Section 11: The Early Apostles Send Their Witness to the World

The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, (1979), 402–41


Lessons

  1. 49.

    “Pure Religion and Undefiled” (James)

  2. 50.

    “For This Cause Was the Gospel Preached Also to Them That Are Dead” (1 Peter)

  3. 51.

    “Partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter)

  4. 52.

    “Walk in the Light, As He Is in the Light” (1 John)

  5. 53.

    “For There Are Certain Men Crept In Unawares” (2 and 3 John; Jude)

The Fiery Trial

“… ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8.)

For three decades following the ascension of the Lord, the infant church of Jesus Christ grew rapidly. Consistent with the prophecy by Jesus (Acts 1:8), the church expanded from its relative obscurity in remote Palestine to many parts of the empire.

In July, A.D. 64, a disastrous fire raged for nine days and destroyed the imperial capital of Rome. Contemporary public opinion said that Nero, seeking to cover his crimes and to appropriate a sizable area in the center of the city for a new palace, was himself the incendiary. To dispel this rumor, Nero cast the blame for the fire on the Christians. The teaching of the church that the eventual destruction of the world was to be by fire led credibility to the accusation. A general persecution against the saints followed. Tacitus, a Roman historian, chronicled the extent and severity of what became known as the first Roman persecution of the church.

“But all human efforts, all the largesses of the emperor, all the propitiations of the gods, failed to dispel the sinister belief that the conflagration had been ordered. Consequently, to scotch the rumor, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures upon a group hated for their abominations, whom the populace called Christians. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, had been condemned to death in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition, thus suppressed for the moment, was breaking out again not only in Judea, the original source of this evil, but even in Rome, where all things horrible or shameful from all parts of the world collect[ed] and became popular. First, then, those who confessed membership were arrested; then, on their information, great numbers were convicted, not so much of guilt for the conflagration as of hatred of the human race. And mockery was added to their deaths: they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to death by dogs, or they were nailed to crosses and, when daylight failed, were set on fire and burned to provide light at night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was providing circus games, mingling with the populace in the dress of a charioteer or driving a chariot. Hence, though they were deserving of the most extreme punishment, a feeling of pity arose because of the savagery of one man.” (Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 3:226–27.)

The burning of Rome could be likened to a “fiery trial” about to be inflicted upon the membership of the church. Thus did Peter, the president of the church, warn the saints in Asia of the impending persecution. How literal the prophecy was is seen by the fact that both Peter and Paul fell as martyrs to the faith during these years of persecution under Nero, probably in A.D. 68.

A second fiery persecution followed during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, A.D. 81–96. During this period John the Beloved was banished to the isle of Patmos. It was alleged that thousands of saints were killed or tortured during this period.

The third of the persecutions commenced under the Emperor Trajan, who reigned from A.D. 98 to 117. By this time Christianity had been declared an illegal society in the empire; and unless the saints renounced Christ, they were executed. Trajan, determined to see the law upheld, directed that Christians not be sought out, but if they were discovered and did not renounce the faith, they were to be executed. Interestingly, the Greek word for “witness” is martyrs, and for “testimony” it is martyrion. Before the first century was concluded, bearing faithful witness of Jesus Christ led to torture, persecution, and death so often that the very word witness took on the connotation of dying for one’s belief. Our English word martyr is a direct derivative from the Greek. To deny Christ and deify Caesar, or to die was the choice given many of the early saints of the church.

Biographies

Peter

Following the Savior’s ascension, Peter assumed the heavy responsibilities of leading the infant church. Thus, Peter directed the apostles in their efforts to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15–26). On the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who became the spokesman for the apostles and saints (Acts 2:14). Peter received the revelation which authorized missionary efforts among the gentiles (Acts 10:1–11:18), and he it was who declared the policy regarding circumcision (Acts 15:1–29; Galatians 2:1–10). As with many of the ancient saints, Peter suffered much from persecution, first in Jerusalem (Acts 5:29–32, 40; chapter 12) and later in Rome. From ancient tradition it is learned that the apostle was arrested while he was in Rome and crucified near the end of the reign of Nero. It is said that at his own request Peter was crucified upside down because he considered himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as was the Savior (John 21:18, 19). (See Frederic W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul, p. 448.)

Peter became a spiritual rock of a man. He healed the lame and the sick through the power of the priesthood (Acts 3; 5:15, 16). Though at one point in his life he denied knowing the Lord, yet he later received the transforming power of the Holy Ghost. His faith in the Lord Jesus Christ became so powerful that when he was threatened, beaten, and maligned by his Sanhedrin persecutors, he boldly testified, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29.) Peter was “a man who had grown perfect through his experiences and sufferings—a man with vision, a man of revelations, a man fully trusted by his Lord Jesus Christ.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Peter, My Brother,” Speeches of the Year, 1971, p. 1. The complete text of “Peter, My Brother,” is included in Appendix D at the end of this manual.)

James

The weight of evidence indicates that the author of the letter of James is not the James who was the brother of John and a member of the presidency of the church with Peter and John. The author of the book of James was probably the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19) and evidently was not fully converted to the Savior until after the resurrection (John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7). After his conversion he began to take a prominent position in church leadership (Acts 15:4–34; 21:18, 19; Galatians 1:18, 19; 2:1–10). Because of this it is likely that he was made an apostle, perhaps even filling the quorum vacancy left when James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred (Acts 12:1, 2). It is an interesting note on James’ humility that in his letter he does not call himself the brother of the Lord, but, rather, the servant of the Lord (James 1:1). (For further information on the author of the epistle of James see reading 49–3.)

Judas (same as Jude in later Greek and Judah in Hebrew) was the brother of James and the author of the book of Jude. (See Jude 1.) If this is the same man, he would be a brother (technically a half-brother) of the Savior (Matthew 13:55). Little else is known about his life.

Note: Though John has written three of the epistles in this section, his biographical information is included in section 12.

Roman Emperors of the First Century

Augustus

(27 B.C.A.D. 14)

 

Tiberius

(A.D. 1–A.D. 37)

On the throne at the time of Jesus

Caligula

(A.D. 37–A.D. 41)

 

Claudius

(A.D. 41–A.D. 54)

 

Nero

(A.D. 54–A.D. 68)

The first Roman persecution: Peter and Paul martyred

Galba

(A.D. 68–A.D. 69)

 

Otho

(A.D. 69)

 

Vitellius

(A.D. 69)

 

Vespasian

(A.D. 69–A.D. 79)

 

Titus

(A.D. 79–A.D. 81)

 

Domitian

(A.D. 81–A.D. 96)

The second Roman persecution; John banished to the isle of Patmos

Nerva

(A.D. 96–A.D. 98)

 

Trajan

(A.D. 98–A.D. 117)

The third imperial persecution; Christianity an illegal religion