The early church met opposition right from the beginning. At first, it came from the leaders of the Jewish establishment, as in Stephen’s martyrdom in AD 35 (Acts 7:58-60) or from the puppet King Herod when he executed the Apostle James in AD 42 (Acts 12:2). A few years later, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jewish community, including the Christians, from the City of Rome because of what the Romans saw as a family feud over this new belief about Jesus Christ (Acts 18:2).
It was during the reign of Nero as Emperor that the Christian church became the specific target of Roman persecution. When 70% of the city was destroyed by a great fire in AD 64, Nero needed a scapegoat, and he openly blamed the Christians. It was as a result of the public fury over this catastrophe that both Apostles Peter and Paul were executed as martyrs in AD 65. That episode of persecution slowly died down and the Church went somewhat underground, but twenty years later the Emperor Domitian proclaimed himself to be a god and required that all his subjects worship him. When Christians refused to comply on grounds of conscience, they were tried and imprisoned. His egomaniacal struggle lasted for fifteen years, culminating in the AD 95 public execution of a number of Christian leaders.
This was the tense, threatening atmosphere in which the Church took shape. The current “persecution” we’re experiencing, at the mercy of the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t particularly focused on the Church, but it is certainly putting a lot of pressure on us. We believe the Lord may be using it to force us to reshape the Church in a new way for the day in which we live.
We’ve decided to begin a sermon series based on the New Testament books that were written during that formative period of persecution the early Church went through. These are the last nine books in our Bible, all the letters and epistles other than the thirteen written by the Apostle Paul. These nine are:
We’re going to move quickly, spending only one Sunday on each Book, whether it’s a long one like Hebrews (11 pages long in our Bible) or Revelation (16 pages long), or a very short one, like Second or Third John (each less than a page long). That way, we hope to identify the one central message each particular Book has for our church going through its pandemic-pressure reshaping.
You may want to get a head start by reading the Book of Hebrews this week. It’s likely to make your head spin. It’s full of quotes and analyses of Old Testament passages which will probably seem obscure or unnecessarily complicated to you. You may be helped by the guidance and outline provided here.
If you want to witness a miracle, tune in to this Sunday’s on-line service and stay to the end. I, Pastor George Van Alstine, at the incredible age of 83.6, will unravel the labyrinthine mysteries of this deep and dense Book of Hebrews in one twenty-minute (?) sermon.
– Pastor George Van Alstine