Suffering for the Faith, Part 1

Early Christian believers were well acquainted with fear, torment, and the threat of death. History and the Scriptures attest to this truth…

We find confirmation of this persecution in the Book of Acts. Though Paul would eventually go on to write more of the New Testament than any other, traveling far and wide as he spread the gospel of Christ to more people of the ancient world than all other men, he was first a feared persecutor of the early Christians. A highly-learned Pharisee of the Tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), Saul was known for his intensity against the early believers, condemning as many as he could – men and women alike – to prison for their crime of faith. In fact, we read there in Acts, Chapters 7 & 8, how he may very well have been present at the trial and execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

Saul, before recognizing for himself the authority of Christ, was a terrible threat to those who contended for the faith. Regardless, he was but one of countless others across the land who prided themselves on ferreting out believers and making examples of them, and as the early faithful spread out into the ancient world, they discovered the same sentiment boiled against their kind well beyond the realm of their homelands.
    
There can be no mistaking that the early years of the Christian faith were very turbulent and very dangerous for believers. In fact, not only was the practice terribly unpopular in most places, until 313 AD Christianity was illegal across the Roman Empire. Ironically, it was considered an evil, morally-corrupt religion. In light of this, believers were routinely hassled, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for sport. It was a time of many martyrs.

On of the most famous of the early Roman villains standing against the spread of Christianity was the Emperor Nero. In 64 AD, he made a great effort not only to destroy all Scripture within his reach, but all professing Christians also. That year, a historic fire tore through the streets of Rome, and because of the societal goings-on that followed, many Roman suspected that Nero himself was responsible. Sensing an unfavorable shift in the political winds, the Emperor used the growing Christian subculture of the city as a scapegoat, blaming them for the devastating blaze. In doing so, Nero convinced the populace that the Christians were seeking the destruction of Rome as they themselves awaited the return of their man-god. Sometime after Nero’s blaming of the Christians, the early historian Tacitus wrote of the matter, saying:

Neither human resources, nor imperial generosity, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated the sinister suspicion that the fire had been deliberately started. To stop the rumor, Nero, made 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 Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus (who was actually a Praefectus, not a Procurator). But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out again, not just 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 the self-admitted Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned–not so much for starting fires as because of their hatred for the human race. Their deaths were made amusing. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be set on fire after dark as illumination…. 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.” ¹

“Suffering for the Faith” continues next time…

References

  1. Tacitus, “The Annals of Imperial Rome,” Book XV, chapter 47, A.D. 64

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