Early Persecution

By Andy Sochor | Kentucky, USA

As the apostles were commissioned to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19), this would include preparing these disciples to face persecution for the cause of Christ. Jesus warned about this in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great…” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Peter encouraged his readers to “not be surprised” when they would inevitably face persecution “as though some strange thing were happening to [them]” (1 Peter 4:12). As Jesus was put to death on the cross, those who follow Him must be willing to take up their cross as well (Luke 9:23).

From the beginning of the church, Christians faced persecution. In Jerusalem, the apostles were arrested, beaten, and ordered not to preach anymore about Jesus – an order they rightly ignored (Acts 4:1-3, 18; 5:25-29, 40-42). Stephen was put to death (Acts 7:54-60), initiating a “great persecution against the church” which resulted in all but the apostles fleeing Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3). A little while later, James was put to death and Peter also would have been killed if he had not been miraculously rescued by an angel (Acts 12:1-11). Paul faced angry mobs in many of the places where he preached (Acts 13:50; 14:4-7, 19-20; 17:5, 13-14; 19:41; 21:27-36).

Principle Persecutors

When we go through the examples recorded in the book of Acts, we mainly read of persecutions against the church that were local and usually provoked by members of the Jewish community who were opposed to the church. However, these persecutions eventually became widespread throughout the Roman Empire. The following emperors were notable in their efforts to persecute Christians:

  • Nero (54-68 AD) – When the city of Rome burned, Nero deflected suspicion from himself by accusing Christians for being to blame. During his reign, Christians were subjected to torturous treatment, including being sewn up in animal skins to be attacked by dogs and being affixed to trees and used as human torches in his gardens.
  • Domitian (81-96 AD) – The second great persecution by the Romans occurred during his reign. As the historian Eusebius explained, Domitian “established himself as the successor of Nero, in his hatred and hostility to God (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History). Under his rule, hundreds of Christians were put to death.
  • Trajan (98-117 AD) – Pliny, who was governor of Bithynia, wrote letters to the emperor about the “increasing number of Christians” which was causing “the temples of the heathen gods [to be] almost forsaken. Those who made their living by selling animals to be sacrificed to heathen gods had suffered great loss in business” (Church History, John D. Cox, p. 19-20). Trajan’s response allowed for charges to be brought against Christians and, if they were convicted, they would be given the choice to either renounce their faith or be punished.
  • Marcius Aurelius (161-180 AD) – He appealed to a sense of nationalism and nostalgia to justify his opposition to Christians. He endeavored to “restore the ancient religious practices and the old Roman way of life” (ibid, p. 20). Since the gospel was advancing the kingdom of Christ, Christians were seen as a threat and were persecuted for it.
  • Diocletian (284-305 AD) – After a period of relative peace, persecution again became widespread during his reign. In addition to targeting Christians, he also had copies of the Bible seized and burned.

Roman persecution of Christians continued until the time of Constantine who issued the Edict of Toleration in 313 AD. [We will discuss this further in a future article.]

Prominent Martyrs

Though many Christians renounced their faith when faced with persecution, not all of them did. We must be willing to be “faithful until death” (Revelation 2:10), and there were some who remained faithful even in the face of terrible suffering and cruel forms of death. Notice a couple of examples:

  • Ignatius of Antioch – He was killed under the reign of Trajan in 108 AD. While he was on his way to Rome, he wrote to the Christians there “not to use means for his deliverance from martyrdom, lest they should deprive him of that which he most longed and hoped for” (Fox’s Book of Martyrs). He wrote, “Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!” (ibid). When he finally got to Rome, he was killed by wild beasts in the Roman amphitheater.
  • Polycarp – He was believed to have been trained by the Apostle John. When given an opportunity to renounce his faith in Christ in order to escape death, he replied, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?” (ibid). After saying this, he was burned at the stake.

These are examples of individuals who were fully convinced that the gospel was true, that Jesus was the Son of God, and that a reward for faithfulness awaited them after this life.

Why Christians Were Persecuted

Jesus called His disciples to be “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Paul admonished the Christians in Rome, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). With such an emphasis on being at peace with others, why did the church attract such animosity?

In his book, Church History, John D. Cox listed nine reasons for these persecutions. Let us consider a few of these:

  • Heathenism welcomed many gods while Christians worshiped only one God. When Paul was in Athens, he observed that “the city [was] full of idols” (Acts 17:16). When he spoke with the philosophers on Mars Hill, he remarked about “the objects of [their] worship” before proceeding to teach them about the “unknown God” (Acts 17:23). The belief in multiple deities was common throughout the empire, yet one of the fundamental beliefs of Christians was that there was just “one God” (Ephesians 4:6).
  • Idolatry was a way of life for the Romans, yet Christians would not participate in the sacrifices. John closed his first epistle with the warning, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Paul asked the question, “Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:16), in order to make the point that Christians were to “come out…and be separate” from the world around them (2 Corinthians 6:17).
  • In Roman society, slaves were inferior to free citizens, but Christians saw all people as equals. Paul acknowledged the reality of the master/slave relationship and told slaves to “obey” their masters (Colossians 3:22). At the same time, he told masters to “grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). However, even with the master/slave relationship in place, the message of the gospel is that “there is neither slave nor free man…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This equality was a radical view to the world at that time.
  • Some saw their businesses threatened by the spread of Christianity, particularly those businesses whose profit was directly connected to idol worship. This was the reason why Demetrius instigated the persecution against “the Way” in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-24). Since Paul was teaching that “gods made with hands are no gods at all,” there was “danger that this trade [would] fall into disrepute” (Acts 19:26-27). As we already noticed, this also contributed to the persecution that occurred under Trajan. When a group of people believe their livelihood is threatened, they will often lash out at whatever or whoever they perceive to be the threat.

It is interesting to consider the similarities between the world that opposed the early church and the world today. As the wise man noted, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). As the early Christians often had to face severe persecution, we must be prepared to endure the same today without abandoning our faith.

Summary Jesus told His apostles, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). He has called all of us to be different from the world – not “conformed,” but “transformed” (Romans 12:2). Being faithful to this calling is often what will make us a target. This has been happening to Christians since the beginning. Let us not turn away from the Lord when we face persecution; instead, let us show the same courage as men like Ignatius, Polycarp, and even the apostle Paul who “fought the good fight… finished the course… [and] kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

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