Persecution of the Early Church


Jesus told His disciples that the world would hate them in the same way that the world hated Jesus (John 15:18), and He foretold of a time when people would kill His disciples and believe that they were doing a service to God (John 16:2).  Jesus never minimized the cost that those following Him would have to pay.  He clearly prepared them for the trials that would come with involving themselves with Christ’s cause.  While Jesus was on earth, His closest disciple, Peter, declared that he would follow Christ, even if all the other disciples would fall away (Matt. 26:33).  After Peter’s denial of Christ, the future of the Church’s leadership appeared unable to continue Christ’s work in Jesus’ absence.

Conversely, Peter proved to be a bold witness for Christ after Jesus’ resurrection.  In danger of imprisonment or death, Peter amazed the religious officials with his confidence in their midst, and they recognized Peter’s affiliation with Christ (Acts 4:13).  Before this instance, the religious leaders had also been amazed at Jesus’ theological presentations (John 7:15), since He had no apparent mentor.  Regardless of threats, Peter and the other disciples became insubordinate to the laws of the Jewish community, and they vowed to continue preaching in the name of Jesus (acts 4:19-20).  The religious leaders listened to the advice of Gamaliel the Elder, the tutor of Paul (Acts 22:3), and they decided that if this movement was not from God, the people adhering to Jesus’ teaching would eventually dissipate in the aftermath of Christ’s death.  The court punished Peter and the apostles with him, and the officials warned the disciples no longer to preach in Jesus’ name (Acts. 5:38-40).  Gamaliel and the other leaders trusted that God, and not themselves, would bring about an end to this current movement.

Martyrdom became routine for those holding to the Christian faith.

In the early stages of the Church, adherents of Judaism composed most of the opposition to the spread of Christianity, and the Romans repeatedly served as an aid for Paul and others contending with the Jews.  Roman attitude towards Christians drastically changed in A.D. 64 when the Roman government became involved in the persecution of Christians.  During that summer, a fire blazed across the city of Rome for seven days and six nights devastating many buildings containing valuable goods.  Some historians recorded that Emperor Nero himself set fire to the city in order to create an opportunity for him to revamp the city according to his preferences.

Instead of Nero taking responsibility for the fire, he used the opportunity to stunt the growth of Christianity.  Without any apparent need for evidence, Nero used the Christian community of rome as a scapegoat, and the Roman government began to hinder this new religious sect by intensely persecuting the local Christians.  While many Christians were beaten and arrested, Rome publicly executed some believers by clothing them in animal skins and throwing them to be devoured by wild dogs.  Nero even burned some Christians on stakes to serve the function of torches in his garden at night.  The Roman government’s rationale of these executions was twofold: Christians refused to worship the many gods of Rome, and they did not properly revere Emperor Nero.

Singled out by the Roman government as a tremendously influential proponent of Christianity, Paul was arrested a second time in a Roman attempt to disband the growing faction of believers.  During this time, scholars held that Paul penned the words to Timothy concerning future, unavoidable persecution.  According to tradition, Rome ordered to behead Paul around A.D. 64-67.

Rome oppressed Christianity periodically and regionally depending on what kind of political threat was present in that particular area during that time.  The Roman government would allow suspects to live they would offer sacrifices to Roman gods.  The governor of the Bithynia province, Pliny the Younger, observed that the ones “who really are Christians cannot be compelled to do any of these things in any circumstances.”  Built upon this kind of faith, the Church continued to grow in spite of the death of Paul, Peter, James, Stephen, and other disciples.  Christians in the early Church, aware of the possible consequences, became so evangelistic in this time that the gospel spread to many people.

Until something tragic happened.

We will see where that shift happened tomorrow.

This blog post was 1 of 4 posts concerning Christian persecution.  These writings are from my senior seminar paper in college when I graduated in 2003.  For more info, check out: