Early Church Persecutions

Persecution is the suffering or pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution. (G. W. Bromily, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1986, p. 771)

For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God…For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13).

       Paul both persecuted the Church and later was persecuted for it. He became an example of living and dying for Christ. Persecution for the believer is a sign of his position and life in Christ (Jo. 15:18-19; 1 Jo. 3:13), and Paul taught that Christians—like Christ—should be willing to be “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8). Paul described some of the persecutions and sufferings he underwent:

Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far ore imprisonment, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from countrymen, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (1. Cor. 11:23-27).

       Some Christians live under the false notion that once they become saved, life’s troubles will dissipate, and all roads will become smooth. “Paul strongly opposed any notion of the Christian life as free from suffering. Quite on the contrary, for Paul suffering was one of the marks of true gospel ministry (2 Cor. 4:7-17; 11: 23-28) and discipleship (Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24).” (David S. Dockery, Holman Bible Handbook, p. 683)

       In the first century A.D. Christians suffered some of the most horrible persecutions imaginable. Around the summer of A.D. 64 there was a massive fire in Rome and tradition holds that it might have been started by the emperor Nero in an attempt to do away with a rotting part of the city. Nero blamed Christians for the fire, and without investigation the fury of Rome exploded upon the church. Nero was glad to lead the persecutions because it kept all eyes away from himself as a possible candidate of the disaster. The persecutions under Nero are reported to be among some of the worst in early Church history, and he is reported to have killed both the apostles Peter and Paul.

       The Roman emperor Domitian followed in the footsteps of Nero as was one of the cruelest persecutors of Christians. It’s possible that Domitian wanted to snuff out Christianity altogether because he thought it lead to sedition. Rome would tolerate any religion as long as it could be set aside for the sake of obedience to the emperor. Early Christians were willing to serve an emperor, but not when he claimed to be deity, or when obedience to him contradicted an obedient life to God. Domitian interpreted the Christian behavior as a challenge to his authority and the authority of Rome. Domitian vigorously moved to destroy Christians because he was afraid their views might spread and Rome might become weak and divided. He was afraid of internal disintegration. One Bible scholar describes some of the persecutions as follows:

Some, suffering the punishment of parricides, were shut up in a sack with snakes and thrown into the sea; others were tied to huge stones and cast into a river. For Christians the cross itself was not deemed sufficient agony; hanging on the tree, they were beaten with rods until their bowels gushed out, while vinegar and salt were rubbed into their wounds…Christians were tied to catapults, and so wrenched from limb to limb. Some…were thrown to the beasts; others were tied to their horns. Women were stripped, enclosed in nets, and exposed to the attacks of furious bulls. Many were made to lie on sharp shells, and tortured with scrapers, claws, and pincers, before being delivered to the mercy of the flames. Not a few were broken on the wheel, or torn in pieces by wild horses. Of some the feet were slowly burned away, cold water being dowsed over them the while lest the victims should expire too rapidly…Down the backs of others melted lead, hissing and bubbling, was poured; while a few ‘by the clemency of the emperor’ escaped with the searing out of their eyes, or the tearing off of their legs. (Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, 1906, p. 299-300)

       Some might argue that it would have been better to give recognition to an emperor rather than to suffer greatly or to watch family members be put to death. However, the demands of Christianity (now, as well as then) are such that a believer can never worship a substitute for the living Christ. When confronted with persecution, any compromise of faith, no matter how small, is shameful in the face of those who had testified of Christ with their life. The early Christians understood that there was never a time when they could deny the Lord and ever be justified in doing so. Just as three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel stood before a mighty king and were willing to face suffering rather than deny the only true God, so thousands of early Christians where willing to face Roman persecution even if it eventuated in their death.

       The Christian can be confident in the face of persecution and death knowing that God is in control of every circumstance surrounding his life. He knows that God is good, and trusts that He is in control of all things—even persecution—and will sustain him to end of his life (Romans 8:28). The following biblical truths apply to every Christian who faces death:

  1. No appointment with judgment (Heb. 9:27, 28; Rom. 8:1a).
  2. Face to face with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).
  3. No more sorrow, pain, tears, death, regrets or embarrassment (Rev. 21:4).
  4. An eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4, 5).
  5. A New Home (John 14:1-6).
  6. The perpetuation of eternal life (1 John 5:11, 12; John 10 3.
  7. Resurrection body (Job 19:25, 26; John 11:25; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:1, 2; 1 Cor. 15:51-57).
  8. Removal of the old sin nature (1 Cor. 1:8, 15:55-57; Phil. 3:20, 21; 1 Thess. 5:23).
  9. Removal of human good and evil (1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). (R. B. Thieme Jr. Dying Grace, 1977, p. 8)

       “The meaning of the word martyr…is one who has proven the strength and genuineness of his faith in Christ by undergoing a violent death” (Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 882). Believers can face any type of persecution and death with an attitude of confidence and peace if they will claim the promises of God and keep their focus on Him who gives strength to His children. Whether peaceful or violent, the Christian’s death is an event to be embraced with confidence and peace of mind. The believer’s flesh will fail him in time as death approaches; however, there is something greater than his flesh to which he can look and find strength in his hour of need: the WORD OF GOD! “For all flesh is as grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:24, 25).

       Christians face the very real threat of persecution if they choose to live by faith in God’s word rather than conform to the devil’s world. Some may bow the knee rather than endure suffering, but they do so their own shame. Some things are worth suffering and dying for; things such as honor, integrity, love, and above all, a wonderful relationship with God who gives eternal life and purpose to His children. I pray all Christians will be faithful to God when facing persecution for living His word.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.