Paul warned Timothy in his second letter to him, “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2Ti 3:12)
These words came just after Paul recited his own persecutions and just before he warned Timothy of impostors and evil men would proceed from bad to worse. Paul’s encouragement for Timothy is to continue in the teachings of the sacred writings.
It should serve as a constant reminder to all believers that living a consistent life in Christ opens one up to persecution. Those of us who live in the United States have, for the time being, protections against outright persecution. But, this was not always so. And it is not currently so for many brothers and sisters across the world. One man who converted from Islam to Christianity is reported to have been released recently. The fact that his life was in doubt should always embolden us as believers to take advantage of the freedoms we have to live and preach the Gospel. For we may not always have such liberties.
I recently came across Tacitus’ account of Nero’s casting guilt upon Christians to squash the rumor that he had ordered the infamous fire that burned Rome:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
There are a couple of thoughts I had while I was reading this section. First, there is often an overly romanticized view of the first century church wherein everyone is always eager to “get back to” the church of that time as if it would solve all the problems of the modern church. While I do not disagree with the sentiment on the whole, I often ask those who make such a request to ponder the implications of returning to the early church. Paul spent a great deal of his time combating error that was invading the church at great speed. Persecution was common (we cannot forget Paul’s original relationship to the church). Division was rampant.
Second, the depths of hatred against the Christians is seen here in that Nero was deemed justified in giving severe punishment and that the only reason the Christians received sympathy, according to Tacitus’ account is not because the Christians were seen as undeserving, but that Nero was being too bloodthirsty.
We must always be ready and willing to lay our lives for our Lord, and constantly remember our brothers and sisters across the world who do exactly that. But, we must also remember to not take the freedoms we have to live our faith lightly, knowing that the world remains a sinful race and ever seeks to usurp its Creator.