Sunday: Persecution of Early Christians

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Read 1 Peter 1:6, 1 Peter 5:10. What is Peter talking about, and how did he tell his readers to respond to what they were facing?

For the first few centuries, just being a Christian could result in a horrible death. A letter written to the Roman Emperor Trajan illustrates how precarious the safety of the early Christians was. The letter was from Pliny, who at the time of writing was governor of Pontus and Bithynia (AD 111-113), two of the regions mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1.

Christians fleeing Jerusalem

Image © Review and Herald Publishing Assn.

Pliny had written to Trajan asking for guidance regarding what to do about people who were accused of being Christians. He explained that those who insisted that they were Christians he had executed. Others said that although they had earlier been Christians, they no longer were. Pliny allowed them to prove their innocence by telling them to offer incense to statues of Trajan and other gods and to curse Jesus.

Worshiping a living emperor was rarely practiced in Rome, although in the eastern part of the Roman Empire to which 1 Peter is sent, the emperors allowed and sometimes encouraged the setting up of temples to themselves. Some of these temples had their own priests and altars on which sacrifices were made. When Pliny got Christians to show their loyalty to the Empire by offering incense and worship to a statue of the emperor, he was following a long-standing practice in Asia Minor.

There were times in the first century that Christians faced serious jeopardy for just being Christians. This was particularly true under Emperors Nero (AD 54-68) and Domitian (AD 81-96).

Yet, the persecution pictured in 1 Peter is of a more local kind. Specific examples of the persecution Peter speaks of are few in the letter, but perhaps they include false accusations (1 Peter 2:12) and reviling and reproach (1 Peter 3:9, 1 Peter 4:14). While the trials were severe, they do not appear to have resulted in widespread imprisonment or death, at least at that time. Even so, living as a Christian would put believers at odds with significant elements of wider first-century society, and they could suffer because of their beliefs. Thus, Peter was addressing a serious concern when he wrote this first epistle.


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Source: Daily Sabbath School Lessons