The Roman Emperor ruled over the whole Roman Empire against which the events of the New Testament were set.
In Rome, in the month of October, in the year 54 A.D. the Emperor Claudius died suddenly at the age of 64.- after eating a plate of mushrooms.
Now all of Rome knew that he had been poisoned by his wife, a charming lady called Agrippina.
Claudius had been pushed into marrying Agrippina in the year 48, though she was his niece.
She was the great grand daughter of Augustus - the emperor who ordered the famous census that drew Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem - and she was a dominating woman who had already got through two husbands.
Ambitious and unscrupulous, she got rid of her enemies by poison or trumped up charges.
Now the rightful heir to the seat of Roman power was the son of Claudius, a young man called Britannicus.
But Agrippina had other plans, and had her son, from one of her former marriages declared as emperor.
His name was Nero.
then had Nero made guardian of Britannicus, and arranged for him to
marry Britannicus’ sister Octavia.
Poor Claudius had not been fortunate in his choice of wives.
His first wife Messalina was grossly unfaithful and eventually disgraced him by staging a form of public marriage to her lover, a politician called Silius.
What choice did Claudius have?
He did the decent thing and had them both executed.
Agrippina just seemed to be the kind of girl who couldn’t leave well alone and so she started to foment jealousy between Nero and Britannicus, who as the rightful heir to power would always be a potential threat to her blue eyed boy.
So in the year 55, at the age of only 18, Nero copied his dear mum’s style of doing business, and had Britannicus poisoned.
His dear mum, Agrippina married again after poisoning her unfortunate third husband Claudius.
To a man called Germanicus.
But sad to say she did not get the chance to live happily ever after.
She survived a complicated attempt to drown her in a sabotaged boat, escaping with only a light shoulder injury, but a freedman called Anicetus was dispatched to her house where she was killed in a much less complicated manner.
It was her lovely son Nero who had his mum murdered. He was now 22.
So to give you a quick feel for government affairs around the years 50 to 60 AD I will summarise.
Claudius married Messalina but had her executed. He then married Aggripina who had him poisoned.
She made Nero emperor over the rightful heir Britaimicus.
Nero had Brittaniccus poisoned.
And then had his mother murdered.
This form of government was not a government that the people could vote in or out every five years.
The strongest tyrant rose to the top and stayed there until a stronger and more devious tyrant murdered his way on to the throne.
Now despite Nero’s rather bloody ascension to power his first five years of rule surprisingly met with senatorial approval.
Astutely advised by his childhood tutor, the famous philosopher Seneca, the Emperor showed an enlightened public face, declaring allegiance to the popular principles of Emperor Augustus, reprieving many from death sentences, abolishing oppressive taxes, and distributing money to the common people and extra gain to the Praetorian guards.
But he was excessively vain, and loved nothing more than to stage great spectacles where thousands of young men were paid to applaud him.
And he had another nasty twist to his character.
He had a habit of roaming the streets at night in many disguises, along with a few of his cronies, beating up, and sometimes killing completely innocent people.
To help you to date these Roman events in your mind, it might be helpful to know that Saul had had his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus some twenty five years earlier, and now in the year 59/ 60, as he was about to embark on his fourth and final epic journey - his deportation from Jerusalem to Rome - the young 23 year old Nero was steadily eroding the powers of the Senate - the Roman parliament and centralising all Rome power around himself.
Eventually the situation was arrived at where the Senate would simply pass whatever law Nero wanted.
Christians were terribly persecuted throughout the empire. His wickedness was legendary.
On the 18th or 19th of July 64, under a full moon, a fire broke out in the Roman Circus in the middle of Rome.
Fanned by the wind it quickly spread throughout the city, and for six days it burned fiercely, destroying 10 of the 14 city regions.
Nero was in Antium when the fire started, and he returned to direct fire fighting, organise shelter for the homeless, and distribute food and cheap corn.
But rumours began to circulate.
Rumours that claimed that he - the emperor Nero, had in fact ordered the fire, and watched it from the Tower of Maecenas, singing his own aria to the sack of Troy.
Whether this was true or not is of course difficult to tell ..but certainly after the fire had done its terrible work he delighted in restyling the city into a grander and more pleasing state with a rectangular street system and taller buildings.
And he finally achieved his heart’s desire when he built a palace of unparalleled grandeur, called his ‘Domus Aureus’.
There he established a modest statue of himself, some 120 feet high.
But these nasty rumours that he had burnt the capitol city down just would not go away, so of course he did what all good tyrants do in that position.
He looked about for someone else to blame. And who better than the gentle Christians?
Despite his continual persecution, especially in Jerusalem, these weird, these ‘peculiar’ people known as the Christians were increasing at a remarkable rate not only throughout the Roman Empire, but also in the capitol itself.
Saul, who became known as Paul, one of the people most responsible for the spread of this new faith had been kept safely under house arrest in the city, supposedly out of harm’s way up until the previous year.
Then he was released, and according to Romans 15: 24 he went to Spain.
But, good old Paul, even while under Roman guard, had been active in strengthening and building up this new church. He had written powerful letters to the churches at Ephesus, Colosse and possibly to Phillipi.
And another man of like manner, a man called Peter, had journeyed to the capitol city, and he also had strengthened and built up this new Christian church there.
These strange people, who would not worship the great Roman gods, these strange gentle people would surely make perfect scapegoats for the fire.
And so Nero turned on the Christians just as surely as Hitler turned on the Jews, and he first accused them of the fire, and then proceeded to hunt them down as an act of lawful retribution.
He had them slain in their tens of thousands.
Property was taken from them, they were thrown into jail, and they were tortured in many ways.
The historian Tacitus described what followed..
To be rid of this rumour, Nero fastened the guilt on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished; or were nailed to crosses; or were doomed to the flames. Nero threw open his garden for the spectacle and exhibited a show in the circus. (‘The Christians’ Bamber Gasgoine. p26)
Under Nero, as you will have gathered by now, it was not a great time to be a Christian.
Now I want to look at Peter’s second letter to the persecuted church.
He was addressing believers who were being persecuted by the ‘King and his government’ to a degree, real or imagined, that we have never even remotely had to contend with.
The world may persecute you for your territorial aspirations, or your political orientation, but here, where we live, we are unlikely, at the moment, to be persecuted to anything like this for simply seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Peter begins his letter by reminding them who they are in Christ. You are he tells them ...
‘the elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ’
Then he lifts their eyes to their heavenly home and reminds them of their great hope for the future..
‘a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved for you in heaven’
He goes on to say,..
‘in this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuiness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Christ’
Peter tells them to be concerned with this one thing that through these grievances and trials their faith might produce praise honour and glory for Christ.
He tells them to gird up their loins, to be sober and to rest their hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ. He tells them to be holy because God is Holy. He goes on to reiterate the gospel that was preached to them. He writes..
‘Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the Word of God which lives and abides forever’
‘Therefore,’ Peter continues,
‘lay aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and all evil speaking.’
So far so good. Nothing to make anyone feel too uncomfortable!
But knowing the terrible background to this letter, knowing the situation that the believers were daily faced with as Nero’s law enforcement officers sought to persecute every Christian in the Empire, knowing all this, let Peter’s words, inspired by God’s Spirit., let Peter’s words grip your heart.. and your mind, and let it then be renewed.
Let all strongholds that exalt themselves against the knowledge of Christ be pulled down. Let these words of God make you and I clean.
Peter tells the believers in chapter 2 from verse 13..
“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake, whether to the King (in this case, the emperor Nero) as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”
Could there possibly be harder teaching for a committed Christian in the whole of scripture?
Knowing the nature of ‘the king’ and his ordinances, knowing the nature of his ‘governors’ in the various provinces of the mighty Roman empire, Peter, nearing the end of his life now, writes to the believers about ‘submission’... to every human authority. .not for your sake, or for your countries sake, or your forefather’s sake. But for the Lord’s sake.
As we let Peter expand on this teaching, let’s switch to the Amplified version of the Bible in order to draw out every last drop of this difficult truth, always bearing in mind the terrible and bloody backdrop against which Peter writes to the believers.
“Be submissive to every human institution and authority for the sake of the Lord, whether it be to the emperor, as supreme. Or to governors as sent by him to bring vengeance (punishment, justice) to those who do wrong, and to encourage those who do service. For it is God’s will and intention that by doing right (your) good and honest lives should silence (muzzle, gag) the ignorant charges and ill informed criticisms of foolish persons. Live as free people, (yet) without employing your freedom as a pretext for wickedness; but (live at all times) as servants of God. Show respect for all men - treat them honourably. Love the brotherhood (the Christian fraternity of which Christ is the head). Reverence God. Honour the emperor”
Nowhere does it say that this teaching does not apply to God’s people today.
Peter goes on. .(NKJ)
“Servants be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience before God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently
Paul emphasises this again in his letter to Timothy
Paul wrote the letter to Titus after 10 years of Nero’s cruel rule.
‘Remind your people to submit to rulers and authorities, to obey them and to be ready to do good in every way. Tell the not to speak evil of anyone, but to peaceful and friendly, and always show a gentle attitude towards everyone.
You see Paul knew that God looks after the Nations and their governments, their rulers and their kings. They are in His governance alone, they are His responsibility alone.
Seven years earlier, he had written to the church in Rome, some 2- 3 years after Nero came to power..
‘Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves’. (Romans 13: 1-2)
Paul continues on the theme of submission, again, he reminds the church in Rome, for the Lord’s sake, and then finishes by summing up with these words..
Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour (Romans 13:5-7)
We may not agree with those in authority. That is our right. We can have our say.
But what we must not do is join in with the world in the chorus of dishonouring them, making fun of them, showing disrespect to them. Reviling them.
In Northern Ireland we have a terrible history of doing just this, with church leaders and Christian followers often the most audible in their reviling language of those in authority.
If Peter and Paul who lived under the cruel rule of the Roman Empire lived and wrote as they did, so must we in times of lesser government evils.
The same principle is in place when we are commanded in one of the ten commandments to
Jesus repeated this command.
With my parents that was no problem. They were good to me and loved and valued me and were not afraid to discipline me when I was in need of it.
Others, including many I have spoken to on the Father heart of God seminars that I take, have big problems in this area.
They were rejected, wounded, even abused in one or more areas of their being. They can trace almost all of their adult difficulties to dysfunctional, even at times, pure evil parenting. Some of the stories have shaken me to the core of my being. I have had to minister to team members on more than one occasion after they have listened to someone's story.
Yet after hearing their stories there comes a point when we seek to lead them to honour their parents, not because, but in spite of, their misgovernment.
It is not agreeing with their sinful behaviour. At no stage did Paul or Peter agree with the sinful behaviour of those in authority.
It is the office that we are asked to honour and show due respect to. In the armed forces a soldier is asked to salute an officer when they meet. The officer in question might be a poor specimen of a leader in the soldier's eyes, even an abusive officer, but he salutes the office the man holds.
Likewise when he might be promoted to officer status himself he will have that honour and respect returned to him as soldiers in submission to the office he holds salute him when they meet.
When we have failed as parents it is comforting to know that God will ask our children to likewise honour us, even in our failings.
Church leaders should must be accorded honour and submission. In fact double honour since they hold office in the Kingdom.
But here's the nice thing. We are to also to see ourselves as worthy of honour - and live accordingly.
Despite all our failings as we seek to follow Jesus with all our heart and soul and mind, God sees us as worthy of honour.
We hold the office of son or daughter of the Most High God!
[It might be helpful to read the companion paper 'The rise and fall of Miriam')