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THE BURNING OF ROME
As our two great apostles PETER and PAUL suffered martyrdom during the FIRST imperial persecution, it may be interesting to many of our readers to know something of the particulars which led to this cruel edict.
But here, however reluctantly, we must turn from the sure word of God to the uncertain writings of men. We pass, just at this point, from the firm and solid ground of inspiration to the insecure footing of Roman historians and ecclesiastical history. Nevertheless, all historians, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, are agreed as to the main facts of the burning of Rome, and the persecution of the Christians.
In the month of July A.D. 64 a great fire broke out in the Circus, which continued to spread until it laid in ruins all the ancient grandeur of the imperial city. The flames extended with great rapidity, and Rome being a city of long narrow streets, and of hills and valleys, the fire gathered force from the winds, and soon became a general conflagration. In a short time the whole city seemed wrapped in one sheet of burning flame.
TACITUS, a Roman historian of that day, and considered one of the most accurate of his time, tells us: “Of the fourteen quarters into which Rome was divided four only were left entire, three were reduced to ashes, and the remaining seven presented nothing better than a heap of shattered houses half in ruins.” The fire raged furiously for six days and seven nights. Palaces, temples, monuments, the mansions of the rich, and the dwellings of the poor perished in this fatal fire. But these were nothing compared with the sufferings of the inhabitants. The infirmities of age, the weakness of the young, the helplessness of the sick, the wild screams and lamentations of women, added to the miseries of this dreadful scene. Some endeavoured to provide for themselves, others to save their friends, but no place of safety could be found. Which way to turn, or what way to go, no one could tell; the fire raged on every side, so that numbers fell prostrate in the street, embraced a voluntary death, and perished in the flames.
The important question, as to how the fire originated, was now discussed everywhere. That the city was set on fire by incendiaries, and by the orders of Nero himself, nearly all believed. It was certain that a number of men were seen extending instead of extinguishing the flames; and they boldly affirmed that they had authority for doing so. It was also generally reported that, while Rome was in a blaze, the inhuman monster Nero stood on a tower where he could watch its progress, and amused himself by singing the fall of Troy to his favorite guitar.
Many of our readers will no doubt wonder what object he could have in burning down the greater part of Rome? His object we believe was that he might rebuild the city on a scale of greater magnificence, and call it by his own name. And this he attempted immediately in the grandest way. But everything he did failed to restore him to popular favour, or remove the infamous charge of having set the city on fire. And when all hope was gone of propitiating either the people or the gods, he fell upon the plan of shifting the imputation from himself to others. He knew enough of the unpopularity of the Christians, both with the Jews and the heathen, to fix on them as his sin-bearers. A rumor was soon spread that the incendiaries had been discovered, and that the Christians were the criminals. Numbers were immediately arrested, that they might be brought to condign punishment, and satisfy the popular indignation. And now we arrive at:
THE FIRST PERSECUTION
UNDER THE EMPERORS
But here we may pause for a moment, and contemplate the progress of Christianity, and the state of the church in Rome at this time. At a very early period, and without the aid of any apostle, Christianity had found its way to Rome. It was no doubt first earned thither by some who had been converted under Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. Amongst his hearers we have expressly mentioned “strangers of Rome, Jews, and proselytes.” And Paul, in his Epistle to that church, thanks God that their “faith was spoken of throughout the whole world.” And in his salutations he speaks of “Andronicus and Junia,” his kinsmen and fellow prisoners, who were chief men among the apostles, and whose conversion was of an earlier date than his own. But great wonders had been wrought by the gospel in the course of thirty years. Christians had become a marked, a separate, and a peculiar people. They were now known as perfectly distinct from the Jews, and bitterly disclaimed by them.
The labours of Paul and his companions, during the two years of his imprisonment, were no doubt blessed of the Lord to the conversion of great numbers. So that the Christians were by this time no secret or inconsiderable community, but were known to embrace in their numbers both Jews and Gentiles of all ranks and conditions, from the imperial household to the runaway slave. But their present suffering, as we have seen, was not for their Christianity. They were really sacrificed by Nero to appease the popular fury of the people, and to reconcile their offended deities.
This was the first legal persecution of the Christians; and in some of its features it stands alone in the annals of human barbarity. Inventive cruelty sought out new ways of torture to satiate the blood thirsty Nero —the most ruthless Emperor that ever reigned. The gentle, peaceful, unoffending followers of the Lord Jesus were sewn in the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; others were wrapped in a kind of dress smeared with wax, with pitch, and other combustible matter, with a stake under the chin to keep them upright, and set on fire when the day closed, that they might serve as lights in the public gardens of popular amusements. Nero lent his own gardens for these exhibitions, and gave entertainments for the people. He took an active part in the games himself, sometimes mingling with the crowd on foot, and sometimes viewing the awful spectacle from his chariot. But, accustomed as these people were to public executions and gladiatorial shows, they were moved to pity by the unexampled cruelties inflicted on the Christians. They began to see that the Christians suffered, not for the public good, but to gratify the cruelty of a monster. But fearful as their death was, it was soon over, and to them, no doubt, the happiest moment of their existence. Long, long before the lights were quenched in Nero’s garden, the martyrs had found their home and rest above —in the blooming garden of God’s eternal delights. This precious truth we learn from what the Saviour said to the penitent thief on the cross —“Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23)
Although historians are not agreed either as to the extent or the duration of this terrible persecution, there is too good reason to believe that it spread throughout the empire, and lasted till the end of the tyrant’s life. He died by his own hand in utter wretchedness and despair, in A.D. 68, about four years after the burning of Rome, and one year after the martyrdom of PETER and PAUL. Towards the end of his reign the Christians were required, under the heaviest penalties, even that of death, to offer sacrifices to the emperor and to the heathen gods. While such edicts were in force the persecution must have continued.
After the death of Nero the persecution ceased, and the followers of Jesus enjoyed comparative peace until the reign of Domitian, an emperor little behind Nero in wickedness. But meanwhile we must turn aside for a moment and notice the accomplishment of the Lord’s most solemn warnings, in:
THE DOWNFALL OF JERUSALEM A.D. 70
The dispersion of the Jews, and the total destruction of their city and temple, are the next events of consideration in the remainder of the first century, though, strictly speaking, that fearful catastrophe is no part of church history; it belongs to the history of the Jews. But as it was a literal fulfillment of the Saviour’s prophecy, and immediately affected those who were Christians, it deserves a place in our history.
The disciples, before the death and resurrection of Christ, were strongly Jewish in all their thoughts and associations. They connected the Messiah and the temple together. Their thought was that He should deliver them from the power of the Romans, and that all the prophecies about the land, the tribes, the city and the temple would be accomplished. But the Jews rejected the Messiah Himself, and, consequently, all their own hopes and promises in Him. Most significant and weighty are the opening words of Matthew 24, “And Jesus went out and departed from the temple.” It was now empty indeed in the sight of God. All that gave it value to Him was gone. “Behold your house is left unto you desolate.” It was now ripe for destruction.
“And his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple.” They were still occupied with the outward greatness and glory of these things. “And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” These words were literally accomplished by the Romans about forty years after they were spoken, and in the very way that the Lord predicted. “For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” (Luke 19:43, 44)
After the Romans had experienced many disappointments and defeats in attempting to make a breach in the walls, through the desperate resistance of the insurgent Jews, even until little hope was left of taking the city, Titus summoned a council of war. Three plans were discussed: to storm the city immediately; to repair the works and rebuild the engines; or to blockade and starve the city to surrender. The last was preferred, and the whole army was set to work “to cast a trench” around the city. But the siege was long and difficult. It lasted from the spring till September. And during all that time, the most unexampled miseries of every kind were experienced by the besieged. But at last the end came, when both the city and the temple were in the hands of the Romans. Titus was anxious to save the magnificent temple and its treasures. But, contrary to his orders, a soldier, mounting on the shoulders of one of his comrades threw a blazing brand into a small gilded door in the outer building or porch. The flames sprang up at once. Titus, observing this, rushed to the spot with the utmost speed; he shouted, he made signs to his soldiers to quench the fire; but his voice was drowned, and his signs unnoticed in the fearful confusion. The splendor of the interior filled him with wonder. And as the flames had not yet reached the holy place, he made a last effort to save it, and exhorted the soldiers to stay the conflagration; but it was too late. Blazing brands were flying in all directions, and the fierce excitement of battle, with the insatiable hope of plunder had reached its highest pitch. Titus little knew that a greater than he had said: “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The word of the Lord, not the commands of Titus, must be obeyed. The whole was thoroughly levelled, and razed to the foundations, according to the word of the Lord.
For nearly every particular of this terrible siege, we are indebted to Josephus, who was in the Roman camp, and near the person of Titus at the time. He acted as interpreter when terms were talked of between Titus and the insurgents. The walls and bulwarks of Zion seemed impregnable to the Roman, and he felt most anxious to come to terms of peace; but the Jews rejected every proposal, and the Romans at length triumphed. On entering the city, Josephus tells us, Titus was struck with wonder at its strength; indeed when he contemplated the solid altitude of the towers, the magnitude of the several stones, and the accuracy of their joining, and saw how great was their breadth, how vast their height, “Surely,” he exclaimed, “we fought with God on our side; and God it was who brought the Jews down from these bulwarks; for what could human hands or engines avail against these towers?” Such were the confessions of the heathen general. It certainly was the most terrible siege that the whole history of the world records.
The accounts given by Josephus of the sufferings of the Jews during the siege are too awful to be transferred to our pages. The numbers that perished under Vespasian in the country, and under Titus in the city, from A.D. 67-7O, by famine, internal factions, and the Roman sword, were one million three hundred and fifty thousand four hundred and sixty, besides one hundred thousand sold into slavery.2929See Dean Milman’s History of the Jews, volume 2, book 16, page 380. Such alas! alas! were the awful consequences of disbelieving and disregarding the solemn, earnest, and affectionate entreaties of their own Messiah. Need we wonder at the Redeemer’s tears, shed over the infatuated city? And need we wonder at the preacher’s tears now, as he appeals to infatuated sinners, in view of coming and eternal judgments? Surely the wonder is that so few tears are shed over thoughtless, careless, perishing sinners. Oh, for hearts to feel as the Saviour felt, and eyes to weep like His!
The Christians, with whom we have more especially to do, remembering the Lord’s warning, left Jerusalem in a body before the siege was formed. They journeyed to Pella, a village beyond the Jordan, where they remained till Hadrian permitted them to return to the ruins of their ancient city. And this brings us to THE CLOSE OF THE FIRST CENTURY.
During the milder reigns of Vespasian and his son Titus, the number of Christians must have increased exceedingly. This we learn, not from any direct account that we have of their prosperity, but from incidental circumstances that prove it, and which we shall meet with immediately.
THE CRUEL REIGN OF DOMITIAN
DOMITIAN, the younger brother of Titus, ascended the throne in A.D. 81. But he was of a temper totally different from his father and brother. They tolerated the Christians; he persecuted them. His character was cowardly, suspicious, and cruel. He raised a persecution against the Christians because of some vague and superstitious fear that he entertained of the appearance of a person born in Judea of the family of David, who was to obtain the empire of the world. But neither did he spare Romans of the most illustrious birth and station who had embraced Christianity. Some were martyred on the spot, others, were banished to be martyred in their exile. His own niece, Domitilla, and his cousin, Flavius Clemens, to whom she had been given in marriage, were the victims of his cruelty for having embraced the gospel of Christ. Thus we see that Christianity, by the power of God, in spite of armies and emperors, fire and sword, was spreading, not only amongst the middle and lower, but also amongst the higher classes.
“Domitian,” says Eusebius, the father of ecclesiastical history, “having exercised his cruelty against many, and unjustly slain no small number of noble and illustrious men at Rome, and having, without cause, punished vast numbers of honourable men with exile and the confiscation of their property, at length established himself as the successor of Nero in his hatred and hostility to God.” He also followed Nero in deifying himself. He commanded his own statue to be worshipped as a god, revived the law of treason, and put in fearful force its terrible provisions: under these circumstances, surrounded as he was with spies and informers, what must this second persecution of the Christians have been! 3030See Roman History, Encyclopedia Britannica, Seventh Edition, volume 19, page 406.
But the end of this weak, vain, and despicable tyrant drew near. He was in the habit of writing on a roll the names of those persons whom he designed to put to death, keeping it carefully in his own possession. And in order to throw such off their guard, he treated them with the most flattering attention. But this fatal roll was one day taken from under a cushion, on which he was reclining asleep, by a child who was playing in the apartment, and who carried it to the Empress. She was struck with astonishment and alarm at finding her own name on the dark list, together with the names of others apparently high in his favour. To such the Empress communicated the knowledge of their danger, and notwithstanding all the precaution that cowardice and cunning could suggest, he was dispatched by two officers of his own household.
THE SHORT BUT PEACEFUL
REIGN OF NERVA
On the very day of Domitian’s death, Nerva was chosen by the Senate to be Emperor, September 18th, A.D. 96. He was a man of blameless reputation. The character of his reign was most favourable to the peace and prosperity of the church of God. The Christians who had been banished by Domitian were recalled, and recovered their confiscated property. The Apostle John returned from his banishment in the isle of Patmos, and resumed his place of service among the churches in Asia. He survived till the reign of Trajan, when, at the advanced age of about 100 years, he fell asleep in Jesus.
Nerva commenced his reign by redressing grievances, repealing iniquitous statutes, enacting good laws, and dispensing favours with great liberality. But feeling unequal to the duties of his position, he adopted Trajan as his colleague and successor to the empire, and died in A.D. 98.
THE CONDITION OF CHRISTIANS DURING THE REIGN OF TRAJAN
A.D. 98 - 117
As the outward history of the church was then affected by the will of one man, it will therefore be necessary to notice, however briefly, the disposition or ruling passion of the reigning prince. Thus it was that the condition of the Christians everywhere depended to a great extent, on him who was master of the Roman world, and in a certain sense of the whole world. Still, God was and is over all.
Trajan was an emperor of great renown. Perhaps none more so ever sat on the throne of the Cæsars. The Roman earth or world, it is said, reached its widest limits by his victories. He caused the terror of the Roman arms and the Roman discipline to be felt on the frontier as none before him had done. He was thus a great general and a military sovereign; and being possessed of a large and vigorous mind, he was an able ruler, and Rome flourished under his sway. But in the history of the church his character appears in a less favourable light. He had a confirmed prejudice against Christianity, and sanctioned the persecution of Christians. Some say that he meditated the extinction of the name. This is the deepest stain, which rests on the memory of Trajan.
But Christianity, in spite of Roman emperors, and Roman prisons, and Roman executions, pursued its silent steady course. In little more than seventy years after the death of Christ, it had made such rapid progress in some places as to threaten the downfall of paganism. The heathen temples were deserted, the worship of the gods was neglected, and victims for sacrifices were rarely purchased. This naturally raised a popular cry against Christianity, such as we had at Ephesus: “This our craft is in danger to be set at naught, and the temple of the great goddess Diana to be despised.” Those whose livelihood depended on the worship of the heathen deities, laid many and grievous complaints against the Christians before the governors. This was especially so in the Asiatic provinces where Christianity was most prevalent.
About the year 110 many Christians were thus brought before the tribunal of Pliny the younger, the governor of Bithynia and Pontus. But Pliny, being naturally a wise, candid, and humane man, took pains to inform himself of the principles and practices of the Christians. And when he found that many of them were put to death who could not be convicted of any public crime, he was greatly embarrassed. He had not taken any part in such matters before, and no settled law on the subject then existed. The edicts of Nero had been repealed by the Senate, as were those of Domitian by his successor, Nerva. Under these circumstances, Pliny applied for advice to his master, the Emperor Trajan. The letters, which then passed between them, being justly considered as the most valuable record of the history of the church during that period, deserve a place in our “Short Papers.” But we can only transcribe a portion of Pliny’s celebrated epistle, and chiefly those parts, which refer to the character of Christians, and the extension of Christianity.
C. PLINY to TRAJAN EMPEROR
“Health. —It is my usual custom, sire, to refer all things, of which I harbour any doubt, to you. For who can better direct my judgment in its hesitation, or instruct my understanding in its ignorance? I never had the fortune to be present at any examination of Christians before I came into this province. I am therefore at a loss to determine what is the usual object either of inquiry or of punishment, and to what length either of them is to be carried… In the mean time this has been my method with respect to those who were brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians: if they pleaded guilty, I interrogated them —a second and a third time —with a menace of capital punishment. In case of obstinate perseverance, I ordered them to be executed …An anonymous “Libel” was published, containing the names of many who denied that they were, or had been, Christians, and invoked the gods, as I prescribed, and prayed to your image, with incense and wine, and moreover reviled Christ —none of which things I am told a real Christian can ever be compelled to do. So I thought proper to dismiss them.
The whole of the crime or error of the Christians lay in this —they were accustomed on a certain day to meet before daylight, and to sing among themselves a hymn to Christ, as a god; and to bind themselves by an oath not to commit any wickedness; not to be guilty of theft, or robbery, or adultery; never to falsify their word, nor to deny a pledge committed to them when called upon to return it. When these things were performed, it was their custom to separate, and then to come together again to a harmless meal, of which they partook in common without any disorder; but this last practice they have ceased to attend to since the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I prohibited assemblies.
After this account, I judged it the more necessary to examine, and that by torture, two females, who were said to be deaconesses; but I have discovered nothing except a bad and excessive superstition. Suspending, therefore, all judicial proceedings, I have recourse to you for advice. The number of the accused is so great as to call for serious consultation. Many persons are informed against, of every age and rank, and of both sexes; and many more will be accused. Nor has the contagion of this superstition seized cities only, but the lesser towns also, and the open country: nevertheless, it seems to me that it may be restrained and corrected. It is certain that the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin to be more frequented; and the sacred solemnities, after a long intermission, are revived. Victims likewise are everywhere bought up, whereas for a time there were few purchasers. Whence it is easy to imagine what numbers of them might be reclaimed if pardon were granted to those who repent.”
TRAJAN TO PLINY
“You have done perfectly right, my dear Pliny, in the inquiry which you have made concerning Christians. For truly no one general rule can be laid down which will apply itself to all cases. These people must not be sought after: if they are brought before you and convicted, let them be capitally punished; yet with this restriction, that if any one renounce Christianity, and evidence his sincerity by supplicating our gods, however suspected he may be for the past, let him on his repentance obtain pardon. But anonymous libels in no case ought to be attended to: for it is a very dangerous precedent, and perfectly incongruous with the maxims of our age.”
The clear and unsuspected testimony of these two letters awakens thoughts and feelings of the deepest interest in the Christian’s mind of today. The First Epistle of St. Peter was addressed to the fathers of these holy sufferers, and possibly to some of themselves then alive; and it is not unlikely that Peter laboured amongst them personally. Thus were they taught and encouraged beforehand to give to the Roman governor “a reason for the hope that was in them with meekness and fear.” Indeed the whole of the first Epistle seems divinely fitted to strengthen these unoffending Christians against the unjust and unreasonable course of Pliny. “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind” Peter contemplates in his epistle the family of faith as on a journey through the wilderness, and God as the supreme Governor ruling over all —believers and unbelievers. “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” With such a scene before us, and such witnesses, making allowance for the position of Trajan and Pliny as heathen statesmen, it may be well to inquire at this early stage of our history, What was and is:
THE REAL CAUSE OF PERSECUTION
Although different reasons may be given by different persons and governments for persecuting Christians, yet we believe that the real cause is the heart’s enmity against Christ and His truth, as seen in the godly lives of His people. Besides, their light makes manifest the darkness around, and exposes and reproves the inconsistencies of false professors, and the godless lives of the wicked. The enemy, taking occasion by these things, stirs up the cruel passions of those in power to quench the light by persecuting the light bearer. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light.” Such has been the experience of all Christians, in all ages, both in times of peace and in times of trouble. There is no exemption from persecution, secretly or openly, if we live according to the Spirit and truth of Christ. Amongst the last words that the great apostle wrote were these: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3: 12)
These divine truths, given for the instruction and guidance of the church in all ages, were strikingly illustrated in the case of Pliny and the Christians of Bithynia. All historians speak of him as one of the most enlightened, virtuous, and accomplished men of antiquity. He was also possessed of great wealth, and he had the reputation of being most liberal and benevolent in private life. Why then, it may he asked, as a Roman statesman and governor, did he become such a persecutor of the Christians? This question he answers in his own letter. It was simply for their faith in Christ —nothing else. It had been proved to him, both by friends and foes, that the Christians were guilty of no evil, morally, socially, or politically. Having thrice asked the question, “Are you Christians?” if they steadfastly affirmed that they were, he condemned them to death. The only pretext, which he gave to cover the injustice of his conduct as a governor, was the fact that the Christians were obstinate professors of a religion not established by the laws of the empire.
Many, from private malice and other reasons, were at this time anonymously accused of being Christians, who were not really so. These were tested, by being called upon to deny the faith, offer incense to the gods, worship the image of the emperor, and revile Christ. All who complied with these terms were dismissed. But none of those things, Pliny is made to witness, can those who are true Christians ever be compelled to do. He next had recourse to the brutal custom of examining innocent persons by torture. Two females, noted servants of the church, were thus examined. But, instead of the expected disclosures as to the rumored seditious and licentious character of their meetings, nothing unfavourable to the Christian community could be tortured out of them. The governor could detect nothing by every means he tried, except what he calls “a perverse and extravagant superstition.”
It must also be borne in mind, both to the credit and also to the deeper guilt of Pliny, that he did not proceed against the Christians from mere popular prejudice —unlike his friend Tacitus, who allowed himself to be carried away by prevailing rumors, and without further inquiry, to write against Christianity in the most unreasonable and disgraceful manner. But Pliny considered it his duty to enter into a careful investigation of the whole matter before giving his judgment. How then can we account for such a man, apparently desirous of acting impartially, persecuting to death a blameless people? To answer this question, we must inquire into the outward, or ostensible causes of persecution.
CAUSES OF PERSECUTION
The Romans professed to tolerate all religions, from which the commonwealth had nothing to fear. This was their boasted liberality. Even the Jews were allowed to live according to their own laws. What was it then, we may well ask, that could have caused all their severity to the Christians? Had the commonwealth anything to fear from them? Had it anything to fear from those whose lives were blameless, whose doctrines was the pure truth of heaven, and whose religion was conducive to the people’s welfare, both publicly and privately?
The following may be considered as some of the unavoidable causes of persecution, looking at both sides of the question:
1) Christianity, unlike all other religions that preceded it, was aggressive in its character. Judaism was exclusive; the religion of one nation, Christianity was proclaimed as the religion of mankind or the whole world. This was an entirely new thing on the earth. “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” was the Lord’s command to the disciples. They were to go forth and make war with error, in every form and in all its workings. The conquest to be made was the heart for Christ. “The weapons of our warfare,” says the apostle, “are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4, 5) In this war of aggression with existing institutions, and with the corrupt habits of the heathen, the disciples of Jesus had little to expect but resistance, persecution, and suffering.
2) The pagan religion, which Christianity was rapidly undermining and destined to overthrow, was an institution of the State. It was so closely interwoven with the entire civil and social systems, that to attack the religion was to be brought into conflict with both the civil and the social. And this was exactly what took place. Had the primitive church been as accommodating to the world as Christendom is now, much persecution might have been avoided. But the time had not come for such lax accommodation. The gospel, which the Christians then preached, and the purity of doctrine and life which they maintained, shook to the very foundation the old and deeply rooted religion of the State.
3) The Christians naturally withdrew themselves from the pagans. They became a separate and distinct people. They could not but condemn and abhor polytheism, as utterly opposed to the one living and true God, and to the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ. This gave the Romans the idea that Christians were unfriendly to the human race, seeing they condemned all religions but their own. Hence they were called “Atheists,” because they did not believe in the heathen deities, and derided the heathen worship.
4) Simplicity and humility characterised the Christians’ worship. They peaceably came together before sunrise or after sunset, to avoid giving offence. They sang hymns to Christ as to God; they broke bread in remembrance of His love in dying for them; they edified one another and pledged themselves to a life of holiness. But they had no fine temples, no statues, no order of priests, and no victims to offer in sacrifice. The contrast between their worship and that of all others in the empire became most manifest. The heathen, in their ignorance, concluded that the Christians had no religion at all, and that their secret meetings were for the worst of purposes. The world now, as then, would say of those who worship God in spirit and in truth, “these people have no religion at all.” Christian worship, in true simplicity, without the aid of temples and priests, rites and ceremonies, is not much better understood now by professing Christendom than it was then by pagan Rome. Still it is true, “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)
5) By the progress of Christianity the temporal interests of a great number of persons were seriously affected. This was a fruitful and bitter source of persecution. A countless throng of priests, image-makers, dealers, soothsayers, augurs, and artisans, found good livings in connection with the worship of so many deities.
6) All these, seeing their craft in danger, rose up in united strength against the Christians, and sought by every means to arrest the progress of Christianity. They invented and disseminated the vilest calumnies against everything Christian. The cunning priests and the artful soothsayers easily persuaded the vulgar, and the public mind in general, that all the calamities, wars, tempests, and diseases that afflicted mankind, were sent upon them by the angry gods, because the Christians who despised their authority were everywhere tolerated.3131See Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, volume one p. 67. Cave’s Primitive Christianity, early chapters.
Many other things might be mentioned, but these were everywhere the daily causes of the Christians’ sufferings, both publicly and privately. Of the truth of this a moment’s reflection will convince every reader. But faith could see the Lord’s hand and hear His voice in it all: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles… Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10)
This much having been said as to the great opposition which the early church had to contend against, it will be necessary to glance for a moment at the real cause or causes and means of:
THE RAPID PROGRESS
Doubtless the causes and the means were divine. They proved themselves to be so. The Spirit of God, who descended in power on the day of Pentecost, and who had taken up His abode in the church and in the individual Christian, is the true source of all success in preaching the gospel, in the conversion of souls, and in testimony for Christ against evil. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.” Besides, the Lord has promised to be with His people at all times. “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Zech. 4:6, 7; Matt. 28:18 - 20) But our object at present is to look at things historically, and not merely according to the assurance of faith.
1) One great cause of the rapid spread of Christianity is its perfect adaptation to man in every age, in every country, and in every condition. It addresses all as lost, and supposes a like want in all. Thus it suits the Jew and the Gentile, the king and the subject, the priest and the people, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the learned and the ignorant, the moral and the profligate. It is God’s religion for the heart, and there asserts His sovereignty, and His only! It announces itself as the “power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” It proposes to raise man from the deepest depths of degradation to the loftiest heights of eternal glory. Who can estimate, in spite of every prejudice, the effect of the proclamation of such a gospel to miserable and benighted heathen? Thousands, millions, tired of a worthless and worn out religion, responded to its heavenly voice, gathered around the name of Jesus, took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, and were ready to suffer for His sake. Love ruled in the new religion, hatred in the old.
2) Its sanction and maintenance of all earthly relations, according to God, were other reasons for the acceptance of the gospel among the heathen. Each one was exhorted to remain in these relationships, and seek to glorify God therein. The blessings of Christianity to wives, children and servants, are unspeakable. Their love, happiness, and comfort were astonishment to the heathen, and a new thing amongst them. Yet all was natural and orderly. A Christian, who is said to have lived about this time —the early part of the second century, thus describes his contemporaries: “The Christians are not separated from other men by earthly abode, by language, or by customs. They dwell nowhere in cities by themselves, they do not use a different language, or affect a singular mode of life. They dwell in the cities of the Greeks, and of the barbarians, each where his lot has been cast: and while they conform to the usages of the country, in respect to dress, food, amid other things pertaining to the outward life, they yet show a peculiarity of conduct wonderful and striking to all. They obey the existing laws, and conquer the laws by their own living.”3232Neander’s Church History, volume 1, p.95.
3) The blameless lives of the Christians; the divine purity of their doctrines; their patient, cheerful endurance of sufferings worse than death, as well as death itself; their disregard for all the objects of ordinary ambition; their boldness in the faith at the risk of life, credit and property, were chief means in the rapid spread of Christianity. “For who,” says Tertullian, “that beholds these things, is not impelled to inquire into the cause? And who, when he has inquired, does not embrace Christianity; and when he has embraced it, does not himself wish to suffer for it?”
These few particulars will enable the reader to form a more definite judgment as to what it was that tended on the one hand to hinder, and on the other hand to further the progress of the gospel of Christ. Nothing can be more interesting to the Christian mind than the study of this great and glorious work. The Lord’s workmen, for the most part, were plain unlettered men; they were poor, friendless and destitute of all human aid; and yet, in a short time, they persuaded a great part of mankind to abandon the religion of their ancestors, and to embrace a new religion which is opposed to the natural dispositions of men, the pleasures of the world, and the established customs of ages. Who could question the inward power of Christianity with such outward facts before them? Surely it was the Spirit of God who clothed with power the words of these early preachers! Surely their force on the minds of men was divine. A complete change was produced: they were born again —created anew in Christ Jesus.
In less than a hundred years from the day of Pentecost the gospel had penetrated into most of the provinces of the Roman Empire, and was widely diffused in many of them. In our brief outline of the life of St. Paul, and in the chronological table of his missions, we have traced the first planting of many churches, and the propagation of the truth in many quarters. In large central cities, such as Antioch in Syria, Ephesus in Asia, and Corinth in Greece, we have seen Christianity well established, and spreading its rich blessings among the surrounding towns and villages.
We also learn from ecclesiastical antiquity, that what these cities were to Syria, Asia, and Greece, Carthage was to Africa. When Scapula, the president of Carthage, threatened the Christians with severe and cruel treatment, Tertullian, in one of his pointed appeals, bids him bethink himself. “What wilt thou do,” he says, “with so many thousands of men and women of every age and dignity as will freely offer themselves? What fires, what swords wilt thou stand in need of! What is Carthage itself likely to suffer if decimated by thee: when every one there shall find his near kindred and neighbours, and shall see there matrons, and men perhaps of thine own rank and order, and the most principal persons, and either the kindred or friends of those who are thy nearest friends? Spare then, therefore, for thy sake, if not for ours.”3333Caves Primitive Christianity, Page 20.
We now resume the narrative of events, and the next in order to be related is:
THE MARTYRDOM OF IGNATIUS
There is no fact in early church history more sacredly preserved than the martyrdom of Ignatius the bishop of Antioch; and there is no narrative more celebrated than his journey, as a prisoner in chains, from Antioch to Rome.
According to the general opinion of historians, the Emperor Trajan, when on his way to the Parthian war in the year 107, visited Antioch. From what cause it is difficult to say, but it appears that the Christians were threatened with persecution by his orders. Ignatius, therefore, being concerned for the church in Antioch, desired to be introduced to Trajan’s presence. His great object was to prevent, if possible, the threatened persecution. With this end in view, he set forth to the Emperor the true character and condition of the Christians, and offered himself to suffer in their stead.
The details of this remarkable interview are given in many church histories; but there is such an air of suspicion about them that we forbear inserting them. It ended, however, in the condemnation of Ignatius. He was sentenced by the Emperor to be carried to Rome, and thrown to the wild beasts for the entertainment of the people. He welcomed the severe sentence, and gladly submitted to be bound, believing it was for his faith in Christ and as a sacrifice for the saints.
Ignatius was now committed to the charge of ten soldiers, who appear to have disregarded his age and to have treated him with great harshness. He had been bishop of Antioch for nearly forty years, and so must have been an old man. But they hurried him over a long journey, both by sea and land, in order to reach Rome before the games were ended. He arrived on the last day of the festival, and was carried at once to the amphitheatre, where he suffered according to his sentence in the sight of the assembled spectators. And thus the weary pilgrim found rest from the fatigues of his long journey in the blessed repose of the paradise of God.
It has been asked, “Why was Ignatius taken all the way from Antioch to Rome to suffer martyrdom?” The answer can only be conjecture. It may have been with the intention of striking fear into other Christians, by the spectacle of one so eminent, and so well known, brought in chains to a dreadful and degrading death. But if this was the Emperor’s expectation he was entirely disappointed. It had just the opposite effect. The report of his sentence and of his intended route spread far and wide, and deputations from the surrounding churches were sent to meet him at convenient points. He was thus cheered and greeted with the warmest congratulations of his brethren; and they, in return, were delighted to see the venerable bishop and to receive his parting blessing. Many of the saints would be encouraged to brave, if not desire, a martyr’s death and a martyr’s crown. Among the number who met him by the way was Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who, like Ignatius, had been a disciple of St. John, and was destined to be a martyr for the gospel. But besides these personal interviews, he is said to have written seven letters on this journey, which have been preserved in the providence of God and handed down to us. Great interest has ever been, and still is attached to these letters.
THE WRITINGS OF
THE FATHERS AND SCRIPTURE
But however worthy of all honour Ignatius may be as a holy man of God, and as a noble martyr for Christ, we must ever remember that his letters are not the word of God. They may interest and instruct us, but they cannot command our faith. This can only stand on the solid ground of the word of God, never on the infirm ground of tradition. “Scripture stands alone,” as one has said, “in majestic isolation, pre-eminent in instruction, and separated by unapproachable excellence from everything written by the apostolic fathers: so that those who follow close to the apostles have left us writings which are more for our warning than our edification.” At the same time these early Christian writers have every claim to the respect and veneration with which antiquity invests them. They were the contemporaries of the apostles, they enjoyed the privilege of hearing their instruction, and they shared with them the labours of the gospel, and freely conversed with them from day to day. Paul speaks of a Clement —a so called apostolic father —as his “fellow-laborer, whose name is in the book of life;” and what he says of Timothy may have been at least partly true of many others, “But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long suffering, charity, patience, persecution, and afflictions.” (Philippians 4:3; 2 Timothy 3:10, 11)
From those who were so highly privileged, we should naturally expect sound apostolic doctrine —a faithful repetition of the truths and instructions, which were delivered to them by the inspired apostles. But such, alas! is not the case. Ignatius was one of the earliest of the apostolic fathers. He became bishop of Antioch, the metropolis of Syria, about the year 70. He was a disciple of the apostle John, and survived him only about seven years. Surely from such a one we might have expected a close resemblance to the apostle’s teaching; but it is not so. The definite and absolute statements of scripture, as coming direct from God to the soul, are widely different from the writings of Ignatius and of all the Fathers. Our only safe and sure guide is the word of God. How seasonable then is that word in the First Epistle of John, “Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son and in the Father.” (1 John 2:24) This passage evidently refers more especially to the person of Christ, and consequently to the scriptures of the New Testament, in which we have the display of the Father in the Son, and made known to us by the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s Epistles, we have more fully revealed the counsels of God concerning the church, Israel, and the Gentiles, so that we must go further back than “the Fathers” to find a true ground of faith; we must go back to that which existed from “THE BEGINNING.” Nothing has direct divine authority for the believer, but that which was from “the beginning.” This alone secures our continuing “in the Son and in the Father.”
The Epistles of Ignatius have been long esteemed by Episcopalians as the chief authority for the system of the English church; and this must be our excuse for referring so fully to this “Father.” Nearly all their arguments in favour of episcopacy are founded on his letters. So strongly does he press submission to the Episcopal authority, and so highly does he extol it, that some have been induced to question their genuineness altogether, and others have supposed that they must have been largely interpolated to serve the prelatical interest. But with the controversy on these points we have nothing to do in our “Short Papers.”3434See The Genuine Epistles of Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, and Barnabas, by Ap. Wake, 6th ed. Bagster and Sons.
We will now resume our history from the death of Trajan in the year 117, and briefly glance at the condition of the church during:
THE REIGNS OF HADRIAN AND THE
ANTONINES FROM - A.D. 117 - 180
Although it would be unjust to class Hadrian and the first Antonine with the systematic persecutors of the church, nevertheless Christians were often exposed to the most violent sufferings and death during their dominion. The cruel custom of ascribing all public calamities to the Christians, and of calling for their blood as an atonement to the offended deities, still continued, and was generally yielded to by the local governors, and unchecked by the indifferent emperors. But under the reign of the second Antonine, Marcus Aurelius, the evil spirit of persecution greatly increased. It was no longer confined to the outbursts of popular fury, but was encouraged by the highest authorities. The slender protection which the ambiguous edicts of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus afforded the Christians was withdrawn, and the excited passions of the idolatrous pagans were unrestrained by the government. It is most interesting to the student of scripture history to see how this could take place under the reign of a prince who was distinguished for learning, philosophy, and general mildness of character.
The past sixty years of comparative peace had opened a wide field for the propagation of the gospel. During that period it made rapid progress in many ways. Christian congregations increased in numbers, influence, and wealth throughout every quarter of the Roman dominions. Many of the rich, being filled with divine love, distributed their substance to the poor, travelled into regions, which as yet had not heard the sound of the gospel, and, having planted Christianity, passed onto other countries. The Holy Spirit could not thus work without awakening the jealousy and stirring up all the enmity of the supporters of the national religion. Aurelius saw with an evil eye the superior power of Christianity over men’s minds compared with his own heathen philosophy. He then became an intolerant persecutor, and encouraged the provincial authorities to crush what he considered a contumacious spirit of resistance to his authority. But the gospel of the grace of God was far beyond the reach of Aurelius and neither his sword nor his lions could arrest its triumphant career. In spite of the bloody persecutions which he excited or sanctioned, Christianity was propagated throughout the known world.
But here we must pause for a little, and look around us. There is something deeper far in the change of government towards the church than the merely historical eye can discern. We believe that we are now come to:
CLOSE OF THE FIRST PERIOD AND
OPENING OF THE SECOND PERIOD
The EPHESIAN condition of the church, looking at it in this light, may be said to have ended with the death of Antoninus Pius, in the year 161; and the Smyrnean condition commenced with the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The persecution in Asia broke out with great violence in the year 167, under the new edicts of this Emperor; and Smyrna especially suffered greatly: the justly esteemed Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, suffered martyrdom at this time. But in order to prove the view we have taken, it will be necessary to glance briefly at the addresses to the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna. And first, we begin with:
THE ADDRESS TO THE CHURCH OF
EPHESUS — REVELATION 2:1-7
The grand object of the church in this world was to be “the pillar and ground of the truth.” It was set up to be a light bearer for God. A “golden candlestick” —a vessel, which bears the light, thus symbolizes it. It ought to have been a true witness of what God had manifested in Jesus on the earth, and of what He is now when Christ is in heaven. We further learn from this address, that the church, as a vessel of testimony in this world, is threatened with being set aside unless its first estate is maintained. But alas! it fails, as the creature always does. The angels, Adam, Israel, and the church, kept not their first estate. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee,” saith the Lord, “because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly; and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
There was still, however, much that He could praise, and He does praise all that He can. As an assembly, they had patience; they had laboured and not fainted; they could not bear “evil men,” or those who were seeking the highest place in the church. Nevertheless He feels the departure from Himself. “Thou hast left thy first love.” He speaks as one disappointed. They had ceased to delight in His love to them, and hence their own love to Him declined. “First love” is the happy fruit of our appreciation of the Lord’s love to us. “Outward testimony might go on,” as one has said, “but that is not what the Lord most values, though value it He does, so far as it is simple genuine, and faithful. Still He cannot but prize most of all hearts devoted to Himself, the fruit of His own personal, self-sacrificing, perfect love. He has a spouse upon earth, whom He desires to see with no object but Himself, and kept pure for Him from the world and its ways. God has called us for this: not only for salvation, and a witness for Himself in godliness, though this is most true and important, but beyond all for Christ —a bride for His Son! Surely this should be our first and last, and constant and dearest thought, for we are affianced to Christ, and He at least has proved the fullness and faithfulness of His love to us. But what of ours!”3535See “Lectures on Revelation” by W. K.
It was this state of things in Ephesus, and in the church at large, that called for the intervention of the Lord in faithful discipline. The church, as planted by Paul, had already fallen from its first estate. “All seek their own,” he says, “not the things of Jesus Christ.” And again, “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me.” Hence, the “tribulation spoken of in the address to the church in Smyrna.” Though the Lord is full of grace and love in all His ways towards His fallen and failing church, still He is righteous withal, and must judge evil. He is not seen in these addresses as the Head in heaven of the one body, nor as the Bridegroom of His church; but in His judicial character, walking in the midst of the candlesticks, having the attributes of a judge. (See chapter 1)
It will be observed by the reader, that there is a measured distance and reserve in the style of His address to the church at Ephesus. This is in keeping with the place He takes in the midst of the golden candlesticks. He writes to the angel of the church, not to “the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus,” as in the Epistle by Paul.
There have been many disputes about “who is meant by the angel.” He was a person, we believe, so identified morally with the assembly that he represented it, and characterised it. The Lord addresses the angel, not the church immediately. “The angel,” therefore, gives the idea of representation. For example, in the Old Testament we have the angel of Jehovah; the angel of the covenant; and in the New Testament we have the angels of the little children; and so of Peter, in Acts 12, they said, “It is his angel.” We will now briefly glance at:
THE ADDRESS TO THE CHURCH AT
SMYRNA — REVELATION 2:8-11
Our interest in the history of the church is greatly increased when we see that the Lord has distinctly marked its successive epochs. The outward condition of the church down to the death of the first Antonine —so far as it can be ascertained from the most authentic histories —answers in a remarkable way to what we lean from scripture, and especially from the address to Ephesus. There was outward consistency and zeal; they were unwearied. It is also evident that there was charity, purity, devotedness, and holy courage, even to the greatest readiness to suffer in every way for the Lord’s sake. At the same time it is clear, from both scripture and history, that false doctrine was making its way, and that many were manifesting a most unworthy zeal for official pre-eminence in the church. That forgetfulness of self, and that care for Christ and His glory, which are the first fruits of His grace, were gone. Historically we now come to the Smyrnean period. For the convenience of the reader we will give the address entire.
“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These things saith the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive; I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things, which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” Here the Lord meets the declension by sore tribulation. Milder means had not answered the end. This is no uncommon case; though they may have thought that some strange thing had happened to them. But, the Lord knew of all of their afflictions, which were measured by Him and ever under His control. “Ye shall have tribulation ten days.” The period of their sufferings is exactly specified. And He speaks to them as one that had known the depths of tribulation Himself. “These things saith the First and the Last, which was dead, and is alive.” He had gone through the deepest sorrow, and through death itself —He had died for them, and was alive again. They had this blessed One to flee to in all their trials. And as He looks on, and walks in the midst of His suffering ones, He says, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Thus He holds in His hand the martyr’s crown, ready to place it on the head of His faithful overcomer.
We will now turn to our history, and mark its resemblance to the above Epistle.
SECOND PERIOD OF CHURCH HISTORY COMMENCED ABOUT A.D. 167
The reign of Aurelius is marked, under the providence of God, by many and great public calamities. We see the hand of the Lord in faithful love chastening His own redeemed and beloved people, but His anger was kindled against their enemies. The eastern army, under Verus, returning from the Parthian war, brought with it to Rome the infliction of a pestilential disease which was then raging in Asia, and which soon spread its ravages through almost the whole of the Roman Empire. There was also a great inundation of the Tiber River, which laid a large part of the city under water, and swept away immense quantities of grain from the fields and public storehouses. These disasters were naturally followed by a famine, which consumed great numbers.
Such events could not fail to increase the hostility of the heathen against the Christians. They ascribed all their troubles to the wrath of the gods, which the new religion was supposed to have provoked. Thus it was that the persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire began with the populace. The outcry against them rose up from the people to the governors. “Throw the Christians to the lions!” “Throw the Christians to the lions!” was the general outcry: and the names of the most prominent in the community were demanded with the same uncontrollable hostility. A weak or superstitious magistrate would tremble before the voice of the people, and lend himself as the instrument of their will.
But we will now take a nearer view, under the guidance of the various histories that are before us, of the manner of these persecutions, and of the behavior of the Christians under them:
THE PERSECUTION IN ASIA — A.D. 167
In Asia Minor the persecution broke out with great violence, such as had never been before. Christianity was now treated as a direct crime against the State. This changed the face of everything. Contrary to the re-script of Trajan, and the conduct of still milder emperors, Hadrian and Antonine, the Christians were to be sought for as common criminals. They were torn from their homes by the violence of the people, and subjected to the severest tortures. If they obstinately refused to sacrifice to the gods, they were condemned. The wild beast, the cross, the stake, and the axe were the cruel forms of death that met the Lord’s faithful ones everywhere.
The prudent and dignified Melito, bishop of Sardis, was so moved by these unheard of barbarities, that he appeared before the emperor as the Christians’ advocate. His address throws much light both on the law and on the conduct of the public authorities. It is as follows: —“The race of God’s worshippers in this country are persecuted, as they never were before, by new edicts; for the shameless sycophants, greedy of the possessions of others —since they are furnished by these edicts with an opportunity of so doing —plunder their innocent victims day and night. And let it be right, if it is done by your command, since a just emperor will never resolve on any unjust measure; and we will cheerfully bear the honourable lot of such a death. Yet we would submit this single petition, that you would inform yourself respecting the people who excite the contention, and impartially decide whether they deserve punishment and death, or deliverance and peace. But if this resolve, and this new edict —an edict which ought not so to be issued even against hostile barbarians —comes from yourself, we pray you the more not to leave us exposed to such public robbery.”3636Neander’s Ecclesiastical History, volume 1, page 142.
There is, we fear, no ground to believe that this noble appeal brought any direct relief to the Christians. The character and ways of Aurelius have perplexed the historians. He was a philosopher of the sect of the Stoics, but naturally humane, benevolent, gentle and pious, even childlike in his disposition, some say, from the influence of his mother’s training, yet he was an implacable persecutor of the Christians for nearly twenty years. And the perplexity is increased when we look to Asia, for the procounsul at this time was not personally opposed to the Christians. Still he yielded to the popular fury and the demands of the law. But faith sees beyond the emperors, governors, and people; it sees the prince of darkness ruling these wicked men, and the Lord Jesus overruling all. “I know thy works and tribulation… Fear none of these things which thou shalt suffer… Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life… He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”
Aurelius, with all his philosophy, was an utter stranger to the sweetness and power of that Name which alone can meet and satisfy the longings of the human heart. All the speculations and boastings of philosophy have never done this. Hence the enmity; of the human heart to the gospel. Self-sufficiency, which leads to pride and self-importance, is the principal part of the Stoic’s religion. With these views there could be no humility, no sense of sin, and no idea of a Saviour. And the more earnest he was in his own religion, the more bitter and vehement would he be against Christianity.
In a circular-letter addressed by the church of Smyrna to other Christian churches, we have a detailed account of the sufferings of the faithful unto death. “They made it evident to us all,” says the church, “that in the midst of those sufferings they were absent from the body; or rather, that the Lord stood by them, and walked in the midst of them; and, staying themselves on the grace of Christ, they bid defiance to the torments of the world.” Some, with a strange momentary enthusiasm, rushed in self-confidence to the tribunal, declared themselves to be Christians; but when the magistrate pressed them, wrought upon their fears, showed them the wild beasts, they yielded and offered incense to the gods. “We therefore,” adds the church, “praise not those who voluntarily surrendered themselves; for so are we not taught in the gospel.” Nothing less than the presence of the Lord Jesus could strengthen the soul to endure with tranquility and composure the most agonizing torments, and the most frightful deaths. But thousands did bear with meekness, cheerfulness, and even with joyfulness, the utmost that the power of darkness and the fourth beast of Daniel could do. The pagan bystanders were often moved to pity by their sufferings, but never could understand their calmness of mind, love to their enemies, and willingness to die.
We will now conclude this general account of the persecution in Asia, and notice particularly the two most eminent persons who suffered death at this time; namely, Justin and Polycarp.
THE MARTYRDOM OF JUSTIN
Justin was born at Neapolis, in Samaria, of Gentile parents. He carefully studied in his youth the different philosophical sects; but not finding the satisfaction, which his heart longed for, he was induced to hear the gospel. In it he found, through God’s blessing, a perfect rest for his soul, and every desire of his heart fully met. He became an earnest Christian, and a celebrated writer in defence of Christianity.
Early in the reign of Aurelius, Justin was a marked man. One Crescens laid information against him. He was apprehended with six of his companions, and all were brought before the prefect. They were asked to sacrifice to the gods. “No man,” replied Justin, “whose understanding is sound, will desert true religion for the sake of error and impiety.” “Unless you comply,” said the prefect, “you shall be tormented without mercy.” “We desire nothing more sincerely,” he replied, “than to endure tortures for our Lord Jesus Christ.” The rest assented, and said, “We are Christians, and cannot sacrifice to idols.” The governor then pronounced sentence —“As to those who refuse to sacrifice to the gods, and to obey the imperial edicts, let them be first scourged, and then beheaded, according to the laws.” The martyrs rejoiced, and blessed God, and being led back to prison, were scourged, and afterwards beheaded. This took place at Rome about the year 165. Thus slept in Jesus one of the early Fathers, and earned the glorious title, “Martyr,” which usually accompanies his name. Many have carefully examined his writings, and great importance is attached to them.
LINES ON THE MARTYDOM OF
A ROMAN CENTURION
“Give the Christian to the lion”
Wildly cry the Roman throng;
Yes, to Africa’s tawny lion
Shout the warriors bold and strong.
“Let the hungry lion tear him!”
Echoed glad the laughing crowd;
“Fling him —fling him to the lion!”
Shrieked the noble matron loud.
“Give the Christian to the lion!”
Spake in accents grave and slew,
From their curule seats of honour,
Senators in goodly row.
Then from flight to flight, redouble
Shout, and cheer, and laughter peal,
Till the giant Colosseum
‘Neath the tumult seemed to reel;
And the clamours of the people
Through the Arch of Titus roll,
All adown the Roman forum,
To the towering Capitol,
Then a pause —but hush, and listen,
Whence that wild and savage yell?
‘Tis the lion of Sahara,
Raging in his grated cell!
Fierce with famine and with fetter,
Shaketh he his tawny mane!
For his living pray impatient,
Struggling’ gainst his bar and chain,
But a voice is stealing faintly
From the next cell, chill and dim;
‘Tis the death doomed Christian, chanting
Soft and low his dying hymn!
With uplifted hands he prayeth
For the men that ask his blood!
With a holy faith he pleadeth
For that shouting multitude.
They are waiting! Lift the grating
—Comes he forth, serene to die:
With a radiance round his forehead,
And a lustre in his eye.
Never! when’ midst Roman legions,
With the helmet on his brow,
Press’d he to the front of battle
With a firmer step than now.
Lift the grating! He is waiting.
Let the savage lion come!
He can only rend a passage
For the soul to reach her home!
THE MARTYRDOM OF POLYCARP
The behavior of the venerable bishop of Smyrna, in view of his martyrdom, was most Christian and noble in its bearing. He was prepared and ready for his persecutors, without being rash or imprudent, as some at times, through excitement, had been. When he heard the shouts of the people demanding his death, it was his intention to remain quietly in the city, and await the issue, which God might ordain for him. But, by the entreaties of the church, he suffered himself to be persuaded to take refuge in a neighboring village. Here he spent the time, with a few friends, occupied, night and day, in praying for all the churches throughout the world. But his pursuers soon discovered his retreat. When told that the public officers were at the door, he invited them in, ordered meat and drink to be set before them, and requested that they would indulge him with one hour of quiet prayer. But the fullness of his heart carried him through two hours. His devotions, age, and appearance greatly affected the pagans. He must have been over ninety years of age.
The time being now come, he was conveyed to the city. The proconsul does not appear to have been personally hostile to the Christians. He evidently felt for the aged Polycarp, and did what he could to save him. He urged him to swear by the genius of the emperor, and give proof of his penitence. But Polycarp was calm and firm, with his eyes uplifted to heaven. The proconsul again urged him, saying, “Revile Christ, and I will release thee.” The old man now replied, “Six and eighty years have I served Him, and He has done me nothing but good; and how could I revile Him, my Lord and Saviour?” The governor, finding that both promises and threatenings were in vain, caused it to be proclaimed by the herald in the circus that “Polycarp has declared himself to be a Christian.” The heathen populous, with an infuriated shout, replied, “This is the teacher of atheism, the father of the Christians, the enemy of our gods, by whom so many have been turned away from offering sacrifices.” The governor yielded to the people’s demands that Polycarp should die at the stake and Jews and pagans hastened together to bring wood for that purpose. As they were about to fasten him with nails to the stake of the pile, he said, “Leave me thus: He who has strengthened me to encounter the flames, will also enable me to stand firm at the stake.” Before the fire was lighted he prayed, “Lord, Almighty God, Father of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received from Thee the knowledge of Thyself; God of angels, and of the whole creation; of the human race, and of the just that live in Thy presence; I praise Thee that Thou hast judged me worthy of this day and of this hour, to take part in the number of Thy witnesses, in the cup of Thy Christ.”
The fire was now kindled, but the flames played around the body, forming the appearance of a sail filled with wind. The superstitious Romans, fearing that the fire would not consume him, plunged a spear into his side: and Polycarp was crowned with victory.
These are but short extracts from the accounts that have been handed down to us of the martyrdom of the revered and venerable bishop. The martyrologies are full of particulars. But the Lord greatly blessed the Christ like way in which he suffered for the good of the church. The rage of the people cooled down, as if satisfied with revenge; and their thirst for blood seemed quenched for the time. The proconsul, too, being wearied with such slaughter, absolutely refused to have any more Christians brought before his tribunal. How manifest is the hand of the Lord in this wonderful and sudden change! He had limited the days of their tribulation before they were cast into the furnace, and now they are accomplished: and no power on earth or in hell can prolong them another hour. They had been faithful unto death and received the crown of life.
THE PERSECUTIONS IN FRANCE
We will now turn to the scene of the second persecution under this emperor’s reign. It took place in France, and exactly ten years after the persecution in Asia. There may have been other persecutions during these ten years, but, so far as we know, there are no authentic records of any until 177. The source from which we derive our knowledge of the details of this latter persecution is a circular letter from the churches of Lyons and Vienne to the churches in Asia. Whether there be any allusion to these ten historical years in the words of the Lord to the church at Smyrna, we cannot say. Scripture does not say there is. Comparing the history with the epistle, the thought is likely to be suggested. “Ye shall have tribulation ten days.” In other parts of this mystical book, a day being taken for a year, so it may be in the Epistle to Smyrna. History gives us the beginning and the end as to time, and the east and west as to breadth of scene. But we will now look at some of the details, in which the resemblance may be more manifest.
Imprisonment was one of the main features of their sufferings. Many died from the suffocating air of the noisome dungeons. In this respect it differed from the persecution in Asia. The popular excitement rose even higher than at Smyrna. The Christians were insulted and abused whenever they appeared abroad, and even plundered in their own houses. As this popular fury burst forth during the absence of the governor, many were thrown into prison by the inferior magistrates to await his return. But the spirit of persecution on this occasion, though it sprang from the populace, was not confined to them. The governor, on his arrival, seems to have been infected with the fanaticism of the lower classes. To his dishonour as a magistrate, he began the examination of the prisoners with tortures. And the testimony of slaves, contrary to an ancient law in Rome, was not only received against their masters but also wrung from them by the severest sufferings. Consequently they were ready to say what they were required, to escape the whip and the rack. Having proved, as they said, that the Christians practiced the most unnatural and worst of crimes in their meetings, they now believed that it was right to indulge them in every cruelty. No kindred, no condition, no age, nor sex was spared.
Vettius, a young man of birth and rank, and of great charity and fervency of spirit, on hearing that such charges were laid against his brethren, felt constrained to present himself before the governor as a witness of their innocence. He demanded a hearing; but the governor refused to listen, and only asked him if he too was a Christian? When he distinctly affirmed that he was, the governor ordered him to be thrown into prison with the rest. He afterwards received the crown of martyrdom.
The aged bishop, Pothinus, now over ninety years of age, and probably the one who had brought the gospel to Lyons from Asia, was of course good prey for the lion of hell. He was afflicted with asthma and could scarcely breathe, but notwithstanding he must be seized and dragged before the authorities. “Who is the God of the Christians?” asked the governor. The old man quietly told him that he could only come to the knowledge of the true God by showing a right spirit. Those who surrounded the tribunal strove with each other in giving vent to their rage against the venerable bishop. He was ordered to prison, and after receiving many blows on his way thither, was cast in among the rest, and in two days fell asleep in Jesus, in the arms of his suffering flock.
What a weight of comfort and encouragement the words of the blessed Lord must have been to these holy sufferers! “Fear none of these things which thou shalt suffer” had been addressed to the church in Smyrna, and probably carried to the French churches in Lyons and Vienne by Pothinus. They were experiencing an exact fulfillment of this solemn and prophetic warning: “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried.” They knew who was the great enemy —the great persecutor —though emperors, governors, and mobs might be his instruments. But the Lord was with His beloved suffering ones. He not only sustained and comforted them, but He brought out, in the most blessed way, the power of His own presence in the feeblest forms of humanity. This was, we venture to say, a new thing on the earth. The superiority of the Christians to all the inflictions of tortures, and to all the terrors of death, utterly astonished the multitude, stung to the quick their tormentors, and wounded the stoic pride of the Emperor. What could be done with a people who prayed for their persecutors, and manifested the composure and tranquility of heaven, in the midst of the fires and wild beasts of the amphitheatre? Take one example of what we affirm —an example worthy of all praise, in all time and in all eternity —divine power displayed in human weakness.
BLANDINA, a female slave, was distinguished above the rest of the martyrs for the variety of tortures she endured. Her mistress, who also suffered martyrdom, feared lest the faith of her servant might give way under such trials. But it was not so, the Lord be praised! Firm as a rock, but peaceful and unpretending, she endured the most excruciating sufferings. Her tormentors urged her to deny Christ and confess that the private meetings of the Christians were only for their wicked practices, and they would cease their tortures. But, no! her only reply was, “I am a Christian, and there is no wickedness amongst us.” The scourge, the rack, the heated iron chair, and the wild beasts, had lost their terror for her. Her heart was fixed on Christ, and He kept her in spirit near to Himself. Her character was fully formed, not by her social condition, of course —that was the most debased in those times —but by her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the indwelling Holy Ghost.
Day after day she was brought forth as a public spectacle of suffering. Being a female and a slave, the heathen expected to force her to a denial of Christ, and to a confession that the Christians were guilty of the crimes reported against them. But it was all in vain. “I am a Christian, and there is no wickedness amongst us,” was her quiet but unvarying reply. Her constancy wearied out the inventive cruelty of her tormentors. They were astonished that she lived through the fearful succession of her sufferings. But in her greatest agonies she found strength and relief in looking to Jesus and witnessing for Him. “Blandina was endued with so much fortitude,” says the letter from the church at Lyons, written seventeen hundred years ago, “that those who successively tortured her from morning to night were quite worn out with fatigue, and owned themselves conquered and exhausted of their whole apparatus of tortures, and amazed to see her still breathing whilst her body was torn and laid open.”3737For full details, see Milner’s Church History, volume 1, page 194.
Before narrating the closing scene of her sufferings, we would notice what appears to us to be the secret of her great strength and constancy. Doubtless the Lord was sustaining her in a remarkable way as a witness for Him, and as a testimony to all ages of the power of Christianity over the human mind, compared with all the religions that then were or ever had been on the earth. Still, we would say particularly, that her humility and godly fear were the sure indications of her power against the enemy, and of her unfaltering fidelity to Christ. She was thus working out her own salvation —deliverance from the difficulties of the way —by a deep sense of her own conscious weakness, indicated by “fear and trembling.”
When on her way back from the amphitheatre to the prison, in company with her fellow-sufferers, they were surrounded by their sorrowing friends when they had an opportunity, and in their sympathy and love addressed them as “martyrs for Christ.” But this they instantly checked; saying, “We are not worthy of such an honour. The struggle is not over; and the dignified name of Martyr properly belongs to Him only who is the true and faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the Prince of life; or, at least, only to those whose testimony Christ has sealed by their constancy to the end. We are but poor humble confessors.” With tears they besought their brethren to pray for them that they might be firm and true to the end. Thus their weakness was their strength, for it led them to lean on the mighty One. And so it always is, and ever has been, in small as well as in great trials. But a fresh sorrow awaited them on their return to the prison. They found some who had given way through natural fear, and had denied that they were Christians. But they had gained nothing thereby; Satan had not let them off. Under a charge of other crimes they were kept in prison. With these weak ones Blandina and the others prayed with many tears, that they might be restored and strengthened. The Lord answered their prayers; so that, when brought up again for further examination, they steadfastly confessed their faith in Christ, and thus passed sentence of death on themselves and received the crown of martyrdom.
Nobler names, as men would say, than Blandina’s had passed off the bloody scene; and honoured names too that had witnessed with great fortitude, such as Vettius, Pothinus, Sanctus, Naturus, and Attalius; but the last day of her trial was come, and the last pain she was ever to feel, and the last tear she was ever to shed. She was brought up for her final examination with a youth of fifteen, named Ponticus. They were ordered to swear by the gods; they firmly refused, but were calm and unmoved. The multitude was incensed at their magnanimous patience. The whole round of barbarities was inflicted. Ponticus, though animated and strengthened by the prayers of his sister in Christ, soon sank under the tortures, and fell asleep in Jesus.
And now came the noble and blessed Blandina, as the church styles her. Like a mother who was needed to comfort and encourage her children, she was kept to the last day of the games. She had sent her children on before, and was now longing to follow after them. They had joined the noble army of martyrs above, and were resting with Jesus, as weary warriors rest, in the peaceful paradise of God. After she had endured stripes, she was seated in a hot iron chair; then she was enclosed in a net and thrown to a bull; and having been tossed some time by the animal, a soldier plunged a spear into her side. No doubt she was dead long before the spear reached her, but in this she was honoured to be like her Lord and Master. Bright indeed will be the crown, amidst the many crowns in heaven, of the constant, humble, patient, enduring Blandina.
But the fierce and savage rage of the heathen, instigated by Satan, had not yet reached its height. They began a new war with the dead bodies of the saints. Their blood had not satiated them. They must have their ashes, Hence the mutilated bodies of the martyrs were collected and burned, and thrown into the river Rhone, with the fire that consumed them, lest a particle should be left to pollute the land. But rage, however fierce, will finally expend itself: and nature, however savage, will become weary of bloodshed; and so, many Christians survived this terrible persecution.
We have thus gone, more than usual, into details in speaking of the persecutions under Marcus Aurelius. So far, they are a fulfillment, we believe, of the solemn and prophetic warnings of the address to Smyrna; and also, in a remarkable manner, of the Lords promised grace. The sufferers were filled and animated by His-own Spirit. Neander says that they never mentioned “Even their persecutors,” with resentment; but they prayed that God would forgive those who had subjected them to such cruel sufferings. They left a legacy to their brethren, not of strife and war, but of peace and joy, unanimity and love.”
Thou art home at last, each waymark past,
Thou hast sped to the goal before me;
Mid oh, my tears fall thick and fast,
Like the hopes that had blossomed o’er thee.
My lips refuse to say, Farewell,
For our life-link nought can sever;
Thou’rt early gone with Christ to dwell,
Where we both shall be forever.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
In tracing the silver line of God’s grace in His beloved people, we have now to notice a report, which was widely spread among the Christians after the beginning of the third century. It occurred towards the close of the reign of Aurelius, and led him it is said, to change the course of his policy towards the Christians. In one of his campaigns against the Germans and Samaritans he was thrown into a situation of extreme peril. The burning sun shone full in the faces of his soldiers; the barbarians hemmed them in; they were exhausted by wounds and fatigue, and parched with thirst: while, at the same time, the enemy was preparing to attack them. In this extremity the twelfth legion, said to be composed of Christians, stepped forward and knelt down in prayer; suddenly the sky was overspread with clouds, and the rain began to fall heavily. The Roman soldiers took off their helmets to catch the refreshing drops; but the shower speedily increased to a storm of hail, accompanied with thunder and lightning, which so alarmed the barbarians that the Romans gained an easy victory.
The Emperor, so struck with such a miraculous answer to prayer, acknowledged the interposition of the God of the Christians, conferred honours on the legion, and issued an edict in favour of their religion. After this, if not before, they were called “the thundering legion.” Historians, from Eusebius down, have noticed this remarkable occurrence.
But, like a tale that is often told, many things have been added to it. There is good reason to believe, however, that a providential answer in favour of the Romans was given to prayer. This much seems quite evident. And to faith there is nothing incredible in such an event; though some of the circumstances related are questionable. For example, a Roman legion at that time would probably number five thousand men: while there may have been a great many Christians in the twelfth, which was a distinguished legion, yet it would be hard to believe that they were all Christians.
On their return from the war, they no doubt related to their brethren the merciful intervention of God in answer to prayer, which the church would record and spread amongst the Christians to His praise and glory. But the facts are even more fully confirmed by the Romans. They also believed that the deliverance came from heaven, but in answer to the Emperor’s prayers to his gods. Hence the event was commemorated, after their usual manner, on columns, medals, and paintings. On these the Emperor is represented as stretching forth his hands in supplication; the army as catching the rain in their helmets; and Jupiter as launching forth his bolts on the barbarians, who lie slain on the ground.
A few years after this remarkable event Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher and the persecutor, died. Great changes quickly followed. The glory of the empire, and the effort to maintain the dignity of the old Roman religion, expired with him; but Christianity made great and rapid advancement. Men of ability and learning were raised up about this time, men who boldly and powerfully advocated its claims with their pens. These are called Apologists. TERTULLIAN, an African, who it is said was born in A.D. 160, may be considered as the ablest and the most perfect type of this class.
The more enlightened of the heathen now began to feel that, if their religion was to withstand the aggressive power of the gospel, it must be defended and reformed. Hence the controversy commenced; and one Celsus, an Epicurean philosopher, said to have been born in the same year as Tertullian, stood forth as the leader on the controversial side of paganism. From about this period —the closing years of the second century —church records become more interesting because they were more definite and reliable. But before proceeding farther with the general history, it may be well to retrace our steps and glance briefly at the internal history of the church from the beginning. We shall thus see how some of the things which are still observed, and with which we are familiar, were first introduced.
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