This is now the third week on persecution and I’m sorry if you find it all a bit heavy, but this is an important subject. This is the last section on ‘the beatitudes’ which is a part of the ‘sermon on the mount’. Jesus must have thought this subject important because the last two beatitudes both cover the subject of being persecuted.
Jesus wants us to know that we shouldn’t be surprised when we are persecuted, but also that He will be with us when it does happen. Last week we saw that the majority of the Old Testament prophets were either murdered or persecuted in some way. This doesn’t stop with the Old Testament though. Right at the start of the New Testament we see John the Baptist who was considered as the second Elijah, the last of the Old Testament prophets and as you are probably aware, he was beheaded and his head served up on a platter.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this is such a big subject within Christianity, because the one we all follow was persecuted and suffered more than anybody else. If we are to call ourselves Jesus’ followers, we should expect to follow Him in suffering too. Jesus himself described the path we walk on as narrow (Matthew 7:13) and not many will choose it. It may be a tough path in the short term but beyond this short walk of suffering are eternal rewards for those who endure it. The pearl of great price is greater than any lesser pearls which offer more comfort.
The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” implying that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. This certainly seemed true of the early church which exploded in growth through persecution. In the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection the church grew and then spread rapidly through persecution. This was not without cost though as it was believed that pretty much every apostle was murdered in some way or another. Just as we looked last week at historical evidence outside the bible for what happened to the prophets, there is varied documentary evidence about what happened to the Apostles and it does make rather grim reading.
The first person to be martyred after Jesus, was Stephen and he wasn’t even an Apostle, but he was an amazing character. Stephen was killed by stoning and he was an amazing example of calmness and peace in the face of severe hostility (see Acts 7). The following list contains the dates of death and what was believed to have happened to the Apostles?
AD 44-45 James – was put to the sword under Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2)
AD 54 Philip – was tortured and crucified by hostile Jews
AD 60-70 Matthew – was beheaded at Nad-Davar
AD 63 James (Jesus brother) – was thrown off the top of the temple and just to make sure was then clubbed
AD 64 Peter – was crucified upside down
AD 67 Paul – was beheaded in Rome under emperor Nero
AD 70 Andrew – was crucified on an olive tree at Patrae in Achaia
AD 70 Thomas – was thrust through with pine spears, tormented with red-hot plates and burned alive
AD 70 Nathanael – was flayed and then crucified
AD 70 Matthias (Judas’ replacement) – was stoned while hanging upon a cross
AD 72 Judas (the other one!) – Beaten to death with sticks
AD 74 Simon the zealot – Widely travelled and was martyred but unclear how
AD 95 John – The only one to have died a natural death although it was reckoned that he survived being boiled alive and then lived the rest of his life in exile.
The majority of these persecutions and especially up to the destroying of the temple in AD 70 were by the Jews. After this and as the gospel spread throughout the Roman empire, the Romans took over as the major persecutor of the sect they called ‘the way’. The first documented case of organised and supervised persecution of the Christians in a specific area in the Roman Empire was by Emperor Nero. In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, This fire was huge and it is estimated that it destroyed 70% of the city. There were strong rumours that Nero had ordered this fire so that he could have some nice new buildings in his own style and the population wasn’t happy. To divert attention from himself, Nero put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Christians, who were viewed with suspicion anyway and they were systematically persecuted. The stories are horrific of Christians being used as human torches to light up the royal palace and other despicable acts.
This was just the beginning though as persecution amazingly caused the church to grow ever stronger. The main problem was that the various emperors considered themselves to be gods and they didn’t take kindly to people refusing to worship them.
The persecutions continued in waves over centuries but they culminated in what was called ‘The great persecution’ under the emperor Diocletian at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. It all started with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy. The persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution. Over 20,000 Christians are thought to have died during Diocletian’s reign. One of the most prominent martyrs during the Dioclecian persecution was Saint George (England’s patron saint), a Roman soldier who loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes claimed himself to be a Christian by declaring his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods; he made many offers, but George never accepted and was subsequently tortured and decapitated.
One of the most famous martyrs of the early church was Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna in 155AD. Polycarp was believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle John. In that year, Roman soldiers were sent to arrest him. He was such an amazing man that before they arrested him they were invited in to supper and several of them were even converted as they heard his fervent praying. As he was being prepared for execution, Polycarp is recorded as saying, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” Polycarp was then burned at the stake and was pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. On his farewell, he said “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.”
I’m going to take one more week on this subject as I particularly enjoy church history and I think it is important to honour those heroes of the faith who can inspire us to face everything that the world throws at us. They are dying proof that God will be with us through all the trials of life.