Early Christians’ Loyalty to God Tested
WE HUMANS have an inherent desire to be loved. Therefore, it is not easy for us to bear up under constant misrepresentation, ill treatment and hatred. Yet that is exactly what the early Christians did.
To stop their activity, opposers stirred up mob violence and official action against them. These opposers also misrepresented their work and made it appear that only the inexperienced and ignorant would be stupid enough to accept Christianity. Said one such opposer, Celsus:
“Whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and schoolteachers, but must obey them; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding, and that in reality they neither know nor are able to do anything good, but are taken up with mere empty chatter. But they alone, they say, know the right way to live, and if the children would believe them, they would become happy and make their home happy as well. And if just as they are speaking they see one of the schoolteachers coming, or some intelligent person, or even the father himself, the more cautious of them flee in all directions; but the more reckless urge the children on to rebel.”
Why, despite such absurd misrepresentation, did the early Christians continue their efforts to preach and to make disciples? Why did they not just wait until others approached them instead of taking the initiative to spread their beliefs? Early Christians recognized that they had a commission from the Lord Jesus Christ to declare the truth to others and to make disciples. (Matt. 28:19, 20) They wanted to be faithful to that commission, even if this resulted in their being persecuted.
Another aspect that made Christians objects of hatred was their separateness from the world. (John 15:19) They did not share in political activity nor did they serve in the armies of Rome. Hence, Christians were labeled as unpatriotic and their position was represented as foolish, in fact, as dangerous to the security of the state.
Why did Christians not succumb to arguments to render military service in defense of Rome? They recognized the principle enunciated at Isaiah 2:4: “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” Clearly alluding to this prophecy, an early Christian writer, Justin Martyr, noted:
“We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,—our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage.”
Then, too, Christians recognized themselves as members of an international brotherhood. Though opposers did not understand the love Christians had, they were forced to acknowledge that it existed. It was stated of Christians: “They love one another almost before they know one another . . . and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters.” Because of their deep love for one another, early Christians did not let the world’s hatred and divisions break up their unity.—John 13:35; 1 Pet. 5:9.
They also refused to engage in any activities linked with idolatry. Notes the book A History of Christianity:
“Because they refused to participate in pagan ceremonies the Christians were dubbed atheists. Through their abstention from much of the community life—the pagan festivals, the public amusements which to Christians were shot through and through with pagan beliefs, practices, and immoralities—they were derided as haters of the human race. They were popularly charged with perpetrating the grossest immoralities.”
Why were the early Christians so adamant in avoiding idolatry? They recognized it as disloyalty to God, something both senseless and detestable. Justin Martyr declared:
‘We see that these idols are dead and have not the form of God. The craftsmen make what they call a god; which we consider not only senseless, but to be even insulting to God who thus gets His name attached to things that are corruptible, and require constant service. The artificers of these are both intemperate and practised in every vice. Even their own girls who work along with them they corrupt.’
Having incurred the world’s hatred because of their zealous preaching and their separateness from the world’s conflicts, politics and idolatry, Christians were often brought before public officials for punishment. These officials would give them the opportunity to renounce Christianity and thus escape punishment, yes, even death. Pliny the Younger, writing to Emperor Trajan, tells of his procedure in dealing with Christians:
“I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment . . . An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them.”
All that was necessary to escape punishment was the performance of religious rites once. But those who were truly devoted Christians remained loyal to God. They did not compromise; they did not reason that it was just a little thing for which they could ask God to forgive them.—Compare Luke 4:6-8.
The record that many early Christians made for themselves is one of outstanding loyalty, even when faced with death under extreme torture. Of the terrible persecution that befell them during the reign of Caesar Nero, who shifted the blame onto them for the fire that destroyed much of Rome, the historian Tacitus notes:
“An arrest was first made of all 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.”
There are Christians today who have shown similar loyalty to God in the face of death. They too call one another “brothers” and “sisters” and really love one another deeply, avoiding all involvement in the conflicts and politics of this world. They zealously proclaim the truth in spite of misrepresentation. Are you one of them? Do you have the kind of faith that is needed to show such loyalty to God? If you really want such faith, Jehovah’s witnesses will be glad to help you to acquire it.