The period in church history from A.D. 100 to A.D. 314 was known as the Martyr Period, when literally thousands and thousands of courageous Christian men, women, and even children sealed their fate with their blood.
Secular historians agree that there have been 10 great persecutions against the church. Ten major attempts to wipe out Christianity from the face of the earth, starting with the wicked Caesar Nero and ending with Diocletian. Believers were fed alive to wild animals. They were taken to Roman arenas for sport. They were torn apart, tortured, and burned at the stake.
But instead of growing weaker during these times of persecution, the church actually grew stronger. Persecution can have that effect.
In a way, persecution will separate the real from the false, the genuine from the fake. If you are a true follower of Jesus, then you won't back down if a little persecution comes your way. If God allows persecution in your life, then He will give you the strength to face it.
We find this to be true in the case of Polycarp, a great hero of the Christian faith. The pastor of the church in Smyrna, he was martyred on February 23 in A.D. 155. On that day, the public games were taking place, and the crowds were whipped into a real frenzy. Someone cried out, "Let Polycarp be searched for!"
The night before, Polycarp had a dream in which the pillow under his head was on fire. He woke up and told his fellow believers, "I must be burned alive." When Polycarp was arrested, he asked for the privilege of having a final hour to spend with the Lord in prayer.
As Polycarp entered the Roman arena, God spoke to his heart and said, "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." The Roman proconsul gave him the choice between cursing the name of Christ and making a sacrifice to Caesar, or dying. Polycarp said, "Eighty-six years I have served the Lord. He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"
When the proconsul threatened him with being burned at the stake, Polycarp replied, "You threaten me with the fire that burns for a time and is quickly quenched, but you do not know the fire that awaits the wicked and the judgment to come into everlasting punishment. Why are you waiting? Come and do what you will."
The crowds went crazy, providing firewood and kindling from their woodshops. There Polycarp stood, and they set the wood around him on fire. Amazingly, the fire did not harm him. It came right up to him and would not burn him, while Polycarp sang praises to God.
Finally, they couldn't wait any longer and thrust him through with spears. Polycarp showed true courage in the face of true persecution.
Sometimes we will whine a little about how hard it is to be a Christian. But maybe we need to stop for a moment and consider our experience in comparison to that of Polycarp's. Perhaps then we will understand what persecution really is.
Jesus said, " 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20).
If you are living a godly life, then you will be persecuted in some way, shape, or form. But persecution can actually help you grow stronger spiritually.
Persecution reminds us of two very important things. First, it reminds us that we are children of God. Jesus said, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).
Second, persecution causes us to cling more tightly to Jesus and remember that this world is not our home. I do believe that persecution will intensify as we get closer to the Lord's return.