Part 3. Expanding around the World. Lesson 1 of 10.
Lesson 9. Within the Roman Empire

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will take hope from the way faith in Jesus spread rapidly in the early centuries, despite difficulties from society and government. (or, to see the spread of Christianity on one page, see a summary here

1.Christ wants the church to grow.  Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.1  The Book of Acts tells how this process began; lessons 9 to 18 of this curriculum tells how the process has continued up to today; and through these lessons we hope you will be excited that you are part of this process.

2.The power to grow. In order to spread the gospel, Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit.2  Jesus mentions four places to take the gospel: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Jerusalem is a city in a province called Judea. Samaria is the neighboring province.

3.Jerusalem. For ten days after Jesus said this, the disciples remained in Jerusalem and they did not spread the gospel. The tenth day was Pentecost day. Acts chapter 2 tells us that the disciples were filled with the Spirit. Peter preached the gospel to a large crowd. On that day, 3000 people repented and were baptized.3  The church had begun to grow! Many of those people lived in Jerusalem, and Acts chapters 2 to 7 tells us about how the church continued to grow there.

4.Judea and Samaria. The believers in Jerusalem however did not do much to take the gospel beyond that city until something unfortunate happened: they began to be persecuted.4  Many escaped from Jerusalem and finally began to carry out Jesus’ plan to preach in Judea and Samaria .This encourages us: when we experience persecution, we can believe that God has a plan for us! Acts chapters 8 to 12 tells how Peter and others brought the gospel to Judea and Samaria.

5.To all the world. The process of taking the gospel to all the world began already in Acts chapter 2. Jews from many regions heard Peter preach on Pentecost day. The listeners who became believers then took the gospel back to their home countries.

6.Paul. The first missionary to travel to many countries is Paul. The Book of Acts describes four major journeys made by Paul:

Journey Possible year locations
1 46-48 Turkey
2 50-52 Turkey and Greece
3 53-57 Turkey and Greece
As prisoner 59 Rome

As Paul traveled, he spoke first to the Jews in their meeting places, called “synagogues.”  When the Jews got angry at him, he the spoke to the non-Jews (in the Chinese Bible they are called “outsiders”).  Paul’s missionary methods remain an inspiration and challenge for missionaries today.  When necessary, Paul worked for his living (he was a tent-maker) and did not rely on financial support in order to live.  Even today, a missionary who relies on his own job to live is called a “tent-maker.”  When people did give him financial support, Paul did use his full-time to evangelize.  Paul established independent churches, not churches that were dependent on other churches to survive.  The Book of Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome.  After the Book of Acts, Paul was released from prison and continued to travel.  Scholars believe he preached the Gospel in Spain, then later returned to Rome.  Between 65-68 AD, Paul and Peter were both killed in Rome.

7.Spread throughout empire. By the year 200, the church had spread throughout the Roman Empire despite sporadic persecutions. Common people were attracted to the church because of its high moral standards, because of its emphasis on love, and because of the compassion and care extended to others in need. The message was so clear and simple, yet so deep, because it promised eternal life with God.  Even enemies of the church admitted that the church reached out to slaves, the poor, and the uneducated.  The loving care of believers was obvious and drew many into the church.  It was easy for believers to travel to spread the gospel, because the Roman Empire enforced peace over a large region, and most of the people could speak the same language, Greek.  Believers in Jesus became a network of communities all over the empire, where any believer could visit and feel welcomed.

8.Church leaders. Each bishop took responsibility for evangelizing their region. Some of them were great preachers, who used convincing arguments. Sometimes the church would evangelize a region by sending a missionary into that region to preach. Some believers were intellectuals, who wrote books that defended the faith and showed the weaknesses of the local religion.  For example in 150 Justin Martyr wrote a defense of  the gospel.   He said the government should not persecute people just because of their faith, especially since believers were such good citizens.  He showed that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament.  He cleared up many misunderstandings that the common people had about the faith.

9.Persecutions by the common people. As the church spread, believers were persecuted sometimes by the common people. . They called the Christians “atheists” because they didn’t worship the Greek and Roman gods, and the believers were looked upon as unpatriotic and antisocial. When there were times of drought or business was poor, the common people blamed the believers because they had forsaken the traditional gods. The common people had some misunderstandings, such as that believers killed babies or drank blood.

10.Persecutions by the Roman emperors. One reason the Roman emperors persecuted the Christians was that they felt the empire would be easier to rule if everyone worshipped the traditional gods. Another reason was that the Roman Emperor wanted to be worshipped. In the second and third centuries, the Roman government, in order to gain support in the Middle East, proclaimed that that emperors were gods. When the emperor’s chariot rode by, people were supposed to call out to him “Lord have mercy.”  But the believers, even though they loved their city and respected their government, were not willing to put any human in the place of God.  The only person they were willing to say “Lord have mercy” to was Jesus, so they were arrested and killed. The persecutions by the Roman officials were not continuous: the main times of government-sponsored persecution were:

Year Details
65-68 Roman Emperor Nero blamed believers for the fire in Rome.  Peter and Paul were killed.
90-96 The Apostle John was banished to an island, where he wrote Book of Revelation
165-180 author Justin Martyr was killed
202-211 The Roman Emperor passed law forbidding people to believe in Jesus or to become Jews
249-251 Emperor Decius commanded believers to worship Roman gods or be tortured.  Many bishops were killed.
258-259 Church meetings were banned under threat of death, many burned and beheaded
303-305 Longest persecution; churches destroyed, all compelled to sacrifice to idols

11.Example. Since faith in Jesus was illegal, Roman citizens could persecute nearby believers at any time.  They were often brought before the local court.  The following letter was written around the year 110 to the Roman Emperor from a Roman governor5 in a part of Turkey:

“I have followed this procedure with those who were denounced to me as follower of Christ..  If they confessed I repeated the question a second and third time …  if they persisted I had them led away to their death … others first said they were followers of Christ but then soon denied it, saying they had been but in fact had ceased to be … all of these worshipped your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ.”

The Emperor replied: “You have followed the correct procedure … those brought before you and found guilty should be punished provided that anyone who denies that he is a follower of Christ and actually proves this by worshipping our gods is pardoned …”

12.Public killing. The emperors of Rome used Christians to entertain the people. Men and women alike were thrown into the arena with wild bears, leopards, or lions.  The spectators shouted and jeered.  Sometimes the Christians had to fight against professional soldiers.  Once an emperor6 nailed Christians on crosses at night and set them on fire to provide light.   At times the gory torture became too much for the crowd, and they shouted “enough.”  The example of Christians made a deep effect on the watchers.

13.Another example. A man named Polycarp had studied under the apostle John and became a bishop. He was known for his gentleness and humility.  In 156 bishop Polycarp was arrested and threatened with death.  He was 86 years old, and had great influence, so the enemies of the Christians decided to make him give up his faith rather than killing him.  The promised to release him if he would reject Christ, and otherwise they would burn him alive.  Polycarp answered:

“The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished.  There is another fire you know nothing about – the fire of judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you hesitate?  Do what you want … “ 7

The crowd quickly collected wood and the men in charge lit the fire, and Polycarp died.  The believers were strengthened by Polycarp’s faith and courage.  The unbelievers were so horrified at what they had done, that they decided not to kill any more Christians in that part of the country.

14.Persecutions purified the church. Those who were not committed believers left the church to avoid persecution. Those who remained in the church were reminded that in this life we cannot depend upon material things. Some people left the church, but later wanted to come back.  How the church handled these cases is detailed in lesson 29. The faith of the believers was strengthened.  Those who suffered discovered that God’s grace was enough to help them endure.  Those who lost family members had the comfort of knowing that they were with Jesus in heaven.

15.More people became Christian. When nonbelievers saw that believers were willing to die for their faith, they wondered why they themselves did not believe in anything worth dying for. They were attracted to the courage and peace of the sufferers.  A scholar in the church of the 3rd century wrote  “the blood of the martyrs is seed.” 8

16.Facing Persecution. In the book of First Peter we learn how the believers were able to face persecution.  1 Peter 2:19-24 says that Jesus did not fight back, but placed everything into the hands of God.  1 Peter 4:19 says that we show we have placed everything into God’s hands when we continue to do good even when we are suffering.

17.Legal. In 312 the Roman emperor became a believer, so in 313 emperor Constantine made the church legal and was no longer persecuted by the government.  (There was a short time of persecution in 361 when a non-believer became emperor). One of the people released from prison was a bishop from Turkey.  He was a kind man who had the habit of going out in the night and giving gifts to the poor.  His name was Nicholas.  He was the basis for the custom today of an old, kind man who is part of the Christmas celebration.  In America, this man is called “Santa Claus.” The idea of including this man at the Christmas celebration was developed by the Germans and the Dutch in the 1600’s.  Other details of his appearance and habits were invented by American newspaper writers.  When you see the picture of this man bringing gifts, you can think about the greatest gift of all: Jesus is God’s gift to us.

18.Government oppresses unbelievers. By the 400’s, the majority of people within the Roman Empire were believers.  Then, ironically and sadly, the Christian government began to use force against the non-believers.  In 392 the emperor outlawed all activities worshipping the Greek and Roman gods. The church then had no rival.  Churches were built, monasteries were established, and children throughout Europe and northern Africa were going to school.  By this time the Roman Empire was permanently divided into two parts, each with its own leader.  The leader of the western part lived in Italy, and the leader of the eastern part lived in today’s Turkey.  The next developments in history show that these two parts had very different futures.

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See diagram of Roman Empire compared to other empires.
See maps of Roman Empire and other empires.


1 Mark 16:15

2 Acts 1:8.

3 Acts 2:40-41.

4 Acts 8:1.

5 The governor was Pliny, writing to the emperor Trajan. The quote is from Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, pages 3 and 4.

6 Nero

7 Bettenson, page 11

8 Tertullian

Word List.  Justin Martyr殉道者游斯丁  Nicholas  尼古拉   Polycarp  坡旅甲 or 玻利卡普  Santa Claus 圣诞老人