Constantine the Great is said to have received his famous Vision of the Cross which will join the Sword of Constantine to the Cross of Christ in the governing of the Roman Empire, much to the detriment of the Jews for centuries to come.
Resting with his army near Milvian Bridge in Rome, Constantine the Great fell asleep wondering what the morning would bring on October 27, 312. Facing combat the following day against Maxentius, his brother-in-law and a fellow claimant to the throne of the republic, Constantine reported seeing a vision of the cross in a dream. When he managed to attain victory the next morning, the future unifier of the Roman Empire endorsed Christianity – the faith of his mother – as something more than a cult worthy of persecution, soon granting an early form of religious freedom to the populace as a whole.
When the two opposing forces gathered near the Ponte Milvio late that October, the conflict promised to be yet another in a string of fights to see who would control the Roman Empire. After Diocletian stepped down in 305, the Tetrarchy he had created – a four-person group responsible for for ruling separate pieces of Rome’s vast territories – crumbled in the vacuum. Both Maxentius and Constantine were to ascend to the role of Caesar, with the eastern tetrarch Galerius and Constantine’s father Constantius elevated to senior positions as Augusti, but a power grab resulted.
The Romans favored Maxentius, while Galerius at first backed Constantine before attempting to capture the capital for himself. By early 312, Constantine resolved to take the fight to Maxentius, crushing resistance in Turin and Verona as the spring fighting season began. Gathered on the northern edge of Rome, the enemies – related via Constantine’s marriage to Maxentius’ sister Fausta – would decide things once and for all.
On the night of October 27, 312, Constantine attempted to get some rest before the battle the next morning. Summoned in a dream to “delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers,” he awakened believing the Christian God would grant him victory over Maxentius, according to the account of Lactantius, Constantine’s advisor. Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, wrote something slightly different: leading his army towards Rome, Constantine witnessed a cross of light above the sun accompanied by the phrase “In this sign, you conquer.”
In either case, he managed to defeat Maxentius’ army on the 28th and march triumphantly through Rome the following day. Believing himself a conquering hero, Constantine headed to the Senate and promised reforms, his first act in what would become a campaign to unite the Roman Empire under his reign. Though he would issue the Edict of Milan with co-ruler Licinius in 313, effectively giving citizens the ability to practice whichever system of religious beliefs they chose, he would eventually conquer his fellow leader in 324.
Though rightfully claimed as the first Roman ruler to accept Christianity, scholars debate the extent to which Constantine engaged the religion. Shortly before his death in 337, he received baptism, but there are minimal records discussing how the belief affected him personally. To this day, however, he is celebrated as a saint and the first Christian king by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
For Jewish believers in Jesus Constantine’s victory was a mixed blessing – an opportunity for their faith in Jesus to be acknowledged, protected and permitted, but for their identities as Jews within the Church to be proscribed, persecuted and prohibited. The stream of anti_Jewish and anti-Jewish Christian anathemas and condemnations that accompanied the great Councils of Chalcedon and Nicea with Constantine summoned to bring doctrinal and ecclesial unity and conformity were the first in a long series of legislation against Jewish practices, expressions of belief, and ultimately of Jewish life and existence.
He would instruct the Christians to disassociate themselves from Jewish practices in a letter after the Council of Nicaea:
“… it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul … Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way.” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine Vol. III Ch. XVIII Life of Constantine, Book III)
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the vision that Constantine received, assuring him of victory at the Battle of the Milvian bridge. Like all visions, it needed to be bathed in prayer, tested through circumstances, and confirmed by your Word. Yet the political and military considerations allowed a victory which led to the loss of the Jewish core within the Christian faith, persecution of our people Israel, and the prevention of Jewish expressions of faith in the Messiah. Lord, you know the times and seasons of all human powers – you are in control of history and nothing happens contrary to your will, despite the evil that is often in our hearts. Even today we see the nations raging and your people Israel caught up in complex conflicts which the love of Yeshua would challenge. May the powers on earth submit in humility to your authority. May we have godly leaders who act in integrity and faith. May the violent conflicts be silenced by the coming of your kingdom. May the true meaning of ‘in hoc signo vinces’ (“in this sign you will conquer”) be manifested in our lives today – as we live out your redeeming power and presence not through military might but through the life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of God, Yeshua the Messiah. Amen.