Persecution in the Early Church

A review of Church History cannot escape the word ‘martyr’, which springs up in every age and in every place. The fact that untold millions have been killed for their faith in Christ is a staggering phenomenon, which will only continue, until Christ returns. As we consider the history of the early church it is appropriate to put some of that persecution into perspective.

Jewish Opposition

The world into which Jesus Christ was born was under Jewish administration, with Roman oversight. Rome had conquered Palestine, but they relied on the existing local systems and structures to maintain the local order and peace. Roman soldiers intervened when the will of the Emperor needed to be enforced, or to maintain Roman authority if the local leaders could not handle it.

The New Testament history reveals that the Jewish religious authorities were unsettled by the emergence of the new religious characters of John the Baptist and Jesus. We have accounts of their interrogation of John and their persistent opposition to Jesus.

So it is no wonder that, following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the Jewish religious hierarchy was quick to engage in opposition to the early church.

Saul of Tarsus

A prominent young man (I was going to say ‘zealot’ but that has a specific meaning in New Testament times), named Saul, gave increased impetus to the Jewish opposition to early Christians. He was instrumental in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. He was also involved in seeing other Christians killed, imprisoned, pressured to blaspheme and so on.

When Saul was converted to Christianity, by miraculous encounter with the Risen Christ, some of the impetus against the Christians was probably diminished for a time. But it wasn’t long before there were Jewish plans to kill Saul (who we remember best by his name Paul).

Throughout Paul’s ministry he consistently faced opposition from the Jews. Reading the book of Acts we are left with the impression that the church’s main antagonists were the Jews.

Jewish Persecution

Initially Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as an off-shoot of Judaism. Jewish leaders were often told to deal with Christianity themselves, as it was a matter of their own religion. This accounts for the energy which the Jews put into persecuting those who followed ‘the way’.

Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome became so intense that in 51AD the Roman authorities expelled Jews from the city, since they were behaving as disruptive trouble makers.

The Romans

Initially the Roman authorities functioned as protectors of the Christians, especially in the case of Paul, who was a Roman citizen due to his birth at Tarsus. The Roman leaders refused at times to hear the Jewish claims against Christians, seeing it as simply a matter of semantics and competing religious claims in their own localised religion.

Christians, however, became an increasing presence and concern to Rome, since the faith was spreading quickly and widely, and Christians refused to acknowledge any other deity, including the Emperor.

Roman persecution of Christians was first unleashed by Nero, following the Fire of Rome in 64AD which destroyed about three quarters of the city. Nero faced suspicion for having part in the fire, and so it seems he chose the Christians as his scapegoat. There is no reason to suggest that Christians had any connection with the devastating fire at all.

Roman Persecution

Nero attacked Christians with savagery, even using Christians doused in flammable liquids as torches to light up his gardens. While it cannot be confirmed it is understood that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome at this time.

Roman persecution of Christians continued to varying degrees until the time of Constantine’s conversion. Toward the end of the first century Emperor Domitian came to power and persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and instituted a policy of not hunting out the Christians, but putting them to death if they came to the attention of the authorities.

The symbols of early Christian persecution are usually those of the Colosseum, and the Roman catacombs. This is a worthy connection, since Roman Emperors delighted in making public sport of killing Christians.

Joy in Tough Times

In a day and a culture where taking it easy and getting it easy is the rule, it is challenging to see some of the Biblical instructions which speak of dealing with tough times. How good are you at being happy in tough times? How much joy do you think you could muster when you are under duress?

Well, the Bible tells you to be joyful under pressure, so let’s have a look at that and see if we can’t help you move in that direction.

Under Orders to by Happy!

Take a look at this verse from the Apostle James, who was both a half-brother to Jesus and also the leader of the Jerusalem church.

“My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations” James 1:2

That could be paraphrased to say, “Men, have a positive attitude about the whole variety of pressures you are coming under”.

This is not a heavenly suggestion, but a fairly direct instruction. You are under orders to be happy! You are instructed to be joyful when you find yourself in various challenging situations.

The Natural Response

I can be fairly confident that it is not your natural response to be joyful when things go wrong and you are put under pressure. If you are like me you are probably keen to live your whole life without a care.

Our natural attitude to life’s problems can be to resist them and resent them. Some Christians try to blast them away with “faith”. Others complain to God about the frustrations they encounter. Some blame God for their problems.

The issue with this instruction is actually one of Maturity. James points us to a clear understanding of temptations and advises several mature responses. The bottom line is that temptations indicate areas of growth that we need to move through.

Temptations and Tough Times

What James said in the original Greek language in which he wrote, is that we will fall into a variety of tests. The Greek word for “temptations” is peirazo, which, among other things, means, “to try, make trial of, test: for the purpose of ascertaining his quantity, or what he thinks, or how he will behave himself”.

So these temptations are in fact “tough times” of difficult situations. They are circumstances in which you will be tempted to react and show the real quality of your inner self.

The word does not mean “lure to sin” as much as it means “put to the test”. So the various problems that you fall into are each tests to see how you will react and what will come out of you.

The Joy Response

Joy is not the natural response. Usually our response to a new problem is frustration, resentment, anger, discouragement or some similarly negative reaction. If we respond with joy it says that we have gained a level of maturity and that we have less junk inside us to come bursting out under pressure.

A Biblical Perspective on Challenges

Using this instruction from James as a starting point, let’s take a look at the Biblical perspective on the challenges we face.

We see that temptations and challenges are not out of the ordinary. They come in various shapes and sizes and they do come along.

Paul, writing to his disciple, Timothy, declared that everyone who is a Christian will face persecution.

“Yes, all who will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” 2 Timothy 3:12

Peter also spoke about how these challenges test our faith.

“Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” 1 Peter 1:6,7

Trials Have a Purpose

I mentioned already that temptations and trials cause what is in us to be revealed. But they also have another purpose. Immediately after James instructs us to “count it all joy” he goes on to explain why we do so.

“Knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience.” James 1:3

Trials have a purpose. They are to create deeper godly character in us. They cause patience to come up in us.

So, next time you face an unexpected challenge and you are tempted to respond with some ugly attitude, pull yourself together and realise that this is a good situation. You will grow in godly character through that trial. So now you can be joyful. It isn’t what your flesh wants to endure, but it is what you know will be good for you.

George Fox Stirred By God

This is the day that … George Fox was born, in 1624.

Converted at the age of 19 – through the reading of the Scriptures – George Fox took off on an itinerant preaching ministry.

His spiritual journey involved two revelation experiences; one on his conversion where, he recounts, “I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Later he felt led to climb a great mountain, Pendle Hill in Northern England. There he experienced a vision of “a great people to be gathered.”

He became an itinerant preacher and came upon some independent congregations which received him. He formed those groups into the Publishers of Truth, later renamed as the Religious Society of Friends, nicknamed the ‘Quakers’ by their enemies.

Fox’s own experiences of inspiration led to a strong focus on spontaneous inspired moments for his followers.

In 1649 he was gaoled for interrupting a preacher (“Dost thou call this place a church? Or callest thou this mixed multitude (the congregation) a church?) – and so dead was the state church of his day that his question might not have been without some justification.

Again, in 1650 he was gaoled for alleged blasphemy.

“He was beaten with dog whips, knocked down with fists and stones, brutally struck with pike staves, threatened by mobs, imprisoned eight times in filthy prisons and dungeons … yet he went straight forward with his mission.”

Fox preached an evangelical message, although his over-reaction against ritualism caused him to do away with the ordinances (as did the Salvation Army).

George Fox died at the age of 67.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

John Wesley and the Methodists

This is the day that … John Wesley was born, in 1703. And during his remarkable ministry we know of two early Methodist preachers who were converted on this day.

John Nelson was a Yorkshire man who first heard Wesley preach at Moorfields (17 June, 1739). “As soon as he got on the stand, he stroked back his hair and turned his face to where I stood, and I thought, fixed his eyes upon me” (Early Methodist Preachers, page 2).

John Nelson continues, “This man can tell the secrets of my heart, but he hath not left me there; for he hath showed the remedy, even the blood of Jesus” (page 3).

In the years that followed John Nelson became one of Wesley’s loyal friends, preaching the old-time gospel.

Richard Rodda has also left his testimony for us in writing.

“On 17 June, 1758, God gave me a clear sense of His forgiving love,” he wrote to John Wesley (page 88).

Rodda was 15 years of age when his conversion took place, and by the age of 20 he was often found preaching three times a day in various places. At Worcestershire, “they brought gunpowder with them and almost filled the place with the smoke of it” (page 90). “Some of them pelted me with dirt and broken tiles.”

In Heresford, “a wicked man gathered dirt out of a kennel and threw it in my eyes and face … I could proceed no further.” In Cornwall, “the mob gathered and pelted me with rotten eggs” (page 92).

And so it goes.

Any “Christian” who is too lazy to get out of bed or turn off the TV to go to Church ought to read of the sufferings of Wesley and his early preachers, as they confronted the mobs with the claims of Christ!

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.