Most Christians are very familiar with the passage, "That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)
Let’s examine it a little more closely and try to understand this passage in its historical context. During the early days Christianity was seen as just another sect of Judaism, a legal religion. (Acts 2:47)
The preaching of Paul and Peter in Rome was an epoch in the history of the church. In Philippians 4:22, we learn of saints in "Caesar's household," which at that time would be Nero's household. The good news of the gospel gave an impulse to the growth of Christianity. (Act 2:47)
As time progressed things got worse and the Jews convinced Rome to recognize Christianity as not being a part of Judaism and therefore it was classified as an illegal religion in Rome. At the time Paul wrote this letter, the persecution of Christians was intensifying and he was keenly aware of the implications resulting from publicly confessing Jesus as Lord. The Apostles were commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus. (Acts 5:40) When the council had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. (Acts 5:41-42)
The Apostles departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame in the name of Jesus. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul knew a lot about persecuting Christians because he was one of the Jewish ringleaders who persecuted Christians until he himself very dramatically met Christ. As we know, he stood by and approved of the stoning (murder) of Stephen.
To confess with your mouth in those days that Jesus is Lord was an all-in proposition. When you publicly identified with Christ, everything could, and usually did change. You could lose your job, your status, your property, your health, your freedom, your family, and even your life. Act 15:25-26:
“It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When Paul said that the followers of Christ were to confess Jesus as Lord, everyone knew it wasn’t just lip service. This confession was so significant, it could cost your life... it was definitely not done because everyone was doing it. The early Christians confessed it when they were ready to give their all and all for Christ.
When Paul wrote this passage in his letter to the Romans, he was already acquainted with persecution. Paul was in prison more than once, he was stoned and left for dead, beaten with rods, and received lashes several times (2 Corinthians 11:24) as well as in ‘dangers from his countrymen’ (11:26). Of course, the Jews instigated the Gentiles, who also joined in persecuting Christians. (Acts 14:2)
Luke closed the book of Acts and shows how the chief priests and elders made a great oath to kill Paul. (Acts 23:14) This shows how passionate the Judaizers’ hatred was against Christians who confessed the name of Jesus as Lord. The primary enemies of Christ and the church in the early years were the unbelieving Jews. Paul was ultimately martyred for his confession of Christ and the Gospel.
We are also told "there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem;" and that "they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8:1) During the first century after Jesus' death nearly all of his followers suffered martyrdom for His sake.
The Roman government also made it common practice to violently persecute, torture, imprison, and kill Christians. It was not until about AD 63, under the reign of the ruthless Roman emperor Nero that the Jews got Rome involved and Christianity was classified as an illegal religion in the Roman Empire.
This action caused the great persecution of the Church for 3 ½ years from A.D 64 till A.D 67. Staggering from both persecution and apostasy, (John 1:19; 2 Timothy 2 1:15; 4:10) many in these early churches had forsaken their faith rather than stand up for Jesus and die. They experienced Jewish persecution, but now they were experiencing an even greater Roman persecution in addition to that of the Jews. It was a rugged time for the infant churches.
Also during these days the Roman Emperors were worshiped as gods. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar permitted a statue of himself with the inscription, "The unvanquished god," and declared himself dictator for life. This belief in the emperor's divine authority eventually led to the requirement of a sacrifice to the emperor as a sign of loyalty. The requirement of a sacrifice to the emperor became a significant source of conflict with early Christians. Christians refused to worship the emperor as God, and therefore, would not sacrifice to him. This led to persecution of the Christians by the Roman political authorities that enforced the practice. Those Christians recognized another King unlike the Judaizers. (Please read John 19:15.) The Christians refused to acknowledge the divine status of Emperor worship, and refused the traditions and gods of the Roman Empire.
Nero came up with some most extraordinary ways to torture Christians. Nero performed the worst atrocities upon his victims; he did not just want to kill Christians, he wanted to make them suffer first. Nero enjoyed dipping Christians in tar, oil or resin, and nailed them on pine poles, which were lighted and burned as torches for the amusement of the mob. Meanwhile, Nero, in fantastical dress, figured in a horse race and displayed his art as charioteer. Burning alive was the ordinary punishment of incendiaries, but only the cruel ingenuity of this imperial monster, under the inspiration of the devil, could invent such a horrific system of illumination.
Around his palace were also Christian torches that illumined the night while he yelled, "Now you truly are the light of the world!" Nero also performed many other kinds of torture, often killing them in the Amphitheater in front of large crowds of spectators where he did some of his most gruesome murders. The ghastly way in which some of the Christians were put to death was to wrap them in animal skins and throw them to lions or wild dogs to be ripped apart. Many other men and women were tied between two oxen or horses tearing these men and women apart in front of thousands of entertaining spectators.
At other times he would crucify them, and after the crowd would get bored, he would set the Christians on fire. Nero falsely accused and executed Christians, who were infamous for their faith in Christ. There were many rumors flying about that Christians were cannibals (because of the 'Lord's Supper' in which they eat the 'flesh' and drink the 'blood' of Jesus Christ) and that they performed human sacrifice (none of this was true). But ultimately Christians were executed not for the public good or any criminal acts, but on the account that they were a threat to the Roman Empire and the old system of Judaism.
This great persecution was raised against all who professed their belief in the name of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. This also explains why Peter denied Christ. Lord warned the apostle that he would deny Him three times Peter boasted, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble” (Matthew 26:33). “If I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Mark. 14:31). The Bible repeatedly warns us not to place too much confidence in our own abilities. If Peter had not been so sure that although all denied Christ, he never would, he would probably never have fallen.”
We need to be careful to not overlook those first century saints who confessed "Jesus is Lord;" it was an all-in proposition that required their everything – even their lives. They didn’t just give Christ lip service, they give Him their lives. Luke 21:16-18 states, "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost.”