By Mike Willis
The Lord Jesus foretold that his disciples would suffer persecution at the hands of civil government. Here are some of those predictions:
But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles (Matt. 10:17-18).
Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake (Matt. 24:9).
But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought be-fore kings and rulers for my name’s sake (Luke 21:12)
They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service (John 16:2).
The New Testament records the beginning of this suffering for the children of God. Stephen was the first Christian to be slain for his faith in Christ (Acts 7:54-8:1). The Scriptures relate his death as follows:
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
The next Christian recorded to have been put to death was the Apostle James. Luke records that Herod Agrippa I put him to death saying, “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2). Herod intended to put Peter to death as well, but the Lord delivered him.
Later persecutions broke out in a number of places. One of the first organized persecutions was conducted by Nero (54-68). He was the ruler responsible for the execution of the Apostle Paul. In The Annals of Imperial Rome, the Latin historian Tacitus explains that Nero blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians and persecuted them to draw attention away from himself.
Tacitus seems to attribute the fire in Rome to Nero’s immorality. Nero conducted an extravagant banquet on Marcus Agrippa’s lake. Tacitus described the debauchery that attended it:
… On the quays were brothels stocked with high-ranking ladies. Opposite them could be seen naked prostitutes, in-decently posturing and gesturing.
At nightfall the woods and houses nearby echoed with singing and blazed with lights. Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural. But he now refuted any surmises that no further degradation was possible for him. For a few days later he went through a formal wed-ding ceremony with one of the perverted gang called Pythagoras. The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Dowry, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there. Indeed everything was public which even in a natural union is veiled by night.
Disaster followed. Whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the emperor is uncertain both versions have supporters (362).
A disastrous fire broke out in Rome. It was the most destructive fire ever to occur in Rome. Of Rome’s 14 districts, only four remained intact after the fire. Many lost everything they owned and chose to die in the flames rather than escape. Tacitus adds, that “nobody dared fight the flames. Attempts to do so were prevented by menacing gangs. Torches, too, were openly thrown in, by men crying that they acted under orders” (363).
The rumor spread through Rome that, while the fire was raging, “Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy” (hence, the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”). The people believed that Nero was anxious to build a new city to be named after him and, therefore, ordered the burning of Rome. The political pressure became so great that Nero resorted to desperate measures to place the blame on others. The Christians were his scapegoats. Tacitus relates how our brethren suffered:
But neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.
First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large number of others were condemned not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest (365).
We Suffer So Little
In comparison to what these saints endured, we Christians suffer so little. I have never been removed from a job because I was a Christian, never beaten or stoned. None of my loved ones has been put to death. I have never suffered nakedness or hunger because of my faith in Christ, although I must confess that I have learned the meaning of Paul’s statement that he had been “in perils among false brethren” on more than one occasion.
The Lord who foretold such persecutions exhorted his saints to persevere saying, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). He promised that he would never leave or forsake his saints (Heb. 13:5-6) and would give them the strength of faith to win the victory over death and hades (1 John 4:4; 5:4).
We thank God for those saints who have suffered so many things at the hands of bloody Nero. They are men of whom the world was not worthy (cf. Heb. 11:38). How dare we who have not resisted unto blood in our striving against sin complain about our small tribulations (Heb. 12:4)?
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 22, p. 2
November 21, 1996