BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: PERSECUTION OF THE EARLY CHURCH



It still remains a mystery to me how someone can read the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and interprete it away from the destruction of Jerusalem, and relate it to the end of the world especially when Jesus himself said, All these things shall be fulfilled in this generation.

Many fictional authors speculate that the Great Tribulation is going to be in our nearest future. One that keeps changing in their uncertain prophetic fulfillment calendar. The truth is that the events of the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of the Great Tribulation and fortunately will never be repeated. There is no future Great Tribulation.

Off course there will continue to be trials, tribulations, and persecutions, but the Great Tribulation or “the Time of Jacob’s Trouble,” as prophesied by Jesus, has already happened just as He said it would and within the generation time frame that He declared (see Matt. 24:34).

The Context
In Matthew 23, Jesus unleashed the harshest of His recorded sayings. He declared a whole chapter’s worth of woes upon the religious leaders and denounced them publicly. He ended by saying,

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate (Matthew 23:35-38).

For the disciples this was a shocker to see Jesus eat out the religious leaders. They understand what he meant by the woes he declared and knew it was a full scale judgment. 

They then followed Him away from the Temple to ask Him follow-up questions.
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”(Matthew 24:1-3)

Jesus declared that the Temple and its buildings would be destroyed, and the disciples, no doubt enthralled, asked Him to tell them “when will this happen?” Jesus replied with eight signs of the coming destruction:

One of the signs he mentioned that herald the end of the Mosaic age was the great persecution of the church.

Our Lord Jesus related to the persecution of His disciples: 

“They shall lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake;” (Luke 21:12)—”and they shall deliver you up to councils, and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten;” (Mark 13:9)—”and some of You shall they cause to be put to death” (Luke 21:16). 

In the very infancy of the Christian Church, unprovoked cruelties began to be inflicted.

To begin with Our Lord and his forerunner, John the Baptist, were the first to taste to death. The apostles Peter and John were first imprisoned, and then, together with the other apostles, were scourged before the Jewish council.

Stephen one of the earliest church leaders, after confounding the Sanhedrim with his irresistible eloquence, was stoned to death. Scriptures say that Herod Agrippa “stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church,” beheaded James the brother of John, and again imprisoned Peter, designing to put him to death also.

Paul himself, before his conversion, was also an instrument of fulfilling the predictions. Luke relates of him that “he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and hating men and women, committed them to prison; when they were put to death he gave his voice against them; he punished them oft in every synagogue, and, persecuted them even into strange cities”; and to this agree his own declarations (Acts 26:10-11; see Gal. 1:23).

Apostle Paul pleaded before the Jewish council at Jerusalem and before Felix the Roman governor, who trembled on the judgment-seat, while the intrepid prisoner “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come!” Two years afterward, he was brought before the tribunal of Festus (who had succeeded Felix in the government). King Agrippa the younger was present and, while the governor scoffed, ingenuously acknowledged the force of the apostle’s eloquence and, half-convinced, exclaimed, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Lastly, he pleaded before the emperor Nero at Rome.

He was also brought with Silas before the rulers at Philippi, where both of them were scourged and imprisoned. Paul was likewise imprisoned two years in Judea and afterward twice at Rome, each time for the space of two years. He was scourged by the Jews five times, thrice beaten with rods, and once stoned.

At length, about two years before the Jewish war, the first general persecution commenced at the instigation of the emperor Nero, “who,” says Tacitus, “inflicted upon the Christians punishments exquisitely painful.” Multitudes suffered a cruel martyrdom amidst derision and insults, and among the rest, were the venerable apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Our Lord continues—”And ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9). “It was a war,” says Tertullian, “against the very name; to be a Christian was of itself crime enough.” And to the same effect is that expression of Pliny in his letter to Trajan: “I asked them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it, I asked them a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment, and those who persevered I commanded to be led away to death.” It is added, “Of all nations.” Whatever animosity or dissensions might subsist between the Gentiles and the Jews on other points, they were at all times ready to unite and co-operate in the persecution of the humble followers of Him who came to be a light to the former and the glory of the latter.

The Jewish persecution of the church grew as the day went by. As the Apostle declared the gospel of grace, the Jews were threatened by what they called “The way”. Christianity was a threat to the foundation that made them Jewish; the law of Moses. Look at the case of Stephen in Acts 6:

11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous[c] words against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”

Paul in his letter to the church in Thessalonians

14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, 16 forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.

The persecution from the Jews based on the 2 major issues:
  1. Christianity declared the end of the Jewish religion, Mosaic covenant and its system of worship and observances.
  2. That God would destroy the temple and the land if his people kept rejecting Messianic place of Jesus and his kingdom.
It was totally against everything they lived up all their lives. What they did not realize what Jesus fulfilled the law for the them and for all mankind and ended the system of sacrifices by being the last. The one that eventually pleased God for all time and all men. This would pave the way for the Abrahamic blessings to reach all men through faith. But in their ignorance and sheer zeal they persecuted the ones that bore the good news. Just like they did to Jesus they also repeated same to the disciples by handing them over the Roman government even to the point that they declared that they had no king but Caesar in their harlotry garments.

According to church history, the first persecution of the Church took place in 64AD, under Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome. This monarch reigned for the space of five years, with tolerable credit to himself, but then gave way to the greatest extravagancy of temper, and to the most atrocious barbarities. Among other diabolical whims, he ordered that the city of Rome should be set on fire, which order was executed by his officers, guards, and servants. While the imperial city was in flames, he went up to the tower of Macaenas, played upon his harp, sung the song of the burning of Troy, and openly declared that ‘he wished the ruin of all things before his death.’ Besides the noble pile, called the Circus, many other palaces and houses were consumed; several thousands perished in the flames, were smothered in the smoke, or buried beneath the ruins.

This dreadful conflagration continued nine days; when Nero, finding that his conduct was greatly blamed, and a severe odium cast upon him, determined to lay the whole upon the Christians, at once to excuse himself, and have an opportunity of glutting his sight with new cruelties. This was the occasion of the first persecution; and the barbarities exercised on the Christians were such as even excited the commiseration of the Romans themselves.

Nero even refined upon cruelty, and contrived all manner of punishments for the Christians that the most infernal imagination could design. In particular, he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them. This persecution was general throughout the whole Roman Empire; but it rather increased than diminished the spirit of Christianity. In the course of it, St. Paul and St. Peter were martyred.

This same tyrant banished the Apostle John to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation. As Church father Eusebius notes: “Nero was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.” Sulpicius Severus concurs: “He first attempted to abolish the name of Christian.” In his Annals, Roman historian Tacitus points to those who were persecuted as “those who . . . were vulgarly called Christians.” Roman historian Suetonius concurs, for in a list of the few “positive” contributions of Nero as emperor, he includes the fact that Nero persecuted Christians: “During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made:. . . . Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”

Noted church historian J. L. von Mosheim wrote of Nero’s persecution: “Foremost in the rank of those emperors, on whom the church looks back with horror as her persecutors, stands Nero, a prince whose conduct towards the Christians admits of no palliation, but was to the last degree unprincipled and inhuman. The dreadful persecution which took place by order of this tyrant, commenced at Rome about the middle of November, in the year of our Lord 64. . . . This dreadful persecution ceased but with the death of Nero. The empire, it is well known, was not delivered from the tyranny of this monster until the year 68, when he put an end to his own life.” (L. von Mosheim, Historical Commentaries, I:138,139).

His bestial cruelty is evidenced in the writings of the Roman historian Suetonius (A.D. 70-160), who speaks of Nero’s “cruelty of disposition” evidencing itself at an early age. He documents Nero’s evil and states: “neither discrimination or moderation [were employed] in putting to death whosoever he pleased on any pretext whatever.” Suetonius notes that Nero “compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena.”

Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) described Nero as “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world.” Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 60-140) speaks of “Nero’s cruel and bloody tyranny.” Elsewhere, he calls Nero a “cruel tyrant.”

Nero so affected the imagination that the pagan writer Apollinius of Tyana, a contemporary of Nero, specifically mentions that Nero was called a “beast”: “In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs. . . . And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet.”

Clearly the beast as we know in the bible fits no other person as it relates to proper timing reference for fulfillment is the emperor Nero.
Now lets look closely into John’s writings when he was banned on that island. In Revelation 13:7, the Beast is said to “make war with the saints and to overcome them.” Revelation 13:5 says that the beast would conduct such blasphemous warfare for a specific period of time: 42 months. The Neronic persecution was instituted in 64 AD and lasted until his death in June 68 AD, which is three and a half years, or 42 months! Nero fits the bill for the role of the beast!
Revelation 13:10 and 14 says the Beast not only slays by the sword, but ultimately is to die of a sword wound. Do you know how Nero died? According to Suetonius, he “drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary” (ch.49). Nero killed with the sword and was killed by the sword. That Nero did, in fact, kill by the sword is a well-attested fact. Paul, for example, is said to have died under Nero by decapitation by means of the sword. Tertullian credits “Nero’s cruel sword” as providing the martyr’s blood as seed for the church. He urges his Roman readers to “Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect.”

Nero died in the middle of the war on June 8th, 68 AD, and Vespasian went back to Rome to fight to become the new emperor. During this time the Christians fled Jerusalem because they heeded the warning of Matthew 24:16; the Jews thought the respite was a sign from God of victory and they gathered in Jerusalem in great numbers. The Romans came back and destroyed the city.

Revelation 17:3 tells us that the beast is red. The red color may be indicative of the bloodshed caused by the beast. But Suetonius writes of the legend associated with Nero’s ancestral parentage, which explains why he had a red beard, which was very unusual in those times.

Revelation 17:10 says, “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” The five “kings” were not ruling at the same time, for the text stated “five are fallen,” meaning that five of those kings had come and gone. Then “one is,” meaning the “king” who was ruling at the time Revelation was written. Here, in this verse, we have one of the clearest proofs for Nero being the beast. If we simply examine the list of Roman Emperors, we will be able to determine who the sixth king was. Flavius Josephus clearly points out that Julius Caesar was the first emperor of Rome, followed by Augustus; Tiberius; Caius (Caligula); Claudius; and the sixth emperor was…Nero (Antiquities, books 18 and 19), who assumed imperial power upon the death of the fifth emperor, Claudius, in October, A.D. 54. The matter is confirmed just a little later in the writings of Roman historians: Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars and Dio Cassius, Roman History 5).

Nero reigned from 54AD to June of 68AD. John informs us that the seventh king was “not yet come.” That would be Galba, who assumed power upon Nero’s death in June, A.D. 68. But he was only to continue a “short space.” As a matter of historical fact, his reign lasted but six months until January 15, A.D. 69.

The Mark of the Beast
The Beast represents the archetype of the tyrannical state, which is opposed to God’s Word and God’s Law. In scripture, the Beast is defined as kings (Daniel 7:17, Revelation 17:10-12), and man-made kingdoms (Daniel 7:18,23, Revelation 16:10) that have power to make war and kill (Revelation 11:7; 17:14). The Beast is the government, with rulers and armies, that are against God and his servants (Revelation 19:19).

Followers of the Beast receive his mark of ownership; they give their submission him. The mark in Revelation is not to be taken literally. It is not about bank cards, the internet, computers or micro-chips.

Revelation 13:16-18 is a prophetic mirror on Ezekiel 8 and 9. The “mark” symbolized the spiritual condition of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The ones
with the “mark” were in allegiance with God. However, in Revelation, the mark is reversed. That is to say, the mark was on those who were against God and had allegiance to the “beast.”

John wrote that the number “is the number of a man’s name; and his number is 666.” This tells us that those who received the “mark” were actually in allegiance with a “man,” an actually person of the first century. He is known as Nero Caesar.

John used a method called gematria in which numbers are used to represent certain letters. John used this puzzle to reveal Nero without actually writing down his name due to the perilous times they were living in. Remember, the early churches were being persecuted during this time—not only from the Jews, but also from the Romans. The numerical values of the Hebrew letters in Neron Kesar (Nero Caesar) are:
Nero Caesar fits the gematria code number “666.” Using this code, his name would be rendered as “NRWN QSR.” (NRWN QSR). The number values are:
N = 50
R = 200
W = 6
N = 50
Q = 100
S = 60
R = 200
which, when added together, equals 666. The fact that Nero fits the description of the “beast” is well documented.

At the height of this great persecution, the church was continually being comforted by the arrival of the Lord in judgment towards the land for shedding the blood of the righteous. In one of such instances Paul had to write to the church in Thessalonica.

13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.[b]
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Peter also encouraged the church in 1 Peter 4:12-14

12 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. 14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[d] On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.

John in Revelation of the situation revealing the call of the saints to bring to an end the persecution of the church.

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number oft heir fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. (Revelation 6)

This corresponds to what Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:8-9:
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us,[b] not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

The Lord avenged the church because he takes it personally when anyone comes against His bride. Just like he told Paul “Why are you persecuting me”. The verdict was given in Revelation 16:1-6 upon the land of Israel as a final judgment to the end of the Jewish world.

 Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel of the waters saying:
“You are righteous, O Lord,[b] The One who is and who was and who is to be,[c] Because You have judged these things. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, And You have given them blood to drink. For[d] it is their just due.”
Israel which had divorced her husband Jehovah and become apostate was prophetically refered to Babylon meaning land of confusion. She met her final fall for making judgment on God’s chosen; the church. She refused mercy and wanted to judged by the law; according to their deeds. She got what she traded for in Revelation 18:1-8

After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. And he cried mightily[a] with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird! For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury.”
And I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached[b] to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her just as she rendered to you,[c] and repay her double according to her works; in the cup which she has mixed, mix double for her. In the measure that she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, in the same measure give her torment and sorrow; for she says in her heart, ‘I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow.’ Therefore her plagues will come in one day—death and mourning and famine. And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God who judges[d] her.

Amidst the challenges, oppression and great tribulation the church continued and has survived centuries of persecution. Today’s it’s just getting better because the kingdom of God cannot be stopped. It will continue until the glory of the Lord covers the earth like the waters cover the sea.

There’s no need to fearfully anticipate another great persecution that would bring the end of the world. That has been fulfilled. We look now forward to the triumph of the church over the spirit of Ismael, those who would slander the gospel of grace. As always the church wins! Grace to you.

Credits:
www.biblestudytools.com, www.ecclesia.org, en.wikipedia.org, Raptureless – Jonathan Welton

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