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THE EMPEROR CALIGULA AND THE EARLY CHRISTIAN MARTYRS
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 15, 2007
“We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25).
Caligula became Emperor of the Roman Empire in A.D. 37, upon the death of Tiberius. It is believed that Caligula had something to do with his death. For the first few months of his reign he acted with justice and moderation. Then a severe illness changed him, after which he was unquestionably insane, and became one of the worst tyrants known in history. He made his horse a consul, one of the chief magistrates of the Roman republic. He was barbarously cruel, delighting in torture and bloodshed. Among the many horrible things Caligula did, he sexually defiled two of his own sisters, and then sent them away from Rome into exile. He also insisted on divine honors being paid to him as a god.
John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, said that Caligula was so wicked that he commanded himself to be worshipped as God, and temples to be built in his name. Foxe said that he sat in these temples among the gods, requiring that his image be set up in all temples; and he threatened to do so also in the Temple at Jerusalem, which caused a great disturbance among the Jews, and so, was not carried out. Foxe said,
His cruel conduct…was such towards the Romans, that he wished that all the people of Rome had but one neck, that he at his pleasure, might destroy such a multitude. By this said Caligula, Herod, the murderer of John the Baptist and condemner of Christ, was condemned to perpetual banishment where he died a miserable death. Caiaphas also, who wickedly condemned Christ, was at the same time removed from the office of high priest, and Jonathan put in his place. The raging fierceness of this Caligula against the Romans would not have ceased if he had not been cut off by the hands of a tribune, which slew him in the fourth year of his reign. After his death there was found in his closet two little labels, one called a sword, the other a dagger; in the which labels were contained the names of those senators and noblemen of Rome that he planned to put to death. There was also found a coffer containing various kinds of poison, kept in glasses and vessels for the purpose of destroying large numbers of people. But that which Caligula had only conceived, came to pass thirteen years after his death, under Nero (54-68). Caligula was murdered by one of his tribunes in January, AD 41.
Some Christians were killed during Caligula’s reign (37-41). But the Christians were considered a sect of Judaism during that period, and under the next Emperor, Claudius (41-54). Judaism was a legal religion, and, so, the Christians were not singled out for general persecution until the time of Nero (54-68). During the reign of Claudius, who reigned after Caligula, from A.D. 41 to 54, the Apostle Paul made his missionary journeys throughout the empire, and Christianity grew rapidly. But by the time of Nero it had become clear that Christianity was a new religion, separate from Judaism. From that time on it was illegal to become a Christian for three hundred years, until the time of Constantine, who ruled from 306-337. In 313 A.D. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting all people the freedom to follow whichever religion they wished.
But during the period of Caligula’s reign, there were many martyrs. The first to suffer death was Jesus Himself. He is not considered a martyr, because He deliberately chose death. But the account of His suffering and crucifixion, followed by His resurrection, gave courage to His followers. After the Day of Pentecost, their confidence and boldness completely confused the Jewish rulers and astonished all who heard them preach. Their sermons mostly centered on the crucifixion, and especially on the resurrection of Christ.
The second person to suffer and die for the cause of Christ was Stephen. He was stoned to death for proclaiming the Gospel to those who were responsible for killing Jesus. They were so enraged by his preaching that they drove him out of the city and stoned him to death. The hatred generated against Stephen led to a great persecution of those Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. In the Book of Acts, Luke wrote,
“And Saul [later named Paul] was consenting unto his [Stephen’s] death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria…” (Acts 8:1).
During that persecution, about two thousand Christians were martyred, including Nicanor, who was one of the seven deacons of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). These people were killed because they said Jesus is risen from the dead. Please turn to Acts 7:55-59. Please stand and read it aloud.
“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:55-59).
Stephen died as a martyr because he saw the resurrected Christ in His ascended glory, and said so. You may be seated.
Then think of the deaths of the Apostles. Every one of them, but John, died horrible deaths for preaching that they had been eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. They said,
“We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25),
after He rose from the dead. And they were tortured and killed for preaching that.
Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword wound, because he preached the resurrection of Christ.
Mark died in Alexandria, dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead, because he too preached the resurrection of Christ.
Luke was hanged by the neck in Greece for preaching the resurrection of Christ.
John was scalded alive in a large basin of boiling oil during a wave of persecution, because he preached the resurrection of Christ. He miraculously escaped alive, but was horribly scarred for the rest of his life. He was later sent into exile on the Island of Patmos for preaching the resurrection of Christ, where he died at over 90 years of age.
James, the half brother of Jesus, was thrown more than a hundred feet from the southeast pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem for preaching the resurrection of Christ. When they saw that he was still alive, they beat him to death with clubs.
Peter was crucified upside down on an X-shaped cross, because he told those who killed him that he was not worthy to die the same way Jesus died. They killed Peter for preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead.
James, the son of Zebedee, was beheaded at Jerusalem. The Roman soldier who guarded James listened in amazement as James told of the resurrection of Christ at his trial. Later, that Roman soldier walked beside James to the place of execution. The soldier was so overcome with conviction that he declared his own faith in the resurrected Christ to the judge, and knelt beside James to accept martyrdom, and was beheaded as a Christian with James.
Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, was a missionary to the Roman province of Asia. He was whipped to death for preaching the resurrection of Christ.
Thomas at first doubted Christ’s resurrection, but then met the risen Saviour. He was speared to death in India for preaching Christ’s resurrection.
Jude, another half brother of Jesus, was shot to death with arrows for refusing to deny that Christ, his half brother, had risen from the dead.
Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace the traitor Judas, was stoned and then beheaded for his faith in the resurrected Christ.
Barnabas was stoned to death at Salonica for preaching that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
Paul was tortured and finally beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero at Rome. Paul endured a lengthy imprisonment. During his long period of imprisonment, Paul wrote several of the books in the New Testament. Mrs. Hymers and I climbed down a ladder into the Mamertine Prison, in Rome, a few years ago, into the cell where Paul was kept while he wrote some of the “Prison Epistles” in the New Testament. Paul was taken out of that dark prison dungeon and beheaded by Nero for teaching and preaching that Jesus rose physically from the dead.
All of these Apostles laid down their very lives for preaching Christ’s resurrection. After Jesus rose from the dead, these Apostles preached everywhere, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25).
I believe that the Apostles saw the risen Lord, because they were all willing to be tortured and die horrible martyr deaths, rather than deny that they had been eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. They died saying,
“We have seen the Lord,”
after He rose from the dead.
Would the liberals who teach that Jesus did not rise from the dead be willing to die for that conviction, as all the Apostles were willing to die, affirming and preaching truth that “Christ is risen indeed [and] we have seen the Lord”? I don’t believe your secular college professor, who teaches against Christianity, would be willing to die for his agnostic or atheistic beliefs, as the Apostles died for their faith in the resurrected Christ – do you? Do you? Your liberal college professor at the secular college you attend – would he be willing to be stoned to death, have his head chopped off, or be scalded in a vat of burning hot oil for his beliefs? Of course not. Why? Because your professor is only teaching his class for money. He has no higher motive than earning money, taking a large salary, paid for by the taxes of Christians, when he stands up in your classroom and attacks Christianity in general, and the resurrection of Christ in particular. These secular college teachers have no higher motive than earning a salary, as they attack Christianity before their young students, and deny that Jesus rose triumphant from the grave. You who are college students know very well that I am right. But remember, they are only working for money. They are only teaching the liberal, Christ-rejecting opinions of these colleges, because they don’t want to lose their jobs, and because of their prejudice against Christianity. I say that they are a bunch of money-grubbing fakirs, who care nothing about the fact that their very careers are based on a hatred of Christianity and all it stands for.
But the Apostles were a different kind of men. They actually saw the risen Christ, alive from the dead, after His bodily resurrection from the grave. And every one of those Apostles was willing to be tortured and put to death rather than deny,
“We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25).
Don’t let these unbelieving college professors confuse you. They work for a salary and retirement benefits. But the Disciples worked without a salary to spread the Gospel, and died for doing so, because they said,
“We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25),
after he rose bodily from the dead!
Dr. John R. W. Stott said, “…the transformation of the disciples of Jesus is the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection [of Christ]” (quoted in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999, p. 252). Paul Little said, “Men will die for what they believe to be true…They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie” (quoted in Josh McDowell, ibid., p. 271). Thus, the Apostles died for what they believed, when they said,
“We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25),
after His bodily resurrection.
Little’s statement is profound. It points out the fact that the Apostles and other eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ, would “not, however, die for what they know is a lie.” Indeed, they were tortured and died because they knew it was true! They saw Christ after He rose from the dead!
After Christ’s resurrection, the Apostles said, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25), and they suffered torture and death, without a single one of them denying that they had seen Christ after He rose from the dead. Their witness and testimony is very convincing, because these men paid with their lives for preaching that Christ is
“declared to be the Son of God with power…by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
The Apostle Paul knew first-hand that Jesus rose from the dead. He saw Christ as he travelled on the road to Damascus. Paul paid with his life for preaching Christ’s resurrection. He and the other Apostles were also tortured and murdered. They paid with their lives for proclaiming, with the angels,
“Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6).
I trust the witness of the Apostles because they paid with their lives for preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I do not trust modern liberal scholars who have given up nothing for their false beliefs. It’s as simple as that – believe the martyrs, not the highly paid secular college professors who have sacrificed nothing, yet deny the risen Lord who died for all men.
I believe the Apostles rather than these liberal professors, because the professors were not eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection, and because the professors make large salaries by attacking Christ, even though they have never encountered Him in the experience of conversion. I believe the Apostles for two reasons: (1) they actually saw the risen Christ, and (2) they were willing to die as martyrs rather than deny that they saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. Men don’t die for something they are not convinced is true! The Apostles died proclaiming that they had seen the risen Christ! That’s why I believe the Apostles rather than the modern skeptics who have never encountered the Saviour in the new birth – and, as a result, do not know Him at all!
(END OF SERMON)
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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: John 15:18-20.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“The Son of God Goes Forth to War” (by Reginald Heber, 1783-1826).