Are You a Radical Fish? Part 2… Why did Rome persecute the primitive Church?

In Are You a Radical Fish? Part 1, I asked the question: why did Rome find it necessary to persecute the primitive Church? I pointed out that the Roman Empire was very diverse and accepting when it came to matters of religion, and made a habit of incorporating the faiths of conquered peoples into their own.

 We should remember that even the Jews, as long as they were not engaged in active rebellion, were granted religious freedom under the Caesars. What made the primitive Church different – what do you think? Why did Rome repeatedly, at different times and places, decide to persecute Christians – or crucify Jesus, for that matter?

 The time has come for me to share my answer….

 We often think of Jesus Christ as a great moral teacher who taught an ethic of love. This is true, yet it begs Philip Yancey’s question:

How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified? What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo? – Phillip Yancy

 There certainly seems to be a disconnect between our understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and that of His first-century followers. The primitive Church seemed to have an expectation of persecution. The apostle Paul says “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

 The answer, I believe, turns very pointedly on the word Christ. More specifically, on the Greek word christos, (χριστός) which your Bible probably renders as Christ. What does Christ mean? The sad fact is that any dictionary will tell you that it means “Jesus of Nazareth.” In other words, as far as English is concerned, it is just a name.

 I have just finished a book on this subject called The Problem with Christ; why we don’t understand Jesus, His enemies, or the early church. It will be available on soon, and what follows is an excerpt from it.

The Romans clearly understood christos and its significance – it meant king!

Rome repeatedly demonstrated its tolerance of strange religions, including those that recognized mortals becoming gods, virgin births, and the dead being resurrected. They also repeatedly demonstrated their intolerance of any one claiming to be a king, and who did not pay tribute and worship to Caesar. And worship, by the way, is not acknowledging divinity; it is recognizing sovereignty! (We will address this in a future post.)

 This, of course, is the solution to the conundrum we have been considering. It is no great hermeneutic feat to recognize that Rome crucified Jesus because of His claim to be king. The charge was posted over His head, after all. What is often overlooked, however, is that it is precisely because of their allegiance to that king Jesus that Rome persecuted His followers.

That the God of the Jews should father a son with magical powers was no more offensive to the Romans than the idea that Zeus should father Hercules. But what was intolerable was the fact that Jesus followers did not stop with recognizing Him as divine; they had the audacity to claim He was their actual sovereign.

 In short, while the Jews preserved their religion by shouting “We have no king but Caesar,” the early Christians sealed their fate by unabashedly declaring “We have no king but Jesus!”

 Confirmation of this thesis can be found in John chapter 11, right after the account of the resurrection of Lazarus. Here we find the chief priests and Pharisees were very concerned over the increasing popularity of Jesus. Unlike other occasions, however, their contention was not over the blasphemous nature of Jesus teachings, but over their potential political repercussions.

 Note that they were not concerned that the people would believe Jesus or His teaching. But they were concerned that the people would believe in Jesus, and that this would invite Roman wrath. They said, “If we let him go on like this all men will believe in Him and the Romans will come and take away both our place [i.e., the temple] and our nation.”

 Now this phrase “believe in Jesus” has a very modern ring to it, being heard in innumerable sermons every week, but what does it really mean?

 In current parlance, “believing in Jesus” seems to be understood as believing that Jesus actually existed as a historical person; or, slightly better, believing that He died to save you from your sins so you could go to heaven. Clearly, neither of these approaches make any sense in this passage. No one was doubting the actual existence of Jesus, and, at this specific time, He hadnt even died yet. More to the point, why would either of these beliefs cause a problem for the Roman Empire?

 In order to understand this original sense of “believing in Jesus,” we need to back up a bit and first consider this word believe.

 First, it needs to be recognized that, in both English and Greek, believe is a verb that pairs with the noun faith. To believe is to have faith, and vice versa. Today, the word believe has degenerated to the point that it is commonly understood to mean accepting something without evidence, or even in spite of evidence to the contrary, as in: “I know it looks bad, but we just have to believe.” In Greek, however, the word is related to the idea of being convinced or convicted. It means to accept something because of the evidence.

 In addition to this, we discover distinct political overtones in the words faith and believe, both in the society of Jesus day, and even in ours as well. Consider the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps: Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.

 In like manner, Caesar demanded that his subjects be faithfulthat is, that they give him their unreserved allegiance. He demanded that his subjects believe in him, and as long as this was proffered, he could overlook all manner of impropriety. “Serve whatever gods you will, but recognize me as sovereign.”

 This insistence was the basis of the chief priests and Pharisees extreme discomfort. It was one thing to think that Jesus was a blasphemer, or a pretender to the peoples affections; it was something completely different to be afraid that He would bring the wrath of Rome down on their heads.

 It seems that the fears of the chief priests and Pharisees were well founded. In the very next chapter we find Jesus entering the capital, Jerusalem, to the adulation of her people who shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” John goes on to tell us that this was in fulfillment of the Scripture “Fear not daughter of Zion; Behold you King is coming seated on a donkeys colt.” Interestingly, he also makes clear that it was the resurrection of Lazarus that set this ball in motion.

 Yancey was right – You dont crucify someone for telling people to be nice to one another, or even for following directions to be nice. You get crucified for claiming to be king. It is not merely desiring to live godly that warrants persecution; it is desiring to live godly in King Jesus that does so. This is what it means to believe in Jesus, and this is what Rome could not tolerate!

 All of this begs the question: would the Romans have viewed you as an adherent to just one more of many religions, or would they have understood that you were following a completely different king?

 Would the Romans have found you worthy of crucifixion?

 Do you believe in King Jesus?

 If so – welcome – you are a Radical Fish!

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2 thoughts on “Are You a Radical Fish? Part 2… Why did Rome persecute the primitive Church?

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