Jesus’ most solemn prophecy about what awaits His followers is found in the Beatitudes. In Luke’s version, this reads: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22, 23). In Matthew’s version this prophecy is regularly chanted in our divine services.
The First Generation of ChristiansSt Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, shows the progressively negative treatment which Christians received for Christ’s name. At first, Christ’s followers were taken into custody and forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus (see Acts 4:13-17). When threats did not work, the disciples were beaten (see Acts 5:17-30). St Stephen was stoned to death (see Acts 7:57-60), becoming the first recorded to have lost his life for the Gospel. He is honored in the Church as the first, or Protomartyr.
As a result, many believers fled Jerusalem. Their dispersal became an occasion for witnessing to Christ, first to those in the surrounding area (see Acts 8:4-8) and then “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (see Acts 11:19ff).
Acts 12 tells how the Apostle James was killed and Peter arrested. The Lord intervened and delivered Peter from prison, which enabled him to escape to the Roman city of Caesarea, away from the jurisdiction of the Jewish leaders.
Over the next 25 years, the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, beginning in the cities of Asia Minor, chiefly through the activity of St Paul and his companions. Their preaching bore fruit in many places and Churches were established in places like Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonika. At the same time, they experienced opposition and persecution from local Jewish leaders (see Acts 17:5-9) or devotees of the Roman gods and goddesses (see Acts 19:23ff.) who were intent on eliminating the new movement being spread in Jesus’ name. Nevertheless, St Paul taught for two years in Ephesus “…so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts !9:10).
Since there were many religions tolerated in the Roman Empire, the Roman state did not interfere with the Christians unless public order was threatened. One of those infrequent occasions is recorded in Acts 21. On his return to Jerusalem, Paul was accused of violating the temple. “…news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. … when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded [Paul] to be taken into the barracks” (Acts 22:32-34). St Paul was ultimately sent to Rome at his own request and was put to death, presumably in ad 68, when the Empire first set its face against those who professed the Gospel of Christ.
Persecution in the Roman EmpireIn the summer of ad 64, fire devastated several sections of the city of Rome. A rumor spread that the Emperor Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city his way. According to the historian Tacitus, Nero tried to diffuse this rumor by accusing the Christians of starting the fire. Tacitus wrote, “To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Chrestians by the populace” (Tacitus, The Annals XV, 44).
The Christians’ “abominations” consisted in refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods or to take part in their feasts. Since religion in the ancient world was tied to nationalism, venerating the Roman gods was considered a sign of loyalty to the state which was thought to be protected by the gods. Refusing to do so marked the Christians as anti-Roman in the eyes of many.
The average Roman believed that refusing to honor the gods resulted in disaster. The Christian apologist Tertullian observed, “They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lions!’” (Tertullian, Apologeticus 5,1)
During the next 150 years persecution of Christians was sporadic and localized, often involving mob violence. In ad 250 Emperor Decius issued a decree requiring citizens to offer public sacrifice to the gods. Christians could not comply and many prominent believers were put to death in this, the first empire-wide assault on Christians.
During the Great Persecution under Diocletian (303-312) Christian worship was forbidden and local governors were empowered to destroy churches and Scriptures and to arrest clergy. The persecutions would not end until ad 311 when Galerius issued his edict of toleration. Before the fourth century was over, the empire would officially become Christian. Persecution in the Persian Empire When Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, they found acceptance and toleration in the Persian Empire and the border kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia which lay between the two empires. Christians fleeing from persecution in the Roman provinces of Syria and Palestine crossed the Euphrates and were welcomed in Persian territory. By the third century the Churches in these regions were developing their own structures. Syriac-speaking believers from Edessa and Erbil (in Iraq today) brought Christianity into the Persian Empire, forming what would become known as the Church of the East.
The Roman persecutions ended in the early fourth century but Roman-Persian conflicts continued until the 380s. During this time, Persian rulers began to think of Christians as Roman agents. They now began to kill the Christians whom they had once welcomed. More Christians were martyred in the Persian Empire during the fourth century than had suffered in the Roman Empire under Decius and Diocletian. Before this persecution ended in ad 401, upwards of 190,000 Christians had been martyred.
The Lord Said… “… beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles… Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:17-22)
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. … They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (John 15: 18,20; 16:2)