Reading: I Peter 4:7-19
“The end of all things is near.” These words spark the imagination; these are words that we all hear from time to time — and they are words that are easy to dismiss because we see that the world didn’t end every time that we hear those words. It is easy to argue how the world will end, and miss how much of the world really did end.
I believe that I Peter was written between the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, and the death of Nero in 68 AD; perhaps not surprisingly, this range of dates is also when Peter and Paul died under the persecution of Nero. Lets consider the Roman world in the middle of the first century.
At this point, Pax Romana had made it so that the entire shoreline of the Mediterranean sea was well connected. The winds were such that travel by sea was fast enough that one could travel from Rome to the ends of the empire in about a week — if you had to travel quickly, you could, though you paid for it by the discomfort of sailing.
While this letter was written in Rome, Peter and others in the community certainly had connections to Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman empire made it so that massive pilgrimages to the temple were possible. The temple was built to its current spender under a Judean king who was basically a client king to the Romans. It might not be pleasant to be occupied, but being under Rome had many advantages.
Caesar Augustus’s descendants were not nearly as great as he was; this is one problem with dynasties, eventually you get kings who are incompetent, crazy, or malicious. Caligula was, doubtless, all of these things. Caligula was assassinated by his bodyguards before he could destroy the empire.
Caligula had most of the adult male members of his family killed, because he saw other potential emperors as a threat to his power. For some reason he missed his uncle Claudius — most likely the reason was that Claudius was mocked by his family and kept out of the public view; uncle Claudius was not a threat.
Under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, things started getting better. Claudius was a hard worker, getting up long before dawn to focus on the needs of the Empire. He focused on improving transportation, building roads and canals throughout the empire; unfortunately, he married a relative, Nero’s mother. The historian Tacitus tells us that Claudius was poisoned by his wife, his food taster, and his physician when Nero was old enough to rule.
When Nero came to power in 54 AD, 10 years before the great fire, he started off as a good emperor. Nero was a student of the philosopher Seneca, and he had the great moral philosopher as his adviser. Seneca taught him to treat people humanely, whether they were slaves or free. Nero’s early reign was marked by reversing the harsher actions of his step-father. His first public speech promised to end secret trials, to eliminate court corruption, and to respect the Senate; and the first half of his rule greatly increased the rights of the poor and former slaves.
It did not take long for the hope people put in Nero to break down; in 58 AD, he had his mother murdered — and by 62, he started executing any nobleman he disagreed with. Not surprisingly, 62 is also when his adviser Seneca fell out of favor. As Seneca was Nero’s speech and policy writer, Nero’s tone and policies changed drastically. One might say that early-Nero’s rule was really Seneca’s rule.
In 64, there was a great fire that destroyed most of Rome. Rumors said that Nero started it so that he could rebuild Rome and expand his palace complex. Between the fire, and Nero’s killing of anybody who criticized him or opposed him politically, he lost the support of the Senate. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, and begins crucifying and burning them. Starting in 65, Senators were planning Nero’s assassination, and they even had members of Nero’s body-guard involved in the plot; and there is a problem, Nero has no heir, the family of Caesar has murdered each other until it was nearly extinct.
In 66 AD, there was a revolt in Judea. Nero sent Vespasian to restore order — this turned into a full out war that in 70AD completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. While the Jewish-Roman war was going on, back at Rome Nero was assassinated in 68 AD. Nero’s assassination and lack of an heir plunged the empire into a civil war. 69 AD was known as the year of the 4 emperors, the first three dying in quick succession. Vespasian, who warred against Judea left his son Titus in charge and marched on Rome, conquering and looted Rome, and established his house as the next dynasty.
All things are coming to an end. If you were Roman, you were about to see the reign of the Caesars coming to an end. Before Nero, the emperor was from Julius Cesar’s family — but, the Senate was allowed to choose which member; now, the emperor was chosen by the military and served as a military dictator making Rome less democratic. Vespasian’s son Domitian would completely end the illusion that Rome was a republic, and the senate had any power. Domitian would also become one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith.
If you had any connection to the Jewish people and faith, the end of Jerusalem as a city and the complete destruction of the temple, followed by making the man responsible for this destruction emperor at Rome would have signaled an end of the world. If you were a Roman, who loved Roman institutions, and the stability Rome enjoyed, even when there were ineffective emperors; you would have lost something. If you were a supporter of the Caesars, you would have mourned their line coming to an end. If you supported the Republic and the senate, you would have mourned that they no longer had any power — that after the civil war all power was held by the emperor and the military.
Peter did not need great prophetic insight to see that change was coming; he only needed the ability to hear rumors, and guess truth from them. The Christian community was a scapegoat for the emperor’s problems; a fiery ordeal is a big eye-opener to the problems faced by the emperor. Perhaps the biggest sign that an institution has problems is the need to direct focus on an unlikely scapegoat. Peter couldn’t have been the only person who saw the writing on the wall.
Peter wrote some advice for the church as it was facing its members being publicly set on fire and burned alive — it might be good to listen to the advice given to a church facing a fiery ordeal even in this time and place where we enjoy comfort, and where Christian thought is discussed and considered at every level of public discourse.
The first thing Peter advises is how to act to other Christians. He advised that we keep loving each other, we keep being hospitable to each other, and that we keep serving each other. When the rest of the world is uncertain, and everything that once seemed safe is unsafe, Peter called the Christian community to be a refuge, and to look out for each other. After the great fire of Rome, many people were made homeless — what is more practical than love, service, and hospitality when people are displaced? Between the fire, a hostile government, and the disasters that were to come, this isn’t just about being nice to each other; this is about survival.
Peter also gave some advice about how to relate to the Roman Empire; in this case he advised that the community honor those who are punished by the government for their Christianity — basically, martyrs are to be honored. If somebody is punished for Christian beliefs or behavior, the person suffered just as Christ suffered — the person is a hero.
On the other hand, Peter told the community not to murder, or steal, or commit other crimes or even to meddle. Peter told this community of scapegoats to be on good behavior — make sure that when Nero sets you on fire, nobody can find any cause for him to have done so — not even meddling; which was reason enough for Nero’s family members and trusted advisers to be put to death.
The end of all things was near, and it came and went; but Peter gave advice that helped Christians survive persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the looting of Rome. The more people saw Christians suffering without any cause; the more people saw Christians loving one another, and being generous and hospitable, serving those who were in need — the more people joined the church. Without fighting back, Christianity would defeat all the power of the empire and would survive it.
Christ has given us the strength to endure all that the world can throw against us. We hope for the resurrection of the dead, and that hope is greater than any power that can be used against us. I don’t anticipate any fiery ordeal any time soon — but, I do anticipate opportunities to love, to be hospitable, and to serve one another.