Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Enduring Persecution”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

(2 Timothy 4.6-8)

Paul wrote these words from a prison cell in Rome, awaiting the completion of his trial.  It was far from Paul’s first incarceration, but this occasion was different.  Consider what Paul had written to the Christians at Philippi, during his previous imprisonment at Rome:

…I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

(Philippians 1.25-26)

Paul would have been content either to be convicted and executed—“to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (v23)—or to be acquitted and released—“to remain in the flesh,” which was probably better for the church (v24).  Trusting God to assure the outcome of his trial served the ends of Christ’s kingdom, he’d been sure his life would be preserved.  But his expectations for this imprisonment were different.  This time, he was sure he’d be convicted and executed.

Convicted of what, exactly?  There was no Roman law explicitly prohibiting Christianity, at the time.  However, this does not mean Rome was a bastion of religious tolerance!  The state recognized certain idols, and not others.  Rome generally opposed religious innovation.  They had their own tradition, and knew that every other culture in their empire had a different one.  Most were pantheistic, seeing gods almost literally under every rock and tree.  They figured out which gods were basically equivalent—Jupiter, Zeus, and Thor, for instance—and went about their lives in the knowledge they all worshiped the same gods, by different names.  New ideas and idols popped up from time to time, and until the state determined what to do with each new god, it was officially illegal to worship it.  Meanwhile, worship of the state-sanctioned idols was, to an extent, compulsory.

Rome was baffled by the Jews, when the two groups met in the first century BC.  They were staunchly monotheistic and, from the Roman perspective, a pain in the neck.  After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Rome  decided to allow this aberration,  provided the Jews each registered, and payed an annual tax.  In return, Rome would allow them to worship God, and to deny Rome’s pantheon.  But that solution had not yet been found, when Paul sat in prison, writing to Timothy.  Rome was still trying to figure out how to deal with the Jewish problem, and now found it had a Christian problem, too.

When Jesus came and established his own kingdom which transcends the kingdoms of men, Rome had a hard time distinguishing between Jews and Christians.  During the early years, Rome protected Christians from hostile Jews, thinking it was all an internal squabble!  This is visible during Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 13.6-12, his second journey in 18.12-16, and his third, in 19.33-41.  When he came to Jerusalem afterward,

all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple…. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort…. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. …And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd…

(Acts 21.30-35)

But more and more Gentiles kept turning to Jesus, and that was a problem!  Rome began to see the Christians as even worse than the Jews; and the tide turned.  Paul was probably caught up in the persecution that followed a horrible fire at Rome in the year AD 64, which burned longer than a week and destroyed almost three-quarters of the city.  The populace, who’d just watched Emperor Nero turn from a pretty good ruler to self-serving lunatic, largely blamed Nero himself for the fire, saying that he’d started it to clear space for a new palace.  Nero needed a scapegoat, and he found in the Christians at Rome a class of people that could be easily turned into an object of great hatred.  The Roman historian Tacitus tells us about the creative methods of execution Nero devised, in an attempt to satisfy the people’s lust for blood.

As such, the verdict was predetermined, and Paul knew it.  How did he face his imminent death, in punishment for living righteously and preaching good news?

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

(2 Timothy 4.11-13)

He kept working!  While he spared a thought for alleviating physical discomfort in his cold cell, his main concern was for the continuing ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ!  In the face of death, he closed his letter:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

(2 Timothy 4.18)

This is a striking example of how to endure persecution for the name of Christ.  He could have railed against the injustice, or whined over his misfortune, or turned against God for failing to protect him.  Instead, we see in Paul a genuine trust in God’s promise, and a serene diligence to run, not crawl across the finish line.  We should all be so faithful.

Jeremy Nettles