Week of Monday, July 23, 2001

Looking through some old notes the other day, I came across a text from the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus (55–117) that describes the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero. On June 18, AD 64, a fire broke out in Rome that burned for ten days and destroyed much of the city. Most people suspected that Nero himself started the fire, ostensibly to rebuild Rome, so to allay the rumors Nero blamed the Christians. Since these Christians were “hated for their abominations” anyway, writes Tacitus, Nero “punished them with refined cruelty.”

Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illumine it. Nero opened his own gardens for these shows, and in the circus he himself became a spectacle, for he mingled with the people dressed as a charioteer...All of this aroused the mercy of the people, even against these culprits who deserved an exemplary punishment, for it was clear that they were not being destroyed for the common good, but rather to satisfy the cruelty of one person.1
Similarly, in his work Life of Nero the Roman biographer Suetonius (75–160) tells us that under his reign “punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a set of men adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition.” Christian tradition has it that Peter and Paul were among the many martyrs under Nero.

In its early days Christianity enjoyed the protection of the state because it was sometimes confused as a sect of Judaism, a legal religion. But when Gentiles entered the church, and Jewish nationalism attracted the wrath of Rome (they destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70), this favorable confusion ended. When it became a clear and distinct movement, it attracted persecution that lasted 300 years.

The New Testament writers record the martyrdom of Steven and James, along with a “great persecution” against the entire church (Acts 7, 8:1, and 12:2). Hebrews 10:33–34 is likewise rather sobering: “You stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property.” Paul, of course, spent considerable time in prisons.

At first these persecutions were sporadic, localized, and as with Nero the whim of the emperor. But under Decius (249–251) persecution became systematic and universal state policy. Diocletian meted out the legislation for the last, most severe and cruel terror. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius (265–339) describes the Imperial edict issued by Diocletian in March 303: “It was enacted that the meetings of the Christians should be abolished, churches be razed to the ground, that the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, that those holding office be deposed and they of their household deprived of freedom, if they persisted in their profession of Christianity.” Only with the Edict of Toleration issued by Galerius in 311 did these persecutions of Christians end.

But to say they have ended would be a gross error. Although the United Nations has declared freedom of religion a universal human right, today about 500 million Christians suffer either active persecution or discrimination and restrictions. In Saudi Arabia all forms of Christian worship are prohibited, even in the American Embassy and despite the fact that 600,000 expatriates live there. In the atheist Soviet Union, where I lived, communists closed 98% of the Orthodox churches in Russia, as well as 1,000 monasteries and 60 seminaries. Between 1917 and the start of World War II, 50,000 Orthodox priests were martyred.

So persecution of the church is alive and well. Thank God that each year since 1996 the World Evangelical Fellowship sponsors the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (

Thinking about this legacy of suffering makes me realize how self-aggrandizing my view of the Gospel becomes when following Jesus is reduced to a sort of therapy for victory, power, miracles and blessings. Jesus, of course, was the suffering Servant. Paul taught that we come to know God through great suffering, testing and human weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

I also ask myself why the early church was persecuted. Three clear reasons present themselves. First, the early believers had clearly separated themselves from mainstream culture. Tacitus, recall, referred to believers as “haters of mankind.” Second, what they confessed to believe, that God had raised Jesus from the dead, was mocked as a mischievous superstition. Finally, because of their stubborn refusal to worship Caesar, they were viewed as politically subversive. I ask myself, how do I stack up on these three points?

Christian persecution also teaches us a lesson about the state. In our day when many American Christians rush to embrace the state and wed the Gospel to liberal and conservative agendas, we need to remember that the state has been and can be, to borrow Nietzsche's words, “the coldest of all monsters.” We need to recover a studied ambivalence about politics and the state. There are reasons why the Great Babylon, the “city of power” and “great prostitute” (Revelation 17:1;18:10), is understood to be Rome, and why John spends two chapters (17–18) describing her destruction. John, after all, wrote in political exile from the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9–10).2

Finally, a linguistic point. The word martyr is from the Greek word martueo which means “to witness.” Early Christians considered it the highest honor to imitate Jesus in his death. According to Christian tradition, during the persecutions by Septimius Severus in 202, Origen (185–254) encouraged his father to embrace martyrdom without concern for his wife and children, and Origen himself was prevented from doing the same only because his mother hid his clothes. Tertullian (c. 200) put it this way in his famous aphorism: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Christian persecution makes me think about just what it means to witness to Jesus Christ.

The early church left us a literature of martyrdom, chief among which is Origen's An Exhortation to Martyrdom. Much shorter and more readable are The Martyrdom of Polycarp and The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Our own Christian vision today must see what John saw in his vision of heaven. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Revelation 6:10–11).

  1. Annals 15.44.
  2. A good place to start on this topic is Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (1991).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.