The early history of Christianity is a story of ups and downs—Joyful shouts to God and tearful cries in faith. Christianity was spreading like wildfire throughout the Middle Eastern and Roman worlds. Word of mouth and good news were being found to be difficult to restrain. Arrest a Christian and the arresters will hear the good news. In the world today Christians are still spreading the gospel to new generations, many paying for it with their lives. Men, women and children are still being faced with decisions that are life-altering as they face penalties of death and pillage from those who would destroy Christianity if they could. But the great “Cloud of Witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is still around us cheering us on as we continue to run the race of faith knowing that our end, no matter which way it turns, will hopefully come with the banner of Christ still in our hands and our hearts.
This series will explore the early persecutions of the church under Emperors Claudius and his adopted son Nero, both of them doing their best to eradicate the faith we Christians hold so dear. These two ruled the Roman Empire from A.D 41-68, a period of twenty-seven years. During their reigns Christians were subjected to persecutions you and I hope we will never see. But nonetheless there was always encouragement and hope.
The background to the study will be the book of Hebrews, an apology for Christ and a letter of encouragement to those facing severe trial. I hope that in the series you will be blessed with courage and strength to face even the severest trial knowing your hope in Christ is sure. May the Lord bless you in this study.
Facing the Hell-storm
Why not get right to the point. Decisions and decision making are often things that must be done in seconds not just hours or days. When facing a trial or even a temptation a decision has to be made in reference to where you stand. That decision may affect your family, your finances, your health, or those with whom you interact; so knowing where you stand ahead of time, will make all the difference in the world. Let me illustrate.
All people, at one time or another have withstood high winds, tornadoes or even hurricanes. One such event occurred to me just a few years ago. I was gluing up a wood project in my garage when over the radio a familiar alarm sounded followed by a warning. A tornado had just touched down about two miles southwest of my home and I was in its path. My wife was away and I was at home alone with my girls. Immediately I left the wet glue and ran into my home to gather my two young girls, then two and three years old. After gathering them into my arms we quickly headed to the basement where I safely placed them out of harm’s way. I then realized I left my cell phone upstairs. I went to the top of the stairs and looked southward, out the living room windows, only to see nothing but a cloud of dust, shingles and siding heading straight for the house. Suddenly the cell phone was of lesser importance than my children having a father… I quickly dove down the stairs. My priorities in this instance were the safety of my small girls and myself. I knew what to do and I was able to react quickly.
In life, all choices are made within the bounds of time. Sometimes we are given minutes, days, weeks or months to make important decisions; at other times we have a split-second. In the situation described above, the time lapse between hearing the warning, grabbing the girls, and walking back up the stairs was about 45 seconds. The lapse between looking out the window and diving back down the stairs was less than a second. The question is “What is it that gives us the impetus to make the right decisions at the right times?” Most will say love, instinct, wisdom and fear of physical harm; but what about “Spiritual Harm?”
Hell-Storm I – Caesar Claudius
|Claudius Ruled A.D. 41- 54|
The Bible teaches of one such group of believers who were facing a very tough decision. Literally for them, it could mean the difference between life and death. These believers were the Hebrew Christian converts in and around Rome. In 49 A.D., Emperor Claudius had dispelled these believers from Rome as heretics for spreading the gospel throughout the Roman world. Pricilla and Aquila, two God-fearing believers, were both a part of this expulsion (Acts 18:2). Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman historian, stated the following concerning Claudius Caesar and the Christians: “because the Jews of Rome were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus (impulsore Chresto) he expelled them from the city”. ( Suet. Claud. 25.4.) Note, though called Jews these were Jewish Christians. This persecution resulted in them losing virtually all possessions they ever owned including their homes as they were driven out of Rome.
Riots in the Roman world were easily induced since the culture was so polytheistic. Children had been raised for decades to worship the “gods of Rome” throughout their lives. Silversmiths and Stone carvers made a fine living selling their wares. Paganism and Mythology had infiltrated virtually every aspect of public life including the holding up of Caesar’s as gods themselves:
The gods represented distinctly the practical needs of daily life, and they were scrupulously accorded the rites and offerings considered proper. Early Roman divinities included a host of "specialist gods" whose names were invoked in the carrying out of various specific activities. Fragments of old ritual accompanying such acts as plowing or sowing reveal that at every stage of the operation a separate deity was invoked, the name of each deity being regularly derived from the verb for the operation. Tutelary deities were particularly important in ancient Rome.
Thus, Janus and Vesta guarded the door and hearth, the Lares protected the field and house, Pales the pasture, Saturn the sowing, Ceres the growth of the grain, Pomona the fruit, and Consus and Ops the harvest. Even the majestic Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, was honored for the aid his rains might give to the farms and vineyards. In his more encompassing character he was considered, through his weapon of lightning, the director of human activity and, by his widespread domain, the protector of the Romans in their military activities beyond the borders of their own community. Prominent in early times were the gods Mars and Quirinus, who were often identified with each other. Mars was a god of war; he was honored in March and October. Quirinus is thought by modern scholars to have been the patron of the armed community in time of peace.1
|Model of Temple of Diana|
So when the gospel message of hope in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, and His triumph over death began to spread, it was no wonder that riots would ensue. The Bible tells us clearly of one such event in or near Ephesus located in modern day Turkey. It was in Ephesus that Diana of the great Temple of Diana was worshipped and revered. She was held by many to be an equivalent to the Greek Artemis, goddess of fertility, but in Ephesus as goddess of the moon, hunting, and birthing. Her worship permeated the lives of the populace and her temple was known as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” Here the gospel was preached and the conversions of the populace began to worry the craftsmen who sought the authorities to put an end to this activity.
|Amphitheater in Ephesus Today|
21 When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, "After I have been there, I must also see Rome." 22 So he sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time. 23 And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. 24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. 25 He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: "Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. 26 Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. 27 So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship." 28 Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" 29 So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul's travel companions. 30 And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him. 31 Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him pleading that he would not venture into the theater. 32 Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, and wanted to make his defense to the people. 34 But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" 35 And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: "Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? 36 Therefore, since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rashly. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. 38 Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. 40 For we are in danger of being called in question for today's uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering." 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. Acts 19:21-41 (NKJV)
It was riots such as this, where the authorities were approached by those who opposed the gospel that also befell other areas of the empire.
Encouraging those Caught in the Storm
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is unknown. There have been many suggestions but in reality it does not matter. Most likely the author remained anonymous to possibly extend his tenure on earth during these days of persecution still on the horizon. Putting a name to the letter would surely result in death. In chapter ten of the book he gives us a glimpse of those who were part-and-parcel participants of the Claudian expulsion. His words are meant to encourage them that Jesus carried them through the first storm He surely would be with them in the second. They needed to remember their faith would result in a glorious possession in heaven, so they needed to stand strong.
|Painting of Priscilla Acts 18:2|
32 But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: 33 partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; 34 for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Hebrews 10:32-34 (NKJV)
It is important to keep in mind that these believers having been expelled once under Claudius had joyfully accepted the persecution having been buoyed by their faith in Christ. However, over time they were able to trickle back into the city and resume their lives assembling together for worship as long as it did not disturb public order. To wit, by 57 A.D. Paul is writing to a flourishing group of Christians in Rome in his letter to the Romans. The question is, if circumstance again became hostile, would they be able to endure a second time?
How about you? Is your relationship to Christ such that if faced with persecution you could endure? The answer I often hear is "no one knows." My answer is this :
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 (NKJV)
For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. 2 Timothy 1:12 (NKJV)May God Bless you this day!!
Facing the Hell-Storm Pt. 2
Facing The Hell-Storm Pt.3