THE EMPEROR NERO AND THE FIRST GREAT
PERSECUTION OF CHRISTIANS

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 22, 2007
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles

“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”
(Revelation 2:10).


Augustus Caesar was the emperor of Rome from 27 B.C. until 14 A.D. He ordered the census that involved Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1). He was followed by Tiberius Caesar, who reigned from A.D. 14 to 37. Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead during his reign (Luke 23:2).

Some Christians were killed by the Romans during the reigns of the emperors Caligula (37-41 A.D.) and Claudius (41-54 A.D.). But most of the persecution Christians experienced during that early period came from the non-Messianic Jews, which is described in the Book of Acts.

Early in his reign the Emperor Claudius had been favorable to the Jews and their religion. But he later outlawed their attendance at synagogues and, finally, expelled them from Rome. Claudius is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Acts. Please turn to Acts 11:28.

“And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth [famine] throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar” (Acts 11:28).

In his Antiquities of the Jews, the historian Josephus spoke of this famine, which occurred under the reign of Claudius.

Claudius is mentioned a second time in Acts 18:2. Please read Acts 18:1-2.

“After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them” (Acts 18:1-2).

Priscilla and Aquila were Jews who had come to Corinth from Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews during the ninth year of his reign. Suetonius gave the cause of their expulsion, “As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) banished them from Rome.” Most scholars believe that Suetonius, writing seventy years after the event, mistook Chrestus for Christ, not realizing that the dispute in the Jewish community at Rome was between those who believed Christ to be the Messiah and those who rejected His Messiahship. Since Priscilla and Aquila were not classed as Paul’s converts to Christianity, it is believed that they had become Jewish converts to Christianity at Rome, before they met Paul. In Romans 16:3-4, Paul said that they had risked their lives for him. Paul considered them loyal friends and assistants. They attended the local synagogue with Paul, where they spoke to both Jews and Gentiles about Christ. It was during the reign of Claudius that the Apostle Paul made his three missionary journeys, throughout much of the Roman Empire.

Nero became the fifth Roman Emperor in A.D. 54. He ruled fourteen years, until A.D. 68. Nero began his reign with the promise that he would return to the policies of Augustus (31 B.C. – A.D. 14). He did so for several years under the guidance of two of his advisors, Burrus and Seneca. During this time he extended the borders of the Roman Empire and incorporated some of the good qualities of Greek culture.

When the Apostle Paul was arrested in Jerusalem in A.D. 60 for preaching the Gospel, he appealed his case to Nero. Please turn in the Bible to Acts 25:10-12.

“Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar. Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go” (Acts 25:10-12).

The Caesar mentioned here was Nero. As a Roman citizen Paul expected fair treatment from the Emperor. This was in A.D. 60. Paul was sent to Rome, where he was kept under arrest, awaiting trial.

But a few years later, in A.D. 64, Rome was set on fire. Nero was blamed for starting the fire, which lasted for nine days. But Nero diverted the anger of the people against him by accusing the Christians of setting the city aflame. As a result, the pagan citizens of Rome hunted out the Christians and killed great numbers of them in a terrible persecution that lasted four years, for the rest of Nero’s reign. Many Christians, including Peter and Paul, lost their lives during this, the first general persecution of Christianity.

Nero used all kinds of punishments against the Christians. He had some sewed up in the skins of wild beasts, and then turned savage dogs loose on them until they were chewed to pieces. Other Christians were dressed in shirts dipped in wax, tied to poles, and set on fire in Nero’s garden. Many were shot with arrows, and many others were thrown into the arena, where they were killed by savage lions and other wild beasts.

The secular historian, Tacitus, wrote that the city of Rome was destroyed by fire, and rumors were widely circulated that Nero himself had caused the fire. Tacitus said,

To stifle the report, Nero provided others to bear the accusation, in the shape of people who were commonly called “Christians,” in detestation of their abominable character. These [Nero] visited with every refinement of punishment. First they were arrested who confessed [that they were Christians], and then, on receiving information, an immense number were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson but on the charge of ill-will toward mankind in general. Their deaths were turned into a form of amusement. They were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts to be torn to pieces by dogs, or were fastened to crosses to be set on fire, and, when the daylight came to an end, were burned for an illumination at night. Nero threw open his own gardens for the spectacle, and made it the occasion of a circus exhibition…Sympathy was eventually felt for the sufferers…people felt that they were being destroyed not for the benefit of the public but to serve the cruel purpose of one man – Nero (Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44).

Among those who died during Nero’s persecution were several people named in the New Testament, including Erastus, the chamberlain of Corinth; Aristarchus, the Macedonian; Trophimus, an Ephesian; Barsabas; and Ananias of Damascus. In the last year of Nero’s reign, Peter was crucified with his head downward, because he said he was unworthy to die the same way Christ did. Also in that year the Apostle Paul was beheaded at Rome. Dionysius wrote that both Peter and Paul “suffered martyrdom at the same time.”

It is possible that Paul was kept in prison due to his association with the Christians during the burning of Rome. He spent time in Rome’s Mamertine prison before he wrote Second Timothy. The Mamertine prison still exists, just as it was when Paul was chained in it. My wife and I have been in that dungeon on two occasions.

It was now illegal to be a Christian, since the “new religion” was no longer protected by Roman law as part of Judaism. Paul had two hearings before Nero. At the first hearing, he was “delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (II Timothy 4:17). Nothing is known of the second hearing. Nero died in A.D. 68, so Paul was beheaded before that date. As a Roman citizen, it seems that he was spared from the excessive torture endured by his fellow martyrs. Tradition tells us that Paul was decapitated with a sword by an imperial Roman executioner just outside of Rome, and buried nearby. This fulfilled his desire “to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Philippians 1:23).

The cruelty and injustice of Nero eventually caused the indignation of pagans such as Tacitus. Many people became Christians because they saw how patiently these martyrs behaved when they were tortured for Christ. Rather than destroying Christianity, this persecution strengthened it. Tertullian said later that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity. The word “martyr” originally meant simply “witness,” but as these early witnesses for Christ sealed their testimony with their own blood, the first meaning merged into the second – dying for Christ. It is a serious thing, even today, to become a Christian. But it is well worth it. Christ died in your place, to pay for your sin. He rose from the dead to give you life. When you come to Christ by faith, His Blood cleanses you from all sin and you receive eternal life in Him.

Let us stand and sing hymn number eight on our song sheet. This hymn does not necessarily refer to our earthly fathers. It is a reference to our fathers in the faith, like the Apostle Paul, and the thousands who died with him in the first great persecution under the Emperor Nero. Sing it with feeling!

Faith of our fathers! living still
   In spite of dungeon, fire and sword:
O how our hearts beat high with joy
   When e’er they hear that glorious Word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
   We will be true to thee till death!
(“Faith of Our Fathers” by Frederick W. Faber, 1814-1863).

(END OF SERMON)
You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."


Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Revelation 2:8-11.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (by Henry F. Lyte, 1793-1847).