When my brother and I were growing up, we would fight with each other. He would put my arm behind m back and wouldn't let go until I would ask for mercy. I tried to hold it as long as possible, but there was always the point that I had to say 'mercy'. When I was reading about persecution and martyrs I had to think about this game. This was only a game and had nothing to do with denying Christ, but it did make me think how I would react when I would be persecuted. My faith in Christ is strong and at this point I say that nothing can get me away from that, but I have also an enormous fear of pain. Not the pain of a toothache, but real suffering. Yet Jesus teaches us that we will have to endure persecution and that we have to be willing to take up our cross and follow Him.
The Goal of Persecution
The goal of persecution was to eliminate the Christian Church and to bring a fear by the non-Christians not to become a member of this Church. Before I start writing about persecution in the bible and in the early Christendom, I want to quote a part of the Epistle to Diognetus:
Do you not see the Christians exposed to wild beasts, that they may be persuaded to deny the Lord, and yet not overcome? Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the greater becomes the number of the rest? This does not seem to be work of man: this is the power of God.
This quote reminds me of the words of Paul in Romans 8:28
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. (NIV)
No Justification for Persecution
This is not to justify persecution, but it is to show that God has a plan and that He is still in control. Nero and others were not fighting against man, but against God, and that is a battle that no one can win, because He is the Almighty God.
What Does the Bible Tell Us About Persecution?
Nowhere in the Bible we read that living a life with and for Christ would be easy. The reward will be in heaven, but on earth we will have to overcome difficulties. Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11,12.
So Jesus doesn't only say that we are blessed when they persecute us, but we should even rejoice. These words are so easy to read when you do not face any persecution, but it must have been a great strength for those persecuted and is a great strength for those now a days being persecuted.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:12
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
The Words of Jesus
Jesus words are very clear:
- Whosoever does not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
As Christians we should not be bounded to this earthly life, but we should be focused on the life we are going to have with Him in heaven. The suffering may be hard and painful, but the reward shall be with Him and He was willing to die for us when we were still sinners, how can we then not be willing to lay down our lives for Him who died for us and paid the price for us. This is not to say that it is easy and that the persons persecuted have an easy task, it is more an encouragement.
- He, that loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.
- He, that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it.
The Early Church and Persecution
The early Christians were mainly persecuted because they were different, and difference bring suspicion. So, by living the way Christ had told them, they condemned the pagan way of living. This is not to say that the condemned the pagans with words, or that they criticized the pagan-lifestyle by talking about it, but it was simply the Christian ethic in itself what was a criticism of pagan life. Christians couldn't join in a lot of the 'normal' activities of the early life. They didn't attend the heathen feasts and didn't pray to the gods for rain etc… The early Christian was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time, if he wanted to be true to His Lord (Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, page 40).
The Romans therefore disliked the Christians, because they felt criticized by them. This hatred was extremely big by Nero. In the year 64 Nero put the city of Rome on fire and accused the Christians. The accusation was not true, but many Christians were arrested and persecuted in the most terrible way. In the movie "Spartacus" this is shown and made me realize how cruel people can be to each other. Nero had Christians crucified, eaten by the lions, used as torches in his garden etc… It was probably during this persecution that the apostles Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom (Shelley, page 41). Shelley also says that these ways of bloodshed were not normal, it was the first time that Christians were being persecuted in such a terrible way.
Another accusation against the Christians were based on misunderstandings of what they celebrated with the Lord's supper and the 'holy kiss'. People heard about this and thought that there was sexual immorality going on and that Christians ate real blood and flesh (Shelley, page 42).
Another accusation made against the Christians was that of atheism. The charge arose from the fact that the people of the Roman empire couldn't understand the concept of an imageless God. So they blamed the Christians for insulting the gods of the state. There wasn't so much left of the ancient worship, but there were still some events were people were expected to worship the gods. Around 249 AD emperor worship became obligated. The Roman Empire was extremely big and to bring unity and control all the people, except for the Jews, had to worship Ceasar. Worship of another Lord could only open the floodgates of chaos (Shelley, page 44).
Ceasar-worship was mainly invented to see if a citizen was political loyal. The Christians prayed for Ceasar, but not to him. The Christians would never say; "Ceasar is Lord," because for y\them there was only one Lord, Jesus. That is why Rome regarded them as a band of potential revolutionaries threatening the very existence of the empire (Shelley, page 44). God was more important to them than worshiping Ceasar or the pagan gods. They hold stand fast. Of course there were Christians who did deny the name of the Lord; it is hard to say anything about that. At this moment I concentrated myself on the persecution of Christians who did not deny the name of the Lord. There were many who could not stand up the persecution, and left the Faith.
Problems faced by the early church are still relevant for all of us even in the western nations. Persecution comes in the form of physical violence in the Asian, African and Latin American nations. But in the western world persecution is well-polished, it does not appear to be a persecution. However, laws are enacted that encourage persecutions by forcing Christians not to follow what the Lord Jesus Christ commanded them to follow.
If the Christians in the early ages had to distinguish themselves from the society, how is that now in 21 century? The gap between the world and Christianity still exists. Are we willing to lay down our safe lives and stand up for Jesus? Not only in countries where there is daily persecution, but also here in the West. Why do Chinese pastors prefer to stay under persecution instead of coming here; because there the Church is alive! We have to wake up and carry our identity in Christ outside the safe walls of the church. As we see throughout the history of the church and as we see now in countries where there still is persecution, the number of Christians grow! We have a testimony to share a hope to give to this lost world. The world has to see through our lives that Christ is the Lord and that nothing can separate us from His love! He is strong when we are weak!
Jesus is very clear on this, and I want to end with one of His sayings:
Whosoever does not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.