The devil has never given up the attempt to destroy the church by force. Under Nero (AD 54-68), Christians were imprisoned and executed, including, probably, Paul and Peter. Domitian (AD 81-96) oppressed Christians who refused to pay him the divine honors he demanded. Under him, John was exiled to Patmos. Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), believing that Christianity was dangerous and immoral, turned a blind eye to severe local outbreaks of mob violence. Then, in the third century, what had, so far, been sporadic became systematic. Under Decius (AD 249-251), thousands died, including Fabian, Bishop of Rome, for refusing to sacrifice to the imperial name. The last persecuting emperor before the conversion of Constantine was Diocletian (AD 284-305). He issued four edicts which were intended to stamp out Christianity altogether. He ordered churches to be burned, Scriptures to be confiscated, clergy to be tortured, and Christian civil servants to be deprived of their citizenship and, if stubbornly unrepentant, executed.
Still today, in some Marxist, Hindu, and Moslem countries, the church is often harassed. But, we need not fear for its survival. Tertullian, addressing the rulers of the Roman Empire, cried out: “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust… The more you mow us down, the more we grow. The seed is the blood of the Christians.” Or, as Bishop Festo Kivengere said, in February, 1979, on the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda: “Without bleeding, the church fails to bless.”
Persecution will refine the church, but not destroy it. If it leads to prayer and praise, to an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God and of solidarity with Christ in His sufferings, then – however painful – it may even be welcome.
From: The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World by John R. W. Stott; The Bible Speaks Today series (Downers Grove, IL/Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 119. Comment on Acts 4.32-6.7.