Tried in the Fire

Chapter 35

When Jesus revealed the fate of Jerusalem to His disciples, He also described the scenes of the Second Advent. He described the experience of His people from the time when He would be taken from them, until His return in power and glory for their deliverance. In a few brief statements of terrible significance, He foretold the treatment which His church would receive from the rulers of this world. (See Matthew 24:9, 21–22.) The followers of Christ must tread the same path of humiliation, shame, and suffering over which their Master passed. The hatred that displayed itself against the world's Redeemer would be shown against all who should believe on His name.

The experience of the early church was a fulfillment of the Saviour's words. Paganism saw that, should the gospel triumph, her temples and altars would be swept away; therefore she summoned her forces to destroy Christianity. Stripped of their possessions and driven from their homes, great numbers of Christians confirmed their testimony with their blood. Noble and slave, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, were slain without mercy.

These persecutions, beginning under Nero about the time of the martyrdom of Paul, continued with greater or less fury for centuries. Christians were falsely accused of the most dreadful crimes and declared to be the cause of great calamities—famine, disease, and earthquake. They were condemned as rebels against the empire, as foes of religion, and pests to society. Great numbers were thrown to wild beasts or burned alive in the amphitheaters. Some were crucified; others were covered with the skins of wild animals and driven into the arena to be torn by dogs. Their punishment was often made the chief entertainment at public celebrations. Large crowds gathered to enjoy the sight and greeted their dying suffering with laughter and applause.

Under the fiercest persecution, these witnesses for Jesus kept their faith. The loss of every earthly blessing could not force them to give up their belief in Christ. Trials and persecution were but steps bringing them ever nearer their rest and final reward.

All of Satan's efforts to destroy the church of Christ by violence proved a failure. The great battle for truth in which the disciples of Jesus yielded up their lives did not end with their deaths. Though they appeared to be defeated, they died conquerors. God's work went steadily forward. Though thousands were imprisoned and slain, as many more sprang up to fill their places. These early Christians were sustained by the knowledge that those who died for their faith were assured a crown of glory when Christ should come. The sufferings to which they submitted brought Christians nearer to one another and to their Redeemer. Their living example and dying testimony were a constant witness for the truth; and where least expected, the subjects of Satan were leaving his service and joining the cause of Christ.

To accomplish his purpose, Satan now tried to gain by cunning what he had failed to obtain by force. As persecution ended, instead of suffering poverty and trials, the church appeared to prosper. She now faced the even greater danger of material wealth and worldly honor. Idolaters were led to receive a part of the Christian faith, while they rejected other vital truths. They professed to accept Jesus as the Son of God and to believe in His death and resurrection, but they had no conviction of sin and felt no need of repentance or of a change of heart. With some compromise on their part, they suggested that Christians should surrender some points of truth and, under these arrangements, all could unite on the platform of belief in Christ.

Most of the Christians at last agreed to lower their standard, and a merger was formed between Christianity and paganism. Although the worshipers of idols professed conversion and united with the church, they still retained idols, only changing their objects of worship to images of Jesus, and even of Mary and the saints. The dark stain of idolatry, thus brought into the church, continued its deadly work. Doctrines not to be found in the Bible, superstitious rites, and idolatrous ceremonies became a part of the faith and worship of the Christian church. The Christian religion became corrupted; and the church, losing her purity, became powerless. There were some, however, who were not fooled by these false beliefs. They still retained their devotion to the Author of truth and worshiped God alone.

This compromise between paganism and Christianity resulted in the development of "the man of sin" foretold in prophecy as opposing and exalting himself above God. (See 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4.) The gigantic system of false religion that was formed by this mixture of Christianity and paganism is a masterpiece of Satan's power—a monument of his efforts to rule the earth according to his will.

The spirit of making concessions to paganism opened the way for a still further disregard of Heaven's authority. Satan, working through unconsecrated church leaders, modified the fourth commandment. He endeavored to set aside the ancient Sabbath, the day which God had blessed and sanctified. (See Genesis 2:2–3.) In its place, he led the church to magnify the festival observed by the heathen as "the venerable day of the sun." This change was not brought about suddenly. In the first centuries, all Christians kept the true Sabbath. They were jealous for the honor of God and, believing that His law is unchangeable, they earnestly guarded the sacredness of its precepts. But with great subtlety, Satan worked through his agents to bring about his object. In order to elevate Sunday in the eyes of the people, it was made a festival in honor of the resurrection of Christ. Religious services were held upon it; yet it was regarded as a day of recreation, the Sabbath being still sacredly observed.

In the early part of the fourth century, the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire. The day of the sun was reverenced by his pagan subjects and was honored by Christians; it was the emperor's policy to unite the conflicting interests of heathenism, and Christianity. But while many God-fearing Christians were gradually led to regard Sunday as possessing a degree of sacredness, they still kept the true Sabbath in obedience to the fourth commandment.

Satan was determined to make his control of the church more complete. Church councils were held from time to time in which the officials of the church were brought together from all over the Christian world. In nearly every council, the Sabbath which God had instituted was pressed down a little lower, while Sunday was correspondingly exalted. Thus the pagan festival came finally to be honored as a divine institution, while the Bible Sabbath was pronounced a relic of Judaism and its observers declared to be accursed.

The fourth commandment was designed to keep the living God ever before the minds of men as the source of their existence and the object of their reverence and worship. Satan strives to turn men from their allegiance to God and from rendering obedience to His law; therefore he directs his efforts especially against that commandment which points to God as the Creator. In removing the true Sabbath from the Christian church, the great apostate had succeeded in exalting himself "above all that is called God, or that is worshipped." 2 Thessalonians 2:4

Even before the establishment of the papacy, the teachings of heathen philosophers had received attention and exerted an influence in the church. Many who professed conversion still retained many of the beliefs of their pagan religion. These they not only continued to study themselves, but urged them upon others as a means of exerting a favorable influence on the heathen. This resulted in bringing serious errors into the Christian faith, including the doctrine of the immortality of the soul—the idea of man's consciousness in death. This concept laid the foundation upon which Rome established the doctrine of prayer to the saints and the adoration of the Virgin Mary. From this sprang also the heresy of eternal torment of the lost.

The apostasy that darkened Europe was never universal, however. There never was a time when there was no one to witness to God's truth. When one group of faithful would yield to the darkness, or was cut off by violence, another group would arise in another land. In every age, in some country or another of Christendom, there were those who cried out against the errors of Rome and in behalf of the gospel which it sought to destroy. In every age there were witnesses for God-men who held the Bible as the only rule of life. They were branded as heretics; their motives were denounced, their characters slandered, and their writings suppressed, misrepresented, or destroyed. Yet they stood firm, and from age to age maintained their faith in its purity, as a sacred heritage for the generations to come.

Among the leading causes that had led to the separation of the true church from Rome was the Roman Church's hatred of the Bible Sabbath. The churches over which the papacy was able to exercise its control were early compelled to honor the Sunday as a holy day.

Amid the prevailing error and superstition, many, even of the true people of God, became so confused that while they observed the Sabbath, they refrained from work also on Sunday. This did not, however, satisfy the papal leaders; and they demanded not only that Sunday be kept sacred, but that the Sabbath be desecrated. It was only by fleeing from the power of Rome that any could obey God's law in peace.

The Waldenses, or Vaudois, were among the first of the peoples of Europe to obtain a translation of the Holy Scriptures. Hundreds of years before the Reformation, they had the written Bible in their native language. Because they had the truth in its purity, they were the special objects of hatred and persecution. They declared the Church of Rome to be the apostate Babylon of the book of Revelation; and at the peril of their lives, they stood up to resist her corruptions. Under the pressure of long-continued persecution, some compromised their faith; but through the ages of darkness and apostasy, there were Waldenses who denied the supremacy of Rome and kept the true Sabbath. Under the fiercest tempests of opposition, they maintained their faith and stood unflinchingly for God's Word and His honor.

The spirit of Christ is a missionary spirit. Such was the spirit of the Vaudois Christians. They felt that God required more of them than merely to preserve the truth in its purity in their own churches. They believed that a solemn responsibility rested upon them to let their light shine forth to those who were in darkness. By the mighty power of God's Word, they sought to break the bondage which Rome had imposed. The Vaudois ministers were trained as missionaries. Everyone who expected to enter the ministry was required to first gain an experience as an evangelist. Each was to serve three years in some mission field before taking charge of a church at home. The missionaries went out two and two, as Jesus sent forth His disciples. With each young man was usually associated a man of age and experience who was held responsible for his training. These colaborers were not always together but often met for prayer and counsel, thus strengthening each other in the faith.

The very existence of these people, holding the faith of the ancient church, was a constant testimony to Rome's apostasy and therefore excited the most bitter hatred and persecution. Their refusal to surrender the Scriptures was also an offense that Rome could not tolerate. She determined to blot them from the earth. Now began the most terrible crusades against God's people in their mountain homes. Inquisitors were put upon their track, and the scene of innocent Abel falling before the murderous Cain was often repeated.

The persecutions visited for many centuries upon these God-fearing people were endured by them with a patience and faithfulness that honored their Redeemer. Notwithstanding the inhuman butchery that they endured, they continued to send out their missionaries to scatter the precious truth. They were hunted to death; yet their blood watered the seed sown, producing its yield of fruit. Scattered over many lands, centuries before Luther, these Waldensian missionaries planted the seeds of the Reformation that began in the time of Wycliffe and grew broad and deep in the days of Luther. This movement is to be carried forward to the close of time by those who also are willing to suffer all things for "the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." Revelation 1:9