Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Banished Because of the Word

By the close of the first century, Christianity had become a hated and despised religious sect in the Roman Empire . Pliny, who was the Roman Governor of Bithynia , wrote to Emperor Trajan early in the second century, scorning Christianity as a ‘depraved and extravagant superstition.' He further said that ‘the contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well' (cited in Hebry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, p.4).

The Roman historian Tacitus, who was a contemporary of Pliny, described Christians as ‘a class hated for their abominations, while Suetonius, another contemporary of Pliny, dismissed them as ‘a set of men adhering to a novel and mischievous superstitution.' The hate toward Christians grew and for several reasons.

The first was political. The Romans viewed Christians as disloyal because they refused to acknowledge Caesar as lord. Not only did they refuse to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, they also refused to offer the sacrifices to Caesar. This therefore confirmed in the eyes of the Roman officials the disloyalty of Christians to Rome . Because Christians held many of their meetings at night, they were also accused of anti-governmental plots. Needless-to-say this brought about a hatred from Rome that would continue to grow through time.

The second reason Christians were hated was religious. They were denounced as atheists because they rejected the polytheistic worship of the Romans and because they worshiped the invisible God, not an idol. Because their beliefs and practices were misunderstood, wild rumors, falsely accusing them of cannibalism, incest, as well as other sexual perversions existed. But it didn't stop here. They were also affected socially. Because many Christians were from the lower classes of society, they were despised by the Roman upper class. And because they taught that all people are equal, this threatened Rome 's hierarchical structure and the elite from their privileged status. It also heightened a fear of a slave rebellion.

Lastly they were persecuted economically. The Roman priests, craftsmen and merchants were suffered a loss of profit from their idol worship because of Christians. Since they would not worship idols, this made an impact on Roman society. Acts 19:23ff records the resulting hostility, first seen in the riot at Ephesus . This only deepened as Christianity became more widespread. In his letter to Emperior Trajan, Pliny complained that the pagan temples had been deserted, and that those who sold sacrificial animals found few buyers.

During these first few decades after the death of Christ, the Roman government considered Christianity merely a sect of Judaism (cf. Acts 18:12-16). But because of the hostility the Jews displayed against the Christians that led the Romans to recognize Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism. And that identified Christians as worshipers of an illegal religion. Yet in spite of all of this there was no official persecution by the Roman authorities until the time of Nero. On July 19 A. D. 64, Nero set Rome on fire and to divert public suspicion, he blamed the Christians for it. As a result, many Christians were executed at Rome (including, according to tradition, both Peter and Paul), but still there was yet no empire-wide persecution.

Three decades later, Emperor Domitian instigated an official persecution of Christians. Little is known of the details, but it extended to the province of Asia, which is modern Turkey . The apostle John had been banished to the island of Patmos , and at least one person, a pastor, had already been martyred according to Revelation 2:13.

"The persecuted, beleaguered, discouraged believers in Asia Minor to whom John addressed the book of Revelation desperately needed encouragement. It had been years since Jesus ascended. Jerusalem had been destroyed and Israel ravaged. The church was losing its first love, compromising, tolerating sin, becoming powerless, and distasteful to the Lord Himself. The other apostles were dead, and John had been exiled. The whole picture looked very bleak. That is why the first vision John received is of Christ's present ministry in the church. John's readers took comfort in the knowledge that one day Jesus will return in glory to defeat His enemies. The descriptions of those events take up most of the book of Revelation. But the vision of Jesus Christ that begins the book does not describe Him in His future glory but in the present as the glorified Lord of the church. In spite of all the disappointments, the Lord had not abandoned His church or His promises" (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11, pp.38-39).

No matter what you suffer in this life, Jesus will always be with you. Listen to His words in Matthew 5:11-12: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (NKJV).

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