Today marks the date when flames ravaged Rome, and a wave of persecution began to ravage the Roman church. People like to say that Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. While that is most likely inaccurate, it is true that some suspected that Nero himself started the blaze that raged for several days. The massive fire, which either started on July 18 or 19 in A.D. 64, destroyed a large portion of Rome.
No matter how much he denied the charges, the emperor Nero could not shake the rumors that he had started the blaze. To shift suspicion away from himself, Nero had to find another culprit. Since the area of the city that did not burn contained a large number of Christians, the emperor cast blame upon them.
Christians were an easy target during this time since they were despised by so many Romans. Rome was known to be a hub of pagan worship, as well as licentious behavior, so the early church’s abstention from some important aspects of Roman culture was not viewed favorably. The Christ-followers were viewed as oddities, at best. For some, the Christian religion was seen as a danger to the very fabric of Roman culture.
Nero’s response was to blame the Christians and to unleash a ferocious wave of persecution against the believers there. This is how the pagan historian Tacitus describes their treatment:
Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illumine it. Nero opened his own gardens for those shows, and in the circus he himself became a spectacle, for he mingled with the people dressed as a charioteer, or he rode around in his chariot. All of this aroused the mercy of the people, even against these culprits who deserved an exemplary punishment, for it was clear that they were not being destroyed for the common good, but rather to satisfy the cruelty of one person.
It was actually during Nero’s persecution that the apostles Paul and Peter likely faced martyrdom. This intense hostility towards the church lasted until Nero was deposed around A.D. 68.
The persecution under Nero was just one of many examples throughout church history of Christians suffering under the reign of a wicked ruler. Suffering is not an anomaly for the Church. It’s the norm. God has ordained that a normal part of his redemptive plan would be for his people to glorify him through joyfully suffering for the sake of Christ.
As we remember the persecution that began on this date long ago, and as we hear about the persecution taking place in the world today, there are a couple of truths we can take to heart.
What can we learn from persecution?
First, no human ruler—no matter how wicked or how hard they try—can thwart God’s saving plan for the nations. Neither Nero nor the current Chinese leadership can stop the Kingdom’s expansion. The sovereign Lord of the universe is not moved by the futile rage of rulers. The cross is the supreme example that what heinous men mean for evil, the Lord uses for his glory and the good of his people.
We need not feel the grip of fear if persecution comes our way. Oppression of believers is not the oppression of God’s plan. He has been, he is, and he will always rule over the nations. That should give us hope to face whatever might come our way.
Second, persecution still occurs today, so we should diligently pray for our brothers and sisters who are risking everything for Christ. Just because God is sovereign over persecution does not mean that it is easy to endure. It is still suffering, and there are still men and women who face the daily threat of losing their life or their family’s lives for the gospel. As those in the West who face virtually no persecution, we should regularly lift up our brothers and sisters in Christ who, like our brother Paul, bear the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17).
If you want a great resource for how to pray for the persecuted Church today, check out the World Watch List from Open Doors, an organization that supports persecuted Christians around the world. The World Watch List tracks the most hostile countries in the world, and it gives you ways you can pray for the believers there. Let us always remember those who are faithfully testifying to the reality of the gospel in the most difficult of circumstances.