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Watch 2022 online sermons » John Bradshaw » John Bradshaw - Persecution and the Early Church

John Bradshaw - Persecution and the Early Church

John Bradshaw - Persecution and the Early Church
John Bradshaw - Persecution and the Early Church
TOPICS: Persecution

This is It Is Written. I’m John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. The city of Rome in Italy oozes history. It seems as though no matter where you turn there’s another ancient monument recalling the heady glory days of the Roman Empire. Rome began to be ruled by emperors around 2,000 years ago. Men like Caesar Augustus, who was the emperor when Jesus was born. He’s mentioned in Luke 2, verse 1. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed". He was followed by Tiberius, who was the emperor when Jesus was crucified.

There were other well-known emperors: Nero, Hadrian, Caligula. Some lesser-known: Hostilian, Quintillus, Macrinus. Depending on how you count, there were somewhere between 70 and 90 Roman emperors. And here in Rome, they’re memorialized, some of them, in some impressive ways. The Arch of Constantine stands between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, where the imperial palaces were built. It’s a monument to the triumphs of the emperor Constantine, the man who not only won great military battles but converted to Christianity and introduced Sunday worship to the Roman Empire. He ruled in the first half of the fourth century.

Trajan’s Column does much the same thing, recording details of the exploits of the emperor Trajan, who ruled for 20 years or so in the first and second centuries. It’s more than 1,900 years old. The Arch of Titus commemorates the victories of Titus, including his conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD. That’s the destruction of Jerusalem Jesus talked about in Matthew 24. Details on the Arch of Titus show the spoils from the siege of Jerusalem. And if you’ve ever wondered what they did with all of the wealth that came from the destruction of Jerusalem, well, among other things, they used it to build the Colosseum. There’s the Arch of Septimius Severus, emperor of Rome from 193 to 211.

The Castel Sant’Angelo was commissioned by the emperor Hadrian, who became emperor in 117 AD. Glorious times. Larger-than-life figures. One of the emperors who doesn’t get talked about a lot is a man whose name is usually only mentioned for the darkest of reasons: the persecution of Christians, persecution so bad it’s mentioned in the Bible. And he’s the only emperor who resigned from being emperor. All of the other emperors, well, they didn’t ordinarily meet with quite such a happy ending. About 20 of the other emperors died of natural causes; 23 were assassinated. Ten died in battle, seems about another 10 were executed, and five took their own lives. But this man, after ruthlessly persecuting Christians, retired to his summer palace by the sea to raise vegetables. The story of Diocletian is, as much as anything, a story of persecution.

Persecution followed the people of God all the way through the Bible. Pharaoh refused to let God’s people leave Egypt, pressing them into slavery, and after the plagues fell, he pursued them to the Red Sea, intending to kill them. Moses survived a decree ordering the execution of Hebrew babies. The story of Esther is the story of a decree to eradicate all of Israel. Israel was taken into Babylonian captivity. Herod had the baby boys born around the time of Jesus’ birth put to death. And Jesus stated that many of His followers would be subjected to persecution. It was certainly true in the time of the early church. Jesus said to His disciples, "Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another." Matthew 24:9-10. And it’s certainly true for believers in earth’s last days.

Daniel 12:1 says, "There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation". And Paul wrote to Timothy, and he said, "And all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution". 2 Timothy 3, verse 12. Which might make you stop and think. There’s no doubt that there are many people around the world who right now are suffering persecution. It’s serious, and it’s terrible. But there are few people in the Western world who could honestly say that that’s their experience. It might be that the reason is so few people are living that consistent Spirit-filled life that Paul wrote about. But during the early centuries of the Christian era, times were different. Many historians believe it was the fiercest persecution ever experienced. This was the persecution that began during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian in 303 AD.

After 21 years as the Roman emperor, Diocletian retired to a town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, known today as Split, in Croatia. He was something of a builder. The summer palace he built for his retirement was magnificent. This is the central square of Diocletian’s palace as it appears today. It was here that the aging emperor lived out his last years from 305 to 313 AD. He evidently enjoyed his retirement. When his former co-emperor, Maximilian, contacted him and urged him to return to the throne of the Roman Empire so he could deal with some issues that had surfaced since his resignation, Diocletian responded by telling his old friend that if only he could see the fine cabbages that he grew here, then he wouldn’t want Diocletian to trade in his newfound happiness for the headaches and hassles that would accompany a return to the throne.

And this place was only Diocletian’s summer palace. It’s like a vacation home. The emperors of Rome, including the one emperor who survived emperor-hood, certainly lived well, as you'd expect for people who were considered to be god on the earth. It was believed that Diocletian was the special spokesman for Jupiter, the king of the gods. To really understand this man remembered by history as the instigator of the worst-ever persecution against Christians, we’ll need to start at the beginning. So who was Diocletian, and why the intense persecution of the Christian church? We’ll find out in just a moment.

Thanks for joining me today on It Is Written. I’m John Bradshaw. I’m in Split, Croatia, the town where the Roman emperor Diocletian retired. He was born and raised near here. Both of his parents were slaves. He came back here to see out his days in splendor. By 284 AD, the Roman Empire was in turmoil. One soldier after another had murdered his way to the throne. And it seemed as though the empire was not going to be able to continue. A young general was determined to bring order out of the madness that was gripping the Roman Empire. Diocletian was a pagan, and he worshiped the old gods of the Roman state. Diocletian marched on the city of Nicomedia and became the unchallenged master of the Roman world. But how did this heroic soldier-emperor, who brought stability to the world of his day, become such a fierce persecutor of God’s people? The answer is interesting, because it helps us identify a pattern, which lets us see why God’s people have been persecuted so often.

In ancient Rome, religious persecution really wasn’t common. The polytheistic empires of the time were tolerant when it came to religious diversity. As long as there was peace, and as long as people paid their taxes, the state didn’t really care about who or what people worshiped. Be a good citizen and you could worship whoever or whatever you chose to. But these Christians were different. While the Romans worshiped many gods, the Christians worshiped the one true God. If you were a Roman, you could worship Jesus without any difficulty at all because you could just add Jesus to the long list of gods you already worshiped.

One of the most magnificent buildings in Rome is the Pantheon, completed in the year 126. Its dome is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The Pantheon is now a functioning church, but when it was built, it was constructed to be a temple. "Pantheon" means, basically, "for all the gods". It was built to honor the gods, plural. The Romans worshiped a whole gaggle of gods. But not the Christians. They worshiped just one God. So in the eyes of the Romans, the Christians were basically atheists. A small sect that originated in Israel, dedicated to following an obscure teacher who ended up being crucified on a cross, and yet they were standing up to Rome and saying, "No! We don’t believe in Jupiter, or in Mars, or in Quirinus. We worship just one God". The fact that the Christians wouldn’t add the worship of the Roman gods to the worship of Jesus is why they were persecuted. It’s a lot like the experience of the three young Hebrew men out on the plain of Dura in Babylon.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had made an image of gold, and he gathered all the local rulers from throughout his empire to come and worship this image, on pain of death if they should choose not to. The three Hebrews, of course, refused to bow before the image, and they were thrown into a fiery furnace, only to escape death by a miracle because the Son of God Himself came to protect them. For those who gathered out there on the plain of Dura, worshiping one more god was no issue. But those who worshiped the one true God refused to worship that idol. And that’s because the first of God’s Ten Commandments says something totally unique among the religions of the ancient world. "You shall have no other gods before me".

Exodus 20, verse 3. Pagan culture had no concept at all of what we call the separation of church and state. In fact, the first time that idea was articulated was when Jesus appeared before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here." John 18:36. Now, that was decidedly un-Roman. In the pagan mindset of old Rome, every citizen was expected to make a public showing of loyalty to the gods of the state or the emperor himself, usually by offering a sacrifice or burning incense in public. Sincerity didn’t matter, just as long as you did it. This is what happens when church and state unite. It’s happened again and again down through the centuries. In medieval times, under the popes, millions were persecuted because they refused to go along with the state religion. And even though they themselves were escaping religious persecution, the Puritans of New England lowered the boom on anybody who didn’t worship in the way which they prescribed.

Now, by Diocletian’s time, Christianity had become deeply entrenched in the Roman Empire. But the Christians’ refusal to worship the gods of the state ended up becoming much more than Diocletian was willing to put up with. It was a visit to the oracle at Miletus, in what today is Turkey, at that time one of the holiest shrines in the empire, that set Diocletian on his blood-soaked course. A message supposedly from the god Apollo told Diocletian that the "righteous ones" on earth were preventing him from speaking the truth. When the pagan priests said that these "righteous ones" were the Christians, that was that. Diocletian would take care of the Christians. Now, keep something in mind. History has a habit of repeating. And the book of Revelation makes clear that, in this case, history is going to repeat. I’ll have more in just a moment.

John Bradshaw: This is It Is Written. I’m John Bradshaw. And this is picturesque Split, on the Adriatic Sea, on the coast of Croatia. It’s dominated by the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. It’s not hard to imagine how spectacular this place was 1,700 years ago. Diocletian is the only Roman emperor to have retired from office. And he retired here to a specially-built summer palace. His reign is distinguished by 10 years of persecution of Christians, which began in February of 303 AD, the fulfillment of a prophecy of Jesus Himself. It started with the destruction of a newly-built Christian church in Nicomedia. A few months later the imperial palace caught fire. Christians believed that God was punishing the emperor for his attack against the church.

Of course, the emperor didn’t see it that way, and he issued an edict demanding that all Christian clergy be arrested and put in prison. Places of worship were destroyed all across his empire, and Christians were forbidden to worship. The flames of persecution burned hotter, as church leaders were summoned before local magistrates and subjected to torture. Clergy would be released, as long as they agreed to sacrifice to the pagan gods. It’s a lot like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego on the plain of Dura in ancient Babylon. Their lives would be spared as long as they worshiped the state gods. Author Stephen Williams: "It was now that the horrors began: racks, burnings, flayings, pincers". In 304 the emperor issued another edict saying that any Christian, man, woman, or child, who refused to gather in a public square and offer a sacrifice to the gods would be executed.

Exactly how many people died in the persecution isn’t known, but one count reckoned that 17,000 were put to death in a period of just three days. That brutal persecution lasted for 10 long years. In Revelation 2, verse 10, Jesus says, "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life". Many students of the book of Revelation believe that the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 reference successive periods throughout the Christian era. The church of Smyrna corresponds to the second, third, and fourth centuries AD, during which intense persecution was inflicted upon followers of Jesus. It’s believed that the most intense period of persecution was that 10-year period we spoke of, 303 to 313 AD.

Now, Revelation said "ten days". But in Bible prophecy, a day represents a year. Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6 make this plain, as does the 70-week prophecy of Daniel chapter 9, which pinpoints the time in which Jesus the Messiah would appear on this earth and die for our sins. Some modern translations even use the phrase "weeks of years" in translating Daniel 9:24. With this principle in mind, the "ten day" prophecy of Revelation 2 and verse 10 is in all likelihood a reference to the 10 years of persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Thousands of people gave their lives. But the promise of Jesus was always before them: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life".

When we look into the future, we see trouble coming for the world. Remember Daniel 12, verse 1. "And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book". In Revelation 13, we see persecution coming, again, connected to worship. Verse 8: "And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world". Then verse 10: "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints".

Verse 12, again, worship: "And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed". Then verse 15: "And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed". In Diocletian’s time, the massive persecution against the Christian church was because of the church’s refusal to go along with the worship of the gods of the state. In the book of Revelation, you have enforced false worship again, and persecution against those who refuse to comply. Union of church and state has always been disastrous, and it will be disastrous again. It’s not that the church shouldn’t influence the thinking of the state. But when the state enforces religious laws? Well, that’s never gone well.

So what do you do when the heat gets turned up in your experience? In the Bible, we have the example of three young men, in the book of Daniel, who were persecuted when they refused to violate their conscience and participate in false worship. Their faithfulness led them into a fiery furnace, and Jesus was there with them. Daniel himself, ordered to worship the king, a false god. He wouldn’t do it and was cast into a den of lions. And God delivered him. His faithfulness gave God the opportunity to work in his behalf. When you have the opportunity to be faithful to God, take that opportunity, no matter what your surroundings or your circumstances look like. And know that as you do, it gives God the opportunity to do great things for you.

You see, whether or not God delivers a person from persecution or a difficult situation is not really the point. God doesn’t always deliver people who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus. The question is, are you willing to trust God enough that you’ll choose to be faithful to Him, no matter the cost? Jesus was persecuted, and it cost Him everything. The crowd demanded His life, and He gave it. And why did He do that? For you. For you and for me. God more than likely is not asking you to die for Him. Not right now. But He’s certainly asking you to live for Him. Are you willing to do that? Willing to invite Jesus into your heart? Willing to surrender your life completely to God? It’s when you do that, that you have peace, no matter what your circumstances are, no matter what you’re facing. With Jesus in your heart, you can look to the future with certainty and confidence, no matter what’s going on. Because with Christ in your life, your future embraces eternity.
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