More than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith last year. More than 2,100 churches were attacked or closed, as reported by CT Magazine. Unfortunately, facing persecution is quite common for Christians today.
History may seem like an unlikely ally for a church enduring persecution. But the modern church can learn and receive much encouragement by reflecting on the fierce trials of the first century church.
The church was not only born as an outcome of the persecution and crucifixion of Christ. It also grew through the onslaught of constant persecution throughout its early years.
Soon after the ascension of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the apostles planted churches, proclaimed salvation, and did many great signs and miracles that confirmed their message. Within a few decades, the church grew from 120 people to thousands of people. But all this happened in the midst of fierce opposition (Acts 1:15).
Early church history offers much assurance and hope that Christ will build his church, even though many waves of trials will come and go.
The Jewish Persecutions
Initially, the church suffered persecution at the hands of Jewish leaders. They considered it blasphemous that Christians proclaimed Jesus as Messiah. So the Jewish leaders strived to silence Christians from proclaiming the gospel.
They ignored Gamaliel’s advice and in 37 A.D. they stoned Stephen to death (Acts 5:34, Acts 7:54). This began the persecution against the early Church. Jewish Christians were excommunicated from Synagogues and ostracised from Jewish society.
Eusebius, the early church historian notes, “the church of Jerusalem suffered the first and greatest persecution at the hands of the Jews.”
In Acts, Luke makes special mention of Saul, a Jewish Rabbi, and a vicious persecutor of the early church (Acts 8:3). He would later come to believe in Christ, becoming one of the most influential apostles within the church.
While the Jewish persecution was severe, it was nothing compared to the Roman persecutions.
Christians as a result were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). The message of the gospel spread as far as they went. Persecution could not contain the church; it only helped the church grow.
During this time, James the brother of John was beheaded by Herod and the apostle Peter was arrested (Acts 12:2). The Jewish persecution only helped solidify the church and establish Antioch as the base for Christianity. It also helped to spread the gospel message far and wide.
The Roman Persecutions
While the Jewish persecution was severe, it was nothing compared to the Roman persecutions. It began under emperor Nero in 64 A.D. and went on for the next two hundred and fifty years until the time of Constantine.
However, these persecutions were localised. They were not the same throughout the empire, “varying according to the attitudes and whims of the emperors, local officials and the populace at large.”
During this time, the apostles Paul and Peter were executed and John was banished to the island of Patmos.
The first Christians were hated by the general public and were regularly dragged off to prisons and executed. They were crucified, sewn into animal skins, burned as human torches, and fed to wild beasts as amusement for the public.
Initially, the persecution was localised only to Rome. However, emperor Domitian in 81 A.D. viewed the rise of the church with suspicion and persecuted Christians. He even executed his cousin, Flavius Clemens, for being a Christian.
Following him, Emperor Trajan ruled and continued the same policy of his predecessor. This was particularly severe in the province of Bithynia (modern-day northern Turkey).
The Reasons for Persecution
Christianity was persecuted since it was a religio illicita or “unlawful religion” in the Roman empire. In the beginning, the church was tolerated by the Romans. They saw it as a sect under Judaism. However, when Christianity spread and the Jews threw Christians out from the synagogues, their privileges ended.
Christians were often attacked in public, not for what they actually believed, but because of misconceptions about their faith. The early church worshipped an invisible God rather than idols. So people saw them as atheoi (atheists).
As Christians lived out Gospel values, it posed a threat to Roman authority.
Furthermore, people misunderstood the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They thought it was a cannibalistic feast, where the Christians literally ate human flesh and drank blood. This created a repulsive image in the minds of Romans against Christians and an atmosphere of general distrust.
The emperor embodied the state of Rome and people venerated him as a deity. All people were to pay homage to the emperor’s statue, particularly the civil servants and soldiers of Rome.
Christians refused to do so because they saw it as idolatry. They proclaimed that Jesus alone is Lord and only he is worthy of worship.
To make matters worse, Roman citizens believed that the worship of the Roman gods and the emperor ushered in prosperity. Therefore, whenever there was a natural calamity such as an earthquake, the Romans blamed Christians for it.
Both then and now, when Christians refuse to bow down to popular idols of the prevailing culture, it will always bring forth animosity from a disbelieving world.
Perceived Threat to Authority
As Christians lived out gospel values, it posed a threat to Roman authority. Christians emphasised that God created all men and women equal and free. This attracted plenty of people from the lower sects of society. As a result, Roman officials began to see the church as a competitive power.
Also, Roman citizens who became Christians withdrew from Roman social and cultural life. They even refused to serve in the army, for it required emperor worship and swearing unconditional loyalty to Caesar. All this caused the officials to lash out at the Christians.
The gospel message is always countercultural and challenges the status quo of this world’s oppressive power structures and culture. This always challenges people in power.
The Faithful Response
The Christian response to persecution was not uniform. Some Christians succumbed to the pressure and lost their faith. This was such a concern that the writer of Hebrews wrote a warning against such apostasy (Heb. 3:12, 6:4-8). The writer encouraged the people of God to persevere in their faith (Heb. 10:23).
Christians regarded martyrdom as a crown to win—the highest honour for a Christian.
While some Christians gave up their faith, a majority of them joyfully endured sufferings (Heb 10:32-36). Many lost their lives, only to find eternal life in God’s presence. Christians regarded martyrdom as a crown to win—the highest honour for a Christian (Rev. 2:10). They saw it as the ideal path for the follower of Jesus, who suffered death, even death upon the cross.
Consider Polycarp, the 86-year-old disciple of John who served as the bishop of Smyrna. At his martyrdom, he reportedly prayed: “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”
The calmness and serenity of the martyrs was evident to witnesses. Many martyrs sang joyful hymns in the face of death and praised God with their final breath.
Many in the church remained faithful to the Lord, ensuring that no amount of persecution could extinguish the light that had come into the world.
Testifying to Christ in Persecution
Besides calling Christians to endure persecution, the apostles exhorted them to defend the faith with all gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15-16). They called Christians to do this even when they were facing slander and shame.
As a result, the sufferings of Christians stood out to people, who took note of the tremendous bravery and hope that Christians possessed. Despite all the odds, the church was growing. The early church father, Tertullian rightly said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
God’s Faithfulness in Persecution
Persecution testifies of God’s faithfulness towards his people. Christ sustains his church even through sword and fire.
The first-century church, though small and fragile, withstood the onslaught of the mighty Roman Empire. It even flourished under their oppressive rule.
The Holy Spirit’s empowering presence is so visible as the early church walked through trying times (Matt 10:16-19). This should offer great comfort for all who face similar circumstances today.
History can be a friend that encourages the present church that the gospel is indeed powerful and that it cannot be overcome. Though Satan and his legions wage war, the light of the gospel, will always shine forth.
In present day persecution, we can stand alongside the apostles and countless martyrs of the early church, unashamedly proclaiming the gospel of salvation, to everyone, in every circumstance (Rom 1:16).