International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
The importance of this subject may be indicated by the fact of the frequency of its occurrence, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, where in the King James Version the words “persecute,” “persecuted,” “persecuting” are found no fewer than 53 times, “persecution” 14 times, and “persecutor” 9 times.
1. Persecution in Old Testament Times:
It must not be thought that persecution existed only in New Testament times. In the days of the Old Testament it existed too. In what Jesus said to the Pharisees, He specially referred to the innocent blood which had been shed in those times, and told them that they were showing themselves heirs - to use a legal phrase - to their fathers who had persecuted the righteous, “from the blood of Abel the righteous unto the blood of Zachariah” (Mat_23:35).
2. Between the Testaments:
In the period between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ, there was much and protracted suffering endured by the Jews, because of their refusal to embrace idolatry, and of their fidelity to the Mosaic Law and the worship of God. During that time there were many patriots who were true martyrs, and those heroes of faith, the Maccabees, were among those who “know their God ... and do exploits” (Dan_11:32). 'We have no need of human help,' said Jonathan the Jewish high priest, 'having for our comfort the sacred Scriptures which are in our hands' (1 Macc 12:9).
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, persecution in the days of the Old Testament is summed up in these words: “Others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, illtreated (of whom the world was not worthy)” (Heb_11:36-38).
3. Foretold by Christ:
Coming now to New Testament times, persecution was frequently foretold by Christ, as certain to come to those who were His true disciples and followers. He forewarned them again and again that it was inevitable. He said that He Himself must suffer it (Mat_16:21; Mat_17:22, Mat_17:23; Mar_8:31).
4. A Test of Discipleship:
It would be a test of true discipleship. In the parable of the Sower, He mentions this as one of the causes of defection among those who are Christians in outward appearance only. When affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately the stony-ground hearers are offended (Mar_4:17).
5. A Means of Blessing:
It would be a sure means of gaining a blessing, whenever it came to His loyal followers when they were in the way of well-doing; and He thus speaks of it in two of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you ... for my sake” (Mat_5:10, Mat_5:11; see also Mat_5:12).
6. Various Forms:
It would take different forms, ranging through every possible variety, from false accusation to the infliction of death, beyond which, He pointed out (Mat_10:28; Luk_12:4), persecutors are unable to go. The methods of persecution which were employed by the Jews, and also by the heathen against the followers of Christ, were such as these: (1) Men would revile them and would say all manner of evil against them falsely, for Christ's sake (Mat_5:11). (2) Contempt and disparagement: “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a demon?” (Joh_8:48); “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household!” (Mat_10:25). (3) Being, solely on account of their loyalty to Christ, forcibly separated from the company and the society of others, and expelled from the synagogues or other assemblies for the worship of God: “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake” (Luk_6:22); “They shall put you out of the synagogues” (Joh_16:2). (4) Illegal arrest and spoliation of goods, and death itself.
All these various methods, used by the persecutor, were foretold, and all came to pass. It was the fear of apprehension and death that led the eleven disciples to forsake Jesus in Gethsemane and to flee for their lives. Jesus often forewarned them of the severity of the persecution which they would need to encounter if they were loyal to Him: “The hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God” (Joh_16:2); “I send unto you prophets ... some of them shall ye kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city” (Mat_23:34).
7. In the Case of Jesus:
In the case of Christ Himself, persecution took the form of attempts to entrap Him in His speech (Mat_22:15); the questioning of His authority (Mar_11:28); illegal arrest; the heaping of every insult upon Him as a prisoner; false accusation; and a violent and most cruel death.
8. Instigated by the Jews:
After our Lord's resurrection the first attacks against His disciples came from the high priest and his party. The high-priesthood was then in the hands of the Sadducees, and one reason which moved them to take action of this kind was their 'sore trouble,' because the apostles “proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Act_4:2; Act_5:17). The gospel based upon the resurrection of Christ was evidence of the untruth of the chief doctrines held by the Sadducees, for they held that there is no resurrection. But instead of yielding to the evidence of the fact that the resurrection had taken place, they opposed and denied it, and persecuted His disciples. For a time the Pharisees were more moderate in their attitude toward the Christian faith, as is shown in the case of Gamaliel (Act_5:34); and on one occasion they were willing even to defend the apostle Paul (Act_23:9) on the doctrine of the resurrection. But gradually the whole of the Jewish people became bitter persecutors of the Christians. Thus, in the earliest of the Pauline Epistles, it is said, “Ye also suffered the same things of your own countrymen, even as they (in Judea) did of the Jews; who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove out us, and please not God, and are contrary to all men” (1Th_2:14, 1Th_2:15).
Serious persecution of the Christian church began with the case of Stephen (Acts 7:1-60); and his lawless execution was followed by “a great persecution” directed against the Christians in Jerusalem. This “great persecution” (Act_8:1) scattered the members of the church, who fled in order to avoid bonds and imprisonment and death. At this time Saul signalized himself by his great activity, persecuting “this Way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Act_22:4).
10. The Apostles, James and Peter:
By and by one of the apostles was put to death - the first to suffer of “the glorious company of the apostles” - James the brother of John, who was slain with the sword by Herod Agrippa (Act_12:2). Peter also was imprisoned, and was delivered only by an angel (Act_12:7-11).
11. Gentile Persecution:
During the period covered by the Acts there was not much purely Gentilepersecution: at that time the persecution suffered by the Christian church was chiefly Jewish. There were, however, great dangers and risks encountered by the apostles and by all who proclaimed the gospel then. Thus, at Philippi, Paul and Silas were most cruelly persecuted (Acts 16:19-40); and, even before that time, Paul and Barnabas had suffered much at Iconium and at Lystra (Act_14:5, Act_14:19). On the whole the Roman authorities were not actively hostile during the greater part of Paul's lifetime. Gallio, for instance, the deputy of Achaia, declined to go into the charge brought by the Jews at Corinth against Paul (Act_18:14, Act_18:15, Act_18:16). And when Paul had pleaded in his own defense before King Herod Agrippa and the Roman governor Festus, these two judges were agreed in the opinion, “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds” (Act_26:31). Indeed it is evident (see Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 308) that the purpose of Paul's trial being recorded at length in the Acts is to establish the fact that the preaching of the gospel was not forbidden by the laws of the Roman empire, but that Christianity was a religio licita, a lawful religion.
Christianity at First Not a Forbidden Religion.
This legality of the Christian faith was illustrated and enforced by the fact that when Paul's case was heard and decided by the supreme court of appeal at Rome, he was set free and resumed his missionary labors, as these are recorded or referred to in the Pastoral Epistles “One thing, however, is clear from a comparison of Philippians with 2 Timothy. There had been in the interval a complete change in the policy toward Christianity of the Roman government. This change was due to the great fire of Rome (July, 64). As part of the persecution which then broke out, orders were given for the imprisonment of the Christian leaders. Poppea, Tigellinus and their Jewish friends were not likely to forget the prisoner of two years before. At the time Paul was away from Rome, but steps were instantly taken for his arrest. The apostle was brought back to the city in the autumn or winter of 64.... That he had a trial at all, instead of the summary punishment of his brethren. witnesses to the importance attached by the government to a show of legality in the persecution of the leader” (Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, 38). See PASTORAL EPISTLES; PAUL THE APOSTLE.
12. The Neronic Persecution:
The legal decisions which were favorable to the Christian faith were soon overturned on the occasion of the great fire in Rome, which occurred in July, 64. The public feeling of resentment broke out against the emperor to such a degree that, to avoid the stigma, just or unjust, of being himself guilty of setting the city on fire, he made the Christians the scapegoats which he thought he needed. Tacitus (Annals xv. 44) relates all that occurred at that time, and what he says is most interesting, as being one of the very earliest notices found in any profane author, both of the Christian faith, and of Christ Himself.
(1) Testimony of Tacitus.
What Tacitus says is that nothing that Nero could do, either in the way of gifts to the populace or in that of sacrifice the Roman deities, could make the people believe that he was innocent of causing the great fire which had consumed their dwellings. Hence, to relieve himself of this infamy he falsely accused the Christians of being guilty of the crime of setting the city on fire. Tacitus uses the strange expression “the persons commonly called Christians who were hated for their enormities.” This is an instance of the saying of all manner of evil against them falsely, for Christ's sake. The Christians, whose lives were pure and virtuous and beneficent, were spoken of as being the offscouring of the earth.
(2) Reference in 1 Peter.
The First Epistle of Peter is one of the parts of the New Testament which seem to make direct reference to the Neronic persecution, and he uses words (1Pe_4:12 ff) which may be compared with the narrative of Tacitus: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, rejoice.... If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are ye; because the Spirit of glory and the Spirit of God resteth upon you. For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil-doer, or as a meddler in other men's matters: but if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name. For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God.... Wherefore let them also that suffer according to the will of God commit their souls in well-doing unto a faithful Creator.”
(3) Tacitus' Narrative.
How altogether apposite and suitable was this comforting exhortation to the case of those who suffered in the Neronic persecution. The description which Tacitus gives is as follows: “Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator in the reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters as to a common sink, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly, first, those were seized who confessed they were Christians; next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of setting the city on fire, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths they were made the subject of sport, for they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and were worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined were burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his own gardens for that spectacle, and exhibited circus games, indiscriminately mingling with the common people dressed as a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. Whence a feeling of compassion arose toward the sufferers, though guilty and deserving to be made examples of by capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but to be victims to the ferocity of one man.” See NERO.
(4) New Testament References.
Three of the books of the New Testament bear the marks of that most cruel persecution under Nero, the Second Epistle to Timothy, the First Epistle of Peter - already referred to - and the Revelation of John. In 2 Timothy, Paul speaks of his impending condemnation to death, and the terror inspired by the persecution causes “all” to forsake him when he is brought to public trial (2Ti_4:16).
The “fiery trial” is spoken of in 1 Peter, and Christians are exhorted to maintain their faith with patience; they are pleaded with to have their “conversation honest” (1Pe_2:12 the King James Version), so that all accusations directed against them may be seen to be untrue, and their sufferings shall then be, not for ill-doing, but only for the name of Christ (1Pe_3:14, 1Pe_3:16). “This important epistle proves a general persecution (1Pe_1:6; 1Pe_4:12, 1Pe_4:16) in Asia Minor North of the Taurus (1Pe_1:1; note especially Bithynia) and elsewhere (1Pe_5:9). The Christians suffer 'for the name,' but not the name alone (1Pe_4:14). They are the objects of vile slanders (1Pe_2:12, 1Pe_2:15; 1Pe_3:14-16; 1Pe_4:4, 1Pe_4:15), as well as of considerable zeal on the part of officials (1Pe_5:8 (Greek 3:15)). As regards the slanders, the Christians should be crcumspect (1Pe_2:15, 1Pe_2:16; 1Pe_3:16, 1Pe_3:17; 1Pe_4:15). The persecution will be short, for the end of all things is at hand (1Pe_4:7, 1Pe_4:13; 1Pe_5:4)” (Workman, Persecution in the Early Church, 354).
13. Persecution in Asia:
In Rev the apostle John is in “Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev_1:9). Persecution has broken out among the Christians in the province of Asia. At Smyrna, there is suffering, imprisonment and prolonged tribulation; but the sufferers are cheered when they are told that if they are faithful unto death, Christ will give them the crown of life (Rev_2:10). At Pergamum, persecution has already resulted in Antipas, Christ's faithful martyr, being slain (Rev_2:13). At Ephesus and at Thyatira the Christians are commended for their patience, evidently indicating that there had been persecution (Rev_2:2, Rev_2:19). At Philadelphia there has been the attempt made to cause the members of the church to deny Christ's name (Rev_3:8); their patience is also commended, and the hour of temptation is spoken of, which comes to try all the world, but from which Christ promised to keep the faithful Christians in Philadelphia. Strangely enough, there is no distinct mention of persecution having taken place in Sardis or in Laodicea.
14. Rome as Persecutor:
As the book proceeds, evidences of persecution are multiplied. InRev_6:9, the apostle sees under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held; and those souls are bidden to rest yet for a little season “until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, who should be killed even as they were, should have fulfilled their course” (Rev_6:11). The meaning is that there is not yet to be an end of suffering for Christ's sake; persecution may continue to be as severe as ever. Compare Rev_20:4 “I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast,” for the persecution had raged against all classes indiscriminately, and Roman citizens who were true to Christ had suffered unto death. It is to these that reference is made in the words “had been beheaded,” decapitation being reserved as the most honorable form of execution, for Roman citizens only. So terrible does the persecution of Christians by the imperial authorities become, that Rome is “drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev_17:6; Rev_16:6; see also Rev_18:24; Rev_19:2).
Paul's martyrdom is implied in 2 Timothy, throughout the whole epistle, and especially in2Ti_4:6, 2Ti_4:7, 2Ti_4:8. The martyrdom of Peter is also implied in Joh_21:18, Joh_21:19, and in 2Pe_1:14. The abiding. impression made by these times of persecution upon the mind of the apostle John is also seen in the defiance of the world found throughout his First Epistle (1Jo_2:17; 1Jo_5:19), and in the rejoicing over the fall of Babylon, the great persecuting power, as that fall is described in such passages as Rev_14:8; Rev_15:2, Rev_15:3; Rev_17:14; Rev_18:24.
Following immediately upon the close of the New Testament, there is another remarkable witness to the continuance of the Roman persecution against the Christian church. This is Pliny, proconsul of Bithynia.
15. Testimony of Pliny, 112 A.D.:
In 111 or 112 AD, he writes to the emperor Trajan a letter in which he describes the growth of the Christian faith. He goes on to say that “many of all ages and of all ranks and even of both sexes are being called into danger, and will continue to be so. In fact the contagion of this superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread to the villages and country districts.” He proceeds to narrate how the heathen temples had been deserted and the religious rites had been abandoned for so long a time: even the sacrificial food - that is, the flesh of the sacrificial victims - could scarcely find a purchaser.
But Pliny had endeavored to stem the tide of the advancing Christian faith, and he tells the emperor how he had succeeded in bringing back to the heathen worship many professing Christians. That is to say, he had used persecuting measures, and had succeeded in forcing some of the Christians to abandon their faith. He tells the methods he had used. “The method I have observed toward those who have been brought before me as Christians is this. I asked them whether they were Christians. If they admitted it, I repeated the question a second and a third time, and threatened them with punishment. If they persisted I ordered them to be punished. For I did not doubt, whatever the nature of that which they confessed might be, that a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished. There were others also, possessed with the same infatuation, whom, because they were Roman citizens, I ordered to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading, as is usually the case, while it was actually under legal prosecution, several cases occurred. An anonymous information was laid before me, containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were Christians, or that they had ever been so, repeated after me an invocation of the gods, and offered prayer, with wine and incense, to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought in for this very purpose, along with the statues of the gods, and they even reviled the name of Christ; whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper to discharge them. Others who were accused by a witness at first confessed themselves Christians, but afterward denied it. Some owned indeed that they had been Christians formerly, but had now, some for several years, and a few above 20 years ago, renounced it. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods.... I forbade the meeting of any assemblies, and therefore I judged it to be so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth by putting to the torture two female slaves, who were called deaconesses, yet I found nothing but an absurd and extravagant superstition.”
In Trajan's reply to Pliny he writes, “They (the Christians) ought not to be searched for. If they are brought before you and convicted, they should be punished, but this should be done in such a way, that he who denies that he is a Christian, and when his statement is proved by his invoking our deities, such a person, although suspected for past conduct, must nevertheless be forgiven, because of his repentance.”
These letters of Pliny and Trajan treat state-persecution as the standing procedure - and this not a generation after the death of the apostle John. The sufferings and tribulation predicted inRev_2:10, and in many other passages, had indeed come to pass. Some of the Christians had denied the name of Christ and had worshipped the images of the emperor and of the idols, but multitudes of them had been faithful unto death, and had received the martyr's crown of life.
16. 2nd and 3rd Centuries:
Speaking generally, persecution of greater or less severity was the normal method employed by the Roman empire against the Christian church during the 2nd and the 3rd centuries It may be said to have come to an end only about the end of the 3rd or the beginning of the 4th century, when the empire became nominally Christian. When the apostolic period is left, persecution becomes almost the normal state in which the church is found. And persecution, instead of abolishing the name of Christ, as the persecutors vainly imagined they had succeeded in doing, became the means of the growth of the Christian church and of its purity. Both of these important ends, and others too, were secured by the severity of the means employed by the persecuting power of the Roman empire.
Under Trajan's successor, the emperor Hadrian, the lot of the Christians was full of uncertainty: persecution might break out at any moment. At the best Hadrian's regime was only that of unauthorized toleration.
17. Best Emperors the Most Cruel Persecutors:
With the exception of such instances as those of Nero and Domitian, there is the surprising fact to notice, that it was not the worst emperors, but the best, who became the most violent persecutors. One reason probably was that the ability of those emperors led them to see that the religion of Christ is really a divisive factor in any kingdom in which civil government and pagan religion are indissolubly bound up together. The more that such a ruler was intent on preserving the unity of the empire, the more would be persecute the Christian faith. Hence, among the rulers who were persecutors, there are the names of Antoninus Pius. Marcus Aurelius the philosopher-emperor, and Septimius Severus (died at York, 211 Ad).
18. Causes of Persecution:
Persecution was no accident, which chanced to happen, but which might not have occurred at all. It was the necessary consequence of the principles embodied in the heathen Roman government, when these came into contact and into conflict with the essential principles of the Christian faith. The reasons for the persecution of the Christian church by the Roman empire were (1) political; (2) on account of the claim which the Christian faith makes, and which it cannot help making, to the exclusive allegiance of the heart and of the life. That loyalty to Christ which the martyrs displayed was believed by the authorities in the state to be incompatible with the duties of a Roman citizen. Patriotism demanded that every citizen should united in the worship of the emperor, but Christians refused to take pat in the worship on any terms, and so they continually lived under the shadow of a great hatred, which always slumbered, and might break out at any time. The claim which the Christian faith made to the absolute and exclusive loyalty of all who obeyed Christ was such that it admitted of no compromise with heathenism. To receive Christ into the pantheon as another divinity, as one of several - this was not the Christian faith. To every loyal follower of Christ compromise with other faiths was an impossibility. An accommodated Christianity would itself have been false to the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent, and would never have conquered the world. To the heathen there were lords many and gods many, but to the Christians there was but one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world (1Co_8:5, 1Co_8:6). The essential absoluteness of the Christian faith was its strength, but this was also the cause of its being hated.
“By a correct instinct paganisms of all sorts discerned in the infant church their only rival. So, while the new Hercules was yet in the cradle, they sent their snakes to kill him. But Hercules lived to cleanse out the Augean stables” (Workman, op. cit., 88).
19. 200 Years of Persecution:
“For 200 years, to become a Christian meant the great renunciation, the joining a despised and persecuted sect, the swimming against the tide of popular prejudice, the coming under the ban of the Empire, the possibility at any moment of imprisonment and death under its most fearful forms. For 200 years he that would follow Christ must count the cost, and be prepared to pay the same with his liberty and life. For 200 years the mere profession of Christianity was itself a crime. Christianus sum was almost the one plea for which there was no forgiveness, in itself all that was necessary as a 'title' on the back of the condemned. He who made it was allowed neither to present apology, nor call in the aid of a pleader. 'Public hatred,' writes Tertullian, 'asks but one thing, and that not investigation into the crimes charged, but simply the confession of the Christian name.' For the name itself in periods of stress, not a few, meant the rack, the blazing shirt of pitch, the lion, the panther, or in the case of maidens an infamy worse than death” (Workman, 103).
20. Persecution in the Army:
Service in the Roman army involved, for a Christian, increasing danger in the midst of an organized and aggressive heathenism. Hence, arose the persecution of the Christian soldier who refused compliance with the idolatrous ceremonies in which the army engaged, whether those ceremonies were concerned with the worship of the Roman deities or with that of Mithraism. “The invincible saviour,” as Mithra was called, had become, at the time when Tertullian and Origen wrote, the special deity of soldiers. Shrines in honor of Mithra were erected through the entire breadth of the Roman empire, from Dacia and Pannonia to the Cheviot Hills in Britain. And woe to the soldier who refused compliance with the religious sacrifices to which the legions gave their adhesion! The Christians in the Roman legions formed no inconsiderable proportion of “the noble army of martyrs,” it being easier for the persecuting authorities to detect a Christian in the ranks of the army than elsewhere.
21. Tertullian's Apology:
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christians were to be found everywhere, for Tertullian, in an oftentimes quoted passage in his Apology, writes, “We live beside you in the world, making use of the same forum, market, bath, shop, inn, and all other places of trade. We sail with you, fight shoulder to shoulder, till the soil, and traffic with you”; yet the very existence of Christian faith, and its profession, continued to bring the greatest risks. “With the best will in the world, they remained a peculiar people, who must be prepared at any moment to meet the storm of hatred” (Workman, 189). For them it remained true that in one way or another, hatred on the part of the world inevitably fell to the lot of those who walked in the footsteps of the Master; “All that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2Ti_3:12).
22. “The Third Race”:
The strange title, “the third race,” probably invented by the heathen, but willingly accepted by the Christians without demur, showed with what a bitter spirit the heathen regarded the faith of Christ. “The first race” was indifferently called the Roman, Greek, or Gentile. “The second race” was the Jews; while “the third race” was the Christian. The cry in the circus of Carthage was Usque quo genus tertium? “How long must we endure this third race?”
23. Hatred Against Christians:
But one of the most powerful causes of the hatred entertained by the heathen against the Christians was, that though there were no citizens so loyal as they, yet in every case in which the laws and customs of the empire came into conflict with the will of God, their supreme rule was loyalty to Christ, they must obey God rather than man. To worship Caesar, to offer even one grain of incense on the shrine of Diana, no Christian would ever consent, not even. when this minimum of compliance would save life itself.
The Roman empire claimed to be a kingdom of universal sway, not only over the bodies and the property of all its subjects, but over their consciences and their souls. It demanded absolute obedience to its supreme lord, that is, to Caesar. This obedience the Christian could not render, for unlimited obedience of body, soul and spirit is due to God alone, the only Lord of the conscience. Hence, it was that there arose the antagonism of the government to Christianity, with persecution as the inevitable result.
These results, hatred and persecution, were, in such circumstances, inevitable; they were “the outcome of the fundamental tenet of primitive Christianity, that the Christian ceased to be his own master, ceased to have his old environment, ceased to hold his old connections with the state; in everything he became the bond-servant of Jesus Christ, in everything owing supreme allegiance and fealty to the new empire and the Crucified Head. 'We engage in these conflicts,' said Tertullian, 'as men whose very lives are not our own. We have no master but God'“ (Workman, 195).
24. The Decian Persecution:
The persecution inaugurated by the emperor Decius in 250 AD was particularly severe. There was hardly a province in the empire where there were no martyrs; but there were also many who abandoned their faith and rushed to the magistrates to obtain their libelli, or certificates that they had offered heathen sacrifice. When the days of persecution were over, these persons usually came with eagerness to seek readmission to the church. It was in the Decian persecution that the great theologian Origen, who was then in his 68th year, suffered the cruel torture of the rack; and from the effects of what he then suffered he died at Tyre in 254.
Many libelli have been discovered in recent excavations in Egypt. In the The Expository Times for January, 1909, p. 185, Dr. George Milligan gives an example, and prints the Greek text of one of these recently discovered Egyptianlibelli. These libelli are most interesting, illustrating as they do the account which Cyprian gives of the way in which some faint-hearted Christians during the Decian persecution obtained certificates - some of these certificates being true to fact, and others false - to the effect that they had sacrificed in the heathen manner. The one which Dr. Milligan gives is as follows: “To those chosen to superintend the sacrifices at the village of Alexander Island, from Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Sarabus, of the village of Alexander Island, being about 72 years old, a scar on the right eyebrow. Not only have I always continued sacrificing to the gods, but now also in your presence, in accordance with the decrees, I have sacrificed and poured libations and tasted the offerings, and I request you to countersign my statement. May good fortune attend you. I, Aurelius Diogenes, have made this request.”
(2nd Hand) “I, Aurelius Syrus, as a participant, have certified Diogenes as sacrificing along with us.”
(1st Hand) “The first year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajan Decius Plus Felix Augustus, Epiph. 2” ( = June 25, 250 AD).
Under Valerian the persecution was again very severe, but his successor, Gallienus, issued an edict of toleration, in which he guaranteed freedom of worship to the Christians. Thus Christianity definitely became a religio licita, a lawful religion. This freedom from persecution continued until the reign of Diocletian.
26. The Edict of Milan:
The persecution of the Christian church by the empire of Rome came to an end in March, 313 AD, when Constantine issued the document known as the “Edict of Milan,” which assured to each individual freedom of religious belief. This document marks an era of the utmost importance in the history of the world. Official Roman persecution had done its worst, and had failed; it was ended now; the Galilean had conquered.
27. Results of Persecution:
The results of persecution were: (1) It raised up witnesses, true witnesses, for the Christian faith. Men and women and even children were among the martyrs whom no cruelties, however refined and protracted, could terrify into denial of their Lord. It is to a large extent owing to persecution that the Christian church possesses the testimony of men like Quadratus and Tertullian and Origen and Cyprian and many others. While those who had adopted the Christian faith in an external and formal manner only generally went back from their profession, the true Christian, as even the Roman proconsul Pliny testifies, could not be made to do this. The same stroke which crushed the straw - such is a saying of Augustine's - separated the pure grain which the Lord had chosen.
(2) Persecution showed that the Christian faith is immortal even in this world. Of Christ's kingdom there shall be no end. “Hammer away, ye hostile bands, your hammers break, God's altar stands.” Pagan Rome, Babylon the Great, as it is called by the apostle John in the Apocalypse tried hard to destroy the church of Christ; Babylon was drunk with the blood of the saints. God allowed this tyranny to exist for 300 years, and the blood of His children was shed like water. Why was it necessary that the church should have so terrible and so prolonged an experience of suffering? It was in order to convince the world that though the kings of the earth gather themselves against the Lord and against His Christ, yet all that they can do is vain. God is in the midst of Zion; He shall help her, and that right early. The Christian church, as if suspended between heaven and earth, had no need of other help than that of the unseen but divine hand, which at every moment held it up and kept it from falling. Never was the church more free, never stronger, never more flourishing, never more extensive in its growth, than in the days of persecution.
And what became of the great persecuting power, the Roman empire? It fell before the barbarians. Rome is fallen in its ruins, and its idols are utterly abolished, while the barbarians who overwhelmed the empire have become the nominally Christian nations of modern Europe, and their descendants have carried the Christian faith to America and Australia and Africa and all over the world.
(3) Persecution became, to a large extent, an important means of preserving the true doctrines of the person and of the work of Christ. It was in the ages of persecution that Gnosticism died, though it died slowly. It was in the ages of persecution that Arianism was overthrown. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, among those who were present and took part in the discussion and in the decision of the council, there were those who “bore in their bodies the branding-marks of Jesus,” who had suffered pain and loss for Christ's sake.
Persecution was followed by these important results, for God in His wisdom had seen fit to permit these evils to happen, in order to change them into permanent good; and thus the wrath of man was overruled to praise God, and to effect more ultimate good, than if the persecutions had not taken place at all. What, in a word, could be more divine than to curb and restrain and overrule evil itself and change it into good ? God lets iniquity do what it pleases, according to its own designs; but in permitting it to move on one side, rather than on another, He overrules it and makes it enter into the order of His providence. So He lets this fury against the Christian ith be kindled in the hearts of persecutors, so that they afflict the saints of the Most High. But the church remains safe, for persecution can work nothing but ultimate good in the hand of God. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” So said Tertullian, and what he said is true.
Persecution has permanently enriched the history of the church. It has given us the noble heritage of the testimony and the suffering of those whose lives would otherwise have been unrecorded. Their very names as well as their careers would have been unknown had not persecution “dragged them into fame and chased them up to heaven.”
Persecution made Christ very near and very precious to those who suffered. Many of the martyrs bore witness, even when in the midst of the most cruel torments, that they felt no pain, but that Christ was with them. Instances to this effect could be multiplied. Persecution made them feel how true Christ's words were, that even as He was not of the world, so they also were not of it. If they had been of the world, the world would love its own, but because Christ had chosen them out of the world, therefore the world hated them. They were not greater than their Lord. If men had persecuted Jesus, they would also persecute His true disciples. But though they were persecuted, they were of good cheer, Christ had overcome the world; He was with them; He enabled them to be faithful unto death. He had promised them the crown of life.
Browning's beautiful lines describe what was a common experience of the martyrs, how Christ “in them” and “with them,” “quenched the power of fire,” and made them more than conquerors:
Taken from: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia by James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor