Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-120) wrote two secular historical works describing the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Gabba, Otho, Vespasian, and Vitellius (Annals and Histories).
He was the son-in-law of Agricola, the Roman General responsible for Roman expansion throughout Europe, especially northern Britain. He was not a Christian by any means, but a patriotic Roman with a family heritage tied to its conquests.
In the following excerpt, Tacitus mentions Jesus (referred to as Christus) and details the persecution of early Christians. I have abbreviated some of the excerpt (ellipsis), given contextual explanation (brackets), and added emphasis (bolded text). The information in his writings is fascinating, but I found the following to be shareable.
“…The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods [because of the burning of Rome], and recourse was had to the Sibylline books… But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition [of resurrection], thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
In this volatile political climate, many Christians face some uncomfortable dilemmas. Is party line a salvation issue? How do we handle seemingly irreconcilable differences? What do we do going forward?
Rather than delving into those questions, I’d like to focus on the attitude of the early church, which faced internal division–Jew/Gentile controversies like in Acts 15, opinions over cultural matters as seen in I Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, and external pressures.
In keeping with the spirit of the early church, let’s focus on the following list.
We must focus on and grow our own spiritual culture, independent of our earthly nationality (while observing Romans 13).
We must be faithful Christians who value being righteous, no matter the cost.
We must manage our concerns and worries by spending MORE time with each other and developing our faith.
We may need to see ourselves less as Americans and more as Christians. If we remember that our kingdom is the church first, we will be far more united.
Be awesome citizens. When outsiders hear about us, it should be that we never cause trouble, we are loyal to each other, we are selfless, we help people, we have strong families, we rely on each other, we are pleasant to be around, we are dedicated to our faith, and we love people who treat us poorly.
We must remember that priority number one is heaven. Everything else is second.
We must avoid talking or posting on social media about non-salvation issues that can and do create division or offense, out of courtesy and respect for each other (Romans 14.1-4; 13ff).
If these are the things we worry about and focus on, no political division or any other heartburn-inducing unpleasantness can affect us. Besides being happier, we’ll be a stronger church!
1 Peter 3.8ff is a passage with tons of application. What I’d like to do is simply break it down and apply as we go.
3.8 – Is addressed to every Christian, as opposed to the gender-specific commands of the previous section. Christians are told to have a unified mindset, understanding of the needs of others, affection for each other, compassion for each other, and a sober view of self.
3.9 – In the context of being ridiculed or outright persecuted for faith, we’re commanded not to stoop to a hostile person’s level. Instead, we are only to say good things to and about them. The word for “bless” here would be like us giving a glowing review of someone, even when they’re hostile to us. Why? Because God promised us a glowing review, even though our lifestyle was hostile to Him before we were faithful.
3.10-12 – If we want to have good days, we have to control our tongues, reject evil, and actively do beneficial things for others. If we do, God looks at us with approval. If not, He is against us.
3.13 – If we pursue doing good things with energy, no one can say anything against us. Who can assault the character of someone passionate about bringing good into others’ lives?
3.14 – But even if they do is a contrast not as plainly seen in English. This verse starts with a powerful contrastive (αλλα) that points to how we should act in the face of totally unwarranted hostility. Even if our pursuit of good gets us in trouble, we can still be happy! Even in this life we cannot lose. We cannot let fear dictate our behavior, and we cannot let anyone’s intimidation cause us to react with hostility.
3.15 – Instead, we should make the most special place in our heart God’s place. We don’t serve fear, we serve God. If someone shows hostility to us when we’re doing good, we have to be ready to give a rational explanation for our hope with an attitude that proves our supernatural allegiance. Our fear of God must be greater than our fear of man.
We do this because our goal is to bring others to God! It’s hard, but we can only do it when we remove self from the equation. People tend to attack what they do not understand. By using reason and by restraining our emotional response, we can help save their souls. We were all hostile to God at one point, but we now have mercy. Being controlled and rational while under “attack” is not a normal human response. Our response can mean the difference in someone’s eternal destination!
Peer pressure is a topic that is usually directed toward young people. While this is something that is possibly more temping to teens and young people, adults will struggle with it as well.
Since I was in my teens just two years ago, I can still clearly remember all the times I was pressured into doing something dumb. I sometimes hung with a rowdy crowd (my brothers), and ended up paying the consequences. Fishing on a golf course at night is apparently illegal, and that can get the police called on you. Shooting at geese with a slingshot is apparently animal harassment, and park rangers won’t exactly be happy. Stringing a dead beaver over a walking trail is illegal and you can be fined up to 10,000 dollars. These are just a few random examples or hypothetical scenarios…and definitely not something I did personally.
Peer pressure is a problem we will face. Whether we are in high school, college, or at work. Our peers won’t always make the right choices, but the question is whether or not we will participate? Notice with me four steps that will help us overcome peer pressure:
Develop A New Mindset.
1 Peter 4:1 says, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Think like Christ. Do what’s right, even if it leads to suffering. If we say no to peer pressure we won’t be popular, we won’t feel like we fit in, we won’t feel accepted and we may even lose a few friends. But since we are in Christ we focus on what’s truly important. Christ focused on the bigger picture. Instead of listening to the mindset of the day, He stuck to his purpose.
Peer pressure will tempt us to desert Christ. We don’t join in because we have developed a new mindset. We are reborn and no longer live like the world (Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 5:24).
Make Decisions Based On This New Mindset.
1 Peter 4:2 says, “so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” We have ceased from sin so that we can make the most of our time on earth. No longer living for ourselves or for human passions, but for the will of God.
How can we avoid the sin of peer pressure? Make decisions based on our new mindset. We have established our reasoning. We now have a higher calling, and now our decisions are based on this new mindset in Christ.
Love The Sinner, Hate the Sin.
The mood always seems to feel a little uncomfortable when we say no to participating in sin. Our friends may get upset or call us a wet blanket, or even try and say we are acting “holier than thou.” This is one of the biggest obstacles we will face as Christians.
When we say no we must keep 1 Peter 4:8-9 in mind: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” How can we overcome peer pressure? Love the sinner, but hate the sin. We love the sinner because we want them to receive the same forgiveness and salvation we received. We hate the sin because it’s ugly and opposed to God and our new way of living.
Build Positive Relationships.
Find likeminded people that won’t tempt you to join in with sin. 1 Peter 4:10-11 says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
What do we use our gifts from God for? If you’re good at working on cars or lawn mowers are you using it for good? Are you good at cooking? Use it for the glory of God. If you’re a funny person, use it for the glory of God. Each one of us must use what God has given us to build positive and strong relationships, ones that are built on support and encouragement.
How can I overcome peer pressure? Build relationships that are centered around Christ. Around His church. Around His plan. Around His people. Build relationships filled with a mutual love and zeal for God.
Nadezhda Khazina was born in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century. She met and married the famous poet, Osip Mandelstam, in Kiev, Ukraine, after the Russian Revolution and establishment of communism. The couple saw enough of that system of government to conclude it was destructive and harmful, so they railed against it as they had opportunity. Mandelstam had a wide audience through his poetry, and his 1934 epigram about Joseph Stalin was a work he called “his suicide note” and that has been described as his “sixteen line death sentence.” He was arrested, exiled, and died of exposure and neglect four years later. Nadezhda became even more active in crusading against the tactics used in the Soviet Union, then near the end of her life she wrote a two volume autobiography of her life and work: Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974)(https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSkhazina.htm). What’s interesting is looking up the name “Nadezhda” or the more familiar form “Nadia”; the name means “hope.” In fact, Lois Fisher-Ruge wrote a book by that title in 1989.
Do you see the irony? Her name meant hope, but her life was full of hopes dashed and hopelessness in the midst of her struggle. But, she kept on working because of the hope she felt.
Peter writes 1 Peter to Christians who were going to see some seemingly hopeless situations in their lives. Some of them lived in Bithynia, a region whose governor, Pliny, famously bragged to the emperor Trajan at the turn of the second century about his pogrom of executing professed Christians for their faith. This was just about half a century after Peter writes this epistle warning of persecution.
Despite Peter’s warning about the testing of their faith in unfavorable circumstances, he frequently mentions not just the ultimate reward we see for faithfully serving Christ but also “hope.” Five times in the first three chapters, Peter mentions this hope. It’s a living hope caused by Christ’s resurrection (1:3), a complete hope (1:13), a hope in God (1:21; 3:5), and a reasonable hope (3:15). The world around them was hopeless; they lived without hope. They wanted to drag the Christians into that hopeless state, but Peter urges them to hold onto hope.
Our hopes are tested by times like these, by a world full of sin and iniquity. It’s easy to restrict our focus to this earth and this life. Peter’s words are for us, too! Do not be hopeless! You have Christ. Only those in Him have legitimate hope!
There is a passage that can be so disturbing because it is so adamantly clear. That passage is Romans 13:1-7. The early church fathers had a lot to say about this passage. They lived at a time when the government sponsored and led persecution and even execution of Christians simply for being Christians and sharing Christ with others. Nobody living in our country today has any experience with what this is like. Despite the pain and price inflicted by the Roman Empire on them, over and over the early Christians defended Paul’s words in Romans 13.
Basil—It is right to submit to higher authority whenever a command of God is not violated thereby
Ambrosiaster—Those who believe cannot play fast and loose with the law
Apollinaris—To disobey rulers is condemned as a mistaken way of thinking
Chrysostom—There should be rulers and ruled and…that things should not just lapse into anarchy is the work of God’s wisdom (Ancient Christian Commentary, Vol. VI, Oden, ed.).
Whether you long for the Obama administration or love the Trump administration, whether you love or loathe your governor, senators, and congressmen, Romans 13 applies to us today. Whatever your feelings about law enforcement or our judicial system, Romans 13 applies to us today. No one should be more conscientious about their relationship to the Civil Government than a Christian. What does this text reveal to us about “the earthly powers that be?”
The government has a Divine source (1). They are “from God” and “established by God.”
The government is a divine statute (2). Paul calls their ruling “the ordinance of God” and he warns against opposing such.
The government is comprised of Divine servants (3-6). The term Paul repeatedly uses of those within such earthly institutions is “ministers of God” (“servants of God,” 6) bearing the sword, bringing wrath, and devoting themselves to maintaining divinely-ordained order on earth.
The government carries Divine stipulations (7). God calls for Christians to render them what is due to them, namely taxes, customs, fear, and honor.
The limit to this is if they command us (forbidding or making us) to do what would cause us to disobey God (cf. Acts 5:29). That is not the same as commanding us to do something that restricts our “rights,” “freedoms,” or “liberties.” There may be privileges we enjoy in a free nation which contribute to our comfort, happiness, and enjoyment. They may even be dubbed “unalienable rights” in our national constitution. May we never confuse earthly privilege with divine precept. The inspired Paul makes it clear that God is behind government for the reasons seen above. Peter, in a context about civil government, reminds us that we are “aliens and strangers” on this earth (1 Pet. 2:11; cf. 13ff). As we loudly, lustily sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through…” “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:15). May God give us the strength and wisdom to this end!
Will the day come when government attempts to shut down our Bible study and worship services? Looking back at history, particularly the books of Acts and Revelation, we know this can occur. Certainly, the current environment in our society reveals a trend toward greater intolerance of the biblical worldview. We are growing more secular and more sensual as a nation. Public symbols of Christian religion are disappearing from the public square, while public expressions of Christian religion have long since disappeared from public education. That said, we do not do service to Christ by manufacturing problems where they do not exist.
Isn’t it interesting that back when Christians were experiencing mistreatment, the Holy Spirit guided men and women to have a different attitude than that of a victim. From a prison cell he would never leave alive simply because he was preaching Christ, Paul sought to bolster a young preacher’s faith by saying, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according tot he power of God” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). When they were mistreated and released earlier in this episode, the church gathered to worship and pray (Acts 4:24ff). Peter urged readiness (1 Pet. 3:15). John urged faithfulness (Rev. 2:10). Stephen showed endurance, boldness, and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).
It is an incongruous idea to imagine the early Christians wasting precious time organizing email campaigns, seeking to draw sympathy from the media, picketing, and playing the victim. Instead, driven by their living hope (1 Pet. 1:3), they committed their lives to Jesus while they spent their days trying to spread the good news of Christ (Acts 8:4; Col. 1:23). Even as Christians were martyred (Stephen, James, those assaulted by Saul of Tarsus’ efforts, and those during the time of the book of Revelation and shortly thereafter), there is no hint of any of them roaming around with a martyr complex. Let us emulate their great example!
The two Sundays Kathy and I spent in Israel were with the church in Nazareth, about two hours north of where we are staying near Jerusalem. An interesting fact in a nation where an overwhelming majority of citizens are either Jews, the largest group, or Muslims, still a significant, but smaller group, is that there is a fairly small number of those professing to be Christians. The congregation in Nazareth, which has around 40 members, is comprised almost entirely of Arab people. As I spoke with one of the men yesterday, he said something that will stay with me a long time. He talked about how Arab Christians are viewed by their fellow-citizens. If Jews sees him standing beside a Muslim, they think he’s a Muslim. As most Arabs in Israel are Muslim, that seems logical. They see him as a potential threat and enemy. But, Arabs who find out he’s a Christian, and there are so many ways to readily see he’s not a Muslim–clothing, customs, etc.–see him as infidel or even a traitor. His remarks were in response to the sermon I preached from 1 Peter 2:21-25 on how Jesus handled persecution. He says that the Arabic Christians can tend to feel like people without a country.
Now, while you and I do not share the unique circumstance of Arab Christians in Israel, there is a similarity we see from earlier in 1 Peter 2. Peter tells Christians, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (11-12). We’re going to “look” different, abstaining from fleshly lusts. We’re going to “act” different, keeping our behavior excellent doing good deeds. Whether we physically look like the people who observe us or we look different from them, our Christianity will be noticeable and observable. That’s not the same as doing your works in order to be seen of men (Mat. 23:5). Instead, living the Christian life–no matter what–will inevitably catch the attention of the people around us.
I’m grateful for the object lesson I received. Pray for our Arab brethren, men and women in a spiritual sense who are “without a country.” Pray for our brethren in places where their faith in Christ is scorned and more overtly persecuted. Pray for us, that we will be salt and light which stands out and stands up for Jesus in our daily places where darkness persists.
AD 30—Tiberius, who became cruel and mad, was the Roman Emperor when the church was established. Under his reign, right around the time of Pentecost, Rome was filled with terror after the murder of his once trusted advisor turned traitor, Sejanus (tribunesandtriumphs.org). Sanderson Beck comments that he was “preoccupied with sexual and sadistic perversions” the last several years of his life (he is believed to have been murdered)(san.beck.org). Jerusalem was directly governed by Rome. Acts, though probably written in the 60s, begins its historical chronicle around AD 30.
Acts 2:41—“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”
Acts 4:4—“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”
Acts 5:14—“And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.”
Acts 6:7—“The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”
See also Acts 12:24 and Acts 19:20,
AD 62-63—Nero, described as licentious, cruel, tyrannical, murderous, criminal, arson, vain, perverse (tribunesandtriumphs.org) and, by historian Donald Wesson as a “cross-dressing exhibitionist” (ancient.eu), spearheaded the first organized persecution of Christians (N.S. Gill, ancienthistory.about.com). Tacitus says he blamed the Christians for his own burning of Rome. Many are the accounts of the cruel ways Nero put them to death (eyewitnesstohistory.com). Eusebius reports that Nero put both Paul and Peter to death (Church History, Book 2, Ch. 25). Before his death, Paul would report of such rapid growth throughout Nero’s reign. Peter’s outlook could not have been brighter.
Colossians 1:23—“if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.”
1 Peter 1:3—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
AD 90s—Domitian, best remembered as “the evil emperor who murdered thousands of Christians” (tribunesandtriumphs.org), reigned when John wrote his epistles and the book of Revelation. He was notorious for his cruelty and detachment from reality. John writes Revelation in large part to steady the Christians to withstand the onslaught of persecution caused by Domitian. His message to the Christians during the reign of Domitian was consistent:
1 John 4:4—“You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
1 John 5:4—“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Revelation 1:6-7—“He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen.”
How bad did things look, from an earthly perspective, during the reigns of evil rulers like Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian? The thing is, the early Christians did not look at things from an earthly perspective. As those trying to walk in the footsteps of New Testament Christians, will we imitate their faith and that perspective?