This godly man is not generally known as a revivalist, but we think his outstanding credentials warrant his inclusion in our list of heroes. He was a first generation convert who developed a passion for God, fought for the truth under extreme hardship, was used in powerful signs and wonders and led countless numbers to Christ – an impressive resumé!
Gregory was born in a Pontus, a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, located in the modern-day eastern Black Sea Region of Turkey, around 212-13. His was a wealthy home and his parents named him Theodore (Gift of God) despite their pagan beliefs. When he was 14 years old his father died and soon after, he and his brother, Athenodorus, were anxious to study law at Beirut, Lebanon, then one of the four of five famous schools in the Hellenic world.
However, on the way, they first had to escort their sister to rejoin her husband, who was a government official assigned to Caesarea in Palestine (modern Haifa, Israel). When they arrived they learned that the celebrated scholar Origen, head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, lived there. Inquisitiveness led them to hear and speak with the Origen and his irresistible charm quickly won their hearts. They soon dropped their desires for a life in Roman law, became Christian believers and pupils of Origen, learning philosophy and theology, for somewhere between five and eight years. Origen also baptised Gregory.
Gregory returned to his native Pontus with the intention of practicing oratory, but also to write a book proving the truth of Christianity,
revealing his evangelistic heart. But his plans were disrupted when locals noticed his passion for Christ and his spiritual maturity.
There were just seventeen Christians in Neoceasarea when Gregory arrived and this small group persuaded him to lead them as their bishop.
(‘bishop’ simply meant a local overseer). At the time, Neocaesarea was a wicked, idolatrous province.
By his saintly life, his direct and lively preaching, helping the needy and settling quarrels and complaints, Gregory began to see many converts to Christ. But it was the signs and wonders that particularly attracted people to Christ.
En route to Neocaesarea from Amasea, Gregory expelled demons from a pagan temple, its priest converted to Christ immediately.
Once, when he was conversing with philosophers and teachers in the city square, a notorious harlot came up to him and demanded payment for the sin he had supposedly committed with her. At first Gregory gently remonstrated with her, saying that she perhaps mistook him for someone else. But the loose woman would not be silenced. He then asked a friend to give her the money. Just as the woman took the unjust payment, she immediately fell to the ground in a demonic fit, and the fraud became evident. Gregory prayed over her, and the devil left her. This was the beginning of Gregory’s miracles. It was at this time he became known as ‘Gregory Thaumaturgus,’ ‘Gregory the Miracle Worker’ (or Wonderworker).
At one point Gregory wanted to flee from the worldly affairs into which influential townsmen persistently sought to push him. He went into the desert, where by fasting and prayer he developed an intimacy with God and received gifts of knowledge, wisdom and prophecy. He loved life in the wilderness and wanted to remain in solitude with God until the end of his days, but the Lord willed otherwise.
Though he was primarily an evangelist and pastor, Gregory also had a deep theological understanding. His principal work ‘The Exposition of Faith’, was a theological apology for Trinitarian belief. It incorporated his doctrinal instructions to new believers, expressed his arguments against heretical groups and was widely influential amongst leaders in the Patristic period: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa (The Cappadocian Fathers). It was the forerunner of the Nicene Creed that was to appear in the early 4th century.
He gave himself to the task of the complete conversion of the population of his diocese. The transformation in Neocaesarea was astonishing. Persuasive preaching, numerous healings and miraculous signs had a powerful effect. Such was his success that it was said that when Gregory became bishop (c 240) he found only seventeen Christians in his diocese; when he died only seventeen remained pagan (Latourette 1953:76).
Basil the Great (330-379, Bishop of Caesarea, in his work ‘On the Spirit’ wrote the following account of Gregory the wonder-worker.
“But where shall I rank the great Gregory, and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they; who never through all his days diverged from the footprints of the saints; who maintained, as long as he lived, the exact principles of evangelical citizenship?
I am sure that we shall do the truth a wrong if we refuse to number that soul with the people of God, shining as it did like a beacon in the Church of God: for by the fellow-working of the Spirit the power which he had over demons was tremendous, and so gifted was he with the grace of the word 'for obedience to the faith among. . .the nations.' that, although only seventeen Christians were handed over to him, he brought the whole people alike in town and country through knowledge to God.
He too by Christ's mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover, his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit, in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church. Thus, in all that he through grace accomplished, alike by word and deed, a light seemed ever to be shining, token of the heavenly power from the unseen which followed him. To this day he is a great object of admiration to the people of his own neighborhood, and his memory, established in the churches ever fresh and green, is not dulled by length of time. (Schaff and Wace nd., Series 2. 8:46-47).
"Gregory was a great and conspicuous lamp, illuminating the church of God." —Basil the Great
Davies, R. E. ‘I will Pour out my Spirit.’
Latourette, Kenneth Scott ‘A History of the Expansion of Christianity. Volume 1, The First Five Centuries.
Douglas, J.D. ed. 1974. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.