When you travel to the country of Georgia (not the state here in the U.S.!), one of the first images you see upon leaving the capital Tbilisi is a small, ancient monastery perched high atop a hill at the confluences of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers. Having been built in 605 A.D., the Jvari Monastery (Monastery of the Cross) is a testament to the almost 1800-year-old history of Christianity in Georgia. One need not seek far to discover references to the earliest days of Christianity since St. Matthias, the replacement disciple for Judas, is claimed to be buried in a village not far from the border with Turkey.
And yet, other religions vie for the hearts of the Georgian people. “Many years ago, I took (LHF executive director) Matthew Heise to an ancient place of Georgia called Armazi, which is located close from the capital city of Tbilisi,” recalled LHF translator Ruslan Tsintsadze, who goes by the name Bato. “We climbed for about 2 miles along a narrow path that went to the top of the high mountain. The climb took several hours until we arrived at an ancient Zoroastrian altar.
“Before Christ, Georgia was under the control of Persian empire, and Persian missionaries arrived to train Georgia’s Zoroastrian priests,” Bato continued. “In those days it was very common to sacrifice humans to the heavenly powers, and complete darkness was ruling whole country. Each region had their own gods, and even some families have family-protecting gods. Boldly we can say that it was like India here in Georgia, with people were worshiping everything and everyone.”
As the centuries passed, Christian missionaries brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Georgia.
“Between Georgia and Israel is just around 1,000 miles,” Bato said. “History tells us that in the first century in Georgia, there came three different apostles of Christ who preached the Gospel to Georgian tribes. So in west Georgia to the coast of the Black Sea, there organized some small church groups. In this way, Christianity started in Georgia from the very first days of Christendom.”
SOVIET COMMUNISM TAKES A TOLL
“Georgia’s Christian past is never far away from the minds of the people due to the vast number of historic cathedrals and monasteries scattered throughout the country,” added Rev. Heise. “It was no wonder that the military victory of Soviet communism in 1921 began a devastating 70-year battle for atheism in the land.”
As in other Soviet Union countries, the imposed atheism took a toll on Christian families in Georgia.
“But when those 70 years of trial were over, Georgia was open again to the Christian witness. I was able to go there in 2002 when Concordia Seminary professor, Dr. Robert Kolb, led a few seminars throughout the country,” Rev. Heise remembered. “One thing we discovered is that when communism fell, people were open to reading the Bible and learning more about their faith. The state-supported Orthodox Church, while including many kinds of priests with different opinions, does not always teach extensively from the Bible but calls Georgians to their ‘ethnic’ faith.”
This “ethnic” faith is a concept very familiar to Bato.
Because Georgia neighbors the country of Turkey, where the Orthodox Church is very strong, “I think this is the main stronghold of the mind of the typical Georgian man,” he said. “Many centuries of Orthodox beliefs fashioned the mentality of Georgian people, and for them, Orthodoxy became national identity. [Therefore], everything which is not associated with this kind of faith is heresy and sect. More than 80% of Georgian population is Orthodox and perhaps they do not resist Protestant churches, but their heart is closed to any other religion because the national tradition.”
Thankfully, given its 200-year history in the country, Lutherans can rightfully state that they are not a cult but an established church that was also consumed by communism, with its pastors being executed in the 1930s, explained Rev. Heise. Today, there are very few Georgian Lutherans, only about 10 congregations.
SHINING THE LIGHT OF THE GOSPEL
To introduce new believers to the Savior, LHF has been working along with The LCMS’ Office of International Mission since 2014. Orthodox priests and Evangelicals have been impressed by the biblical, theological rigor of Lutheranism as they read LHF translations.
Now more than ever, sound biblical teaching is needed. This year Bato translated Dr. Kolb’s book Martin Luther: As He Lived and Breathed, so that Georgians could gain a better understanding of the man who defied the Roman Catholic Church of his day by proclaiming that believers are justified before God by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone!
“Dr. Kolb’s powerful literary work is very informative and gives a lot of insights about the background of the Lutheran faith,” said Bato. “We desperately need such books which clarify what is real saving Christian faith and what is Protestant belief in reality.
“Our friends, you don’t know how grateful we are to you at the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, that you are making available these kinds of books to Georgian readers,” Bato concluded. “Blessings from the Republic of Georgia. Amen!”