|Volume 24 Number 2 February 2022
Persecution of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ Himself confronted a hostile and challenging environment, culminating in a heartless and brutal beating – scourging – leading up to His crucifixion on Calvary’s hill (Mark 15:15). Roman scourging ignored the constraints of Jewish scourging by not limiting the number of blows administered. Romans inflicted wounds on hapless victims with “whips of leather cords knotted at the ends and weighted with pieces of metal or bone” (Eerdmans). In preparation for the scourging, the doomed soul was stripped of his clothing except perhaps for a loincloth, and his hands were fastened to a short post – arching his back toward his attacker. In the case of capital punishment, the Romans employed scourging to weaken the condemned so that he would not live long when fastened to a cross. Yet, the variables of the degree of scourging and the endurance of a person might permit the crucified to linger for days in unimaginable agony and relentless pain before he expired.
Following His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had a sleepless night of trials preceding the scourging, possibly also a contributing factor to the sooner than expected death of Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:44). In any case, the body of Jesus was a tattered, bloody mess – nothing anyone ought to experience and inconceivable that the Creator in fleshly form would willing endure such ill treatment by His creation – man.
However, there was more to come – the crucifixion. Iron nails were driven through the hands or wrists and through the feet of Jesus (Luke 24:39-40; John 20:25; Colossians 2:14). Next, He was hoisted upright on the cross for all the world to see and to ridicule (Mark 15:29-32) along with two criminals. There, that day, three men –naked or nearly naked – suffered horribly until they died. Everything about the scenario was shamefulness (Hebrews 12:2; Galatians 3:13). The prophets foretold of the shame and punishment of the Messiah (Isaiah 50:6; 53:5). Especially Isaiah 53 depicted the mistreatment and execution of the Messiah 800 years before our Lord’s gruesome scourging and horrific crucifixion. Besides the mocking and contempt, the jagged crown of thorns planted on His head, and the severe buffeting of His body through the scourging and crucifixion on the cross, Jesus bore the weight of the sins of the whole world from the Garden of Eden through as long as time continues. Jesus is our example in all things (1 Peter 2:21), including how we as Christians ought to conduct ourselves in a hostile and challenging environment.
of the First Christians
The first Christians, who were from among the Jews, were persecuted by their fellow Jews. The Jewish leaders threatened and forbade the apostles to preach and teach any longer in the name of Jesus (Acts 4). Peter and John responded, “…Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20 NKJV). Acts 5 records that the apostles were arrested, imprisoned, freed by an angel, apprehended, ordered not to preach Jesus and were beaten (Acts 8:40). “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). Notice the apostles’ reflection on being arrested, threatened and beaten. “So, they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).
Finally, Jewish persecution against Christianity became so severe that many Christians fled Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Notice two things. First, though many Christians left Jerusalem, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. Secondly, “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Rather than snuffing out Christianity, Jewish persecution splattered it throughout Palestine – “Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).
Just how severe the persecution was that scattered Christians in Jerusalem can be observed in Acts 6:8-7:60 through the martyrdom of Stephen. Jewish persecution followed Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Saul of Tarsus (before we knew him as the apostle Paul) participated in the death of Stephen (Acts 7:58), was pleased at the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1) and pursued Christians with a vengeance as far away as Syria (Acts 9:1-2). He led persecution against Christians, causing them to be beaten, to be imprisoned or to be killed (Acts 22:4-5, 19). Later on, Acts 17:6 is a specimen of Jewish persecution of Christians.
But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king — Jesus.” (Acts 17:5-7)
The enemies of Christ and Christianity have always been vicious. Yet, note the fact that first century Christians were turning the world upside down with the message about “King Jesus”! However, Christians – following the example of Jesus Christ – do not respond to the enemies of the cross in the manner of the world. “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21-23). Jesus is our example in all things (1 Peter 2:21), including how we as Christians ought to conduct ourselves in a hostile and challenging environment.
Gentile Persecution of Christians
Gentiles – non-Jews – likewise persecuted their fellows from among the Gentiles who had become Christians as well as Jewish Christians, too (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Eventually, the Roman Empire began to take notice of Christianity when Christians and Jews disrupted life in Rome, leading to the emperor banning Jews from Rome, at which time Christians were forced to leave, too (Acts 18:2).
Tiberius Claudius Caesar had reiterated the policy of Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor, to permit countries and cultures that were assimilated into the Roman Empire to continue practicing their own religions and cultures. Specifically, Claudius permitted Jews throughout the Roman Empire to practice their religion and customs, as long as they did not interfere with or vilify the religions of others, and of course, did not resist Roman rule. Claudius issued the following law.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar decrees, seeing the Kings Agrippa and Herod, my dearest friends, have entreated me that I would suffer the Jews in every government under the Romans, to observe their laws as in Alexandria; I most willingly grant it, not only for the sake of gratifying those who ask it, but judging that those are worthy, for whom it is asked, because of their faithfulness and friendship to the Romans; especially accounting it most just that no Grecian city should be deprived of these rights, seeing they were kept for them by the divine Augustus; wherefore it is right also that the Jews throughout all our empire should observe the customs of their country without any hinderance, whom I now command that in love to us they would behave more moderately, and not despise the religion of other nations, but keep their own laws; and I will that governors of cities, and colonies, and freedoms, both in Italy and without, have this my edict transcribed, and also kings and princes by their ambassadors, and that it be put in such a place in less than thirty days, from whence it may be plainly read. (John Gill’s)
At first, Rome viewed Christians as a Jewish sect among many such divisive groups within first century Judaism. “Talmudic literature states that there were 24 sects in Israel” (Flusser). That would have made Christians merely representative of the 25th sect, but the core differences between Judaism and Christianity resulted in conflict between the two groups. Once Christianity distinguished itself from Judaism, however, it no longer had legal protection and was subsequently persecuted by the Roman Empire.
In addition, because Christians refused to worship the state gods, they were viewed as atheists and punished or executed. In time, living emperors considered themselves gods and demanded worship; the Christian refusal was viewed as treason and sufficient cause for punishment and death. After Nero burned Rome (A.D. 64.), Christians, who were already despised by their pagan neighbors, were accused of the crime. Subsequently, Christians were punished and killed. Below is a quote from my book, The Cost of Discipleship.
Fox’s Book of Martyrs names many saints and vividly describes the ways in which they were often tortured to death because of their discipleship. A summary of the vicious ways in which early Christians were killed would necessarily include: being sewn into skins of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs; dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, put on poles and set afire for illumination; beaten to death with clubs; devoured by wild beasts; crucified, crowned with thorns, and thrust through with a spear; burnt at the stake; scourged and pressed to death with weights; beheaded; thrown from lofty points; covered with boiling pitch and set afire; scalded; drown; dragged by horses; put into leather bags together with a number of serpents and scorpions, and in that condition thrown into the sea; stretched upon a wheel until all bones were broken and then beheaded; stoning; torn with hooks; feet pierced with nails and other torture induced before being beheaded; starved; hanged; feet attached to the tail of a bull which was driven down the steps of a temple; broiled; shot to death with arrows; poisoned.
The accounts are too numerous and equally too gruesome to detail in a public presentation. Knowing that Christians were willing to suffer such abuse rather than to recant Christ as their Lord and Savior should serve to emphasize the true definition of discipleship and its costs among present day disciples. How much we would be (and someday may be) willing to suffer for the cause of Christ is ultimately the thermometer of Christian discipleship! How much fervent zeal do you exhibit (Revelation 3:15-16)?
All throughout history, opponents of Christianity, as well as apostate Christian sects (Catholic Church, denominations), persecuted Christians. Usually today, Christians do not experience physical abuse, imprisonment or death simply because they are Christians. Yet, Christians fear for their lives in several places around the world today (e.g., in Muslim and Hindu nations, in countries without the freedom of religion).
More recently and in western countries (e.g., USA, Canada), the rights of Christians and Bible believers in general are eroding significantly and alarmingly. Business owners who refuse to sell homosexual specific arrangements (e.g., florists and bakeries) due to their biblically held convictions have lost court challenges, resulting in costly judgments against them and even the loss of their livelihoods. Landlords are forbidden by law to refrain from renting their own properties to homosexuals and unmarried couples, or they, too, will face lawsuits and hurtful monetary judgments against them. People have been arrested for talking about the Bible in public places. Homeowners have been fined for having friends over for a meal and a Bible study, but next-door neighbors could have a beer party without repercussions. Preachers have been censored by city officials for preaching from the Bible, and at least one Canadian preacher was arrested, fined and sentenced to sensitivity training (an attempt at brain washing and Bible bashing) for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality. The Bible is now considered hate speech! Military officers have been removed from their duties for holding biblical views about morality. The Bible is not allowed in public schools, though the Muslim religion’s Koran and its teaching are welcome. All of this and more represents a hostile and challenging environment.
Then, there’s the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. The dangers as well as the government restrictions and shutdowns are a whole new and different (in our lifetime) hostile and challenging environment. Churches and preachers have been fined and preachers have been arrested for continuing religious services despite government orders to shut down. The pandemic, in many cases, has splattered Christianity into neighborhoods and Christian homes across the world; while congregations’ doors were closed locally, we worshipped in our home, joined by our children who lived in the area. Essentially, many homes, at least temporarily, became churches – more churches rather than less churches than before. There are also additional, more personal hostile and challenging environments that Christians face daily and around the world (e.g., work, family, financial, medical, etc.).
Christianity has always found itself in a hostile and challenging environment. Furthermore, Christianity has always flourished in hostile and challenging environments. For instance, at the height of Christian martyrdom under Roman oppression, the motto surfaced that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the kingdom”; the more Christians who were murdered by Rome, the more Christians there were who remained as the general population investigated more closely Christian convictions “unto death” (Revelation 2:10) and obeyed the Gospel.
It is equally true that Christianity has always tended to descend into complacency, bordering on apathy and indifference, when it no longer experienced resistance or when, additionally, times were prosperous. The decline of Christendom in Europe and the declining affection for the Christian religion in North America are evidence that the marginalization of Christianity corresponds to increasing material prosperity. Paul contrasted the distinguished of this world with the common man, noting that more ordinary than mighty people will embrace the Christian religion (1 Corinthians 1:26).
In the first century, the apostles continued to preach the Gospel even when they were forbidden to do so (Acts 4:18-21; 5:17-29); the apostles and other Christians could not be discouraged from preaching and teaching the Gospel (Acts 8:4). The children of God should not fear what the world may do to them, but instead, they must trust in the Lord and look to Him to restore that which is lost while in His service (Matthew 19:27-29). “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Finally, we must obey the laws under which we live (Romans 13:1-7). The only exception to complying with a particular lawful order is when it specifically contradicts the higher law of God (Acts 5:29). The Lord’s church – Christianity – will prevail (Matthew 16:18), and we who are Christians are the Lord’s church and we comprise true Christianity.
Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Electronic Database. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.
Flusser, David. The Spiritual History of the Dead Sea Sect. Tel-Aviv: MOD Books, 1989, p. 15. as quoted in Weiss, Randall A. Jewish Sects of the New Testament Era. Electronic Database. Bellingham, Washington: Logos Bible Software.
Fox, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. edited by William Byron Forbush. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1926.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2011.
Rushmore, Louis. The Cost of Discipleship. Ocala, Florida: World Evangelism Media & Missions, 2018.