The Martyrdom of Apostle Paul

Approximately 30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ and following the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, an open and systematic persecution against Christians was commenced by Nero under the pretext that Christians set the fire.

This was the first official and systematic effort against Christians by the Romans, and it resulted in many executions and entertainment-type deaths of believers. Apostle Peter is believed to have been executed by crucifixion immediately in the aftermath of the Rome fire.

Christianity was no longer an entity under the umbrella of Judaism, and to be openly Christian was essentially a death mark. Paul states that “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” 2 Timothy 4:16

Apostle Paul is believed to have been martyred in this first wave of Roman persecution around age 66, but his death is not as well documented in early writings as Peter’s. One thing seems certain: Paul was not crucified because he was a Roman citizen, and his “death-row” process was prolonged compared to those of Jewish descend. He probably spend most of 64-68 A. D.  in prison and/or house arrest with one or two releases in that time period.

Third century church historian Eusebius wrote:

“After defending himself the Apostle was again set on the ministry of preaching… coming a second time to the same city [Paul] suffered martyrdom under Nero. During this imprisonment he wrote the second Epistle to Timothy.” (Eccl Hist. 2.22.2)

The Bible tells us that Paul was expecting martyrdom:

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4: 6-7)

Martyrology commentary says:

“Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (A. D. 170), says that Peter and Paul went to Italy and taught there together, and suffered martyrdom about the same time. This, like most of the statements relating to the death of St. Paul, is mixed up with the tradition…” (Smith’s Bible Dictionary)

“The tradition is, for now Paul fails us, that Paul, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded on the Ostian Road just outside of Rome. Nero died June, 68 A.D., so that Paul was executed before that date, perhaps in the late spring of that year (or 67). Perhaps Luke and Timothy were with him. It is fitting, as Findlay suggests, to let Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 serve for his own epitaph. He was ready to go to be with Jesus, as he had long wished to be (Philippians 1:23)” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, First Edition, article “Paul the Apostle”)

To be a Christian in the first 3 centuries in the extensive Roman Empire was a reason to be killed just like it is today in many places in Africa and Asia.

These martyrs will sure have a special place in heaven.

Theology 101: Did Christ Descend Into Hell Prior to Resurrection?

There is a heretical view of Christ’s atonement that encapsulates a theory commonly referred to as Ransom Theology or Ransom Theory, which states that Christ paid a ransom to Satan in His death in order to buy the rights to save humanity which has fallen captive to Satan.

Throughout the ages, this view became increasingly recognized as heretical as it is readily apparent that Satan is himself a rebel who cannot hold any claim on humanity, and therefore God does not owe him anything but eternal punishment.

The problem is that certain peripheral aspects of Ransom to Satan Theory have persisted to this day in some denominations.

Some hold that after His death on the cross, Jesus descended into hell to proclaim victory (possibly evangelize) to those who perished in ancient times, based on 1 Pet 3:18-20

“18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah…”

This view is not acceptable for the following reasons:

1. Christ’s work of redemption was finished on the cross for EVERYONE to see: God the Father, angels, heavenly creatures, humans, demons, and Satan.  In John 19:30, Jesus proclaims in the final seconds of His life: “IT IS FINISHED.” There is no other work to be done for proclamation of victory or redemption.  Heaven and hell were witnesses.  There is no need for Christ to descent into hell for any proclamation or evangelism.

2. When Jesus died on the cross, He went straight to the Father.  Again, in the final seconds of His agony, Luke presents the following:  “Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:46).

3. A descend by Christ into hell opens the door to heresy.  Proclamation of victory or evangelism in hell presents similar ideas to purgatory and possibility salvation of unrepented sinners after death.  This is against sound Christian doctrine which views death as a final decisive event with respect to outcome of salvation or damnation.

So what did Peter mean when he said that Christ went to proclaim to the “spirits in prison?”

A close examination of 1 Peter 3 shows that the context of this affirmation is linked to the preaching of Noah in the pre-flood era.

Here is the ESV commentary explanation:

a. Peter calls Noah a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5 ), where “herald” represents Greek kēryx, “preacher,” which corresponds to the noun kēryssō, “proclaim,” in 1 Pet. 3:19

b. Peter says the “Spirit of Christ” was speaking through the OT prophets ( 1:11 ); thus Christ could have been speaking through Noah as an OT prophet.

c. The context indicates that Christ was preaching through Noah, who was in a persecuted minority, and God saved Noah, which is similar to the situation in Peter’s time: Christ is now preaching the gospel through Peter and his readers (v. 15 ) to a persecuted minority, and God will save them.

Christ finished His work on the cross and did not need to descend into hell for any further work.

He said it “IT IS FINISHED.”

And it was finished.

Theology 101: Angels and Our Relationship to Them

Angels are created, spiritual beings with moral judgment and high intelligence, but without physical bodies (1).

The Bible makes it clear that these heavenly creatures take a particular interest in us.  Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:10-12 that there are  “things into which angels long to look,” things that have to do with the grace and manner in which God provides salvation to humans.  This is a fascinating process for them, as they are unable to experience  redemption first hand which involves the greatest event in the universe, the death and resurrection of Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews makes a powerful statement about angels joining us in spiritual worship when he states that we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God…”

The Bible also tells that angels can take human form and interact with us.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” Hebrews 13:2. This verse encourages us to minister to others who may truly be “angels” of whom we are “unaware.”

Scripture also makes it clear that angels can convey physical protection for us.  An angel send by God shut the mouth of the lions in the den where Daniel was thrown. An angel delivered Peter from prison. Angels also came and ministered to Jesus after His temptation.

When we find ourselves in life and death situations and suddenly find that we are able to make it out untouched, we can certainly consider that an angel send by God perhaps rescued us.  When you avoided that car accident in a miraculous way, or something made you turn around to catch your baby just in the nick of time, that may have been God ministering to you via an invisible angel…

There is strong biblical support for this. “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Psalm 91:11-12

And then there is one of my favorite verses about the relationship between children and angels: “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”  I find the phrase “their angels” fascinating.  It results that children have angels assigned to them, and these creatures are continually also in the presence of God.

These concepts on the doctrine about angels as well as the verses supporting them can serve as great comfort for believers, knowing that God uses such means to protect us and our loved ones.

(1) Grudem, Wayne 1994; Systematic Theology; pp. 405-406

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In Our Season of Joy We Pray for Nigerian Christians

We live in a country where we can still freely worship God without having to worry about losing our physical life, unlike the early Christians and many Christians across the Globe.

In Nigeria, having the courage and fortitude to proclaim the Christian faith means one may ultimately pay with his or her life for such proclamation, especially during major Christian holidays.  Such was the case for two Christmas seasons now.  Last year 44 Christians were killed while attending church service (report), and two days ago 12 Christians were massacred in two separate church attacks (report).  Muslim extremists have made it their life mission and service to their god to accomplish such carnage as directed by their scripture:

9:123 “Believers, fight the unbelievers who are near you. Let them find firmness in you.”  

2:193-“Fight against them (unbelievers) until there is no dissension, and the religion is for Allah. Fight until no other religion exists but Islam.”

These facts stand uncontested and we cannot understand their gravity until we put ourselves in the position of these Christian martyrs and their families.  Can you imagine singing “Silent Night” during the Christmas Eve service, and all of a sudden having full automatic fire ravaging the audience of worshipers? Or a car bomb blowing up the church?  These are daily fears for Nigerian Christians.  When they confess Christ as God Incarnate, and His death and resurrection as the only way to salvation, they understand they signed up for possible martyrdom.

They read, understand, and take God’s Word at face value in John 16:2 “a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.”  They understand this verse as none of us can because their neighbors are killing them as a service to Allah.

They understand martyrdom just like Peter understood his upcoming martyrdom.  The Lord hinted at this in John 21 when He told Peter:

18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he [Peter] was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Just like Peter glorified God with his death by upside down crucifixion, so these Nigerian martyrs glorify God with their last breath.  And so year after year, Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, they continue to go to church and worship the God of their salvation despite the threats and possibility of death.

These stories will not make the front page on CNN or Fox News sites.  This become the norm in many African and South East Asian countries… it is not extraordinary enough to be worthy of prime time coverage and discussion.

But we know about them.  We pray for them and the families left behind.  We know they are now with the Lord “and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:17)

In our season of joy, we must pray for these Christian martyrs and their families.