The city of Rome was ravaged by a fire in July of A. D. 64. The people of Rome suspected Nero of setting the fire. He quickly shifted the blame for this holocaust to the Christians of Rome, and visited a sadistic bloodletting upon them (cf. Tacitus, Annals, XV.44).
Also after the fire, it appears Nero instigated a general roundup of influential Christians in distant provinces. The Apostle Paul was brought to Rome and imprisoned. He was executed sometime between the period of the fire and the end of Nero’s reign (i. e., between A. D. 64 and 68).
Today, you can visit the Mamertine Prison where Paul was held until his death, just outside the ruins of the Roman Forum. You can visit the spot where he was beheaded, at the Abbey of the Three Fountains, a few miles outside of Rome on the ancient Ostian Way.
All of this is sad to relate: the tragic career of the promising young Nero, tutored by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca, yet degenerating into official malfeasance, moral turpitude, sadistic cruelty, and self-delusion (he died a suicide, bemoaning the world’s loss of a “great artist” [Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, VI.49.1]).
And sad to relate: the apparently tragic career of Saul of Tarsus, a young leader without peer in the traditions of his fathers (Gal. 1:13-14) — as Paul the Christian, scorned and persecuted by his own people as a heretic (Acts 9:23, 29), vexed by the conduct and attitude of pretended Christians (2 Cor. 11:26), beaten and persecuted by his fellow Roman citizens (Acts 16:22-23, 37), saddled daily “with concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28 NASB), and wrongfully executed as party to a supposed criminal conspiracy.
But there is a significant difference in the histories and earthly ends of these two men. One died in self-pitying sorrow, without hope, forfeiting a crown he had become unworthy to own. The other died in unquestioning, joyful anticipation of a crown he was yet to wear. In prison, awaiting the headsman’s axe, Paul wrote:
“…I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give unto me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Onward Christian soldier! Onward to your crown! D. B.