Counting the Cost Ancient Christians Paid: Why Properly Evaluating Ancient Trials Is Incredibly Important for Those Facing Modern Ones

Teaching someone the Gospel should always involve an exercise I call “counting the cost.” Counting the cost is where you help someone to understand that, though the burden of Jesus is comparatively light to the weight of living without Him (Matthew 11:28-30), there is a burden to be borne and at times a high price to pay. It’s a very Biblical thing to do; Jesus Himself frequently taught “counting the cost” (e.g. Matthew 8:18-22; 10:34-39; 20:22-23; 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-33). Following Jesus will always cost something and in practical terms can cost a person his friends, his family, his job, and even his life. If someone is not prepared to pay the price, he really shouldn’t even begin, as “the latter end” in falling away from the faith “is worse” than where one begins (2 Peter 2:20). God reserves His harshest judgment for quitters.  

Counting the cost is important because Satan has his fingers in every facet of the proverbial marketplace. We know that Satan is actively working to encourage low valuations to be placed on salvation from sin, spiritual fulfillment, fellowship, and confidence in an eternal home. However, he is also actively manipulating the market’s perception of the prices of things that must be done, avoided, ignored, or given up in order to follow Jesus.  If we don’t count the cost Biblically and factually, we’ll find ourselves naturally gravitating towards Satan’s valuations.

Satan is incredibly devious, so it shouldn’t surprise me that even though I have preached and taught on counting the cost, I was guilty until only recently of accepting some incorrect calculations myself. Like many (all?) Christians, I (rightfully) believe that the price Jesus paid for me is far above any price I could ever pay for Him. His experiences and suffering are beyond anything that I could ever experience or suffer, given that His human experience came after He gave up a heavenly one. The cross is but an exclamation point on a sentence that begins with Jesus giving up equality with God (Philippians 2:5-8). I can’t pay such a price, and no price that I am called to pay is even in the ballpark.

While nothing reaches the price Jesus paid, until recently, in my mind there was a group that had drawn closer to that price than anyone in my lifetime ever had: early Christians. I’m probably not alone in this. I’ve heard countless sermons and lessons and read countless articles and books that portray early Christianity as essentially a death sentence because of persecution. I’ve not only heard these things, but, as a preacher and teacher, I’ve added to the misconception myself.

Because it’s such a common misconception, I can imagine that at least someone reading this is already preparing a response. Let me go ahead and point out that the price paid by Paul and the glimpses of what we see others paying in the New Testament is incredible and undeniable. Further, I have no doubt that early Christians besides those mentioned in the Bible were persecuted in various ways and occasionally called to give their lives. However, the idea that early Christians as a collective group suffered as Paul, Stephen, and James did is not real.

How Did We Come to View Early Christians as Harshly and Universally Persecuted?

One can read in the pages of the New Testament and find frequent references to persecution described in general terms. People have a tendency to take what is generic in Scripture and supply something specific. I’ve noticed this being done in several ways as relates to the idea of persecution, each of which is problematic in its own right:

  • Some have taken seemingly specific references in a generic Bible list and allowed it to characterize the list. When Paul references “sword” and cites a Scripture about being killed, it’s easy to allow those words to influence your perception of the context (Romans 8:35-36). The Scripture that Paul cites though is from poetry, not history; it was hyperbolic (exaggerated for emphasis) even when it was written. Further, “the sword” might imply a death sentence for Jesus, but it might not. Remember, Jesus talked about how His message would bring a proverbial sword down houses (Matthew 10:34). Even if both the Psalm Paul quotes and the sword he references definitely refer to physical persecution, it’s hard to argue that “famine” in the same list does. It’s clearly not a list that exclusively references persecution.
  • Some have taken the occasional references to exceptional persecution in the New Testament and applied them across the board. However, even in the New Testament, situations varied, and the church enjoyed periods of peace (e.g. Acts 9:31) and open doors (e.g. Revelation 3:8). John’s letter to the seven churches of provincial Asia shows that even in a problematic region for the church, not every church had the same experience.
  • Some have taken exceptional accounts of persecution found in early Christian literature not only as true but as representative of a common experience for early Christians. I have heard preachers on more than one occasion reference the martyrdom of notable figures like Polycarp, Perpetua, and Felicity. While these individuals are referenced in primary literature (material produced at roughly the time it discusses) and were almost certainly real martyrs, it’s hard to extrapolate from their experiences a shared experience of the early church. In fact, the details surrounding their martyrdom were likely preserved because they were exceptional. Further, some of the recorded accounts of martyrdom already show signs of embellishment; the account of Perpetua and Felicity’s martyrdom for instance is hard to square with the New Testament in specific and reality in general.      
  • Some have taken presentations of tradition as though they were historical fact. Many of the notions of martyrdom that we have do not come from primary sources but much later presentations steeped in legend and lore. In fact, many martyrdom stories told as historical fact today arise from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a treatise written both hundreds of years ago and hundreds of years after the facts it discusses. It is a book that is denounced as a reliable witness of what it records by many modern historians.

The truth is that history simply does not support a narrative of continual persecution for the first three centuries of Christianity. A careful reading of the Bible and early Christian documents suggest that Christians faced sporadic, regional persecution. To put it another way, there is no evidence that Christian persecution was perpetual during Roman reign or that it was universal or empire wide. Though there were a couple of universal proclamations against Christianity before the Edict of Toleration in 311, there’s no evidence of universal or even systematic application of these proclamations. Christians occasionally were put to death, but on nowhere near the scale that some suggest. 

Why does this matter?

I can imagine someone at this point saying, “OK, so why does all of this matter?” Well, if a person were to solely use an exaggerated picture of martyrdom for personal inspiration and motivation, I could see where it really wouldn’t matter if he or she behaved as though this picture were real. I know that the movie Rocky isn’t real, but it still motivates me to improve my exercise routine (well, for a few minutes after the movie is finished anyway).

I can see at least three issues that might arise though:

First, Christians are already tasked with presenting a message that some find unbelievable: the Gospel. Every time we present something alongside of the Gospel as though it were true when it is in fact not, we bring both our credentials and, in the eyes of our hearers, the Gospel itself into disrepute. Peter said,

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:16).

While we can’t claim to be eyewitnesses of the majesty of Jesus as Peter did, we all should be able to make his first claim as a defense of our own witness to the faith. Besides this, we have an obligation to “speak truth” to our neighbors to the best of our ability (Ephesians 4:25).

Second, when we superimpose an imagined reality of persistent and pervasive persecution on top of the teaching of the New Testament, we limit the helpfulness of certain Bible passages for ourselves. Take for example the text I referenced above from Romans 8. Paul said,

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we are killed all day long; We are counted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37).

If we see nothing but physical persecution in these verses, then we will find in them no source of hope when we face other kinds of afflictions. However, if we look at a word like, say, “tribulation,” and see instead its more generic meaning of a situation involving a great deal of pressure, we find immediate applicability to ourselves and, importantly, the ability to share in the text’s hope of becoming “more than conquerors” over such situations.

The third reason brings us back to where we began: counting the cost. There is no greater price that one can pay for the cause of Christ than giving one’s life. Even Jesus said,

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

However, moments in our world where people are called to pay this price are few and far between. This presents a great temptation for us when we read an entirely different world back into the Bible.

As I said before, Satan is very active in the marketplace of ideas. He knows we place an incredibly high price on the idea of a person sacrificing his life. He also knows that most of us have never seen anyone put to death for Christ and that we don’t truly believe that to be a likely outcome in our situation (though many of us often say otherwise). If he can convince us that multitudes of people before us have paid that price, he can also cause us to devalue the more realistic and regular prices we must pay as we take up our crosses daily (Luke 9:23). Further, when we fail to make a sacrifice that he has convinced us is worth only a trifle, he can further tempt us to wallow in guilt and shame, which will only lead to further failures.

Self-sacrifice is the ultimate price one can pay. But lesser sacrifices are still sacrifices. They’re real, and they are significant. Christians in the first century both paid them and failed to pay them. For every Paul or Stephen there was a Demas (2 Timothy 4:10). Those who paid the price set before them became “more than conquerors.” It’s no different for you or for me.

Wrapping It Up

So, the next time you find yourself exalting the entire group we call “early Christians,” realize that their story is not so different to yours. Realize that the Bible that understood their struggles and gave them strength can do the same for you. And, while there were some exceptional people who made some exceptional sacrifices back then, there are some exceptional people in the church today making sacrifices that are exceptional in their own right. We must not deify these individuals because of their sacrifices and trivialize the burden we are called to bear, but hold them up as healthy, realistic examples that can be imitated (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17).

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