According to the Roman historian Tacitus, by AD 64 there was ‘an immense multitude’ of Christians in Rome, nearly a thousand miles away from Jerusalem! This was only 31 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So how did such a astonishingly rapid growth occur in the life of the early church? There are two important clues in the last chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans.
Paul wrote this letter in AD 55, only nine years earlier and hence in the midst of the church's rapid expansion during those first 31 years. He began chapter 16 by sending greetings to 26 members of the church in Rome whom he knew by name, even though he had never been there himself. Evidently people moved about quite a bit, even in those days before mass transport was available. What I find extraordinary is not so much that Paul knew so many members of the church there, but that he could remember all their names and how they had served the Lord. If he knew the names of so many people in a church he had never visited, how many more people did he know by name in all the churches he had visited, in churches he had actually founded? How could any man remember the names of so many people in many different cities and remember so much about them? I can only conclude that Paul had a huge prayer list, and that he regularly prayed for all the Christians he knew so that their names remained in his mind. Which, of course, is exactly what he did. He wrote to one church, 'We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.' (1 Thessalonians 1:2,3)
So what exactly did Paul pray for these fellow believers, apart from giving God thanks for them? We have a clue about that in his own request for prayer at the end of his letter to the Ephesians. '...keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel...' (Ephesians 6:18,19)
Christians today frequently pray that unbelievers will turn to Christ and be saved. But do you know that there isn't a single prayer like that in the New Testament? The New Testament believers didn't pray for unbelievers to be saved: they prayed that they themselves would share the gospel with unbelievers with such boldness and conviction and love in the power of the Holy Spirit that unbelievers would repent and believe in Christ. "And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness..." (Acts 4:29)
So here is one great clue as to why the early church expanded so fast. The secret was constant, persevering, mutual prayer for one another by name to have boldness and power to share the gospel with an unbelieving world. So the question you and I have to ask ourselves is this: do we do the same? Are we 'keeping alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints' by name? If not then we need to start doing it. We need to start doing it now.
Next week I hope to share with you the second clue in Romans 16:1-16 as to why the early church grew so fast. See if you can work it out first!