Persecution was a reality of life for early Christians and the biblical authors did not leave their flocks without guidance about it. If there is one word that would sum up what Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter say about the subject of persecution that word would be endurance. To endure persecution is a goal in the writer’s minds. James is probably the most practical when he says that enduring trials “produces steadfastness” (James 1:3, ESV). Hebrews takes a very high theological position on persecution as the author says it is the will of God for his people to endure (Heb 10:36). Peter has a position between these two; a practical and theological position but also emotional. Peter, more than the other two authors, points to Christ and states that if Christ endured suffering so should we (1 Peter 4:12 – 18). Peter also makes the suffering of any saint in the church a matter for the church to be involved in, and not just the local church, but Peter exhorts and comforts his audience to remember that all over the world Christians are being persecuted (1 Peter 5:9). All of the authors also share a common message of reward for the endurance. James says those that endure will have “the crown of life”, Hebrews says that those who endure will “receive what is promised”, and Peter treats those that endure to images of a faith that is more valuable than silver or gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). The combined weight of these authors compels the reader to understand that persecution is within the will of God for his people, is good for building stronger faith, is no more than Jesus suffered as our example, is shared across Christian’s the worldwide, and bears with it the promise of eternal reward when suffering is for righteousness sake.
The first-century church was facing opposition from two main fronts. There were the Jewish leaders that wanted all the talk about Jesus to cease: “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18, ESV). The Jewish leaders saw the followers of the way as blasphemers because they called Jesus God. The other persecution came from Roman sources. By the time the authors were writing the idea that the emperor was the son of god had become ensconced with the great Roman way of living and thinking. As Rome conquered new areas they would incorporate the gods from the area into the Roman corpus of gods. Each area would gain the Roman gods and with those gods came the worship of the emperor. Most monotheistic religions were outlawed as illegal mysticism, with one exception and that was Judaism. The Hellenistic way of thinking was that the older something was, the more likely it was to have some truth behind it. Judaism fascinated many Hellenistic thinkers precisely because of its claim to be the oldest religion. However, as the Jews distanced themselves from the Christians, which can be seen in the writings of many of the church fathers like Origen who said, “How is it that you take the beginning of your system from our worship, and when you have made some progress you treat it with disrespect”, the Romans began to see that Christianity was its own new thing (Origen, n.d.). Being a new monotheistic religion Christianity did not enjoy the acceptance that Judaism had. The cultural ridicule, talked about in Hebrews 10, led to Christians being secretive about their meetings which in turn led to greater rumors and misunderstandings of the new sect. Peter seems to directly address this cultural confusion about Christianity when he asks the reader to honor those in authority in order to “silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15, ESV).
The Lexham Bible Dictionary lists several types of abuse that the New Testament Christian’s would have faced: verbal abuse (Matt 5:11, 1 Pet 4:14), seizure of property (Heb 10:34), beatings (Acts 5:40), murder plots (Acts 9:23), stoning (Acts 7:58), unjust arrests and imprisonments (Acts 5:18), exile (Rev 1:9), execution (Luke 21:16), “made a public spectacle” (Heb 10:32–33, ESV) (The Lexham Bible Dictionary, 2016). There was cultural abuse, Peter talks about the believers being lied about: “they malign you” and Hebrews talks about public humiliation (1 Peter 4:4, Heb 10:32–33, ESV). There were physical persecutions. It is likely that Peter would be, shortly after the time the book was authored, crucified upside down in Rome (The Lexham Bible Dictionary, 2016).Accounts vary, however, according to Josephus James was tried by the Sanhedrin and “delivered them[James and his companians] to be stoned” Josephus, Whiston, 1987, p. 538).
The church reacted to these assaults as a whole by becoming more secretive and this, in turn, led to more unfounded rumors about Christian cannibalism and loves feasts. It can also be inferred from Peter’s statements about honoring those in authority that Peter at least was concerned that the church might show hostility towards the Roman leadership that persecuted them (1 Peter 2:13-17). There are also accounts of Christian living in caves, ostracized from society (Heb 11:38).
Peter is the most forthcoming with advice about what to do with persecution, however, all the authors encourage their readers to be patient and have endurance in the trials (James 5:7, 1 Peter 1:6-7, Heb 10:35). All the authors also talk about outward conduct. Peter said ” Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable (1 Peter 2:12, ESV). The last overall theme that can be drawn from all three authors is that of obedience to leadership (1 Peter 2:13-17, Heb 13:17). James does not directly speak on the subject of obedience to leadership, however, most of his letter is directed to the subject of Christian conduct that insinuates the proper treatment of all people in all walks of life. The authors of these three texts do not try to hide the fact that their readers would most likely have to face persecution for their beliefs. Instead, they encouraged the readers to understand that God had His very good reasons for letting them face persecution and they should endure that persecution with patience and joy because of the great rewards that would follow. James, Hebrews, and 1 Peter all encourage their readers not to let the persecution dictate their actions, but to rather change the culture by facing persecution with love and kindness to those committing it, the same way Christ did.
Hall, R. (1976). For to this you have been called: the cross and suffering in 1 Peter. Restoration Quarterly, 19(3), 137-147.
Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 538). Peabody: Hendrickson.
Origen. (1885). Origen against Celsus. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), F. Crombie (Trans.), Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second (Vol. 4, p. 431). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Tabb, B. J. (2016). Persecution of the Early Church. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.