(January 26, 2020) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, shares a sobering reminder…
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 Paul 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’ (2 Timothy 4:6-7).
About ten years earlier Paul had written a letter to the Christians living in Rome. In it he wrote, ‘First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world’ (Romans 1:8).
How amazing it is that within about 25 years from the resurrection of Jesus the ‘Good News’ of his saving love and his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life had spread ‘all over the world.’ There were Christians even in Rome!
Without the help of mass evangelistic rallies and without the modern aids of radio, television and Facebook or Gmail the Christian gospel spread like a fire by ordinary Christian men and women by the simple and effective method of personal witnessing.
The Christian message continued of advance during the following centuries and in 311 AD the Roman emperor professed his Christian faith.
But… the early church’s amazing work in world evangelisation came at a cost, a high cost!
1. The Cost of Witnessing
Jesus made it quite clear that there is a cost involved in discipleship. Being a Christian is not summed up in the old chorus, ‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y.’ With Christ’s call there is also a challenge and a cost. And sometimes that cost can be very great.
The greatest cost of all was the suffering and death of Jesus himself, then the stoning to death of the first Christian martyr Stephen (Acts 6), then the killing of the apostles and the persecution and slaughter of many thousands of Christians who encountered unimaginable cruelty as they continued courageously to witness to their faith.
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for ‘witness’ – marturion (which simply means one who gives testimony or evidence) – came into the English language as the word ‘martyr’ which now describes ‘witnessing which results in death.’ This change of meaning happened because of the killing of the early Christians. Those brave souls were prepared to be martyred, often in brutal ways, rather than deny their faith in Jesus Christ!
One of the 2nd century church leaders was a man named Tertullian and he wrote, so accurately, that ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church’, meaning that those faithful Christians, who willingly sacrificed their lives, were largely responsible for the amazing growth of the church with the conversion of thousands. Let me explain what I mean by telling you a little bit about those first Christians…
In those early centuries the persecution of Christians continued with ever greater intensity and this resulted in their execution in vast numbers – often for the entertainment 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. There are many accounts found in writings from those times about the horrific torture and killing of people whose only crime was that they were Christians.
Let me now tell you about one of those faithful witnesses to Christ who was tortured and executed for the ‘crime’ of being a Christian. Her name was Blandina, a young 15-year-old slave girl who lived at Lyon (which is in modern France) between 162 – 177 AD. At that time the general population in Lyon so hated Christians that they were regularly and publicly hassled and abused and then tortured and killed in the sporting arena for the entertainment of the spectators.
Despite being repeatedly tortured all day, she kept repeating, ‘I am a Christian, and nothing vile is done among us.’ Eventually she was taken to the arena where she first witnessed the 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 finally she was killed with a dagger.
But notice this – even though to be a ‘Christian’ in those days was enough to deserve a death penalty, 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.’ Four times in the book of Acts Luke emphasises the growth of the church.
2. The reason for the persecution
Why were those Christians persecuted? The reason is that they did not fit in! They refused to compromise their faith by accommodating to the beliefs and the corrupt standards and attitudes of the societies in which they lived! Christians were different…
- Their values were different.
- Their life-styles were different and they didn’t follow the self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking, sex-obsessed path of others.
- Their worship was different and they refused to worship other gods.
- Their source of revelation was different and they trusted the integrity of God’s word.
- Their ultimate authority was different as they acknowledged that absolute authority in all things belonged to Almighty God and his Son Jesus Christ.
Their commitment to Jesus, and to their faith and to their biblical values and to a Godly lifestyle were seen as disloyalty and stubbornness and dogmatic inflexibility. They were different and the secular world needed them to conform or else be punished! As a result they were the target of hatred and that hatred was expressed by persecution and execution.
Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ The JB Phillips translation expresses the verse in this way: ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.’
The early church heeded of those words and they didn’t conform to the standards of the world. They didn’t conform to the political correctness of those days. And they were persecuted because of it!
Next month – Part 2 ‘History is Repeating Itself’
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Grace Revisited is highly recommended – as are Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments and 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: email@example.com