The Gospel in the Roman World

“… You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:8


The story recorded for us in Acts is primarily the fulfillment of this promise that Jesus made at His Ascension. The apostles saw the token of that fulfillment within their own lives. Jesus had promised them that they would be witnesses to the ends of the physical world, but even within their own lives they became witnesses to all of the Roman world (see Acts 24:5, Romans 1:8, Colossians 1:6). The history of the Church is the continuation of the same story.

In last week’s lesson we talked about the church’s Jewish identity, its relationship to the various movements within Jewish culture, politics, and religion, and the contribution that the universal presence of synagogues throughout the empire made to the growth of the New Testament church. This week, we are going to switch our focus to the Church as a largely Gentile body and the response of the empire.

One significant response of the empire was organised persecution. In fact, our word martyr, which we typically use to mean one who dies for their beliefs, is just a direct transliteration of the Greek word for witness. When the early church spoke of someone as a martyr, the focus was not on that person’s action, rather it was on the truth to which it witnessed.


Read Philippians 1:12-30


Emperor Worship and Persecution

  1. Emperor Worship

    1. Because the Empire covered a vast territory and encompassed many different nations (in the ethnic or cultural sense), Rome had an interest in trying to create a unified culture that transcended national interests.

    2. One of the means by which this was pursued was the attempt to convince Roman subjects that the gods they worshipped were the same gods under different names. For the most part, this was policy was well received. The Jews and Christians, however, were unwilling to accept any identification of the one true God with the idols of the pagans. Their lack of visible representations of gods caused them to be labeled atheists, and was a cause of suspicion.

    3. Additionally, there was suspicion about the character of Christians. Rumours of Christian teaching on the eucharist had expanded into a belief that Christians practiced all manner of wickedness, including cannibalism. The unwillingness of many Christians to participate in many of the cultural activities of the empire such as the theater, which were deeply imbued with the pagan worldview contributed to the belief that the Christians had a “hatred of mankind” (Tacitus). Justin Martyr in his Apology devotes considerable space to the refutation of the charges of atheism and wickedness.

    4. However, it was a more basic political reality that occasioned the various persecutions. Many of the Roman provinces had a tradition that their rulers were either descended from the gods, or were gods themselves. To the pragmatic Roman mind, adoption of this tradition seemed a good way to guarantee political loyalty. Of course, some emperors, like Nero and Caligula seem to have embraced the tradition with a degree of enthusiasm that suggests that they believed their own propaganda.

  2. Persecution under Nero

    1. The first recorded Roman persecution of Christians took place under Emperor Nero. In an attempt to free himself from suspicion that he was responsible for the fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64 A.D, he accused the Christians of starting the fires.

    2. Although the initial charge was arson, the very act of claiming the name of Christ soon became a crime. Nero issued an edict against Christians in 68A.D., but it is no longer extant.

    3. The tradition of the early Church informs us that Peter and Paul were both killed during this persecution. Paul was beheaded outside the city. Peter was crucified. He did not regard himself worthy of suffering the same manner of death as our Lord, so at his own request, he was crucified upside down.

    4. We have no contemporary historical documentation that Nero’s persecution extended beyond Rome. However, 1 Peter clearly indicates the expectation of suffering soon to come in the provinces of Asia Minor. Eusebius implies that there was some persecution throughout the eastern provinces.

    5. A strong case can be made that the warnings of persecution which the Lord gave to the church in Smyrna in Rev 2 refer to the Neronic persecution.

  3. Persecution under Domitian

    1. Began as an attack on the Jews, but included Christians because there was still not a clear distinction between them in the view of most Romans.

    2. This persecution was more organised than that of Nero. It was particularly fierce in Asia Minor.

  4. Second Century Persecution

    1. The Correspondence Between Pliny and Trajan (108 A.D.)
      PLINY, LETTERS 10.96-97
      Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

      It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

      Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

      Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

      They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

      I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

      Trajan to Pliny

      You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.

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    2. This policy continued as the basic framework for persecution of Christians

    3. The Martyrdom of Ignatius (107 AD)

      1. We do not know who his accuser was.

      2. He was likely over 70 at the time of his martyrdom.

      3. The ease with which fellow believers could write to him and visit with him on his journey to martyrdom illustrates how the policy that Pliny would soon adopt was typical of the Roman response.

      4. Apparently some of the recipients of his letter in Rome were influential, for he feared that they would be able to use their influence to see him released.

    4. The Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 AD)

      1. 86 years old at the time.

      2. As a youth, he had known both Ignatius and John the Apostle.

  5. Martyrdom in Present Times
    Read the news story from Fox,2933,114252,00.html



Discussion Questions


  1. How did the Roman persecution of believers differ from the Jewish persecution of believers?

  2. Are there any modern parallels to Rome’s policies of syncretism?

  3. How are Roman emperor worship and many modern nationalist movements similar? How are they different? How ought we to respond as Christians?

  4. What were the similarities in the way in which Polycarp and Ignatius approached their martyrdoms? What were their differences?

  5. The writer of Polycarp’s martyrdom intentionally focuses on some details which recall the death of Christ and others which recall certain events of the Old Testament. Can you identify these? What is the author’s point in doing so?

  6. From what ought believers to draw courage as they face persecution?