Persecution, Part 2: Persecutions Throughout History
We have been looking at persecution and martyrdom, and we will continue to see that this has been a big part of the history of Christianity. As Americans, we have come to believe that we Christians will not see this type of violence against us, but is this a false belief? We want to take a look at several persecutions that took place in the First and Second Century and see if there are any similarities in today’s world, and especially look at those who were persecuted and martyred. As Christians today, do we even come close to being the Christians that we need to be to even stand in the face of such persecution? We are going to take a closer look at all this and find out.
As we saw last month, Nero had many Christians put to death. Peter and Paul fell under Nero’s rage. In the year 67, Nero became the sixth Emperor of Rome. One day, he ordered that the city of Rome be set on fire. While Rome burned, Nero sat in the tower of Macaenas and played upon his harp and sang the song of the burning of Troy. Thousands of people perished in the fire. When he was sharply blamed for the fire, he simply blamed it on the Christians. Nero was so evil that he thought of many ways in which to inflict pain with such cruelty. He had some Christians sewed up in skins of wild beasts and left to the dogs. Others he had put in wax and had them burned as torches to illuminate his gardens.
And so this persecution spread throughout the Roman Empire. But none of this diminished the spirit of Christianity. In fact, the opposite, for Nero remarked just how well Christians die. Others who died under Nero were Erastus, Chamberlain of Corinth, Trophimus, an Ephesian converted by Paul and a fellow laborer with him, and Ananias, Bishop of Damascus.
The Emperor Domitian, A.D. 81, was naturally inclined to cruelty; first he slew his brother, then he raised the second persecution against the Christians. In his rage, he put to death Roman senators, some from malice others because he wanted to take their estates. He commanded that all the lineage of David be put to death. Simeon the Bishop of Jerusalem was crucified and the apostle John, as we saw in part one, was boiled in oil and then sent to the Isle of Patmos. Dionysius the Bishop of Athens, Nicodemus (the one who secretly met with Yeshua and asked Him about being born again in John 3:4), and Timothy the disciple of Paul and Bishop of Ephesus all were martyred at this time. Christians were commanded to renounce their religion or suffer the consequences. Fabricated tales were told in order to blame the Christians. Any famines, pestilences, or earthquakes were all blamed on the Christians. Paid informers gave way to many innocent lives being put to death.
In the third persecution under Trajan in 108, a man named Pliny, who was an educated and famous man, looked upon the slaughter of Christians and wrote to Trajan, “There are many Christians being put to death daily, of which none did anything contrary to the Roman laws worthy of such persecution and death. The whole account gave of their crimes amounted to this: that they were accustomed on a stated day to meet before daylight, and repeat together a set form of prayer to Messiah as a God, and to bind themselves by an obligation not indeed to commit wickedness; but on the contrary-never to commit theft, robbery, or adultery, never to falsify their word, never to defraud any man: after which it was their custom to separate, and reassemble to partake in common of a harmless meal.” The Psalmist writes, “The wicked plots against the righteous, and gnashes at him with his teeth. The Lord laughs at him; for He sees his day is coming. The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow, to cast down the afflicted and needy, to slay those who are upright in conduct. Their sword will enter their own heart, and their bows will be broken.”
Ignatius, who was the Bishop of Antioch and the successor to Peter, was sent to Rome because he professed Messiah and was given to the wild beasts to be devoured. It is said that as he passed through Asia, under strict custody, he strengthened and confirmed the churches through all the cities as he went, both with his exhortations and preaching the Word of God. Accordingly, having come to Smyrna, he wrote to the churches at Rome, exhorting them not to use means for his deliverance from martyrdom, lest they should deprive him that which he most longed and hoped for. “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Messiah. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, the breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Messiah Yeshua!” When he was sentenced to the wild beasts he said, “I heard the lions roaring, saying: ‘I am the wheat of Messiah: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.'”
These are only three of ten persecutions that went on throughout the first two centuries of Christianity. The persecutions and tortures only became more evil and severe and hundreds of thousands of Christians died martyrs in these two centuries. But Christians never shrank back, but courageously and willingly went to their deaths believing in the faithfulness of their Heavenly Father, and the believers only grew in number.
The persecutions continued, but now the persecution came from within. These were the days of the Inquisitions. The gospel light throughout Europe began to diffuse and so Pope Innocent III had great fears for the Roman Church. So he ordered a number of inquisitions, or persons who were to made inquiry after, to apprehend and punish heretics, as the reformed were called by the Pope. Courts of Inquisition were being set up in several countries; but the Spanish Inquisition became the most powerful and the most dreaded. Even the kings of Spain themselves, though arbitrary in all other respects, were taught to dread the power of the lords of the Inquisition; and the horrid cruelties they exercised compelled multitudes who differed in opinion from the Roman Catholics, careful to conceal their sentiments.
People found guilty of heresies were condemned to die by burning at the stake, as we saw with Joan of Arc. If they repented of their heresies, they received prison for life, such as Galileo. But the horrors of the torture and inflicted pain on innocent people just grew more horrific.
When you think of the Reformation you have to think of John Wickliffe. In 1230, there began a feud between Wickliffe and the friars at the University at Oxford. The friars believed that Yeshua was nothing more than a common beggar and so they began the practice of begging. Wickliffe began exposing them as being simply lazy and that they were not only a reproach to religion, but also to human society. Wickliffe continued to expose the luxurious living of the friars and bishops and even the Vatican. He exposed many things that were not true in their doctrine and eventually Wickliffe translated the Bible into English so every person could read for themselves the truths of God’s Word. For all this he was persecuted. But his ministry still lives on today with translators all around the world translating the Word of God into the language of the people.
Of course, the other name that you think of when you think of the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther. In 1507, Martin Luther celebrated his first Mass at the monastery in Erfurt. Martin Luther was also a monk who exposed the double standard of the friars living in wealth and the poverty of the people. He too when asked to go to Rome saw the luxurious living when he himself believed that Christians should not be part of the world and that they should live a more simple life. In 1518, Luther went to the Monastery of St. Augustine at Heidelberg where there was a gathering of his fellow monks, and there he spoke to them about “Justification by faith.” This caused his adversaries to grow more and more active against him, and he was spoken of to Pope Leo X as a heretic. Luther wrote a letter to the Pope about indulgences, and he eventually posted his complaints on the door of the church. Martin Luther stayed with the truth despite all the persecution until his death in 1546.
Another man who remained faithful to the truth was William Tyndale. Tyndale was a very learned man from the University of Oxford. Tyndale, like Wickliffe, felt the Bible should be put into English so everyone could read and study God’s Word. And so Tyndale was imprisoned for a year and a half, but during his imprisonment he converted the jailer as well as his daughter and whole household. In 1536, Tyndale was tied to a stake and burned, but not before the people heard his prayer: “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
And so we see that all throughout history, courageous men and women were persecuted and stood strong, contending for the faith even unto death. This brings us to John Bunyan, who was born into a Puritan family. But as he became a young man, he became a Baptist and by the time he was thirty he was one of the leading Baptist ministers; and because of his preaching, he found himself in jail. Being separated from his wife and children, particularly his blind daughter, brought much grief to him. But he found solace in the two books that he had brought with him: the Bible and Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Bunyan wrote several books while in jail, but it was only three years later when he was thrown into prison again that he wrote his famous Pilgrim’s Progress, which was a story of his life. He was the man clothed in Rags, with his Face from his own home, a Book in his hand and a great Burdon upon his back. Bunyan died in 1688.
In June of 1703, John Wesley was born to Charles and Suzanne Wesley. His father was a preacher and his mother was a remarkable woman of wisdom and intelligence. She would dress up her children in their finest clothes on the days when they were to have the privilege of learning their alphabet as an introduction to reading the Holy Scriptures. Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church. He preached twice a day, often three or four times. He would travel 4500 miles a year on horseback through England. His brother Charles Wesley who traveled with him was known for his hymns, which introduced a new era in the hymnology of the English Church. But his days of preaching led to stoning and pelting, with attempts at wounding and slaying him and his brother. But they always faced all these dangers with amazing courage and astonishing calmness.
Not only Christians were being persecuted and martyred during these years. Many Jewish people also died for their faith. The one event that stands out the most was the Holocaust. Even though they died because they were Jews, many thousands of Jews never gave up their love for God and His Word.
And that brings us to Corrie ten Boom. From her book Prison Letters, Corrie writes, “Can faith survive—indeed, thrive—in the brutal dehumanizing environment of a Nazi concentration camp? Can God be glorified and His people blessed, even as thousands of innocent souls are being herded to their doom? Yes, Jesus lives and He is Victor!” Corrie, her sister, and her father hid Jews in their home until one day they were caught. This cost them the life of their father and Corrie’s sister Betsie, but through all the sorrow and the suffering, these people never wavered from their Christian duty to love God and His people. As they were led into that prison camp they knew that God would never leave them or forsake them. Throughout this experience Corrie often wrote about how thankful she was and she always looked for the good. As lonely as she was, she always kept her mind on her Savior and then she would get a peace in her heart and strength to go on. There is so much that could be written; if you have never read the book I recommend it. But it must be noted that Corrie wrote a letter to the man who turned her family in to the Nazis and she forgave him and also told him that if he repented Jesus would forgive him also and proceeded to give him the Gospel message.
Corrie ten Boom is the embodiment of all those Christians who went to their death as martyrs before her. Though God spared her life, it was not without great pain and suffering, but as she says, God purified her so that she could be used by Him.
We here in America believe that we will never see such persecution because we have the Amendment to the Constitution which gives us the freedom of religion. But one such group in Americans did see it; they were the Quakers. The Quakers received much persecution in England. The reason for this persecution was because they called people to repentance. These people led a simple, quiet life. They were respectable people. But we want to look at their persecution here in America.
1n 1656 in a general court in Boston, the Quakers were declared a cursed sect of heretics and any ship that brings them to port would be fined and any person harboring them would be fined. It is always worth noting that when people start talking about repentance and living out the Good Book according to how it was written and not by interpretation, people always get uncomfortable with you. As many who would say that the Quakers were extreme, would say the same of any committed Born Again Christian. This land called America, where people came for religious freedom, only had that freedom for those they tolerated; those whom they did not, they jailed, tortured and/or put to death.
As we have briefly seen, persecutions and martyrdom is the common lifestyle of Christians as hundreds of thousands have experienced such trials in their walk with their Savior. As Peter writes to the believers during the persecution under Trajan, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Messiah, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Messiah, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and God rests upon you.”
As we lose more and more freedoms in this country, do you begin to see the winds of persecution blowing?