunged back into squabbling and discord with some 38 different politicians vying to be the next emperor over the ensuing 100 years. It resulted in economic chaos, higher and higher taxes for a swelling bureaucracy and national debt that taxed the middle class out of existence. Rome ended up with a large but inefficient army because of no leadership or vision.

Then in 284 AD Diocletian became emperor. He was able to stabilize the situation and bring it back to some normalcy, but at a great price. He ordered a career freeze. In other words, no one could change career fields. If your father was a baker, you would be a baker; if your father was a carpenter, you would be a carpenter, and so on. There was a price fixed on all products. Consequently, the profit margin was good for some but bad for others. All individual rights were eliminated, the government was in charge of every aspect of the Romans life. Diocletian also removed all religious tolerance, and ordered, much like Nebuchadnezzar had done, that only the gods of Rome were to be worshiped and venerated. And along with this came severe persecution of Jews and Christians.

Diocletian didn’t like being cooped up in Rome, he liked being out and about conquering. So he divided the Empire into regions and appointed leaders over these areas. One of these was Flavius Valerius Constantinus, a Roman army officer, and his consort Helena who was a Christian. He became the deputy emperor in the west in 293 AD. He had a son named Constantine, who was sent east, where he rose through the ranks to become a military tribune under emperors Diocletian and Galerius. In 305 AD Flavius Constantius was raised to the rank of Augustus, senior western emperor, and Constantine was recalled to campaign under his father in Britannia. When his father Flavius died, Constantine was acclaimed as emperor by the army in 306 AD.

Constantine didn’t like what was going on back in Rome, so he followed in the footsteps of Julius Caesar and decided to march on Rome and conquer it so that he could help return it to glory. But unlike Julius Caesar who crossed the Rubicon River on the east side of the Italian peninsula, Constantine headed out of Britain down through France and over the alps along the western side of the peninsula. And instead of reaching the Rubicon River, he came to the Tiber River in order to cross the Milvian Bridge. But much to Constantine’s surprise, the current emperor of Rome, Maxentius, decided to leave Rome and come out to Milvian Bridge to engage Constantine.

The great historian Eusebius tells us, “Being convinced…that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance ….While he was…praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven… He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. … And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.

So while Constantine waited and contemplated what to do, he prayed as his mother Helena had taught him. He reported that he had a vision and looking up into the sky he saw the Greek letters Chi = X superimposed over the letter Rho = P which formed the symbol . As a result, he ordered that all of his troops paint this symbol on their helmets and carry banners with it boldly displayed.

So on October 28, 312 AD they engaged Maxentius at Milvian Bridge. Constantine was victorious and Maxentius who had built a temporary bridge made out of boats to get across and surprise Constantine, was drowned along with many in his army as they tried a hasty retreat.

When Constantine reached Rome, the entire Senate went out to greet him as conqueror. They wanted to build a monument to him, but he allowed it only if they did not include any names of Roman gods or other deities. He declared himself a Christian and proclaimed that the Roman Empire would become a Christian nation. So the Arch of Constantine was erected in celebration of the victory, and in the center over the arch were inscribed the words: To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.

Under Diocletian and his successors, Jews and Christians had been so persecuted and viciously treated that if something was not done soon, they would be driven to extinction. And just like the Apostle Paul on his way to Damascus who saw a great light and heard a voice that introduced him to Jesus Christ and gave him directions for his life, so Constantine saw a light and heard a voice that encouraged him to finish what he had set out to do.

So we must ask ourselves, what would have happened to Christianity if Paul had not had his Damascus Road experience, and Constantine had not had his Milvian Bridge experience? We don’t need to ponder it because we know what happened as a result of these two divine encounters. So much of what has become the great movement of Christianity today has at times boiled down to the actions of one person, such as Jesus of Nazareth, Saul of Tarsus, and Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine who was a Christian in a pagan society. I’m sure that when the books are open in heaven, we will find out that there were many, many more.

So ask yourself, in your family, in your neighborhood, in your town, in your city, in your state, in your school, in your work place, if God ever wanted to use you to make sure the chain is not broken, would you be willing to risk it all and be obedient.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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