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THE FIRST THREE PERSECUTIONS
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 29, 2007
“Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
“Thou shalt have tribulation ten days.” This refers to the ten intense periods of persecution under the Roman Emperors.
Nero – 54-68 A.D.
Domitian – 81-96 A.D.
Trajan – 98-117 A.D.
Marcus Aurelius – 161-180 A.D.
Severus – 193-211 A.D.
Maximinus – 235-238 A.D.
Decius – 249-251 A.D.
Valerian – 253-260 A.D.
Aurelian – 270-275 A.D.
Diocletian – 284-305 A.D.
According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, five million Christians died for Christ during this period.
The Roman Empire was tolerant of the religions of the nations it conquered. They could even practice their religions in Rome as long as they did not seek to make converts from the state religion.
But Christianity was not a national religion. It claimed to be the only true, universal faith. Converts to Christianity came out of every pagan religion, and from Judaism. The Christians refused to compromise with any form of idolatry. Thus, the existence of the state religion of Rome was threatened by the rapid growth of Christianity.
Also, the Christians refused to worship the Emperor or his statue. They would not take part in idolatrous ceremonies. The Emperors became fearful of them as their numbers grew. The common people believed in many gods and, thus, viewed the Christians as atheists. Every time a calamity occurred, the Christians were blamed. In North Africa, the pagans said, “If the gods do not send rain, blame the Christians.” Whenever a famine or drought occurred the pagans cried, “Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians!”
The pagan priests were also opposed to Christianity, because it threatened their livelihood. Plinius the Younger came in contact with Christianity and called it, “a depraved and immoderate superstition.” He reported to the Emperor that this “superstition” was rapidly spreading, making converts from every age, rank and sex, so that the pagan temples were almost forsaken.
The first general persecution occurred during Nero’s reign (54-68 A.D.). Under Nero both Paul and Peter suffered martyrdom. At first Rome was the protector of Christianity, which came to the rescue of Paul on several critical occasions. But now, under Nero, Rome began a deadly conflict with the new religion. Thus, in the name of idolatry and patriotism, a series of ten great persecutions began.
During the first five years of Nero’s reign he was guided by Seneca and Burrus. This was a time of peace and prosperity. Then Nero went into a nine-year period of madness and horror. He murdered his brother, Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wives Octavia and Poppaea, his teacher Seneca and many other prominent Romans.
Then Rome caught on fire. Lashed by wind, the fire raged on for seven nights and six days. Then it burst forth again in another part of the city and burned for three more days. Popular rumor blamed Nero for setting the city on fire. To divert attention from himself, Nero cast the blame on the hated Christians, who by now were distinguished from the Jews, as the most dangerous offshoot of Judaism.
Leaders like Suetonius saw Christianity as a vulgar superstition. It seemed to men like him to be even worse than Judaism, which was at least an ancient national religion. But Christianity was new, and it was not attached to any particular nationality. Its goal was universal dominion. All of this made the people of Rome highly suspicious of the Christians, and they were found guilty of setting the fire in the mind of the people.
The Christians were brutally attacked in a carnival of blood such as heathen Rome never saw before, nor since. A great number of Christians were put to death in shocking ways. Some were crucified. Some were sewed up in the skins of animals and fed to wild dogs in the arena. The tragedy reached its climax at night in Nero’s gardens. Christian men and women were covered with oil or resin, nailed to wooden posts, and set on fire. This account comes from the writing of Tacitus, a heathen author. Tacitus also said that the overzealous persecution of the Christians by Nero became repugnant to the people, “because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but as victims of the ferocity of one man.” After his death by suicide, many Christians thought that Nero would return as the Antichrist, spoken of in the Book of Revelation. Nero was certainly a forerunner of the Antichrist.
The second general persecution of Christians occurred under the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.). He was the next Roman emperor to persecute Christians. Tacitus said that banishment was one of Domitian’s favorite forms of punishment. After a fairly good beginning he became as cruel and bloodthirsty as Nero, and went further than Nero in self-deification. He began his letters, “Our Lord and God Commands,” and required his subjects to always address him as god. He had gold and silver statues of himself placed in the holiest places of the temples.
Like Caligula and Nero, Domitian finally went insane. Filled with paranoia, he killed many of the senators and consuls who stood in his way. He searched for the descendants of David, and for the alleged descendants of Jesus, fearing that they might take over his throne.
Many Christians were put to death during his reign. His wife, Domitilla, had become a Christian. He banished her to the island of Panadeteria, near Naples. He also put to death his cousin Flavius Clemens for becoming a Christian. The Apostle John was banished to the island of Patmos during the latter part of Domitian’s reign.
In 95 A.D., toward the end of Domitian’s reign, the persecution of Christians broke out again. The Jews had refused to pay a certain poll tax for the building of a pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter. Because the Christians continued to be thought of as a part of Judaism, they also suffered from the Emperor’s wrath. It was during this persecution that the Apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.
After the death of Domitian, John was released and came to Ephesus in A.D. 97, as a very old man, where he wrote the Gospel of John, and where he lived until the time of the next emperor, Trajan (98-117).
When Trajan came to power, Plinius Secundus, one of the most noted governors, was deeply disturbed by the great number of Christian martyrs. He wrote to Trajan concerning the multitude of those who were being put to death for their faith. In this letter, he told the Emperor that he had not heard of the Christians doing anything against the law, except that they rose at dawn and sang hymns to Christ as God; but that they renounced adultery and murder, and similar criminal offences, and did all things according to the laws of Rome. In reply to this letter Trajan made the following decree: that the Christians should not be sought after, but when found should be punished. Because of this decree the persecution, which had threatened to be a most terrible one, was to a certain extent checked. But there were still many pretexts for those who wanted to harm the Christians.
Eusebius, an early Christian writer, said, “Sometimes the people, sometimes the rulers in various places, would plot against us, so that, although no great persecutions took place, local persecutions continued to go on in various parts of the empire, and many of the faithful [Christians] endured martyrdom in various forms.”
Plinius Secundus, the governor of a province, told Trajan that aside from their unwillingness to sacrifice to the Roman gods, he found no impiety in them. He also reported to Trajan that the Christians rose early in the morning and sang hymns to Christ as God, and for the purpose of preserving their discipline, forbade murder, adultery, avarice, robbery, and such things. In reply to Plinius, Trajan wrote that the Christians should not be sought after, but when found should be punished. Such were the things that happened during Trajan’s reign.
In the third persecution, under Trajan, Plinius Secundus, a famous and scholarly man, was moved with pity toward the great slaughter of Christians. He wrote to Trajan, saying that many thousands of them were being put to death every day, but that none of them had done anything worthy of execution. Plinius said, “The whole account they gave of their crime or error (whichever it is to be called) amounted only to this – that they met before daylight and repeated together a set form of prayer to Christ as God, and to bind themselves not to commit wickedness…after which it was their custom to separate, and reassemble to eat a common harmless meal.”
During this persecution Ignatius, a godly Christian leader, was martyred. Being sent to Rome from Syria Ignatius professed faith in Christ, and was thrown into the arena where he was torn apart by wild beasts.
Ignatius wrote to the church at Rome, exhorting them not to attempt to deliver him from martyrdom, lest they should deprive him of what he most longed and hoped for. He wrote, “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing…so that I may win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the wild beasts, let the breaking of my bones and tearing of my limbs, let the grinding of my whole body, and the malice of the devil, come upon me: be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!”
Even when Ignatius was sentenced to be thrown to the beasts, he had such a burning desire to suffer for Christ, that when he heard the lions roaring, he said, “I am the wheat of Christ. I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread [for Jesus].”
As I have said, in the words of Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Hundreds of pagans saw the faith and courage of Ignatius, and the other Christian martyrs, and were highly impressed by the way they died. Many of them said, “The Christians die well.” This appealed to their Roman sense of courage. The deaths of these Christians caused Christianity to spread even more rapidly among the people.
May every young person here tonight aspire to have faith and strength that made these early martyrs such good witnesses for Jesus in the pagan Roman world. May we live for Christ, as they did, fully committed to the Saviour, no matter what hardships we must endure. May God grant us the grace to do so. The first step is to come by faith to Jesus Christ. He died on the Cross to pay for your sins. He rose from the dead to give you eternal life. Come to Him by faith and you will be saved. Amen.
(END OF SERMON)
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Prayer Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (by Henry F. Lyte, 1793-1847).