In 2001, Armenia celebrated its 1700th anniversary as the first Christian nation in the world. If you were to ask members of the Armenian Apostolic Church today about their church’s origins, they likely would answer that the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew first brought the gospel to Armenia in the middle of the first century. They may also mention a major event from AD 301. After hearing the gospel from the missionary Gregory the Illuminator (ca. 240–332), King Trdat (250–330) believed in Christ and was baptized. Then, new believer as he was, the king declared his kingdom to be a Christian nation.
Marked by protracted suffering, remarkable displays of God’s power, and witness in the highest political spheres, Gregory’s late third-century mission to Armenia has much to teach us about mission across the globe today.
Gregory’s Historic Mission
According to the Armenian historian Agathangelos, Gregory the Illuminator first came from Asia Minor in the late third century to serve the Armenian King Trdat. When Gregory refused to make sacrifices to an Armenian goddess, Trdat had him tortured and then thrown in prison for thirteen years. Agathangelos recorded that, during those years, Trdat, his household, and all his servants became afflicted by demons and fell deathly ill. Desperate and running out of options, the king summoned the imprisoned Gregory to pray for them. Gregory did, and God answered his prayers. The king and his household were healed and delivered from demonic oppression. Trdat rewarded Gregory by giving him the freedom to preach the gospel throughout Armenia. Then, along with the royal household and the Armenian nobility, Trdat embraced Christianity for himself and was baptized.
Taking his newly found faith a step further, the king, however naively, declared Christianity the national religion of Armenia in 301, ordering the baptism of some four million Armenians. To place these events in a global context, Trdat’s conversion took place a decade before the Roman emperor Constantine’s (ca. 272–337) conversion and decision to give peace to the church in his empire. Trdat was also nearly a century ahead of Emperor Theodosius I (347–395), who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire around 390. Though the Kingdom of Armenia was relatively small, King Trdat’s actions set in motion a pattern of high-level and national conversions that would continue through the Middle Ages.
So what lessons might we take away from Gregory’s historic mission?
Gregory suffered greatly in his mission to Armenia. Before God used his witness to win a nation, Gregory languished in prison for thirteen long years. Not unlike Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Gregory encountered hardship because he refused to pay homage to a false god. Suffering for his integrity as a Christian played a central role in his patient witness to the king.
Gregory’s suffering witness wasn’t anything new. God’s people have always been a suffering people. Joseph, Daniel, and especially our Lord Jesus suffered in the work of making God’s name known among the nations. Luke tells us that Herod, seeking to persecute the church, killed “James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:2). After describing some of his own hardships on account of the gospel to Timothy, Paul concluded, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Many global Christians today — pastors, evangelists, and everyday Christians in places like India, Pakistan, China, and Iran — suffer daily for following Jesus. While we in the West pray for suffering believers and advocate for religious freedom around the world, we shouldn’t be surprised when we also suffer for the gospel. God may be pleased to allow us to go to jail or lay down our lives while serving him. We might lose our jobs and places of ministry or get canceled because of our commitment to the gospel. Gregory the Illuminator’s story reminds us that suffering in mission is part of normal Christian living.
When Gregory prayed and laid hands on King Trdat and his household, they were delivered from demons and healed from sickness. In missiology, we call this a “power encounter.”
While accounts of healing and deliverance might challenge our rational and scientific worldview (or perhaps they raise doubts because of charlatan faith healers we’ve known or heard about), power encounters are normal in Scripture and in mission history. God delivered Israel from captivity through the mighty act of parting the Red Sea. Daniel interpreted the dreams of Babylonian kings. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, delivered people from demons, and even raised the dead. Jesus himself was raised from the dead through God’s power. The apostles’ ministries were accompanied by powerful signs. The ascended Lord Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus in an act of power that led to him to embrace Christ. Throughout Scripture, the gospel often comes with manifest and miraculous power.
In missions today, we of course must emphasize truth encounters. We proclaim Christ crucified, buried, risen, and ascended, and we invite nonbelievers to turn from their sins and put their trust in him. At the same time, power is probably the biggest spiritual concern of peoples in the Global South, so missionaries from the West would do well to make room for power encounters in their mission theology and practice. At a mission consultation in 1978, some majority-world Christian leaders stated,
[We] have spoken both of the reality of evil powers and of the necessity to demonstrate the supremacy of Jesus over them. For conversion involves a power encounter. People give their allegiance to Christ when they see that his power is superior to magic and voodoo, the curses and blessings of witch doctors, and the malevolence of evil spirits, and that his salvation is a real liberation from the power of evil and death. (Willowbank Report, 7D)
Following Gregory, do we pray for healing and deliverance in our ministries? Are we praying that God would deliver us from the evil one and make his kingdom come in our midst?
Evangelism in High Places
Gregory’s mission (in suffering and power) took him to the royal palace. He ministered to the king and his family and to the Armenian nobility — the highest echelon of society.
Though Gregory’s engagement with political leaders may seem remarkable to some twenty-first-century eyes, he was merely imitating Daniel, who, because of his job as a government administrator in Babylon and Persia, witnessed to kings and high-ranking officials. Gregory’s mission also resembles the later work of missionary monks, including Augustine of Canterbury, who proclaimed the gospel to the English King Ethelbert in 596, and Columba, who enjoyed similar favor with the Pictish King Bridius in 635.
Most global missionaries today, especially those serving in restricted countries in the Muslim world, tend to steer clear of government authorities and political leaders. They want to stay under the radar. In some contexts, that may be a wise decision. However, some Christians today are following the example of Gregory by building relationships in the realm of government and politics.
Take, for example, a former elected US official who has forged relationships with leaders around the world. While part of his work is advocating for religious freedom for persecuted Christians, he also leads Bible studies in very unexpected spaces. Or consider one African pastor who met regularly with the president of his nation for Bible study and prayer. The president enlisted the pastor as a close advisor to help him wrestle through how to apply biblical principles in matters of state. Though neither of these men is a missionary in the formal sense, both realized that people holding the highest political office still need the gospel of Jesus. The political sphere became their mission field.
The mission of Gregory the Illuminator to Armenia in the third and fourth centuries may challenge how we think about and approach missions today. Will we, the global church, accept and embrace suffering as a normal part of our witness today? Will we proclaim the good news of Christ with our words while expecting God to work in power as we pray and minister? Will we make disciples of all nations and in all spheres — among the poor, the rich, and even those who govern and rule nations?
Edward L. Smither