The members of the church at Rome were living in uncertain times in 57/58 AD. The Roman government had been no friend to the early Christians especially in Judea under vassal governors, i.e., Pontius Pilate. Now a new Emperor was taking charge of the entire Roman Empire and this ruler’s fierce dislike of Christians would be seen in vivid atrocities carried out against the peaceful and loving community of disciples in the city of Rome in just six years. A quote from Tacitus: “But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor (Nero) and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration (burning of Rome in 64 AD) was the result of an order (given by Nero). 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 “Chrestians” 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 Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all (Christians) 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.” Tacitus, Annals, 15.44
According to early church history, Rome was destroyed by fire in July 64; Tacitus’ story suggests that the Christians were killed in the same summer. An early Christian tradition adds some details, such as the decapitation of Paul and the crucifixion of Peter.
Paul’s writing in chapter 2 seems to anticipate the heinous execution by Nero that would befall his beloved church in Rome. Death was certain for these Christians in Rome but Eternal Life was also certain because of the death of Christ Jesus: But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism (Rom 2:5-11).
The church survived, in spite of church members dying, and about 2 centuries later, Constantine became Emperor. While the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306–337) ruled, Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s decision to cease the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was a turning point for Early Christianity, sometimes referred to as the Triumph of the Church, the Peace of the Church or the Constantinian shift.
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:36-39).
Scott and Jane Johnson minister with East Faulkner Church of Christ and BRG Bible. Bible questions can be sent to brgbible.com.