The first great persecution for religious opinion of which we have any record was that which broke out against the worshippers of God among the Jews in the days of Ahab, when that king, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel, "a woman in whom, with the reckless and licentious habits of an Oriental queen, were united the fiercest and sternest qualities inherent in the old Semitic race", sought in the most relentless manner to extirpate the worship of Jehovah and substitute in its place the worship of Ashtoreth and Baal. Ahab's example in this respect was followed by Manasseh, who "shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (2Ki 21:16; comp. 2Ki 24:4). In all ages, in one form or another, the people of God have had to suffer persecution. In its earliest history the Christian church passed through many bloody persecutions. Of subsequent centuries in our own and in other lands the same sad record may be made.
Christians are forbidden to seek the propagation of the gospel by force (Mt 7:1; Lu 9:54-56; Ro 14:4; Jas 4:11-12). The words of PS 7:13, "He ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors," ought rather to be, as in the Revised Version, "He maketh his arrows fiery [shafts]."
Jesus Christ frequently warned His disciples that persecution would be the lot of all who followed Him (Joh 15:18,20). So far from being dismayed at this, it should be a cause of rejoicing (Mt 5:11-12). The early Church had not long to wait for the fulfilment of these words. The martyrdom of Stephen was the signal for a fierce outburst of persecution against the Christians of Jerusalem, by which they were scattered in all directions. Saul of Tarsus was the moving spirit in this matter, until, on his road to Damascus to proceed against the Christians there, 'Christ's foe became His soldier.' The conversion of Saul seems to have stayed the persecution. The attempt of Caligula to set up his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem also diverted the attention of the Jews from all else. Hence 'the churches had rest' (Ac 9:31).
The next persecution was begun by Herod, who put to death the Apostle St. James, and would have done the same to St. Peter had he not been delivered. Herod's motive was probably to gain a cheap popularity, but the persecution was ended by his own sudden and terrible death.
After this the history of persecution becomes more the history of the sufferings of certain individuals, such as St. Paul, though passages in the Epistles show us that the spirit of persecution was alive even if the details of what took place are hidden from us (1Th 2:14; Heb 10:32-33; 1Pe 2:19-25). Finally, in the Revelation of St. John, the seer makes frequent reference to the persecution and martyrdom of the saints as the lot of the Church in all ages.
PERSECUTION is any pain or affliction which a person designedly inflicts upon another; and, in a more restrained sense, the sufferings of Christians on account of their religion. The establishment of Christianity was opposed by the powers of the world, and occasioned several severe persecutions against Christians, during the reigns of several Roman emperors. Though the absurdities of polytheism were openly derided and exposed by the Apostles and their successors, yet it does not appear that any public laws were enacted against Christianity till the reign of Nero, A.D. 64, by which time it had acquired considerable stability and extent. As far the greater number of the first converts to Christianity were of the Jewish nation, one secondary cause for their being so long preserved from persecution may probably be deduced from their appearing to the Roman governors only as a sect of Jews, who had seceded from the rest of their brethren on account of some opinion, trifling in its importance, and perhaps difficult to be understood. Nor, when their brethren were fully discovered to have cast off the religion of the synagogue, did the Jews find it easy to infuse into the breasts of the Roman magistrates that rancour and malice which they themselves experienced. But the steady, and uniform opposition made by the Christians to Heathen superstition could not long pass unnoticed. Their open attacks upon Paganism made them extremely obnoxious to the populace, by whom they were represented as a society of atheists, who, by attacking the religious constitution of the empire, merited the severest animadversion of the civil magistrate. Horrid tales of their abominations were circulated throughout the empire; and the minds of the Pagans were, from all these circumstances, prepared to regard with pleasure or indifference every cruelty which could be inflicted upon this despised sect. Historians usually reckon ten general persecutions.
First general persecution.