It was October 28, 312, a time of contention between two opposing men seeking the control of a grand empire. After the abdication of Diocletian in AD 305, there were multiple claims to the throne and it was Constantine and Maxentius who would battle it out on that October day. It is said though that something spectacular happened the night before that would lead to perhaps one of the grandest expansions of Christianity in the era that spans between Paul and modernity.
It is the night before the battle in which the event in question took place. Constantine had been a believer in the sun god Sol Invictus. Yet, on the evening before Constantine saw the sun covered by a cross with the words in hoc signo vinces which means, in this sign, prevail. Some say it was a vision that was seen both by Constantine and his soldiers while other versions simply stipulate that Constantine simply had a dream. Surprisingly, that aspect of the story is not important. What is important is that Constantine supposedly responded by utilizing the cross in his battle and did win, and with that win, the doors of Christianity we finally opening after years of severe persecution from previous emperors. In fact, from the event several important aspects of God are revealed.
In the current secular mindset, few are willing to give credit to God for Constantine’s victory, while more give credit to the tactical advantage for his victory. This is because Maxentius made some errors, first by cutting down the bridge to one lane so that Constantine’s army could not so easily cross. Logically, this made sense, but when Constantine’s army advanced and backed up his opponent’s to the river, they had no room to regroup without crossing the bridge themselves (which they could only do slowly because of previously narrowing it). The result was a decisive victory for Constantine.
True, this was a tactical victory. However, no minute detail escapes the sovereignty of God. He is the ultimate cause of all things. Therefore, what took place was his divine work and that work resulted in something grand for Christian history.
As God’s sovereignty worked, it took down the barriers that once existed. Those barriers not only resulted in social isolation and oppression but even outright persecution against those identifying with Christ. However, with this divine work in history through a seemingly ordinary historical battle, God opened up the door so that those who believed in him could go freely about.
Specifically, in AD 313, Constantine approved the Edict of Milan that allowed for the toleration of Christians. The result was Christians were given more privileges equal to those who did not identify with Christ. Some were appointed to high offices and Christian priests were given privileges equal to those of pagan religions. As a result, the influence of Christians grew exponentially giving opportunities for the third result.
While certainly the gospel expanded much in the years following Christ, as we can see especially in the epistles of Paul, the growth of that message was somewhat stunted by persecution (although certainly we see God use persecution to expand his message as well). However, with the privileges afforded to Christians from Constantine, doors that were not previously opened were swung wide for Christians to use for the gospel.As a result, the gospel could go out more freely without a cloud of fear and objection that had previously tainted the testimony of Christians (even though some of it was a false perception).
The Battle of Milvian Bridge was a decisive one for the continuation of the Roman Empire. However, it also had a great impact on Christianity as well. The results that infiltrated society afterward created the standard opportunity that Christians have generally enjoyed up to this day.
There is a great debate about the genuineness of Constantine’s conversion. Being centuries removed, we are hardly in a position to judge his salvation, nor should we try. However, what is certain is that we can see God positioning people and events throughout history for the greatest impact on his message and his people, thus bringing him the greatest glory. It’s a lesson to us that even the most isolated events can have a profound impact on the course of history, especially for Christians. Therefore, it becomes important for us to delve more into history to understand the present.
Photo “Arch of Constantine” courtesy of user David McKelvey and Flickr.