The First Epistle of Peter was written in or around AD 63 to a group of Christians living in Pontus-Bithynia, an area in modern-day Turkey, just south of the Black Sea. These people were beginning to experience significant social and cultural marginalization as a result of their faith in Christ.
But it was not yet formal or fatal persecution.
Thomas Schreiner says here:
“The only specific suffering noted is discrimination and mistreatment and verbal abuse from former colleagues and friends”
Peter wanted to stabilize them. He wanted them to have a realistic appraisal of their difficulties and to maintain a Christian attitude and witness no matter their circumstance. He said in chapter 3 verses 13-17:
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:13–17 ESV)
This turned out to be remarkably sage and prescient counsel. As mentioned above, Peter wrote this letter in AD 63 and there was no formal state persecution of Christians in this region until AD 112.
That’s almost 50 years!
Had they exaggerated, had they panicked, had they switched into fight or flight mode a great deal of Gospel opportunity would have been squandered.
But, thankfully, it appears they were steadied by Peter’s letter and they went back to work. And work they did! The Christian movement in Pontus-Bithynia made significant inroads over the next 4 decades. In fact, it was that growth and expansion that eventually attracted the attention of the Emperor of Rome.
In AD 112 the Emperor Trajan sent Pliny the Younger as Governor of the Province of Bithynia. Pliny was a classic bureaucrat! He didn’t do anything without asking his boss for advice and approval and one of the things he wanted counsel on was how to deal with all these pesky Christians! Christianity by this time was understood by the Romans as distinct from Judaism and therefore not subject to their special permissions and exemptions – so how should they be treated?
Trajan granted Pliny the authority to investigate the movement. And investigate he did. He was brutal and thorough and he sent frequent reports back to the Emperor summarizing his findings. Pliny’s letters have become one of our best sources of information on the history of the Christian church in this time period.
It is worth consulting that correspondence in some detail. Pliny writes to Trajan and reports:
“So far this has been my procedure when people were charged before me with being Christians. I have asked the accused themselves if they were Christians; if they said “Yes”, I asked them a second and third time, warning them of the penalty; if they persisted I ordered them to be led off to execution. For I had no doubt that, whatever kind of thing it was that they pleaded guilty to, their stubbornness and unyielding obstinacy at any rate deserved to be punished. There were others afflicted with the like madness whom I marked down to be referred to Rome, because they were Roman citizens.
Later as usually happens, the trouble spread by the very fact that it was dealt with, and further varieties came to my notice. An anonymous letter was laid before me containing many people’s names. Some of these denied that they were Christians or had ever been so; at my dictation they invoked the gods and did reverence with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose along with the statutes of the gods; they also cursed Christ; and as I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things, I considered that the people who did them should be discharged. Others against whom I received information said they were Christians and then denied it; they meant they said that they had once been Christians but had given it up: some three years previously, some a longer time, one or two as many as 20 years before. All these likewise both did reverence to your image and the statutes of the gods and cursed Christ. But they maintained that their fault, more than error, amounted to nothing more than this: they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before sunrise and reciting an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and binding themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from all acts of theft, robbery and adultery, from breaches of faith, from denying a trust when called upon to honor it. After this, they went on, it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. And even this, they said, they had given up doing since the publication of my edict in which, according to your instructions, I had placed a ban on private associations. So I thought it the more necessary to inquire into the real truth of the matter by subjecting to torture two female slaves, who were called “deacons”; But I found nothing more than a perverse superstition which went beyond all bounds.
Therefore I deferred further inquiry in order to apply to you for a ruling. The case seemed to me to be a proper one for consultation, particularly because of the number of those who were accused. For many of every age, every class, and of both sexes are being accused and will continue to be accused. Nor has this contagious superstition spread through the cities only, but also through the villages and the countryside. But I think it can be checked and put right. At any rate the temples, which had been well-nigh abandoned, are beginning to be frequented again; and the customary services, which had been neglected for a long time, are beginning to be resumed; fodder for the sacrificial animals, too, is beginning to find a sale again, for hitherto it was difficult to find anyone to buy it. From all this it is easy to judge what a multitude of people can be reclaimed, if an opportunity is granted them to renounce Christianity.”
The Emperor Trajan replied:
“You have followed the correct procedure in deciding the cases of those who have been charged before you with being Christians. Indeed, no general decision can be made by which a set form of dealing with them could be established. They must not be ferreted out; if they are charged and convicted, they must be punished, provided that anyone who denies that he is a Christian and gives practical proof of that by invoking our gods is to win indulgence by this repudiation, no matter what grounds for suspicion may have existed against him in the past. Anonymous documents which are laid before you should receive no attention in any case; they are a very bad precedent and quite unworthy of the age in which we live.”
In essence, Trajan enacted the ancient equivalent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.
Don’t ferret them out – but don’t make it easy on them either.
Trajan wanted to discourage the growth of Christianity, he wanted to privilege the pagan system but he did not want to engage in a costly and disruptive inquisition.
In accordance with this counsel, Pliny backed off, no further arrests were made and life in the region went back to normal. “Normal” in the sense that Christianity was discouraged but not destroyed, Christian people were marginalized, but not martyred and converts from paganism understood that becoming a Christian would be costly but generally not fatal.
There was the odd exception here and there – but on the whole – the church had a significant amount of operating space in the region for the better part of 200 years.
The next outbreak of formal and fatal persecution took place in AD 323. The Roman Empire at this time was divided into a Western and an Eastern realm. The Emperor Licinius suddenly developed a deep-rooted suspicion towards the Christians in his administration, no so much because of their religious convictions as because of their supposed political loyalty to the Western Emperor, Constantine who had recently converted to Christianity. Licinius began to fear that he was surrounded by agents of the enemy and so he purged his administration of Christians. Of course, the fact that there were Christians to purge indicates that Christianity had not been existing entirely at the margins in Bithynia for the last two centuries. Nevertheless, in AD 323 Licinius felt it appropriate to clamp down. And clamp down he did. Simon Baker says tells the story this way:
“Roman governors were free to punish dissident Christians, shut down some churches, demolish others and, in the case of the bishops in the province of Bithynia-Pontus south of the Black Sea, murder key figureheads in the Christian clergy. According to Eusebius, their bodies were chopped up and thrown into the sea as food for fish”.
Thankfully, this intense outbreak lasted less than a calendar year. In AD 324 Licinius lost a civil war with Constantine, who subsequently united the Empire and legalized Christianity throughout the land.
The threat of state persecution had come to an end and the challenge of cultural power and privilege was about to begin – but that is an entirely different story.
What can be said with certainty is that the counsel Peter gave to the Christians living in Pontus Bithynia served them well for 261 years. It may also provide a blueprint for contemporary believers who, all of the sudden, find themselves living and serving at the margins of a hostile culture. Chief among the insights provided in this case study would be these:
We must be careful not to exaggerate our difficulties
The folks that Peter wrote to in AD 63 were not being burned at the stake, nor were they being fed to the lions. As Thomas Schreiner put it:
“The only specific suffering noted is discrimination and mistreatment and verbal abuse from former colleagues and friends”
That’s not nothing, but neither were these people being used as lanterns in Nero’s garden. There was a price to pay for being a Christian in the Province of Bithynia, but it was not as high as it was for some others and it probably didn’t warrant being categorized as “persecution”.
We do need to be careful about throwing that word around.
Ross Douthat wrote an excellent article in the NY Times a few years back cautioning American Christians about referring to their loss of cultural power as “persecution”. He said:
“being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution… using the “persecution” label too promiscuously, … doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the vast gulf separating the situation of Western Christians and the incredible heroism of our co-believers overseas, who face eliminative violence on an increasingly-dramatic scale. (And) … it doesn’t actually prepare conservative believers for a future as a (hopefully creative) religious minority, because it conditions them/us to constantly expect some kind of grand tribulation that probably won’t actually emerge.”
Regardless of your understanding of eschatology, historically speaking, Douthat is absolutely correct. Had the Christians in Pontus Bithynia developed a Tribulation Complex they would not have been well prepared for the actual future that awaited them. The great tribulation, that was perpetually just around the corner, generally stayed around the corner. And when it did arrive, it tended to be very brief and very localized in nature. As mentioned above, it did arrive in AD 112, but it lasted less than a year and was called off. Then it arrived again 200 years later and once again lasted less than a year and was called off. Adding that up, these people faced 2 years of formal, fatal state persecution in the 261 years between AD 63 and AD 324.
That’s less than 1 in a 100.
Had they allowed themselves to live in perpetual fear or perpetual anger they would have forfeited a great deal of missional opportunity within the culture. This lesson ought to underscore the importance of being realistic about the challenges and difficulties that we are facing.
As I write this, a number of churches in Canada are wrestling with the question of how they should understand the challenges we currently face with respect to the health and safety protocols enacted by the government in the battle against COVID19. Does this qualify as persecution? When the government says that you can only allow 100 people into your sanctuary that can normally seat 650 – that can certainly feel like persecution. It will undoubtedly be difficult. That is the reality I am facing here for the next 2-3 months. That will mean waking up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning to run multiple services, inside and outside, morning and evening, to serve our entire congregation.
That is going to be difficult. It’s going to be borderline exhausting – but I have a hard time thinking of that as persecution. Brothers and sisters in North Korea are meeting in groups of 4-5 in basements and root cellars, whispering hymns in the dark, knowing full well that if they get caught they will be executed or sent to internment camps.
That is persecution.
What we’re experiencing here in Ontario, and throughout most of the Provinces in Canada, is inconvenient and exhausting – but it doesn’t feel to me like persecution and I don’t think it would be helpful for our people if I called it that. I think this letter from the Apostle Peter cautions me about making too much of the difficulties that I’m facing.
We should remember that exceptions are different than the rule
As mentioned above, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in force in this region from AD 112 – AD 324 generally did not result in Christians being hunted down and persecuted. There was, however, a rather notable exception. In AD 115 Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in Syria was arrested and sent to Rome whereupon he was executed by mauling in the Colosseum.
Antioch in Syria, of course, was not in the province of Bithynia – but it was near enough to make a lot of people nervous. If it happened over there, then it will no doubt happen over here, people thought.
Except that it didn’t.
It didn’t even happen over there again.
The martyrdom of Ignatius was exceptional. He was exceptional and the Romans found him exceptionally annoying. His arrest did not lead to a general round-up of Christian clergy nor was the suppression of Christianity in that Province sustained.
It was an ominous and threatening exception – that never became the rule in the region.
It is very important for us to see that.
Generally, exceptions don’t become the rule. Usually, exceptions remain as exceptions – almost as though the devil were trying to intimate us into either unmanly or ungodly behaviour.
Either way – he wins.
“This” doesn’t always lead to “that” and what happens “over there” doesn’t always come “over here”. The history of persecution isn’t very linear. It is characterized by outbreaks, bursts and irregularity.
We ought to expect intermittent persecution
Which implies, of course, that we should expect intermittent bursts of persecution. Whether every 50 years or 200 years, if history is any guide at all, we should expect a fierce outbreak of formal and fatal persecution.
It will happen.
Saying it out loud may even help you be less surprised when it does occur.
Christians should never be shocked by persecution. How could we be? We follow a Savior who was crucified naked on a Roman cross; that to me does not scream social privilege. Such a reality would seem to bode ill for our future standing in polite society.
A proper meditation on the cross should incline us to expect the occasional experience of persecution.
Not every year or even every decade, but we ought to count on it coming, in all its ugly fury, from time to time. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 the Apostle says:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12–13 ESV)
Nobody gets to be surprised when we experience persecution. Nobody gets to cry foul. This will happen. It is par for the course, and besides, if we endure, if we show our faith under trial, it will result in multiplied blessings and rewards come judgment day.
So rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We mustn’t allow the threat of persecution to define us
Persecution should never be allowed to change who we are. It’s not like there is one Christian persona for times of peace and then one Christian persona for times of trouble – that’s not what we see in the Bible and that’s not what we see in 1 Peter.
Peter did not want his people to become angry. He did not want them to revile. He did not want them to lose their cool. He said:
“Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9 ESV)
Jesus never allowed his persecutors to change him. He was who he was no matter what people did to him. While they were nailing him to the cross Jesus said:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)
That’s Jesus – in good times or bad.
Don’t allow persecution to change you and don’t allow the threat of persecution to change you. Here in Canada, I would argue that it isn’t the experience of persecution that is changing people, it is the threat of persecution. It is the shadow of persecution. It is that thing that we feel or sense just around the corner, and how people respond to that will affect their attitude and behaviour.
If you imagine that persecution will be unbearable then you will respond with fear.
If you believe that persecution is unjust then you will respond with anger.
Neither of those attitudes is terribly helpful.
What we need are people of focus. People who can take their eyes off the shadow and keep them firmly fixed on the job at hand.
We mustn’t become so obsessed with external threats that we fail to look inside
It is interesting that in Peter’s second letter to these people, the focus is completely different. In the first letter, he was talking about threats on the outside; how big they were and how big they weren’t; but in the second letter, he is talking about threats on the inside. The issue in 2 Peter is that a number of false teachers have arisen within the churches. They are teaching a false and deficient version of Christianity. Based on what Peter says in this letter it seems that they were denying the return of the Lord and the prospect of final judgment and they were commending an attitude that scholars often refer to as antinomianism.
The point is, they were so busy looking for threats coming at them from the outside that they totally missed the threats growing up among them on the inside.
That can easily happen.
When we become obsessed with the dangers and threats out there we become willing to tolerate or make peace with a great many harmful things in here.
I worry that a great many leaders in the church in North America have become obsessed with external threats at the expense of internal discipline and reform. Do we really believe that government restrictions represent a greater long-term threat to the health of the church than our own catastrophic internal failures?
What in Scripture or in history would lead us to such a tenuous conclusion?
The greater threat is always the one growing up on the inside – and the devil is always trying to distract us by making noise and whispering threats on the outside.
So don’t play that game. Don’t fall for that ridiculous nonsense.
We mustn’t ignore threats on the outside, but we must work very hard to right size them. They’re there, just around the corner, where they will generally stay, doing the job for which the devil designed them. Every once in a while, in the Providence of God, the leash will be lengthen and bark will become bite and the church will be chastened and painfully refined, at which point the leash will be yanked, the threat will recede, and the work will continue.
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19 ESV)
That’s the overarching thrust of Peter’s counsel to believers living and serving on the margins of a hostile culture:
Trust that God knows what he is doing. Leave the length of the leash and the duration of the trial up to him.
As for us – let’s do our jobs. Let’s do good. Let’s shine our lights, live our lives, raise our families and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and deed!
And if persecution comes, let’s carry on, using whatever space we can find, paying whatever price has been determined, reviling no one, loving our enemies and watching and waiting for the return of the Lord.
That’s the old way – that’s the Christian way, thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
 Thomas Schreiner, 1,2 Peter, Jude The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 30.
 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame in The Paternoster Church History Volume 1 (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978), 170-171.
 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame in The Paternoster Church History Volume 1 (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978), 171.
 Simon Baker, Ancient Rome (UK: Random Books, 2006), 356.
 Thomas Schreiner, 1,2 Peter, Jude The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 30.