(May 16, 2019) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, solemnly opens ups on a reality that many Christians tend to either ignore or are unaware of…
Around 67 AD the apostle Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting execution under the order of the Roman Emperor Nero who intensely hated Christians.
As he waited for the sentence to be carried out, he wrote to Timothy, ‘The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
About ten years earlier Paul had written in his letter to the Christians living in Rome, ‘I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world’ (Romans 1:8).
In his commentary The Epistle to the Romans the late theologian Karl Barth made the following comment on this Romans 1 verse: ‘The resurrection has proved its power; there are Christians – even in Rome.’ Barth was explaining that Paul was rejoicing and thanking God because the message of Christ crucified and resurrected had penetrated right to the heart of the Roman Empire, to Rome itself, where Christians were living and worshipping.
How amazing it is that within about 25 years from the resurrection of Jesus the good news of his redeeming love and gifts of forgiveness and eternal life had spread ‘all over the world.’ Without the help of mass evangelistic rallies and without the modern aids of radio, television and Facebook the Christian gospel spread like a fire through the simple and effective method of personal witnessing.
And so the Christian message continued of spread for the following centuries and in 311 AD the Roman emperor professed his Christian faith.
1. The successful penetration of the Christian message throughout the world came at a cost!
First of all, the greatest cost of all, the suffering and death of Jesus.
Then the stoning to death of the first Christian martyr Stephen (Acts 6), the killing of the apostles and the persecution and slaughter of Christians who, while encountering unimaginable cruelty, continued to witness to their faith. Those brave souls were prepared to be martyred rather than deny their faith in Jesus Christ.
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for ‘witness’ – marturion – which means one who gives testimony or evidence came into English as the word ‘martyr’ which now denotes witnessing which results in death. This change of meaning happened because of the killing of the early Christians. Accurately did Tertullian, one of the 2nd century church fathers, write that ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church’, denoting that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives lead to the conversion of many others.
In those early centuries Christians continued to be persecuted with ever greater intensity resulting in their execution in vast numbers – often for the enjoyment of the crowds who turned up at ‘sporting venues’ to see them being killed by the sword, gored by bulls, attacked by lions and burned to death. Many are the stories from early writings about the horrific torture and killing of people whose only crime was that they were Christians. The following are from the writings of two non-Christians regarding the suppression of Christianity in those days:
Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) (Governor of Pontus and Bithynia)
Pliny corresponded with the Roman Emperor seeking advice on how to deal with local Christians. He wrote, ‘They asserted that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. … Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.’
Tacitus, a Roman historian who in 116 AD
He wrote about the great fire of Rome the occurred in 64 AD for which Nero blamed the Christians – although it was believed that Nero himself was the arsonist! ‘First those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports. … they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as night-time lamps. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.’
And now examples of just two of those faithful witness to Christ who were tortured and killed for the ‘crime’ of being Christians.
+ Polycarp (69-156 AD) was the leader of the church in Smyrna.
He was arrested at age 86 as he was considered to be a member of a rapidly growing politically dangerous cult and was sentenced to death. Apparently the Roman proconsul took pity on this gracious and courageous old man and tried to save him from execution by urging Polycarp just to offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue and proclaim, ‘Caesar is Lord.’
But Polycarp replied, ‘Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ In the confidence of such faith Polycarp was burned alive at the stake.
+ Blandina (162 – 177 AD) at Lyon (in modern France)
At that time in Lyon the population at large so hated Christians that they were regularly and publicly hassled and abused and this developed into torture and execution in the amphitheatre for the entertainment of the spectators. Those faithful Christians were beaten and tortured in many ways before dying.
Blandina was a 15 year old slave girl who, despite repeated tortured all day kept repeating, ‘I am a Christian, and nothing vile is done among us.’ Eventually she was taken to the amphitheatre where she first witnessed to execution of her friends and finally it was her turn. She was flogged, bound to a stake and attacked by wild animals, placed on a red-hot grate, entangled in a net and tossed and trampled by a bull and finallykilled with a dagger.
Despite the fact that to be a ‘Christian’ was sufficient in those days to deserve a death warrant, the gospel still continued to work its saving power and the church continued to grow at a rapid rate! As Luke tells us in Acts 8:4, ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’
2. Why were they persecuted?
- Simply because they did not fit in!
- Their values were different.
- Their life-styles were different.
- Their worship was different.
- They refused to worship any of the other gods that were venerated in the Empire.
- They recognised the ultimate authority of almighty God and of his Son Jesus Christ.
- They refused to compromise their faith by accommodating to the beliefs and attitudes of the societies in which they lived.
And the unshakable conviction of those courageous and gracious Christians, who acknowledged that Jesus Christ alone was their King and Saviour, did not sit well with Roman Emperors who claimed that ultimate and exclusive sovereignty belonged to them.
Consequently their commitment to their beliefs and values was seen as disloyalty and obstinacy and dogmatic inflexibility. As a result they were hated and that hatred was expressed by persecution.
3. History is repeating itself
We actually see much the same kind of thing repeating itself today. Christians are in the ‘firing line’ (metaphorically and literally) throughout the world today. The number of Christians in Sri Lanka who were killed when worshipping on Easter Day was sufficiently large that the world media had really no alternative but to mention it, but literally hundreds of other acts of persecution and killing of Christians throughout the world are wholly ignored by most of the world media.
Surprisingly The Guardian newspaper, which one would not normally associate with reporting on Christian persecution, recently (April 22) included an article by Giles Fraser, a parish priest in London, titled, ‘As the Sri Lanka attacks show, Christians worldwide face serious persecution.’ He wrote:
‘We are living though one of the most serious phases of Christian persecution in history, and most people refuse to acknowledge it.
‘During the past century, Christianity has been all but driven out of the Middle East, the place of its birth. … From 1894 to 1924, the Turkish authorities systematically murdered some 2.5 million Christians. At the beginning of that period, in places like Anatolia, Christians accounted for 20% of the population. By the end of it, there were just 2% left. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, Christians have been driven from the Middle East with bombs and bullets, and with hardly a bat squeak of protest from the secular west.
‘According to the widely respected Pew report, Christianity remains the world’s most persecuted religion. … all around the world Christians are subject to real and sustained violence for the profession of their faith, the one that we proclaim most insistently today.’
The Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List makes the following comments:
- Research for the List indicates that each day, a staggering 11 Christians are killed for their faith in the top 50 countries ranked on the World Watch List.
- That means 1 in 9 Christians globally experience ‘high’ levels of persecution. In 2018, it was the equivalent of 1 in 12.
- Across Asia and the Middle East, 1 in 3 Christians experience ‘high’ levels of persecution, while across Africa, it’s 1 in 6, and in Latin America, 1 in 21.
In Western countries hostility towards Christians is increasing at an alarming rate!
The so-called ‘Progressive’ policies of the atheistic ‘Left’ that fly-in-the-face of most Christian values which are derided and Jesus is a ‘figure-of-fun’ aided by the counterfeit religion and destructive agenda of Islam seek to eliminate the Christian influence in an increasingly volatile world. (The Koran, the ‘Sacred Book’ of Islam, which includes a deliberately altered version of parts of the Old and New Testaments, was written to contradict and oppose Jewish and Christian history and doctrine).
Contents of the Bible are described as ‘hate speech’, challenging people to rethink the aborting of their unborn children is called ‘harassment’, affirming the evidentiary obvious reality that there are only two genders, male and female, commitment to God is furiously attacked as ‘bigotry’, belief in the teaching of the Bible is ridiculed as irrational and anti-science and God is mocked as ‘The invisible man in the sky’.
In the meantime, those who oppose Christians and what they believe are self-portrayed as tolerant, loving, compassionate, caring and inclusive while they make every effort to silence those who disagree with them.
And this is aided by ‘trendy’ Christians who make every effort to present themselves as ‘nice’ and ‘tolerant of all things’ and embracing of the concept that all religions lead to God! This position may flatter their self-image of being loving and caring individuals! But re-writing historic Christian values and revising Christian doctrine and morality is fundamentally a denial of, and a snub to, the millions of Christians throughout the past 2000 years who have shown courageous integrity in their faith in Jesus.
3. We should not be surprised
The fact of persecution for Christians should not come as a surprise to us – in fact it should come as a surprise if the world loved us! Following are some of the warnings given in the New Testament:
- Jesus warned, ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).
- Jesus also warned, ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you’ (John 15:18-19).
- Paul wrote, ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3:12).
- Peter wrote, ‘However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name’ (1 Peter 4:16).
- John wrote, ‘Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you’ (1 John 3:13).
- James wrote, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything’ (James 1:2-4).
The late theologian, John Stott, as accurately commented, ‘Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems.’
Today Christian preachers and teaches urgently, boldly and uncompromisingly need to be faithful in proclaiming the ‘whole counsel of God’ and equip our present generation of believers for the continuing attack on Christianity and on those who have made the faith commitment to follow Jesus all the way.
Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8:34-35).
There is an unmistakable and indisputable challenge in these words. The One who exemplified what he meant did himself take up his cross and was crucified on it for our salvation. In today’s increasingly material, humanistic and libertarian society whose values are progressively being enforced by the courts, Christians have to recognise that there is a cost in discipleship.
When Jesus stated that discipleship required the taking up of our cross, he wanted us to realise the consequences of that which include the following:
- Condemnation: For daring to contradict the prevailing to stand against the pervade tide of what is deemed to be culturally acceptable.
- Humiliation: Shamefully exposed for daring to disagree with the status quo.
- Suffering: Infliction of rejection penalty and pain for failing to comply.
- Martyrdom: In the sense of boldly and uncompromisingly witnessing regardless of the consequences or the hostile judgment of others.
- Execution: Just as the cross was an instrument of execution, those who committedly follow Jesus must prepare for the possibility of the ultimate consequence.
Nevertheless the words of Jesus both warn and encourage us to stand firm – ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (Mark 8:34-35).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Recommended are his enlightening Grace Revisited and Looking for Answers in a Confusing World; also Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org