The Trail of Blood – Part 2
December 31st, 1967
THE TRAIL OF BLOOD
Part 2 of 3
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-31-67 7:30 p.m.
We shall take a church and follow it through in order that we might see that the church that was founded in the New Testament wasn’t lopped off when the Bible ceased telling its story, but it continued on through the centuries that follow. Now I have chosen as typical the church at Antioch. In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Acts, it says, “And some of them were men, Hellenistic Jews,” Greek speaking Jews, “of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Greeks,” that heathen, idolatrous, pagan, orgiastic, vile, evil people, “spake to those Greeks the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed” [Acts 11:20-21]. And they were Christians right there on the spot; right out of sin, and vice, and iniquity, and idolatry into the fellowship of the saints of God.
Now, the city of Antioch was one of the great cities of the ancient world. There were three cities in this order in the Mediterranean world: first, and largest, was Rome; the second largest and most influential was Alexandria; and the third largest and most influential was Antioch. Antioch was the gateway to all of that vast Mesopotamian Valley that lay beyond, that whole Fertile Crescent. Antioch was founded by Seleucus, one of the four generals of Alexander the Great, in 301 BC. The Orontes River runs northward; and then at the turn in the Mediterranean Sea between the Taurus and the Lebanon mountains, it turns directly westward and goes straight into the Mediterranean. Fifteen miles up from the Mediterranean Sea, Seleucus built his capital; the capital of ancient Syria; and he named it after his father Antiochus, Antioch. And it flourished from the beginning. It was a very metropolitan city, full of all kinds of people.
Now one of the things that they did in Antioch was they invented epithets, and little words that described people; some of them funny, some of them crude, but they were very adept at doing it. And in Antioch a new kind of a people appeared. Heretofore Christianity had been looked upon as a sect among the Jews. There were the Essenes, there were the Sadducees, there were the Pharisees, there were the Herodians, there were others sects among the Jews; so they looked upon Christianity as one of those sects, and they called it “the sect of the Nazarenes.” So to the Sadducees and the Herodians and the Pharisees and the Essenes, they add another sect: the Nazarenes. That is until Antioch. But at Antioch it became very apparent that these people were no sect of the Jews. There were Scythians there, there were Bavarians, there were provincials, there were Greeks, there were Latins, there were Cappadocians, there were Mesopotamians, there was all kinds of people. It was a polyglot group of people, and they’d never seen anything like it before. So they invented a name for them at Antioch: and they took the word for messiah, the [Hebrew] word messiah, the [Hebrew] word messiah means “anointed one”; they took the [Hebrew] word messiah and translated it into Greek; christos, “the anointed one,” christos in Greek, messiah in Hebrew. And they added to that Greek word christos, they added a Latin ending ianos and they called it christianos. And the disciples were first called christianoi, plural, they were first called Christians at Antioch [Acts 11:26]. It was a new departure; something the world had never seen before. Slaves and masters, all kinds of people were in that one fellowship; the church, the christianoi, the Christian fellowship at Antioch.
Now, as I said in this first message, out of Antioch came the great worldwide missionary endeavor of our Lord’s disciples [Acts 13:4-15:35]. Not in Jerusalem, Jerusalem finally was taken over by the Judaizers, and when Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, the Judaizing sect of Christianity died forever. The kind of Christianity that lived was the Christianity at Antioch. And out of Antioch poured those great strains of evangelization and missionary endeavors that covered the civilized world [Acts 13:4-15:35].
Now, as the story continued in Antioch in 70 AD and thereafter, they had a very famous pastor at Antioch by the name of Ignatius; and upon a day, Trajan, upon a day Trajan, the Roman emperor, was in Antioch—and this was about 100 AD—and he had Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, brought before him. And he was highly offended by the Christian worship, and he judged Ignatius to be worthy of death and sentenced him to be exposed to wild beasts in the Roman Coliseum. And tradition has it that Ignatius was the first Christian martyr to be fed to the lions in the great Coliseum in Rome. Now, when Ignatius made his journey to Rome, after about 100 AD, why, he wrote letters to the churches along the way, and we have those letters. The Roman Coliseum was built about five years after the martyrdom of the apostle Paul; that would be it was built about 72 AD. And in that Coliseum, Ignatius, the pastor of the church at Antioch, was fed to the lions; and the Christians gathered up his bones and took them back to Antioch and prayerfully buried them.
Now the church at Antioch continued, and in 241 AD they had a visit from the emperor Decius. Now Decius, as you’re going to see in a little while, was a vicious, persecuting opponent of the Christian faith. And when he was in Antioch, he had the pastor of the church, Babylas, brought before him. And Babylas openly condemned the Roman emperor to his face for what he was doing in persecuting the Christians. And this inflamed the emperor; and he commanded that Babylas, the pastor at the church at Antioch, worship before his image, the shrine of the Roman Caesar. And Babylas refused to do it. And the Roman emperor Decius had him tortured and finally beheaded.
Now the years pass, and in 341 AD the Roman emperor is now a Christian. And Constantine began, and his son Constantius continued, until in 341 [AD] they built what they called the “Golden Basilica” in Antioch; one of the great, expansive, gigantic churches of all time. Now I want you to know what a basilica is. If you read anything of Christian story at all, you will come across that word “basilica” again and again and again. What is a basilica? A basilica is a house of worship; it was first evolved by the pagan Greeks. It is nothing but an oblong house, an oblong temple; and inside the temple, you usually will find a row of columns on one side and a row of columns on the other side, with a large what you call a “nave” in between. And at one end of the basilica there was usually a little rounded place, a little rounded addition; and that was where the pulpit, the altar, the minister delivered God’s message. That is a basilica. Now, so gorgeous, and so expansive, and so magnificent was the basilica that the Roman emperor built at Antioch, for the church at Antioch, that they called it the Golden Basilica.
Now one time in preaching to a bunch of preachers at an evangelistic conference I referred to the fact that Chrysostom, the pastor of the church at Antioch—we’re going to come to him in a moment—that Chrysostom said he had fifty thousand members in the First Baptist Church at Antioch. Well, after it was over some of those preachers came to me and said, “Well, that’s preposterous; that’s unbelievable—fifty thousand members!” So I got my history books and dug through them again; and I found I was mistaken: John Chrysostom said that he had one hundred thousand members in the First Baptist Church at Antioch. So you wonder, “Well, how did they go to church if you had a church if you had one hundred thousand members?” The way they did it was this: to have pews at a church, to have seats at a church is a modern turning to the love for luxury on the part of the people; it is an accommodation to our liking things that are easy. But no ancient church ever had a pew in it; and no ancient church ever had a seat in it. And the people came to church and they stood. And in that First Baptist Church at Antioch, that’d hold—that’s called the Golden Basilica—in that church there could easily stand from twenty-five to thirty-five thousand people. And those were the congregations that John Chrysostom preached to. The people stood together just like that, listening to the Word of God.
Well, now I’ve spoken in the church of Antioch of one of the great preachers of all time, John Chrysostom. There were two schools of Bible interpretation that developed in the ancient Christian world. One of them was at Alexandria, and the other was at Antioch. And they were as different as the night is from the day. The Alexandrian school of theology spiritualized. They got that from Philo, and Philo took the Old Testament Scriptures—he was one of the most famous Jewish philosophers of all time—Philo took the Old Testament Scriptures and he made it conform to Greek theology, Greek philosophy. And he did it by spiritualizing it. That is, he took the Old Testament and what it said, and he accommodated it to Greek philosophy. He’d say, for example—and we haven’t got time, we’ll be here all night long on this one thing if we don’t stop—he’d take the Old Testament stories, say of the garden of Eden, and he’d say, “Well, there was no such a thing as a garden of Eden; but the garden represents your mind, and the trees on the inside of the garden represents your thoughts. And the good trees represent your good thoughts, and the bad trees represent your bad thoughts. And Adam represents a man’s soul; and he chooses between his good thoughts and his bad thoughts.”
Now that is what you call spiritualizing; and that is the sorriest, no-countedness, good-for-nothingest way to preach in the entire world. Out of all the ways to preach, the sorriest way to preach is to spiritualize; that is, you take a text in the Bible, or you take a passage in the Bible, or you take a story in the Bible, and you say, “Now those four anchors that they threw out from the ship in which Paul was going to be shipwrecked [Acts 27:29], now those four anchors are first faith, and second courage, and third prayer, and fourth intercession.” And then another guy would come along and they say, “It represents first goodness, second benevolence, third tithing, fourth missions.” Then another guy would come along and say, “And the four anchors represent one, two, three, four…” All of that is folderol; it’s stuff. That’s not preaching; that’s spiritualizing. Now that was the school in Alexandria. And its greatest Christian exponent was Origin; as Philo was the great exponent of the spiritualizing on the part of the Jews, Origin was, the great church father was, in the Christian centuries.
Now in Antioch they developed an altogether different type of school. They developed a grammatical, historical interpretation of the Bible in Antioch. That is, they took the Bible and they tried to understand what it said, why it was said, all the historical backgrounds of the message itself; and then the preacher stood up and he said, “This is what God said; and this is why He said it, and this is what God means by it for us today.” Now that’s the historical, grammatical interpretation of the Word of God; and that was the method of preaching in Antioch. And the great exponent of that kind of preaching was John, called the Golden Mouth, in Greek Chrysostom. And did you know most of the commentaries that you read today, when you get those books out of the library, or if you have a set of commentaries at home, you read those commentaries, and you read those things—do you know where most of that came from? You trace it back, and back, and back, and back, and you will finally trace it to John Chrysostom, John the Golden Mouth.
Now John Chrysostom was born in 347 AD in Antioch. He was born into a very affluent patrician family. And they sent him to school, to the rhetorician and the philosopher, Libanius, in order for him to be an orator, and a rhetorician, and a lawyer. But while he was studying rhetoric and oratory in the school of Libanius, his old, blessed mother, who was a Christian—her name was Anthusa—she prayed that boy out of heathenism, and out of paganism, and out of the rhetorician school of Libanius, into the gospel of the Son of God. And the young fellow, John, became a Christian. When he gave his heart to the Lord, he went into the desert and stayed there for six years and pored over the Scriptures, read God’s Book and bared his soul before the Lord. And after six years, he came out of the desert and appeared in Antioch, a flaming preacher of Jesus.
Now about that time the emperor Theodosius had laid a levy on the city of Antioch in order to support his army. And the people of Antioch rebelled; and not only did they rebel, but they took the images of the emperor and his wife the empress, and they broke them in pieces. And they had a riot in the city. And not only was that sacrilege, tearing down the images of the emperor and his wife, but it also was treason; for emperor worship was identified with the state. So when the people at Antioch realized what they had done, they sent an embassage to Rome to beg forgiveness; and the people were cowering there waiting for the judgment to fall because just at the whim of the emperor he could have sent his army and wiped the city off the face of the globe. So while they were cowering there in dread, wondering what the Roman emperor Theodosius would do, John Chrysostom seized upon the occasion and announced a mission, he announced a revival meeting. And there in that glorious church he began to preach the gospel of the Son of God. And like a flaming Savonarola, he called them to repentance and to faith in Jesus; and he denounced them for their vices and for their sins. And a revival broke out in Antioch like the world had never seen. And when the embassy came from Rome they found it favorable, the people were forgiven; and John Chrysostom kept on preaching, the flamingest preacher up until that time the world had ever known!
And so gifted was John Chrysostom that they called him to be pastor of the church in Constantinople. And while he was preaching in Constantinople— and I’m going to tell you now how he died—while he was preaching in the church at Constantinople, the empress Eudoxia erected a silver statue of herself right across the street from his church, and she put on orgiastic worship services around her own statue. They were unspeakable, they were vile. And John Chrysostom did nothing other than stand up in his pulpit and denounce Eudoxia the empress of the Roman Empire. And it made Eudoxia furious. So John Chrysostom stood up in his pulpit, and this is a sentence from his flaming sermon, he said, “Again Herodias is raging, again Herodias is reaching out her hand for the head of John, again Herodias is dancing.” And believe me, Eudoxia did it; she put him out of his pulpit, she put him out of his church, she sent him into exile where he died of exposure; John Chrysostom, the greatest preacher, grammatical, historical interpreter of the Bible of all time.
Now, we’re still in Antioch. In 390 AD there was born in Antioch one of the unusual celebrities of all time; his name was Simeon. And this one is Simeon the Elder; and he had a son, Simeon the Younger. And Simeon the Elder sought to pull away from all of the worldliness of the world; so he went outside on the outskirts of Antioch, and he built him a pole about six feet high, and he lived on a little platform on that pole. He was withdrawing from the world. Now that was an amazing thing; and the world had never seen anything like that. That guy, living out there on a pole about six feet high; and he became known as the pole-sitter, an anchorite, a stylite. Well, it was an astonishing thing! So people from all over began to look at him as he lived there on that pole. Well, he decided if six feet would make an impression on the world, why, one twelve feet would do more. So he made his pole twelve feet high. And he lived on that pole on a little platform on top of that pole, all day and all night, and all the years he lived on that pole twelve feet high. And he became more famous and more famous. So he raised that pole to thirty feet and became more famous. And he raised that pole to sixty feet and became more famous. And he raised that pole to eighty feet and became more famous. And he raised that pole to over one hundred twenty feet high; and he lived on that pole thirty-six years! And did you know that began one of the strangest phenomenon in the Christian religion that I’ve ever heard of in my life? All over the Christian world were anchorites, stylites, pole-sitters, everywhere, sitting on a pole, sitting on a pole, all over the civilized world. And I spoke of Simeon the Younger; Simeon the Younger lived on that pole sixty-eight years. They’re called anchorites, they were called stylites. They were hermits, they were pole-sitters; and all their lives they sat on that pole. And did you know that continued in Western Christianity until the thirteenth century; and Simeon was born in 390 AD. And in the Western world it continued into the thirteenth century; and in the Eastern Christian world, it continued until the fifteenth century. There were pole-sitters all over this world. Now Simeon died, and his bones were gathered, and he was buried at Antioch.
Now I want to make a comment here: it is very easy, and always has been, it is very easy for people who think they have religion to be peculiar. That has been an evidence of the Christian faith from the beginning. For example, if everybody wears rouge and lipstick and puts powder and cuts their hair, why, in order to show yourself religious, why, there are people who won’t use any rouge, they won’t use any lipstick, they won’t use any powder, and they won’t cut their hair; they feel that in order to be religious you somehow have to be peculiar. Then there are the people who look around the world and everybody is wearing their collar straight out, you know just like this. Well, they’ve got religion; so what they do is in order to show they’ve got religion they take their collar, and they turn it around, and they button it at the back. There are all kinds of funny people, peculiar people in the world.
I want to point out to you in passing that religion is not a matter of whether you use rouge or not, or whether you use lipstick or not, or whether you cut your hair or not, or what kind of dress that you wear; now I’m not saying that some of these dresses don’t somehow make you wonder at some of these modern styles, but don’t you worry. There are so many girls who have bow-legged, knock-kneed legs, those dresses are coming down again, don’t you worry. Don’t you worry, they’re all coming back down again, you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to worry. Religion is not a matter of peculiar dress and aesthetic habits. Religion is a matter of the soul; it’s a matter of the heart. And however people dress, if it isn’t something that religion, that morality won’t deny you, just go ahead and dress like the rest of them do. If you cut your hair, everybody cuts their hair, cut your hair; there’s nothing wrong in that. Everybody’s wearing red dresses, why, you wear a red dress… I think every woman ought to have a red dress, every woman ought to have a red dress; something to pick her up. If it’s got a different color down the front, why, that’s all right too. Just be just fine like everybody else, and don’t identify religion with some peculiarity like sitting on a pole.
Now to close it, I’m just illustrating the fact that the churches here in the New Testament continued right on through the years, they didn’t lop off at the end of the Bible. In 523 AD, a great earthquake destroyed the Golden Basilica in Antioch, destroyed the city, and it was never rebuilt again and today is a little village, small town on the Orontes River. Now that’s just an introduction to the churches that you might know that they continued on. Now we’re going into a study of the Ephesian church who leaves her first love [Ephesians 2:1-7]; and then the Smyrnan church of the martyr [Revelation 2:8-11].
The early first century development of the church that you will find is: first and foremost a bishop. Now do you remember that I told you that in the beginning, in this Bible—and there’s no exception to it—there is an episkopos [Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:7], there’s a presbuteros [1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5], there’s a poimēn [Ephesians 4:11]. And all of those three titles refer to the same officer: the pastor of the church we call it.
When I was a boy beginning to preach, in many, many instances I was the elder of the church. How many of you ever belonged to a church or an association that the associational minutes printed all the pastors as elders, hold up your hand. Well, they’re not many of you; I tell you I’m getting to be old-timey by the hour. When I was a boy, most of the associations that I belonged to, that I was pastor of, had elder for the preacher; they were all printed as “elder.” I was Elder Criswell, though I wasn’t but about seventeen or eighteen years old; elders. Well, the first development in the Christian church is that the office of bishop became separate and apart; and that was in the first century. So you had a man over the other churches in the area, like at Antioch it’d be a bishop and then he’d be presiding over all the churches in the area. So you had the bishop of Rome, and you had the bishop of Ephesus, and you had the bishop of Antioch, and you had the bishop of Alexandria, and in the first century and thereafter that was the first aberration, that was the first departure from the New Testament church, was creating the office of a bishop. Now, these churches were very, very much under the power and glory of the apostles.
And the marvelous witness of God to the apostle was the signs that he used. For example, in the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul writes in the twelfth verse, “Truly, the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in semeion, and terasin, and dunamesin.” Translated, “signs, wonders, and mighty deeds” [2 Corinthians 12:12]; the signs of an apostle. Now that was God’s authentication of their work.
Now you keep that in your mind because we’re going to stumble into this in the next page here, the signs of an apostle. The signs of an apostle were: he could lay his hands on the sick, and they would be healed [Acts 28:8]; handkerchiefs from the body of Paul would be taken to those who were ill, and they would be healed [Acts 19:12]. The shadow of Simon Peter falling on those in the streets, and they would be healed [Acts 5:15]; and Simon Peter, like the apostle Paul [Acts 20:9-12], raised people from the dead [Acts 9:40]; the signs of an apostle.
Now, God blessed those apostles tremendously. In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, you have three thousand members of the church [Acts 2:41]. You turn the page, and, in the [fourth] chapter of the Book of Acts, you have five thousand andron [Acts 4:4] —members of that church in Jerusalem. Now the Greek word for mankind in general is anthropoi, people; but andron is a word for “men,” in contradistinction to women. And in no time at all there were five thousand men who belonged to that church in Jerusalem [Acts 4:4]. Now, if we had five thousand men here in this church, in our church there are two women for every man, you would have at least fifteen thousand adult members. Then you have all the children. It was a tremendous growth of the church; it was a tremendous thing [Acts 4:4]. We don’t realize how tremendous it was. So much so that when Paul preached in Ephesus, he emptied the temples, and those who made gods were out of business [Acts 19:26]; and the whole Roman province of Asia heard the gospel of Christ as Paul preached at Ephesus [Acts 19:10, 26].
And when he preached at Thessalonica, he writes to the church at Thessalonica, and says, “All Macedonia has heard the word from you” [1 Thessalonians 1:7-8, 4:10]. It was a tremendous thing that the apostles did. Then, when the apostles died, the signs of the apostle died with them! They ceased to exist. They died then. I’m not talking about the signs of the apostles died a thousand years ago; I’m not talking about they died five hundred years ago; I am telling you according to what I can find in church history that the signs of the apostles died when the apostles died, and there were no more apostolic miracles! And when somebody comes along and he says, “I can raise the dead because the apostles raised the dead; and I can heal the sick because the apostles healed the sick; and I can do all these miraculous things because the apostle did them,” he is falling into an error—the first error that the church fell into when the apostles died. And here’s how it came about.
In 150 AD—now you get that date in your mind, for Papias, who was the disciple of the apostle John, and Polycarp, who was the disciple of the apostle John, Polycarp was pastor of Smyrna, the church in Asia, and Papias was the pastor at Heiropolis, the church in Asia. Now while those two men were still living—they were disciples of the apostle John—the apostolic miracles had so ceased that in 150 AD there appeared a prophet in a Phrygian city by the name of Montanus, and he had two prophetesses with him, Maximilla and Priscilla. And they said, “We are restoring the signs and the miracles of the apostles.” And they said, “The Lord gives us revelations from heaven.” And they said, “As Christ repudiated and changed the words of Moses, so I, Montanus and my prophetesses Maximilla and Priscilla, can change the words of the apostle Paul; for we have new revelations, and we have later words from Christ.” Boy, doesn’t that sound familiar to you? Doesn’t that sound like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? Doesn’t that sound like Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, just whichever one of her divorced husbands you want to call her by? Doesn’t that sound like it? “We’ve got a later revelation. We’ve got a new revelation.” Now that’s what Montanus said in 150 AD. So the churches of Christ faced their first heretical movement; and here’s how they did it.
First of all, they said, the signs of the apostle ceased with the apostles. Now this is in 150 AD; I’m not talking about today, I’m not talking about a thousand years ago, I’m talking about in 150 AD. The churches met their first heretical movement with an avowal: first, that there are no longer any signs of an apostle! Now God does miracles. If you have anybody sick, pray. If you have any troubles, take them to God. He is the Lord God yesterday, and today and forever [Hebrews 13:8]. But a man who comes along and says, “I can do miracles,” is an ecclesiastical spiritual prevaricator of the sorriest kind. I sometimes say, “I believe in divine healing, but I don’t believe in divine healers.” They do it for money and they collect.
I know one divine healer, I was up there in his city, and they told me how much money he takes in, and I could not believe my ears. Millions and millions and millions of dollars; oh, these things! The signs of the apostles ceased when it was no longer necessary to authenticate their message from heaven; there are no longer apostolic signs.
All right, second: the church said, “And there are no longer any divine scriptural revelations from heaven.” When the apostles ceased and when they died, the Bible was closed and forever [1 Corinthians 13:10]. Now I want to show you what they did. They made a canon. Now you ought to know what that word “canon” means. And you know, it’s a strange word. The word canon in Hebrew, and the word canon in Greek, and the word canon in English and in all other languages is spelled exactly alike and means exactly the same thing. I don’t know of another word in the history of semantics, nomenclature that follows that course. It is the same identical word all through the centuries and the thousands of years, “canon.” Now canon literally means “measuring stick,” a “measuring stick”; and the word was used ecclesiastically to refer to whether or not a book was to be included in the canon—in the Bible. Now the canon, the measuring stick that they made in 150 AD, was this: for a book to be included in the Bible, it had to be written by an apostle or by the amanuensis of an apostle. So, all of the books in the New Testament are written by an apostle or by an amanuensis such as Mark, who worked with Peter, or Luke who worked with Paul. And that was the canon that the church made in 150 AD about accepting a book in the Bible: it had to be written by an apostle or by an amanuensis of an apostle. And that leads me to a little remark here that many of you will not want to concur in.
I don’t think anybody knows who wrote the Book of the Hebrews in the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews. And I think if anybody wrote it, Apollos wrote it, the Alexandrian Jew. But you have it written here in the Bible that Paul wrote it. Well, why is it that it is written in the Bible, you know the heading up here, that this is an “Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” Why is that written here? “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” That’s the way it is in every King James Bible. Why is that written there? Simply because the Book of Hebrews was so manifestly inspired, God was in it, it was so manifestly inspired, but the canon said for a book to be received into the Bible, it had to be written by an apostle or by an amanuensis of an apostle, so in order to get the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament, they said the apostle Paul wrote it. Well, that’s all right. It’s Pauline in its theology and in its background; there’s a thousand things in it that I don’t think Paul would have said at all. But that’s the reason that they say here, “The epistle of Paul the apostle to the Hebrews;” the canon was, in order to be in the Bible, it had to be written by an apostle. So nobody knew who wrote that; I don’t think they knew who wrote it, I know they didn’t know who wrote it, so they said Paul wrote it, and that put it in the Bible; which is fine with me.
Well, now we’re going to the Smyrnan church of the martyr [Revelation 2 :8-11]. Oh, dear me, dear me; dear me, dear me! We haven’t started yet; and it’s ten after ten. There’s just no other way for me to do but to start with this: now you just stay awake if you can, if you can’t, just go on go to sleep, but we’re going through this. If I don’t quit talking up here and if I don’t start going through this, we’re not going to get started; and I have a great outline here. We have just referred to the Ephesian church [Revelation 2:1-7] and the death of the apostles; now we’re coming to the Smyrnan church of the martyrs [Revelation 2:8-11]. This is the church in the Bible, nothing is said against the church at Smyrna, they are the church of the martyrs, here in the second chapter.
Now, the terrible trials of the Christians in the early days were due to several things, first, guilds, guilds. The Christians suffered first because of guilds. All of the civilized world, the Mediterranean world, was organized into guilds; everybody who had a trade or had a job or had a profession belonged to a guild. There was the silversmiths, and there were the goldsmiths, and there were the dyers, and there were the weavers, and there were the cloth makers, and on and on. The whole civilized world was organized into guilds; you would call them labor unions. Now, every one of those guilds had a patron god or goddess, and when the guild met together it met under the aegis of that god or goddess. And that meant if you belonged to the guild, you had to worship at the shrine of the god or goddess; and you had to burn incense toward the goddess or the god. The Christian refused to do that, so he lost his job; and the people suffered immeasurably. Nobody would hire them, nobody would want them, and they were shunned out of the whole labor force of the whole civilized world.
All right, a second thing that made it hard on the Christian: first, I said, was the organization of the guilds, and if you didn’t belong to it— and the Christian wouldn’t—why, you were out of a job; second, they identified emperor worship with patriotism. And to the Roman for the most part, it was nothing other than a gesture of loyalty to the Roman Empire. Now they worshipped the image of the emperor, and the way you worshipped before the emperor, there was a little flame of fire that burned before his image, and when you worshipped, you took a little pinch of incense and put it on the flame; and that’s the way that you worshipped the emperor. And that was a patriotic duty, and the Christian refused to do it. So he was looked upon as unpatriotic and was despised by the whole population. All right, again, the Christians at the beginning were accused of being atheists; and the whole world believed that they were cannibals. That came from their eating the Lord’s Supper [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].
Now I have copied one of the famous jurists of the Roman Empire; he wrote this about 150 AD to 160 AD; and this horrid slander was believed by the entire civilized world. Now I quote from that jurist, that Roman lawyer: “An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before the neophyte,” the fellow that’s going to be a Christian, a member of the church. “This infant is slain by a young pupil with dark and secret wounds, he being urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal. Thirstily, oh horror of horrors, they lick up its blood; they eagerly divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted together in mutual violence.”
Now the whole civilized world believed that, that the Christian’s secret meetings gathered together in order to be cannibals. Of course, they’d listen in, and they’d say, “This is My blood, drink in remembrance of Me; this is My body, eat” [1 Corinthians 11:24-25] and they verified that the Christians were cannibals.
And they had their secret meetings, no Christian meeting was out in the open; it was always back in a dark and in a hidden place. And they followed the sign of the fish, ichthus—“I” Iēsous; chi, “CH” Christos; “TH” theta, theos; “U”huios, son; “S” soter, savior—ichthus. It had all the names of Jesus Christ Son of God our Savior; and wherever the fish would point, that would be a meeting place of the Christians.
And they had a word to say to one another: maranatha is an Aramaic word, “The Lord comes, the Lord comes.” It’s quoted in the last chapter of the first Corinthian letter, maranatha, maranatha, “the Lord is coming” [1 Corinthians 16:22]. And they would greet one another and tell one another goodbye, maranatha, maranatha, “the Lord come.” They were secret words; that was an Aramaic word. Now the Greek farewell was achri hou elthē, “till He come, till He come” [1 Corinthians 11:26], achri hou elthē; and the Christians were in secret in those days.
Now, I want you to look at the uncompromising dedication of those early Christians. The purpose of the emperor, I said, was to use emperor worship to bind the empire together; and all that he asked of the Christian was to put a pinch of incense on that flame before his statue, and the Christian refused to do it. Now you talk about compromising today, a Christian will do anything in the world today in order to identify himself with a gang, and especially will many of our young people do it. But in that ancient day, the Christian refused even to put a pinch of incense on the flame that burned before the emperor.
All right, another thing: the Christian was invited by the Roman government, and every other provincial governor of the empire, to take Jesus and to put Jesus in the Pantheon. “We are happy to have Him,” said the Roman emperor; and “We’re happy to have Him,” said the proconsul of Asia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, Moesia, and all the rest of the Roman world. “Now we’ve got a Pantheon here,” and if you’ve ever been in Rome, the most beautifully splendid building of all the ancient world is the Roman Pantheon in Rome. It is intact today as Agrippa built it in the days of Julius Caesar, 44 BC. It’s a dome building, an invention of the Romans, we’ve never improved on it; the dome was an invention of the Romans, that beautiful Pantheon. Now, if you go in that Pantheon, here is a niche—no gods in it now—but there is a niche and there was the statue of Jupiter; here’s a niche and there’s a statue of Jove; here’s a niche and a there’s statue of Neptune; here’s a niche and there’s a statue of Aphrodite; and all around. And the Romans said, “We are generous! We are broad-minded! We don’t think Jupiter alone is to be worshipped, we don’t think Jove alone is, we don’t think Neptune alone is good; you bring in your God to the Pantheon,” pan—all, theos—god, all of the gods, “and we’ve got a beautiful place over here, and we’ll put a statue of Jesus there right by the side of Neptune.” And the Christians said, “Not so, not so, never! We worship Jesus Christ, the one true God, and that alone!” Not only would they not put a pinch of incense on the flame that burned before the Roman emperor’s image, but they refused to take Jesus and put Him in a Pantheon.
All right, the third thing that those Roman Christians did: by law the pagan Romans burned their dead, they had crematories, and they burned their dead; that’s the way the Japanese do, that’s the way most of the pagans of the world do, that’s the way the Hindus do. But the Christians refused to burn their dead. They believe that the body was sacred and hallowed, and that Jesus someday would speak it into life and into quickening power [1 Corinthians 15:51-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18]. So the Christians took their dead, and they carved out those enormously long, there are four hundred miles of them, they carved out those secret passageways under the city of Rome; you call them the catacombs, and they lovingly laid their dead away. To them, the body was sacred; and as Jesus was raised from the dead [Matthew 28:1-7], the early Christians believed that the Christian body would be raised from the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17], and they lovingly buried it away.
Now I’m not saying anything against cremation; if you are cremated, it’s all right, and if you have some of your loved ones cremated, it’s all right, I’m saying nothing against it. I am just telling you that the early Christians so hallowed and so reverenced the body that he refused to cremate it according to Roman law, and lovingly buried his dead away. And when I die, I want to be buried; I don’t want to be cremated, I want to be buried just as the Lord was buried and just as the disciples were buried.
Now, I’m speaking of the Smyrnan church of the martyrs [Revelation 2:8-11]. Historians usually will divide the persecutions of the early churches into ten different groups, into ten periods. First, Nero: the Neronian persecution was in 67 AD. Nero set fire to the city, and while it burned, why, he sang the flaming, burning of Troy; but so dreadful was the conflagration—and so many people died of smoke and of the ruins falling upon them and were buried beneath it—that there was a vicious and terrible reaction against Nero. So, Nero, in order to take the blame away from himself, pointed out and said, “The Christians did it, the Christians did it.” Now that gave rise to the first time in secular literature that the word “Christian” is ever found. Suetonius and Tacitus, Roman historians, in describing what Nero did and saying that Nero said, “The Christians did it”—Suetonius and Tacitus had to pause in their history to explain to their readers who the Christians were; and that’s the first secular reference you have to Christ and to the Christian religion.
So, in that persecution from Nero, and we haven’t time to describe it, the apostle Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded on the Ostian Way between Rome and the sea, down the Tiber. And Simon Peter was crucified with his head down. How do I know that Simon Peter was crucified? I preached that here forty dozen times; I wonder if anybody remembers? Does anybody listen to me when I preach? Does anybody? In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of John, Jesus prophesied that Simon Peter would die by his hands outstretched; that is he would die by crucifixion [John 21:18]. And in the Neronian persecution, you could not crucify a Roman citizen, so Paul’s head was cut off; he was beheaded on the Ostian Way. But Simon Peter, being just a slave of the Jew, he was crucified, and because he said—tradition says—he didn’t want to be crucified like his Lord, he wasn’t worthy, so they crucified him upside down. Now that was the first persecution: the Neronian.
Now the second one was the Domitian. Domitian was emperor from 81 to 96 AD; and that was when the apostle John was exiled on the isle of Patmos [Revelation 1:9]. The law was made in the age of Domitian that no Christian once brought before the tribunal shall be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion. And if he refused to do it, he was fed to the lions; and if he did do it, he was fed to the lions. Whichever way it went, the Christian was off to the lions.
Now the third great persecution in the Roman emperors was in the days of Trajan; and we remember him. Pliny wrote a letter to Trajan and said “The temples are empty, and the sacrifices are neglected.” So Trajan wrote back and said, “You force those people to sacrifice.” So Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Trajan, a second one, and he said, he said, “These Christians are daily put to death, and none of them are worthy to die. The whole account they give of their crime or error, whatever you call it, amounted only to this: mainly that they were accustomed the first day of the week”—didn’t I tell you the Christians met on Sunday? Now Pliny is writing in about 100 to 110 AD, and in writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan, he says, “that these Christians,” there in Bithynia, “gather together on the first day of the week to meet at dawn, and to repeat a prayer to Christ as God, and to bind themselves by an obligation not to commit wickedness, nor to falsify their word, nor to defraud any man, after which it was their custom to separate and reassemble to partake in common of a harmless meal,” to take the Lord’s Supper. Now that’s Pliny’s description of the Christians in about 100 to 110 AD. Now under Trajan, I told you, Ignatius, the pastor of the church, was martyred. Now I’ve copied some of the things that he said in his martyrdom; but I don’t have time to refer to them.
Now the fourth great Roman persecution was under Aurelius from 161 to 180 AD. Now isn’t it a strange thing? The better the Roman emperor, the more he persecuted the Christians; the finer he was—and Aurelius was one of the finest emperors and one of the finest leaders of all time. Now Aurelius was emperor when Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna. And don’t you remember the famous words of Polycarp? All they wanted Polycarp to do was to take a pinch of incense and put it on the flame that burned before the Roman emperor’s image, that was all, that was all. But Polycarp refused. And when the Roman procurator begged him to renounce his faith, Polycarp said, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never once wronged me. How then shall I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” And they burned Polycarp, the pastor of the church at Smyrna, at the stake in the marketplace.
Justin Martyr and I wish I had time to follow Justin Martyr; Justin was one of the great philosophers of all time. He was born in Samaria in about 130 AD, and he was a defender of the faith beyond anybody who ever lived. Justin Martyr was arrested, and he was forced to sacrifice; and when he refused, he was scourged and beheaded. There were two signs of the Christian faith in the ancient Roman world: one was the Coliseum where the Christians gave witness to their faith above ground, and the other was the catacombs where the Christians gave evidence of their faith below ground.
Now the fifth great persecution of the Christians was by Severis, and that was 193 to 211, and I haven’t time to follow that. And the sixth one was by Maximinus, and I haven’t time to follow that. He was the first barbarian to be Roman emperor. And he was over eight feet tall, and he never lived in Rome; he stayed with his soldiers all of his life. But he was somehow afraid that the Christians in the empire were going to band together against him and his Caesarhood; so he sought to annihilate them.
Now the seventh great persecution of the Christians under the Romans was under Decius, who lived 249, 251. And Decius sought to annihilate the entire Christian faith. I wish I had time to follow some of these terrible things in Decius. Then the eighth was Valerian. I want to take one thing here in the persecution under Valerian. Valerian was told, the Roman emperor was told, that the Christian church in Rome had a great deal of wealth; and it was presided over by a deacon by the name of Lucentius. So he called Lucentius and he said, “I want the treasures of the church.” And the deacon said, “Give me three days, and I will present them to you.” So after three days, the Roman emperor Valerian came to receive the treasures of the church. And what the deacon had done, he gathered together all of the poor, all of the needy, all of those who were given alms by the church; and he said to the emperor, “These are the treasures of Christ, and this is the riches of the church.” And the emperor was furious. He said, “Thus does he jest with the emperor of the Roman Empire?” And he had him scourged until he beat him to death.
The ninth was under Aurelian, and the tenth was under Diocletian—and Diocletian was the last and the severest of all of the persecutors of the church of Jesus—Diocletian. And we are going to see when he gave up his throne, it was turned over to a young man by the name of Constantine, and of course that enters the Pergamean period of the church, when the church is married to the world and to the state [Revelation 2:12-17]. But Diocletian had a tremendous persecution against the people of the Lord. Isn’t it a strange thing? In about 300 and thereafter AD, up to 305 AD, there was a terrible persecution of the church on the part of the Roman emperor. And in just a few years, the same Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Thus are the strange, strange turns of fortune under God.
Dear me, dear me, I don’t know what to do. We’d have to meet here for a solid week for me just to get started on this. Now, I’d been at this last time about an hour and some odd, I guess you think I ought to quit. Well, you got food downstairs; they have a reception for you downstairs. They got something for you to eat; they got something for you to drink. So, let’s have a little prayer, and it’s down in Coleman Hall; and about 11:00 to 11:10, if it’s possible for you, come back up here, and we’ll just look at one or two of these things, and then I’ll come to the conclusion. I’m going to leave out two thousand years of this story, which just kills me! And I want us to close with the picture of revival, and our revival and what God’s going to do for us; that’ll be the conclusion of our service tonight. Now let’s bow our heads for this prayer.
Our Lord, oh, when we think of the blood of the martyrs, these who have died and lay down their lives in untold agonies, Lord how is it that we can be at ease in Zion? [Amos 6:1]. O Master, take this service tonight, and before it’s over, set our hearts toward revival. And as we come to this last session, O God in heaven, do something in our hearts tonight. As we face the new year and the days that lie ahead, may I have around me a consecrated staff, a dedicated group of deacons, a consecrated membership that will make possible the outpouring of God’s saving Spirit. Do it, Lord, and we’ll praise Thee forever for the souls that are won, and for the quickening of God’s presence in His holy house, in the blessed name of Jesus, amen.