close-up of a dirty face

Who were the biggest persecutors of Christians during the first century?

I imagine most people would say it was the Romans. After all, it is widely known that the Roman Empire often persecuted Christians prior to Constantine.

But that would be incorrect.

The primary persecutors of Christians during the first century were Jews.

In this article, I'm going to show you:

  1. From the Scriptures that it was indeed the Jews who primarily persecuted the first century Christians,

  2. How this Jewish persecution was foretold by GOD long before it occurred, and

  3. How this relates to our overall perspective of the Scriptures.

I'm going to show how important this is and how it relates to our study of eschatology—Jesus' second coming, the end times, the last days, the judgment and resurrection of the dead.

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Welcome to the 31st post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.

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Let's dive in...

The Jews Rejected the Messiah

In the first century, the region of Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire.

The Jews in Judea were led by a conglomeration of hybrid religious-political sects including the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as the scribes and chief priests (see Matt. 23:2).

By that point in time, generations of rabbis had developed strict and elaborate traditions around how to "properly" keep the Law of Moses.

When the Messiah came, these Jewish leaders rejected Him because they were looking for something different. They wanted a political savior to free them from Roman bondage and usher in the promised blessings of the Prophets.

They had misunderstood the Prophets, who were speaking of spiritual blessings to the faithful rather than physical blessings to the Jews. (Recall how we previously established that the big picture of Scripture is how GOD replaced everything physical in creation with something spiritual which supersedes it. The majority of the Jews misunderstood GOD's prophecies in this regard, looking for physical fulfillment of what were spiritual prophecies.)

When Jesus exposed these men's evil hearts, hypocrisy and error, instead of repenting, their solution was to get rid of Jesus for speaking against them.

So they devised a plan and delivered Jesus over to the Romans for punishment. Matt. 27:18 and Mark 15:10 tells us they did this out of envy.

The Jews Persecuted the Apostles for Preaching in Jesus' Name

After Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven, the apostles began executing the mission Jesus had given them.

Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus told the apostles:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)

A week after Jesus ascended, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Not long after, Peter and John healed the lame man recorded in Acts 3.

At this point, the Jewish persecution of Christians began. The Sadducees imprisoned Peter and John and the religious leaders sternly warned them not to speak the name of Jesus again (see Acts 4).

Peter and John returned to the Christians and told what had happened. They prayed together for boldness and GOD shook the house they were in as a sign of His presence with them and blessings upon them.

They went out and proclaimed the gospel boldly.

But the persecution only escalated as the preaching continued.

Stephen confronted the Jews for killing Jesus and was stoned to death in Acts 7. Saul of Tarsus put Christians in prison all over the region, even invading peoples' homes and dragging them off (see Acts 8:3).

The first Christians went all over the place preaching the good news of Jesus.

Samaritans and the Ethiopian proselyte were converted in Acts 8. Saul of Tarsus was converted in Acts 9 and we find there that there were believers in Damascus in Syria at the time.

In Acts 12, we read how King Herod put James, the brother of John, to death because it pleased the Jews (see Acts 12:1-3). He also imprisoned Peter but GOD miraculously released Peter from prison that night.

In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to preach the gospel in more remote locations. Everywhere they went, they started off by speaking with the Jews in the local syngagoue.

Note: I always wondered why Paul and company started in the synagogue in every town they visited. I've heard it said (and said it myself) that this was probably because they knew that there would be GOD-fearing people there in the synagogue.

Perhaps there is some truth to this, but now I understand that the primary reason was because of the urgency generated by the looming judgment Jesus had told the apostles was coming. Every Jew who didn't obey the gospel was in serious danger, so they all needed to hear. Plus, the Jews everywhere were anticipating and looking for the Messiah's arrival. They needed to hear that He had already come.

In Cyprus, the Jewish sorcerer Elymas (a.k.a. Bar-Jesus, see Acts 14:6-12) opposed the gospel, so GOD struck him with temporary blindness.

In Perga, the whole town came out to hear the gospel. But when the Jews saw this, they were jealous and started contradicting and verbally abusing Paul. Paul said from here on he would go to the Gentiles (see Acts 13:13-46).

As the gospel spread, however, Jewish leaders stirred up people against Paul and Barnabas which caused them to be cast out of the region (see Acts 13:49-52).

At Iconium, a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed, but the rebellious Jews again stirred up trouble, plotting to stone Paul and Barnabas, but they escaped (see Acts 14:1-7).

In Lystra, Jews from Antioch and Iconium won over the crowds. They took Paul and stoned him and dragged him outside the city, leaving him for dead (see Acts 14:8-20).

Despite all these sufferings, Paul and Barnabas then traveled back through these towns to strengthen the new Christians there.

I could keep going, but you see the theme, right?

Gospel was preached → Jews got violently angry → Christians got persecuted

Insincere Jews infiltrated church assemblies

The conflict of early Christians with wicked Jews wasn't only through violent persecution.

Some Jews faked conversion to Jesus in order to infiltrate the Christian assemblies and disrupt things internally.

Acts 15 records how certain Jews went from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria and taught that the Christians had to obey the Law of Moses to be saved in addition to following Jesus' teachings.

Paul and Barnabas sharply disputed these men and everyone agreed to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

After this conference, Paul was moved by the Spirit to write his letter to the Galatian Christians, addressing the rumors and problems brought on by these Judaizing teachers.

(Remember: The Galatians had just become Christians as a result of Paul and Barnabas' preaching and travels not long before then.)

In the letter, Paul confronted them about being persuaded by a false gospel (i.e., that obeying the Law of Moses was required for salvation):

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
(Gal. 1:6-9 NIV)

Paul described these type of Judaizing teachers as, "false believers [that] had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." (Gal. 2:4)

Also, recall that it was during this letter that Paul used the Hagar/Sarah allegory which we have previously studied in comparison of the:

  • Old, physical nation of Israel with its covenant and city, and
  • The new, spiritual Israel with its covenant and city of New Jerusalem.

The Jewish persecution of the first Christians was a common theme in the NT letters

Almost every letter in the New Testament Scriptures deals with the Jewish persecution of the first century Christians.

Here are a few examples:

6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

...

14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.
(1 Thess. 1:6, 2:14-16a NIV)

 

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
(2 Cor. 11:21b-27 NIV)

 

32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
(Heb. 10:32-35 NIV)

Note: Remember that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians not long before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, [the rebellious Jews] are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.

...

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
(Rom. 11:28-29, 12:14-19 NIV)

Note: In Rom. 11:19, Paul quoted the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:35) and applied it to the present first century timeframe.

6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
(1 Pet. 1:6-7 NIV)

I could keep going, but you get the idea.

Jesus prophesied about this persecution

Knowing the future, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders two days before His crucifixion, saying:

29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 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. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
(Matt. 23:29-36 NIV)

As we have previously studied, Jesus warned His followers on multiple occasions about this persecution and the cost of being His disciple:

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.
(Luke 21:12-19 NIV) 

Moses foretold why the Jews were persecuting the Christians

1,500 years beforehand, GOD foretold what unfolded during the first century regarding the Jewish persecution of Christians. GOD said through Moses:

15 Jeshurun [Tim: i.e., Israel] grew fat and kicked;
filled with food, they became heavy and sleek.
They abandoned the God who made them
and rejected the Rock their Savior.
16 They made him jealous with their foreign gods
and angered him with their detestable idols.
17 They sacrificed to false gods, which are not God—
gods they had not known,
gods that recently appeared,
gods your ancestors did not fear.
18 You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.

19 The Lord saw this and rejected them
because he was angered by his sons and daughters.
20 “I will hide my face from them,” he said,
“and see what their end will be;
for they are a perverse generation,
children who are unfaithful.
21 They made me jealous by what is no god
and angered me with their worthless idols.
I will make them envious by those who are not a people;
I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.
22 For a fire will be kindled by my wrath,
one that burns down to the realm of the dead below.
It will devour the earth and its harvests
and set afire the foundations of the mountains.
(Deut. 32:15-22 NIV)

Because Israel rejected GOD and chose idols, He rejected those people and chose to accept Gentiles (in addition to the faithful Jews).

In Romans, Paul gave us the divine application of Moses' Song—that it applied to the first century timeframe, when GOD accepted repentant Gentiles:

12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

16 But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. 18 But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:

“Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”

19 Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says,

“I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.”

20 And Isaiah boldly says,

“I was found by those who did not seek me;
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”

21 But concerning Israel he says,

“All day long I have held out my hands
to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
(Rom. 10:12-21 NIV)

Rom. 10:19 is a quote from Deut. 32:21.

This realization helps us properly understand Revelation

This is jumping ahead a bit, but consider it somewhat of a preview.

Everybody agrees that Revelation is a letter of GOD's judgment. What people disagree over is who was/is being judged.

If we could figure out who GOD is angry with in the letter, we can grasp who is being judged and that helps us understand the timeframe of the letter.

To figure this out, all we have do is look at 3 verses:

9 When [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
(Rev. 6:9-11 NIV)

So, from Scripture, who do we know was killed for their stand for GOD?

Jesus answered the question for us and we already cited the passage before, but here it is again:

29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 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. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
(Matt. 23:29-36 NIV)

The souls under the altar were:

  1. The dead prophets.

  2. The dead apostles and Christian martyrs at the time of the vision.

Now, who did Jesus say would be help responsible for the death of these people?

Answer this, and you know what the Revelation letter is about.


Now that we've covered the conflict which existed, continue to the next post where we examine the two salvations discussed in the New Testament writings.

Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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