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The Great Persecution

"Now I leave off to speak any more to creatures, and turn my speech to Thee, O Lord...which now shall never be broken off. Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, meat and drink! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell, sun, moon, and stars! Welcome God and Father! Welcome sweet Lord Jesus, Mediator of the New Covenant! Welcome Blessed Spirit of Grace, God of all Consolation! Welcome Glory! Welcome Eternal Life! Welcome Death!" The trap door with a loud thud was then sprung. Dr. Matthew MacKail stood below the gallows, and as his martyr cousin writhed in the tautened ropes, he clasped the helpless jerking legs together and clung to them that death might come the easier and sooner. And so with Christ was Hugh MacKail "with his sweet boyish smile." " And that will be my welcome," the doctor said, " The Spirit and the Bride say, Come."  The martyrdom of Hugh MacKail, a Covenanter

"Most joyfully will I confirm with my blood that truth which I have written and preached."  John Huss on the stake

"If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you...But all these things they will do to you for My Name's sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me."  Jesus the Christ, (John 15:20-21)

"Curse Christ! Never! For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? Listen carefully: I am a Christian...You threaten a fire that burns for a time and is quickly extinguished... yet a fire that you know nothing about awaits the wicked in the judgment to come...what are you waiting for? Do what you will."  Polycarp at his martyrdom, 168 A.D.

"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."  Jim Elliot, missionary martyr

"Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution."  Paul of Tarsus, (2Timothy 3:12)

Over the centuries persecution proved to be the fertilizer in the growth of the Church. The blood of the martyrs solidified the faith of those who would spread the gospel throughout the world. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated me first" (John 15:18) so why are we so shaken when persecution comes. For centuries the early Church lived in persecution, not fearing it but considering martyrdom as a special honor. No one wanted to die but to die for Christ was a calling that few turned away from. As Clement of Alexandria relates from Book 7 of his Miscellanies:

"When the blessed Apostle Peter saw his wife led away to death, he rejoiced with her that her call had come and that she was returning to her true home. He called out to her by name in encouragement and comfort, ‘remember the Lord!' Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect affection."

Today, we find that type of belief staggering. Could it be because we refuse to surrender so much of ourselves and our lives to Jesus. Our Lord demands all of us. No matter how many teachings or preachers you have heard tell you that you can still allow compromise and complacency in your walk with the Lord, real freedom can only be found in a total and absolute surrender to Him..."our life for His."

Harold J. Chadwick writes:

Would you suffer persecution, poverty, and prison for Christ? Would you endure cruel tortures that take your mind and body to the very brink of death and beyond? Would you persevere? Would you ‘hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering" (Hebrews 10:23)? Would you stand boldly without shame and confess Christ as Lord, to your own or to your family's peril? For two-thousand years, courageous men and women have been tortured and killed because of their confessions of Jesus Christ as Lord."

We in today's Church are so busy living our lives the way we want, waiting for the Lord to come and take us out with a "Shout." If the early Church, that was so strong and dedicated to Him, went through such fearsome persecution without being taken out what makes us think that today's weak and worldly Church should deserve such an honor. Believe me, before that day comes, persecution will arise. Will you, in your faith, be able to handle it.

As I have already established , from the stoning of Stephan in 35 A.D. to today, persecution has always followed the Church. When John Foxe wrote his "Book of Martyrs" during the mid-1500s, persecution of Christians was in full fury throughout Europe. More Christians, counting themselves worthy to suffer for the Lord, have been killed for the name of Jesus in the past century than over the last two thousand years. With steadfast faithfulness they endured sufferings and deaths to give witness and strength to us, the true Church of Christ.

Persecution erupted in Jerusalem after the death of Stephan and because of it the Church spread throughout the known world. This and other persecutions were local events set in motion by local magistrates and officials and eventually spread to other provinces and finally to Rome.

We read in the Book of Acts how the gospel of the risen Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire. Within a single generation the Church grew even more rapidly. Pliny, Governor of Bithynia was quite concerned with the rapid spread of Christianity, that he wrote to the Emperor Trajan:

"...many of every age, every rank, and even of both sexes, are brought into danger; and will be in the future. The contagion of that superstition (Christianity) has penetrated not only the cities but also the villages, and country places..."

That was about A.D. 112, a lot of sacrificial blood had been shed in the decades before.

In 64 A.D., just three years after the final events described by Luke in "The Book of Acts, the first world wide persecution broke out against the Christians. This was the first of ten general persecutions of the Church that involved the entire Roman Empire. It began when a fire broke out in the city of Rome and destroyed a large part of the city. The Emperor Nero, considered by many historians as insane, ordered the city of Rome burned and blamed it on the Christians so as to turn the wrath of Rome's citizens away from himself. He declared Christians enemies of the State and a terrible persecution broke out that lasted the rest of Nero's reign. Nero was the first of the emperors to be declared "Enemy of the Most High God." To this the Roman Tetullian refers as follows:

"Consult your own records: there you will find that Nero was the first to let his imperial sword rage against this sect (Christianity) when it was just arising in Rome. We boast that such a man was the originator of our pruning, for anyone who knows him can understand that nothing would have been condemned by Nero unless it were supremely good."

Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

...To overcome this rumor (Nero setting Rome on fire), Nero punished with the most ingenious cruelty...Christians...a vast multitude were convicted...not only put to death but...either dressed up in the skins of wild beasts and perished by the cruel mangling of dogs, or else dipped in wax and oil and put on crosses to be set on be burned and used for lights by night..."

In this first persecution by the Roman Government many of the first Church fathers lost their lives: Paul was beheaded, as befitted a Roman citizen, Peter was crucified with his head hanging downward, as he himself requested. He was not worthy to die, he explained, as his Master had died. Men whom we are familiar with from Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles also faced martyrdom: Erastus, treasurer of Corinth, Aristarcus the Macedonian, Trophimus the Ephesian, Barsabas, who was surnamed Justis, and Ananias, bishop of Damascus, whom the Lord sent to Saul to remove the scales from his eyes. As this persecution spread throughout the Roman Empire it only succeeded in strengthening the spirit of Christianity rather than snuff it out. This persecution ended in 68 A.D.

The second state sponsored persecution was under the rule of the Emperor Domitian and lasted from 81-96 A.D. It was during this time that Timothy, the young celebrated disciple of Paul and overseer of the Church in Ephesus, went to his Lord on the altar of martyrdom.

The third persecution under Emperors Trajan and Adrian was from 98-117A.D. The Church father Ignatius was one of the thousands put to death:

"Now I begin to be a disciple...let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let the breaking of bones and the tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus."

About ten thousand Christians were martyred during this time.

One persecution after the other the enemy tried to wipe out the seed of the Church of Jesus Christ each time making it stronger. The fourth from 162-180 A.D., the fifth 193-211 A.D., the sixth 164-238 A.D., the seventh 249-251 A.D., the eighth 253-260 A.D., the ninth 270-275 A.D., all these were just preliminaries of what was to come. Ernest Trice Thompson tells us what inspired such a hatred of the Church during those awful years:

" more and more as time went on the empire itself became concerned to stamp out the stubborn resistance of the Christians. This rigorous policy of state, differing from its usual tolerant attitude toward various religious bodies, was justified by the charge of disloyalty leveled at the early Christians, based in large measure on their refusal to join in the worship of the emperor as divine."

The tenth, final, and worst persecution was yet to come. It lasted from 284-303 A.D. The Church was about to go through a fiery trial that it had not experienced before.

After the ninth persecution there followed a period of peace, when it seemed that the offense of being a Christian might be forgotten. Then suddenly under Emperor Diocletion all hell broke loss. Galerius, his adopted son and successor, agitated by his mother who was a bigoted pagan, convinced Diocletion to eliminate Christianity from the Roman Empire. This persecution, the most severe of them all continued for twenty years and ended not in the destruction of the Church but in its victory.

This was to be an all out persecution. It was a purging not only of the populace but everyone holding office under Roman authority. Even the Roman Legion was purged. From this report we hear of forty Christian Soldiers in the Roman army:

"Forty members of the ‘Thundering Legion' were martyred at Sebaste in Lesser Armenia by being left naked in single digit weather on the ice of a frozen pond. Baths of hot water were placed on the bank as a temptation to deny their Lord. Only one of the forty gave way, and his place was taken immediately by a member of the guard who had been converted by the constancy of the rest."

John Foxe continues:

The day scheduled to begin the bloody work was February 23. It began in Nicomedia, the capitol of Diocletion's Eastern Roman Empire. Early that morning, the chief of police and a large number of officers and assistants made their way to the main Christian church and forced opened its doors and ransacked the building and burned all the sacred books. Dioclition and Galerius had accompanied them to witness the beginning of the end of the Christian religion... they had the building leveled to the ground... all Christian churches and books were to be destroyed and all Christians were to be arrested."

Eusebius, an early church historian living during that time, continues:

"When the edict against the churches was published at Nicomedia...a distinguished older man, Euethius, was so moved by his burning faith that he seized it and tore it to pieces in front of the officials and Emperor." For his public display of contempt, for the Emperor, he was the first to be arrested, tortured and burned to death in that city. Every Christian in Nicomedia was arrested and put into prison. Thousands were martyred and it mattered not their age or sex. When the ravaging of the city was complete none were spared. An eyewitness recalls:

"I saw with my own eyes the houses of worship and sacred scriptures committed to flames in the middle of the public squares, and the pastors of the churches arrested and held up to public ridicule by their enemies...they were thrown into prison and then forced by every sort of device to offer sacrifice."

Eusibius takes up the historical account:

"Many church leaders endured terribly torments heroically. One was scourged mercilessly, another racked and flayed (peeling of the skin off the body) to death...others proclaimed that they were Christians and glorified the Saviors name. These were silenced by a large band of soldiers, who struck them on the mouth and battered their faces and official of the city was brought into the public place and ordered to sacrifice. When he refused, he was hoisted up naked and lashed with whips until he should give in. Since even this failed to bend him, they mixed salt and vinegar and poured it over his lacerations ...where the bones were already protruding. When he scorned these agonies...his body was then slow roasted by the fire...not all at once, lest he find too quick a release, but little by little. He expired triumphantly in...his tortures...he was a servant who was truly worthy of his name: Peter."

According to other reports, whole families and groups were butchered with the sword by imperial command. Others were killed by fire, men and women leaping on the pyre with divine enthusiasm. Many others were bound with stones and thrown into the sea from boats. This was just the beginning. The terror soon spread to other cities. An imperial decree went out ordering all church leaders to be chained and imprisoned, resulting in a spectacle beyond description throughout the Empire. Thousands were incarcerated everywhere. "prisons prepared for murderers and grave robbers were now filled with bishops, presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists, so that there was no longer any room for criminals." Who, in the crazed atmosphere of the time, were set free.

Account of the martyrs in Palestine and Phoenicia:

"After intense floggings they were thrown before man-eating beasts; leopards, bears of all kinds, wild boars, and bulls goaded with hot irons. The man-eaters...did not touch or even approach those who were God's beloved but attacked the men who were goading them. The holy champions, though they stood naked and waved their hands to attract the animals, as they were ordered to do, were left untouched. When the beasts did rush them, they were stopped, as if by some divine power and would retreat...astonishing the spectators... at last after countless assaults by these animals, the martyrs were then all butchered with the sword."

Account of the martyrs in Egypt:

"Thousands of men, women and children went to their deaths for the sake of our Savior's teachings. Some of them were flayed, racked, ruthlessly whipped, and tortured in ways too terrible to describe and finally given to the flames or drowned in the sea. Others were nailed to a cross, head downward, and kept alive until they died of hunger...many had their bodies torn to shreds with claw-like potsherds until they expired. Women were tied by one foot and swung high in the air, head downward, by machines, their bodies totally naked...others died fastened to trees: they bent down the strongest branches by machines, fastened one of the martyr's legs to each, and then let the branches fly back to their natural positions, instantly tearing apart the limbs of their victims. This went on not for a few days but for whole years."

Eusibius writes:

"Sometimes ten or more, at times more than twenty were put to death, or thirty or almost sixty; at other times a hundred men, women, and little children were condemned to a variety of punishments and killed in a single day. Mass executions by decapitations or fire were so numerous in one day that the murderous axe would become dull or wear-out and break in pieces. Executioners grew so tired that they had to work in shifts. But with marvelous eagerness and a divine power and soon as the first were sentenced, others would jump up on the tribunal in front of the judge and confess themselves Christians...they would then receive the final sentence of death with joy, laughter, and gladness, singing hymns of thanksgiving to God until their last breath."

Phileas speaks on the Martyrdoms in Alexandria:

"When all were given a free hand to insult them, some hit them with clubs, some with rods, others with scourges and straps, and still others with whips...some with hands tied behind them, were hung from the gallows and all their limbs were pulled apart with machines...others were suspended by one hand from a colonnade and hauled up with excruciating pain in their joints and limbs...some died under torture, their endurance putting the Adversary to shame...they all went to their death gladly."

Throughout the known world the persecution spread. In Asia Minor, Syria and elsewhere they were killed with the axe, as was the case in Arabia, or in Cappadocia, they had their legs broken and then not allowed medical care. At other times they were hung upside down over a slow fire, so that smoke rising from the burning wood suffocated them, as in Mesopotamia. Sometimes noses, ears, and hands were mutilated and the others parts of the body butchered, as was the case in Alexandria. At Antioch they were roasted on hot gridirons for prolonged torture until they cooked to death. In Pontus, others suffered things horrifying to hear: "sharp reeds were driven into their fingers under the nail ends or molten lead was poured down their backs, scalding the vital parts of their bodies. Others endured shameful, pitiful, unmentionable suffering to their private parts and intestines."

It was the Emperor Constantine who finally brought the persecutions to an end. Through it all the Church grew in membership, strength, and victory. Constantine acknowledged Christ as Lord, though he was not actually baptized until a week before his death. Finally peace, at least for awhile had come to the Church. While evil and wickedness seemed to go unchecked during those years, the time had come for Godly retribution:

"Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." (Romans 12:19)

The wicked seem to always have their way but "God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." (Galatians 6:7)

The bible tells of the wormy end to King Herod who slaughtered all the infants in Jerusalem trying to kill the Christ. Flavious Josephus in his history of the Jewish nation tells us:

"Herod's illness progressively worsened as God exacted punishment for his crimes. A slow fire burned inside him...ulcers in the intestines, terrible pain in the colon, and a clammy edema in his feet. His bladder was inflamed and his genitals gangrenous, breeding worms. His breathing was rapid and extremely offensive due to its stench, and every limb was convulsed intolerably...the disease spread throughout his body with fever and an unbearable itching everywhere...his breathing was difficult especially if he lay down...eventually dying in great agony."

Diocletion, in reality a pawn in the "Great Persecution" was stricken by an ill-fated disease that no doctor could treat that eventually drove him to complete utter madness, dying not long after still in that deranged state of mind. His step-son Galerius, the true instigator of the persecution, was overtaken by divine punishment as Eusebius puts it:

"An abscess suddenly appeared in the middle of his genitals, then a deep ulcerous fistula that ate into his inner intestines incurably. From them came a great mass of worms and a deadly stench, since gluttony had transformed his whole body, even before the disease, into a great blob of flabby fat that then decayed, offering a revolting and horrendous spectacle. Some of the doctors could not endure the excessive, unearthly stench and were executed for refusing to go into the room. Others who could give no help because the mass had swollen beyond any hope of recovery, were put to death without mercy."

Eucibius continues:"Wrestling with this awful malady, he felt pangs of conscience over his cruelties against the Godly. After composing himself, he first publicly confessed to the God of the universe and then ordered his officers throughout the Roman Empire to halt the persecution against the Christians immediately. By imperial law and edict they were to build back their churches and perform their customary rites, offering prayers for the emperor...After this confession he was released from his pain but died a short time later."

Let us now see what the judgments of the Lord are on the wicked and those who touch His anointed:

"He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision. Then he shall speak to them in his wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure..." (Psalm 2:4-5). "You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces..." (Psalm 2:9). "For evildoers shall be cut off...yet a little while and the wicked shall be no will look carefully for his place, but it shall be no more." (Psalm37:9-10). "But the wicked shall perish; and the enemies of the Lord, like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish. Into smoke they shall vanish away" (Psalm 37:20). "The Lord is known by the judgments He executes; the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands" (Psalm 9:16). With these verses in mind lets' read what William S. Plummer has to say on this subject:

"Here is the fate of the thirty Roman emperors, governors of provinces, and others in high office, who distinguished themselves by their zeal and bitterness in persecuting the early Christians during the "Great Persecution": one became speedily deranged after some atrocious cruelty, one was slain by his own son, one became blind, the eyes of another one started(to fall) out of his head, never to be able to be replaced in their sockets, one was drowned, one was strangled, one died in a miserable captivity, one fell dead in a manner that will not bear recital, one died of so loathsome a disease that several of his physicians were put to death because they could not abide the stench that filled the room, two committed suicide, a third attempted it, but had to call for help to finish the job, five were assassinated by their own people or servants, five others died the most miserable and excruciating deaths, several of them having an untold complication of diseases, and eight were killed in battle, or after being taken prisoners. Among these was Julian the Apostate. In the days of his prosperity, he is said to have pointed his dagger to heaven, defying the Son of God, whom he commonly called the Galilean. But when he was wounded in battle, he saw that all was over for him, and he gathered up his clotted blood in the dust, and threw it into the air, exclaiming, ‘ Thou hast conquered, O Thou Galilean.'"

When you see the growth of the Church through these dark and deadly persecutions you understand the power and the majesty of the Spirit of God. Instead of being totally annihilated the Church always was victorious even to the point of absorbing its adversary into the Christian way of life. Persecutions have continued over the centuries only making the Church stronger. More Christians were martyred in the past one-hundred years than in all the past centuries combined. And yet according to scripture the worst persecution is yet to come (Matthew 24:21/Revelation7:14). Are you prepared, are you ready. For Jesus has said, "...he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13).

Revelation 12:11: "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death."

J.J.(Dark) Di Pietro
Cane Creek Church