The place was the world's capital, Rome. The occasion was the great fire of 64 A.D., a fire set by the Emperor Nero himself. To divert suspicion from himself, Nero brought the charge of arson against the Christians.
The charge seemed plausible, for the people were suspicious of Christians and imagined them guilty of many secret crimes. The accusation of arson, we are told by the pagan historian Tacitus (Annals 15,41), was unproved, but a "vast multitude" were convicted on a vaguer charge of "hatred of the human race".
Tacitus continues , "And they were put to death with insults , either dressed in the skins of beasts, to perish by the worrying of dogs, or else put on crosses to be set on fire when daylight failed, for use as light by night. Nero had thrown open his gardens for that spectacle, and mingled with the people in jockey's dress, or driving a chariot."
Here we see the sufferings of Christ repeated - the false charge, the hatred of the crowd, the mockery, and the cruel death. Another historian, Suetonius, tells us that among new laws enacted by Nero was one which inflicted punishment on the Christians, a people described as "given to a new and mischievous superstition" (Life of Nero 16, 2). In the period from Nero to Diocletian (64-313 A.D.), historians counted ten persecutions. To be a Christian was a crime which could launch a persecution at any unexpected moment. The ultimate aim was to destroy the Christian faith completely. But that effort was frustrated by the zeal of the Christians, and by their surprising readiness to suffer and die for their faith.
No one better describes that frustration than the Roman lawyer Tertullian, converted in Carthage, who turned the sharpness of his wit to defend the Christians and taunt their adversaries. The pagans, he says, have their own heroes, men willing to die for their country. But if a Christian is willing to suffer for God, he is called a fool! "But go to it, my good magistrates! The populace will count you a great deal better if you sacrifice the Christians to them. Torture us, rack us, condemn us, crush us; your cruelty only proves our innocence. That is why God suffers us to suffer all this. But nothing whatever is accomplished by your cruelties, each more exquisite than the last. It is the bait that wins men for our school. We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed . . That very obstinacy with which you taunt us is your teacher. For who beholds it and is not stirred to inquire what lies indeed within it? Who, on inquiry, does not join us, and joining us, does not wish to suffer, that he may purchase for himself the whole grace of God." (Tertullian, Apology 50, 12-15).
Thus did the early Christians follow in the footsteps of all those godly men of biblical times.
Solomon, the wise king, said, "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth, even as a father the son in whom he delighteth" (Proverbs 3:11-12).
The words of Solomon are repeated in Hebrews (12:5-11), with the added encouragement: "Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby".
And to the Roman Christians Paul writes: "We glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope" (Romans 5:3-4).
Christians are also exhorted to emulate the achievements of the heroes of faith. A catalog of such heroes is presented in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the most famous names of Hebrew history. Some were mighty in battle, others died under torture. Some were mocked, scourged and imprisoned; some stoned to death or sawn asunder.
"Wherefore," the exhortation continues, "seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:1-2).
With unquestioned confidence in Christ, his followers were gladly ready to follow in his steps. Peter encourages them: "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange things happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy. If you be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you; on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part is he glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evil doer, or as a busybody in other men's matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf' (I Peter 4:12-16).
Early Christians considered persecution a joyous privilege because in persecution, they saw the providence of a loving Father who did all things well (Philippians 1:29). God allowed persecution to fall on both Old and New Testament saints as a part of his discipline designed for their spiritual growth in righteousness and holiness(Hebrews 10:32-34).
God has told us clearly that we must suffer persecutions as followers of Christ (John 15:20), but the Christian sees in such sufferings God's appointed means of testing faith, purifying character and developing humility and compassion. "What happens in us is much more important than what happens to us."
Therefore "we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope" Romans 5:3-4. Peter, writing during a time of fiery persecution, declares that these trials test the genuineness or real character of our faith (I Peter 1:6-7). Though persecutions within themselves do not make heroes or cowards, they do reveal the strength or weakness of our faith just as winter reveals which trees are evergreen.
Because Jesus endured temptations, the gainsaying of sinners and finally the cross, we are assured that he is compassionate and sympathetic with us (Hebrews 2:18). In like manner, persecution helps us to grow in ability to sympathize with others. Persecutions serve also to increase our dependence and trust in God because when we are most conscious of our weaknesses and needs, then his all-sufficient grace more abundantly rests upon us (II Corinthians 12:10-11
Therefore, we need to understand that the so-called "dark days of persecution" may in reality be the time when the light of faith and trust glows brightest and when holiness and mercy are most radiant. Never was the church more free, more holy, never stronger nor more extensive in its outward and inward growth than at the times when it was counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ!