Thursday, September 4, 2014

Nero vs. Paul

Nero's "Golden House" or Domus Aurea has been in the news recently (see here). Apparently it is in pretty bad shape and they are working to restore it. But don't hold your breath ... It isn't expected to reopen until 2018. In the meantime, we can talk about how Nero relates to New Testament history.

Nero ruled the Roman empire from 54 to 68 A.D. If you recall, Nero is the Roman emperor who burned part of Rome in 64 A.D., but he blamed the Christians for starting the fire. Consequently, he executed Christians publicly in various ways: crucifixion, feeding them to wild animals, and burning them. During his reign, he also murdered his mother and his first couple of wives, and he demanded to be worshiped as a god. Nice guy. And that Golden House we just talked about? That was built after the fire happened and it was built over part of the area that was burned. So his desire for a grand palace complex may have been his reason for starting the fire in the first place.

But the most amazing thing about Nero is that he is mentioned in the New Testament (although not by name). Nero was the ruler when Paul appealed to Caesar at one of his trials (Acts 25:11), and when he arrived at Rome Paul had an effective ministry among the household of Nero (Phil. 4:22) and among the imperial guard (Phil. 1:12-13). Nero was also on the throne when Paul encouraged believers to "submit to governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1-7) and Peter told believers to be subject to and to honor the emperor (1 Pet. 2:13-17). If Peter and Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could tell believers to submit to Nero's pagan government, then certainly Christians in the United States today need to submit to our government.  Things may be bad in our country today, but they are not nearly as bad as the early Christians had it under Nero.

This morning, I ran across an almost poetic passage about Paul and Nero in my Logos electronic library. So as a concluding thought, picture this:

This first imprisonment came at length to a close, Paul having been acquitted, probably because no witnesses appeared against him. Once more he set out on his missionary labours, probably visiting western and eastern Europe and Asia Minor. During this period of freedom he wrote his First Epistle to Timothy and his Epistle to Titus. The year of his release was signalized by the burning of Rome, which Nero saw fit to attribute to the Christians. A fierce persecution now broke out against the Christians. Paul was siezed, and once more conveyed to Rome a prisoner. During this imprisonment he probably wrote the Second Epistle to Timothy, the last he ever wrote. "There can be little doubt that he appeared again at Nero’s bar, and this time the charge did not break down. In all history there is not a more startling illustration of the irony of human life than this scene of Paul at the bar of Nero. On the judgment-seat, clad in the imperial purple, sat a man who, in a bad world, had attained the eminence of being the very worst and meanest being in it, a man stained with every crime, a man whose whole being was so steeped in every nameable and unnameable vice, that body and soul of him were, as some one said at the time, nothing but a compound of mud and blood; and in the prisoner’s dock stood the best man the world possessed, his hair whitened with labours for the good of men and the glory of God. The trial ended: Paul was condemned, and delivered over to the executioner. He was led out of the city, with a crowd of the lowest rabble at his heels. The fatal spot was reached; he knelt beside the block; the headsman’s axe gleamed in the sun and fell; and the head of the apostle of the world rolled down in the dust" (probably A.D. 66), four years before the fall of Jerusalem.

May we, like Paul, be faithful to the end, no matter what that end may be.

Excerpt from "Paul" in Easton’s Bible Dictionary, by M. G. Easton (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).
Photos courtesy of Todd Bolen, Pictorial Library of the Holy Lands, vol. 15.