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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XI. THE PERSECUTIONS OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH, AND ITS CONDITION AT THE TERMINATION OF THE FIRST CENTURY.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen

CHAPTER XI. THE PERSECUTIONS OF THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH, AND ITS CONDITION AT THE TERMINATION OF THE FIRST CENTURY.

Jesus Christ was a Jew, and it might have been expected that the advent of the most illustrious of His race, in the character of the Prophet announced by Moses, would have been hailed with enthusiasm by His countrymen. But the result was far otherwise. |He came unto his own, and his own received him not.| [163:1] The Jews cried |Away with him, away with him, crucify him;| [163:2] and He suffered the fate of the vilest criminal. The enmity of the posterity of Abraham to our Lord did not terminate with His death; they long maintained the bad pre-eminence of being the most inveterate of the persecutors of His early followers. Whilst the awful portents of the Passion, and the marvels of the day of Pentecost were still fresh in public recollection, their chief priests and elders threw the apostles into prison; [163:3] and soon afterwards the pious and intrepid Stephen fell a victim to their malignity. Their infatuation was extreme; and yet it was not unaccountable. They looked, not for a crucified, but for a conquering Messiah. They imagined that the Saviour would release them from the thraldom of the Roman yoke; that He would make Jerusalem the capital of a prosperous and powerful empire; and that all the ends of the earth would celebrate the glory of the chosen people. Their vexation, therefore, was intense when they discovered that so many of the seed of Jacob acknowledged the son of a carpenter as the Christ, and made light of the distinction between Jew and Gentile. In their case the natural aversion of the heart to a pure and spiritual religion was inflamed by national pride combined with mortified bigotry; and the fiendish spirit which they so frequently exhibited in their attempts to exterminate the infant Church may thus admit of the most satisfactory explanation.

Many instances of their antipathy to the new sect have already been noticed. In almost every town where the missionaries of the cross appeared, the Jews |opposed themselves and blasphemed;| and magistrates speedily discovered that in no way could they more easily gain the favour of the populace than by inflicting sufferings on the Christians. Hence, as we have seen, about the time of Paul's second visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, Herod, the grandson of Herod the Great, |killed James, the brother of John, with the sword; and because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also.| [164:1] The apostle of the circumcision was delivered by a miracle from his grasp; but it is probable that other individuals of less note felt the effects of his severity. Even in countries far remote from their native land, the posterity of Abraham were the most bitter opponents of Christianity. [164:2] As there was much intercourse between Palestine and Italy, the gospel soon found its way to the seat of government; and it has been conjectured that some civic disturbance created in the great metropolis by the adherents of the synagogue, and intended to annoy and intimidate the new sect, prompted the Emperor Claudius, about A.D.53, to interfere in the manner described by Luke, and to command |all Jews to depart from Rome.| [165:1] But the hostility of the Israelites was most formidable in their own country; and for this, as well as other reasons, |the brethren which dwelt in Judea| specially required the sympathy of their fellow-believers throughout the Empire. When Paul appeared in the temple at the feast of Pentecost in A.D.58, the Jews, as already related, made an attempt upon his life; and when the apostle was rescued by the Roman soldiers, a conspiracy was formed for his assassination. Four years afterwards, or about A.D.62, [165:2] another apostle, James surnamed the Just, who seems to have resided chiefly in Jerusalem, finished his career by martyrdom. Having proclaimed Jesus to be the true Messiah on a great public occasion, his fellow-citizens were so indignant that they threw him from a pinnacle of the temple. As he was still alive when he reached the ground, he was forthwith assailed with a shower of stones, and beaten to pieces with the club of a fuller. [165:3]

As the Christians were at first confounded with the Jews, the administrators of the Roman law, for upwards of thirty years after our Lord's death, conceded to them the religious toleration enjoyed by the seed of Abraham. But, from the beginning, |the sect of the Nazarenes| enjoyed very little of the favour of the heathen multitude. Paganism had set its mark upon all the relations of life, and had erected an idol wherever the eye could turn. It had a god of War, and a god of Peace; a god of the Sea, and a god of the Wind; a god of the River, and a god of the Fountain; a god of the Field, and a god of the Barn Floor; a god of the Hearth, a god of the Threshold, a god of the Door, and a god of the Hinges. [166:1] When we consider its power and prevalence in the apostolic age, we need not wonder at the declaration of Paul -- |All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.| [166:2] Whether the believer entered into any social circle, or made his appearance in any place of public concourse, he was constrained in some way to protest against dominant errors; and almost exactly in proportion to his consistency and conscientiousness, he was sure to incur the dislike of the more zealous votaries of idolatry. Hence it was that the members of the Church were so soon regarded by the pagans as a morose generation instinct with hatred to the human race. In A.D.64, when Nero, in a fit of recklessness, set fire to his capital, he soon discovered that he had, to a dangerous extent, provoked the wrath of the Roman citizens; and he attempted, in consequence, to divert the torrent of public indignation from himself, by imputing the mischief to the Christians. They were already odious as the propagators of what was considered |a pernicious superstition,| and the tyrant, no doubt, reckoned that the mob of the metropolis were prepared to believe any report to the discredit of these sectaries. But even the pagan historian who records the commencement of this first imperial persecution, and who was deeply prejudiced against the disciples of our Lord, bears testimony to the falsehood of the accusation. Nero, says Tacitus, |found wretches who were induced to confess themselves guilty; and, on their evidence, a great multitude of Christians were convicted, not indeed on clear proof of their having set the city on fire, but rather on account of their hatred of the human race. [167:1] They were put to death amidst insults and derision. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be torn to pieces by dogs; others were nailed to the cross; and some, covered over with inflammable matter, were lighted up, when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night. The Emperor lent his own gardens for the exhibition. He added the sports of the circus, and assisted in person, sometimes driving a curricle, and occasionally mixing with the rubble in his coachman's dress. At length these proceedings excited a feeling of compassion, as it was evident that the Christians were destroyed, not for the public good, but as a sacrifice to the cruelty of a single individual.| [167:2] Some writers have maintained that the persecution under Nero was confined to Rome; but various testimonies concur to prove that it extended to the provinces. Paul seems to contemplate its spread throughout the Empire when he tells the Hebrews that they had |not yet resisted unto blood striving against sin,| [167:3] and when he exhorts them not to forsake the assembling of themselves together as they |see the day approaching.| [167:4] Peter also, as has been stated in a preceding chapter, apparently refers to the same circumstance in his letter to the brethren |scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,| when he announces |the fiery trial| which was |to try| them, [168:1] and when he tells them of |judgment| beginning |at the house of God.| [168:2] If Nero enacted that the profession of Christianity was a capital offence, his law must have been in force throughout the Roman world; and an early ecclesiastical writer positively affirms that he was the author of such sanguinary legislation. [168:3] The horror with which his name was so long regarded by members of the Church in all parts of the Empire [168:4] strongly corroborates the statement that the attack on the disciples in the capital was only the signal for the commencement of a general persecution.

Nero died A.D.68, and the war which involved the destruction of Jerusalem and of upwards of a million of the Jews, was already in progress. The holy city fell A.D.70; and the Mosaic economy, which had been virtually abolished by the death of Christ, now reached its practical termination. At the same period the prophecy of Daniel was literally fulfilled; for |the sacrifice and the oblation| were made to cease, [168:5] as the demolition of the temple and the dispersion of the priests put an end to the celebration of the Levitical worship. The overthrow of the metropolis of Palestine contributed in various ways to the advancement of the Christian cause. Judaism, no longer able to provide for the maintenance of its ritual, was exhibited to the world as a defunct system; its institutions, now more narrowly examined by the spiritual eye, were discovered to be but types of the blessings of a more glorious dispensation; and many believers, who had hitherto adhered to the ceremonial law, discontinued its observances. Christ, forty years before, had predicted the siege and desolation of Jerusalem; [169:1] and the remarkable verification of a prophecy, delivered at a time when the catastrophe was exceedingly improbable, appears to have induced not a few to think more favourably of the credentials of the gospel. In another point of view the ruin of the ancient capital of Judea proved advantageous to the Church. In the subversion of their chief city the power of the Jews sustained a shock from which it has never since recovered; and the disciples were partially delivered from the attacks of their most restless and implacable persecutors.

Much obscurity rests upon the history of the period which immediately follows the destruction of Jerusalem. Though Philip and John, [169:2] and perhaps one or two more of the apostles, still survived, we know almost nothing of their proceedings. After the death of Nero the Church enjoyed a season of repose, but when Domitian, in A.D.81, succeeded to the government, the work of persecution recommenced. The new sovereign, who was of a gloomy and suspicious temper, encouraged a system of espionage; and as he seems to have imagined that the Christians fostered dangerous political designs, he treated them with the greater harshness. The Jewish calumny, that they aimed at temporal dominion, and that they sought to set up |another king one Jesus,| [169:3] had obviously produced an impression upon his mind; and he accordingly sought out the nearest kinsmen of the Messiah, that he might remove these heirs of the rival dynasty. But when the two grandchildren of Jude, [169:4] called the brother of our Lord, [169:5] were conducted to Rome, and brought to his tribunal, he discovered the groundlessness of his apprehensions. The individuals who had inspired the Emperor with such anxiety, were the joint-proprietors of a small farm in Palestine which they cultivated with their own hands; and the jealous monarch at once saw that, when his fears had been excited by reports of the treasonable designs of such simple and illiterate husbandmen, he had been miserably befooled. After a single interview, these poor peasants met with no farther molestation from Domitian.

Had all the disciples been in such circumstances as the grandchildren of Jude, the gospel might have been identified with poverty and ignorance; and it might have been said that it was fitted to make way only among the dregs of the population. But it was never fairly open to this objection. From the very first it reckoned amongst its adherents at least a sprinkling of the wealthy, the influential, and the educated. Joseph of Arimathea, one of the primitive followers of our Lord, was |a rich man| and an |honourable counsellor;| [170:1] Paul himself, as a scholar, stood high among his countrymen, for he had been brought up at the feet of Gamaliel; and Sergius Paulus, one of the first fruits of the mission to the Gentiles, was a Roman Proconsul. [170:2] In the reign of Nero the Church could boast of some illustrious converts; and the saints of |Caesar's household| are found addressing their Christian salutations to their brethren at Philippi. [170:3] In the reign of Domitian the gospel still continued to have friends among the Roman nobility. Flavius Clemens, a person of consular dignity, and the cousin of the Emperor, was now put to death for his attachment to the cause of Christ; [170:4] and his near relative Flavia Domitilla, for the same reason, was banished with many others to Pontia, [170:5] a small island off the coast of Italy used for the confinement of state prisoners.

Domitian governed the Empire fifteen years, but his persecution of the Christians appears to have been limited to the latter part of his reign. About this time the Apostle John, |for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ,| [171:1] was sent as an exile into Patmos, a small rocky island in the Aegaean Sea not far from the coast of Asia Minor. It is said that he had previously issued unhurt from a cauldron of boiling oil into which he had been plunged in Rome by order of the Emperor; but this story, for which a writer who flourished about a century afterwards is the earliest voucher, [171:2] has been challenged as of doubtful authority. [171:3] We have no means of ascertaining the length of time during which he remained in banishment; [171:4] and all we know of this portion of his life is, that he had now those sublime and mysterious visions to be found in the Apocalypse. After the fall of Jerusalem, as well as after he was permitted to leave Patmos, he appears to have resided chiefly in the metropolis of the Proconsular Asia; and hence some ancient writers, who flourished after the establishment of the episcopal system, have designated him the |Bishop of Ephesus.| [172:1] But the apostle, when advanced in life, chose to be known simply by the title of |the elder;| [172:2] and though he was certainly by far the most influential minister of the district where he sojourned, there is every reason to believe that he admitted his brethren to a share in the government of the Christian community. Like Peter and Paul before him, he acknowledged the other elders as his |fellow-presbyters,| [172:3] and, as became his age and apostolic character, he doubtless exhorted them to take heed unto themselves and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers. [172:4]

John seems to have been the last survivor of the apostles. He is said to have reached the advanced age of one hundred years, and to have died about the close of the first century. He was a |Son of Thunder,| [172:5] and he appears to have long maintained the reputation of a powerful and impressive preacher; but when his strength began to give way beneath the pressure of increasing infirmities, he ceased to deliver lengthened addresses. When he appeared before the congregation in extreme old age, he is reported to have simply repeated the exhortation |Children, love one another;| and when asked, why he always confined himself to the same brief admonition, he replied that |no more was necessary.| [172:6] Such a narrative is certainly quite in harmony with the character of the beloved disciple, for he knew that love is the |bond of perfectness| and |the fulfilling of the law.|

It has been thought that, towards the close of the first century, the Christian interest was in a somewhat languishing condition; [172:7] and the tone of the letters addressed to the Seven Churches in Asia is calculated to confirm this impression. The Church of Laodicea is said to be |neither cold nor hot;| [173:1] the Church of Sardis is admonished to |strengthen the things which remain that are ready to die;| [173:2] and the Church of Ephesus is exhorted to |remember from whence she has fallen, and repent, and do the first works.| [173:3] When it was known that Christianity was under the ban of a legal proscription, it was not strange that |the love of many| waxed cold; and the persecutions of Nero and Domitian must have had a most discouraging influence. But though the Church had to encounter the withering blasts of popular odium and imperial intolerance, it struggled through an ungenial spring; and, in almost every part of the Roman Empire, it had taken root and was beginning to exhibit tokens of a steady and vigorous growth as early as the close of the first century. The Acts and the apostolical epistles speak of the preaching of the gospel in Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, Illyricum, and Italy; and, according to traditions which we have no reason to discredit, the way of salvation was proclaimed, before the death of John, in various other countries. It is highly probable that Paul himself assisted in laying the foundations of the Church in Spain; at an early date there were disciples in Gaul; and there is good evidence that, before the close of the first century, the new faith had been planted even on the distant shores of Britain. [173:4] It is generally admitted that Mark laboured successfully as an evangelist in Alexandria, the metropolis of Egypt; [173:5] and it has been conjectured that Christians were soon to be found in |the parts of Libya about Cyrene,| [173:6] for if Jews from that district were converted at Jerusalem by Peter's famous sermon on the day of Pentecost, they would not fail, on their return home, to disseminate the precious truths by which they had been quickened and comforted. On the same grounds it may be inferred that the gospel soon found its way into Parthia, Media, Persia, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. [174:1] Various traditions [174:2] attest that several of the apostles travelled eastwards, after their departure from the capital of Palestine.

Whilst Christianity, in the face of much obloquy, was gradually attracting more and more attention, it was at the same time nobly demonstrating its power as the great regenerator of society. The religion of pagan Rome could not satisfy the wants of the soul; it could neither improve the heart nor invigorate the intellect; and it was now rapidly losing its hold on the consciences of the multitude. The high places of idolatrous worship often exercised a most demoralising influence, as their rites were not unfrequently a wretched mixture of brutality, levity, imposture, and prostitution. Philosophy had completely failed to ameliorate the condition of man. The vices of some of its most distinguished professors were notorious; its votaries were pretty generally regarded as a class of scheming speculators; and they enjoyed neither the confidence nor the respect of the mass of the people. But, even under the most unpromising circumstances, it soon appeared that Christianity could accomplish social and spiritual changes of a very extraordinary character. The Church of Corinth was perhaps one of the least exemplary of the early Christian communities, and yet it stood upon a moral eminence far above the surrounding population; and, from the roll of its own membership, it could produce cases of conversion to which nothing parallel could, be found in the whole history of heathendom. Paul could say to it -- |Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God, and such were some of you but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.| [175:1] Nor was this all. The gospel proved itself sufficient to meet the highest aspirations of man. It revealed to him a Friend in heaven who |sticketh closer than a brother;| [175:2] and, as it assured him of eternal happiness in the enjoyment of fellowship with God, it imparted to him a |peace that passeth all understanding.| The Roman people witnessed a new spectacle when they saw the primitive followers of Christ expiring in the fires of martyrdom. The pagans did not so value their superstitions; but here was a religion which was accounted |better than life.| Well then might the flames which illuminated the gardens of Nero supply some spiritual light to the crowds who were present at the sad scene; and, in the indomitable spirit of the first sufferers, well might the thoughtful citizen have recognised a system which was destined yet to subdue the world.

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