“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Tertullian (160–225 AD)
The apostles lived in evil times. At the Jerusalem temple, seven weeks after Jesus was crucified, the apostle Peter preached, “Be saved from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:40). About 3,000 were moved by Peter’s preaching and by God’s Spirit to face their own sinful corruption and submit to life-changing baptism. Jesus’ church was born on that day!
Severe persecution took off against Jesus’ church right after the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Forced to scatter (Acts 8:1), Jesus’ followers carried the gospel far and wide. The apostles faced exile, prison, and/or death at the hands of people in power. Yet, their legacies live on in their writings, in Jesus’ church, and in our hearts.
Political conflict permeates the Bible. Jesus dealt with it and it killed Him. It continued against Jesus’ church for centuries. Yet, the powers that were did not prevail in the end—not even the mighty emperors ruling in Rome!
The Roman Emperor Caligula reigned from 37 to 41 AD, when Jesus’ church was in her infancy. He was known for his extravagance, cruelty, sadism, sexual perversions, big-spending, tyranny, and his alleged insanity. He killed for amusement and appeared in public dressed as various gods. He wanted a statue of himself erected in the Jerusalem temple for worship. He was so reviled that after he was assassinated by his own guards, nearly all public images of him were destroyed.
Claudius (reign, 41 to 54 AD) signed an edict to expel Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) and this included Christians like Aquila and Priscilla. Still, a Christian church sprouted there even before Paul arrived.
Nero (reigned 54 to 68 AD) blamed Christians for a great fire and found creative ways to torture and kill them, like covering them with the skins of beasts to be torn up by dogs, or burning them on crosses to serve as illumination at parties.
After Nero’s suicide in 68 AD, four emperors came and went, leaving Vespasian to rule Rome from AD 69 to 79. He was preparing to besiege Jerusalem when Nero died but returned to Rome and sent his son Titus to destroy Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. Of course, Jewish Christians suffered from this destruction along with others. Eventually, Titus ruled as emperor from 79 to 81 AD.
Domitian (Titus’ brother) ruled from 81 to 96 AD as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. He revived the imperial cult to elicit worship for himself and past emperors, and resumed persecuting Christians. He commanded that all the lineage of David be put to death. The apostle John reportedly survived being boiled in oil and was exiled on the island of Patmos. In 96 AD, Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy.
Nevertheless (I love that word), Jesus’ church survived all this and more. The rulers who persecuted Jesus’ church are all gone. So is their power. God’s purposes will always trump the plans of powerful men and women, and Jesus’ church will never be destroyed by corrupt politicians.