Recently I was struck by having heard within two weeks two separate Christian radio programs touch upon the subject of persecution. I honestly could not remember having heard that subject mentioned in preaching and teaching since the 1970s. I think that this shows how inconsistent much modern preaching and teaching, and most likely the lives of many believers in Christ, has become with the Bible since both the Old and New Testaments are full of mentions of the persecution as part of social and legal consequences of adherence to the God of the Bible and to following Christ. It would not be too much to say that there are many, if not most of us in the evangelical church, who have become accustomed to wanting more to be liked and to fit in and get along with those around us, and to assume if that isn’t happening in some small, even petty way, something’s wrong with you. This tendency may also be an unconscious infiltration from secular psychology, which has as its goal socialization: producing people well adjusted to their families and to society. That socialization for a believer in Christ may mean an ultimately self destructive adjustment to a world without God and without hope does not seem to receive much attention.
One thing which is often missing from our preaching and teaching is simply this: Persecution will happen to someone who seeks to follow Christ passionately and consistently even if he or she consistently speaks and acts in Christian love and candor. The apostle Paul’s statement is still true: “All those who seek to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 4:12).
To some extent I think that the problem is exacerbated by people in the church looking at persecution through the lens of church traditions and stories of persecution and martyrdom under the later Roman empire or through some incidents passed on from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (which is a great read nonetheless). It’s entirely possible that someone in our churches who may in fact be undergoing treatment in his or her school, job, family and neighborhood which falls under a scriptural definition of persecution may not see it as such because he or she is not being dragged off to an arena to a dramatic execution by Roman soldiers.
Even more, I think that the material prosperity and spiritual immaturity of so much of the North American church may be holding many believers back from standing consistently for Christ in their lives and thus risking the relatively mild forms of persecution that come in our culture and may in fact leave them woefully unprepared for more severe persecution when and if it comes to them. Here are some characteristics of children of affluence (I’m not sure where I got these, but I think that they came from the preaching of Garnett Slatton, the senior pastor at Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village, Ohio):
- Self important
- Forget God
- Shallow character
- Emphasis on having abundance
- Sense of entitlement and not on working hard to keep and grow abundance.
Would anyone who has such characteristics, even with a profession of faith in Christ and regular church attendance, be ready to stand for Christ if it meant being the recipient of slander and false accusations, suffering rejection, losing financial rewards or security, suffering physically, losing one’s life, or even losing popularity for the sake of following Christ? Quite frankly, I would also say that many, many adults in the modern church exhibit many of the social characteristics of high school students, in that they place inordinate value on looks, popularity, athleticism and affluence, and haven’t grown spiritually enough to understand that the faithfulness to Christ in every circumstance matters more than any of these.
Here are some definitions of the different methods and levels of of persecution from scripture itself, and most often from the words of Jesus himself where possible. It is noteworthy that a great deal of what scripture has to say about persecution is in the words of Jesus himself – the sinless Son of God, who was crucified for absolutely no fault of his own.
- Hatred, slander, ostracism and rejection.
This is probably the most common form of persecution that a Christian will experience, and this can happen even in a society which is not explicitly anti-Christian. Here is what Jesus had to say about it:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others scorn you and persecute you and say every wicked thing possible against you because of me. Rejoice and shout for joy, for your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12).
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they ostracize and scorn and treat your name as a swear word because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy, for your reward is great in heaven, because their forefathers did the same things to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23).
This may include calling a believer weird because the believer refuses to indulge in the same kind of partying as others do: “ . . . they think it is strange that you do not run headlong along with them into their excess of reckless living as they slander you . . .” (I Peter 4:1). It’s also noteworthy that both Jesus (Mark 5:21) and Paul (Acts 26:24) were called crazy, and Paul even by (gasp) someone in authority – a Roman governor! (This brings to mind that in the Soviet Union many Christians underwent malicious psychiatric ‘treatments’ for their faith in Christ. C.S. Lewis noted that this could easily be an excuse for de facto persecution in a Western nation.) Moreover, the religious leaders of the day also spread the slander that Jesus was under demonic influence (Mark 3:30, John 8:48).
I think that this is the level of persecution that Jesus meant when he laid down the challenge, “. . . let him take up his cross daily . . .” (Luke 9:23) . Someone bearing a cross, on the way to the place of crucifixion, was a convenient target for every jeer, taunt, and form of verbal abuse, as well as whatever other kinds of physical abuse could be slipped in, from the surrounding crowd. Those who spiritualized this passage into its referring to some kind of ‘inward crucifixion’ have, I believe, wrenched it totally from its original context and meaning that it would have had to the first century audience, who would have been well aware of what happened to someone who was bearing a cross. From what Jesus said, and from the experience of him and the apostles, some kind of slander, ostracism and hatred from others who are not following Christ would be such a normal part of Christian experience that it should be very easy to give someone who is experiencing this the benefit of the doubt that he or she is not being deliberately or unnecessarily obnoxious, irritating, weird or self righteous, nor having any kind of mental imbalance.
- Legal oppression through malicious use of laws and false accusations
There were all sorts of false charges and false witnesses brought against Jesus in his official trial before the Sanhedrin before his condemnation on blasphemy, though they had to make it sedition to get it to stick before Pilate. Likewise, Paul’s imprisonment in Acts came through a riot provoked by a mere supposition that he had done something illegal (Acts 21:27-29). In both of these instances the legal system was twisted and false accusations used to bring about governmental oppression, illegal imprisonment and illegal execution.
- Restrictions on public speech and teaching in the name of Jesus
This is most noteworthy in the early chapters of the book of Acts, where the official decree of the Sanhedrin to the apostles was: “We entirely forbid you to speak nothing nor to teach anything in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The reply of Peter and John to this should be the reply of believers in every age and every country whenever civil or religious authorities attempt to stop Christian witness, preaching and teaching: “Judge yourselves whether it is right before God for us to listen to you rather than God, for we are not able to stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). Their reaction was to pray for even more boldness (Acts 4:29), and to reply when brought before the Sanhedrin again, “It is necessary to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 4:29).
- Restrictions on places and times of gathering
This isn’t something that I’ve noticed particularly in the New Testament, although it was well known shortly thereafter. What comes to mind particularly. is the time that the apostles were gathered behind closed doors, “ . . . for fear of the Jews . . .” (John 20:19).
- Fines and financial confiscation
The apostle who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews noted that there was a huge financial penalty that the Jewish believers who were the recipients of the letter had suffered joyfully (Hebrews 10;34). Certainly they did not deserve the loss of their possessions, in whatever way it happened, but they accepted it joyfully as part of what it meant to follow Jesus.
Peter (Acts 12:3) and Paul (Acts 16:24, 23:10, 24:27) spent a good deal of time in prison as a part of the consequences of holding to their faith in Christ.
- Physical Beatings and Torture
Paul and Silas were treated to beatings as well as imprisonment (Acts 16:23-24), and Paul was stoned and had received other beatings as well (Acts 14:19, II Corinthians 11:24-25).
The lynch mob which killed Stephen was an example of unlawful, illegal execution (Acts 7:58-60). Later Herod Agrippa I executed James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-3). It’s notable that martyrdom like this is sometimes confused with the other forms malicious treatment which scripture calls persecution. It’s also notable that martyrs in scripture were not engaging in acts of civil violence or terrorism, nor being killed while engaged in warfare against any other person, faction, religion or nation, nor taking anyone else’s life, especially the life of any innocent victim, and taking one’s own life at the same time.
Here are some more more points about persecution which scripture teaches.
- Persecution is ultimately a rejection of Jesus, not of the persecuted.
Jesus is now in heaven, and the persecutors of his people on earth cannot get to him. The ultimate issue is really not the faults, weaknesses, or sins of the persecuted. It is rather the persecutors’ rejection of Jesus: “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first, before you . . . They will do these things because they do not know my Father nor me.” (John 15;18, 16:3).
Jesus in fact identifies himself so much with those persecuted for his name and takes their treatment by others so personally that that he could say to Saul of Tarsus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
- Christ calls for utter faithfulness to himself in these situations.
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. For what good is it to anyone to gain the whole world and to lose his soul? What would a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 9:35-38).
“Whoever acknowledges me before other people, I will acknowledge that person before my Father who is in heaven; whoever denies me before men, I will also deny that person before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
- Persecution is a possible reason for apostasy.
I think that professed believers falling away from faith in Christ is something that is taken far too lightly among many in the church nowadays. That someone has the civil freedom to do so does not negate the terrible spiritual and eternal consequences of apostasy. Jesus himself pointed to persecution and affliction in the Parable of the Sower as a reason why many insufficiently rooted believers fall away: “And these are the ones who were sown upon the rocky ground: after they have heard the Word with joy they receive it, and then they have no root in themselves, and are temporary; when affliction or persecution on account of the Word comes they immediately stumble into apostasy” (Mark 4:16-17).
- There is Satanic instigation and direction behind persecution and martyrdom.
This was what Peter meant when he wrote to the persecuted believers, “Be serious and watchful. Your enemy the devil is walking around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in the faith, since you know that the same sufferings are happening among your brothers and sisters worldwide” (I Peter 5:8-9).
- The love of God is greater than anything that the persecutors may do to a believer.
This is what the apostle Paul set forth in Romans 8:34-39: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Affliction or difficulty or starvation or nakedness or danger or sword? Just as it is written that,
‘ For your sake we die all day long,
we are considered sheep for the slaughter.’
But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who has loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things which are present nor things which are to come nor powers not height nor depth nor any created thing will be able to separate us from from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This passage was directed a lot more to the believer who is suffering for his or her faith than someone who is simply going through life, doing his or her own thing, and getting irritated and complaining about others who intrude on his or her own selfishness.
- Jesus promises his peace to those undergoing persecution.
The utter peace of many believers who are suffering for their faith and often being led to execution for their faith has been one of the remarkable things throughout the whole history of the church. Yet Jesus clearly promised, “I have spoken these things to you so that in me you might have peace; in the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33).
Here it’s worthy of note that there have been some gospel presentations which have rightly come under some criticism for holding forth the promise of peace as a reward for making a profession of faith in Christ. Some who have responded because of this promise have then rightly had complaints because things then became worse for them – they had to face conflict with others because of their recent profession of faith! While Jesus and the apostles definitely held forth the gospel promises of forgiveness of sins and eternal life as the eternal consequence of faith in Christ, I think that any mention of peace and joy in following Christ in any gospel presentation needs to be kept in its proper place, alongside the cost of discipleship.
- The sufficiency of God’s grace is there for believers when they are undergoing persecution.
This is the actual context of the often quoted promise of Jesus to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It was not simply a promise to get through a difficult day with irritating people, but through a number of difficult circumstances, including persecution: “Thus I will boast all the more in my weaknesses, so hat the power of Christ will dwell upon he. Therefore I will be satisfied in weaknesses, in insults, in difficulties, in persecutions and privations, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).
This means that a believer, when he or she is the target of one or more of the methods and situations of persecution, even up to martyrdom, is not dependent on his or her toughness to get through that situation. The grace of God through Jesus Christ is the source of forthrightness and steadfastness in those situations.
- Believers are called to show extraordinary love and prayer for their persecutors.
The consistent commands of Jesus throughout the gospels, which are repeated by the apostle Peter in I Peter, is that believers are not to reply in kind to their persecutors. This means no reactions of taunting, insults and counter accusations but rather love, prayer and blessing: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those are persecuting you” (Matthew 5:44).
This is, I think, where the reactions of ‘turning the other cheek’ in scripture need to be understood correctly. They were not given as a pattern for civil law or for being passive in the face of abusive people but rather need to be understood as Christ’s directions to his followers on how to react to persecution.
- Believers in Christ are to give a respectful and reasonable explanation of their faith in Christ when facing opposition.
This is what Peter told the believers: “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear or get worked up by their intimidation, but set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, as you are ready to give an explanation to everyone who asks you to give an explanation for the hope which is in you, but with gentleness and respect, as you hold to a good conscience . . .” (I Peter 3:14-16).
Frank Pastore, the onetime pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, once took the fellow Christians on his team to task after he came to Christ because they could not give him a reasonable explanation for their faith when they tried to witness to him. He then took these verses and went through the Bible to guide them on how to do so. I think that too much in our day that this is seen as too much of academic exercise; this kind of defense isn’t so much being able to argue like a philosopher but being able to explain like a witness on the stand. Yet many Christians when challenged, may fall to the same cultural and relativistic cop outs such as:
- Well, that’s what my church believes.
- That’s my truth, and that’s your truth.
- It doesn’t matter what you believe, as much as that you believe.
- Believers are to trust in Christ for supernatural wisdom through the Spirit when brought before persecuting governments, officials, authorities and accusers.
This is the explicit of promise of Jesus himself:
“When they deliver you up, do not consider beforehand what you will say, but it will be given to you on that day what you will say, for it will not be you who are speaking but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
“I will give you an utterance of wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:15).
- Escape from persecution can be a perfectly godly reaction to it.
Staying in a situation where a believer is receiving persecution is not necessarily God’s will or even God’s command. For instance, Paul escaped from persecution in Damascus through the wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25, II Corinthians 11:32-33), and was sent away from persecutors by the church on more than one occasion (Acts 9:29, 17:14). Jesus himself escaped from malicious crowds on more than one occasion (Luke 4:28-30, John 8:59).
In part of the marching orders that Jesus gave to the apostles, which are rightly understood to have application to missionary activity since then, Jesus commanded, “When they persecute you in this city, flee (or escape) to another; truly I say to you that you will not go through all the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” (Mathew 10:23). So Jesus did not definitely give a, “Stand and fight it!” command to his followers when they faced persecution. Rather, this command would be more like, “Go on to the next place. It’s not about standing up for yourselves, proving how tough you are or how much you can take, but fulfilling your mission. There will be others further on down the road who have not heard the gospel. When you find yourself rejected in one city, go on to the next one and be a witness for me there.” And that is exactly what the apostles did throughout the book of Acts.
- Persecution will come from the religiously deceived.
“They will drive you out of the synagogues; but a time is coming when everyone who kills you will suppose that he is performing an act of devotion to God” (John 16:2).
- A worldwide persecution will be part of the events that occur before the return of Jesus Christ.
“You will be hated by everyone because of my name” (Luke 21:17). That this will mean civil oppression and mostly likely a worldwide bloodbath of Christians does seem to be something that scripture points to as being what will be coming for Christians. The gospel will definitely be preached to all the world about the time that this occurs (Matthew 24:14), but the reaction of the world will ultimately be rejection and persecution. This is one compelling reason why I think that pastors and church leaders need to be doing more to prepare the people of our churches for persecution and even for martyrdom. If we see the signs of Jesus’s return coming together, we need to be even more prepared to stand firm in the hour of persecution to come. And I don’t think that any Christian can trust either in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States or in a belief in a pretribulational rapture to stand firm when that happens.
I think that there needs to be a greater recognition among the leaders and adherents of our churches that living in Christian love and godliness will not necessarily make us liked by others. Rather, it may as often stoke a deep hatred from others. This means that there is a great need for counting the personal and social costs of following Christ. And, if there is anyone who has never had to face rolling eyes, insults, missed promotions, thwarted plans, ostracism, slander or even a noogie for being a Christian, I would suggest to that person that he or she needs to have some deep concern over whether he or she has ever followed Christ very closely. That’s the implication that I think comes from the following verses. They are from the version of the Sermon on the Mount (often called the Sermon on the Plain) which is found in Luke. I’ve never heard any kind of in depth preaching and teaching on these verses; the one sermon series that I’ve heard that went through the gospel of Luke glossed over them in two sentences.
“Woe to you who are rich,
because you have received your comfort.
Woe to you who are now sated with food,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will cry and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for their forefathers did the same thing to the false prophets”
It’s been said that more people died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than in all the preceding centuries. One book that I would recommend is James and Marti Hefley’s By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. While I would recommend it not only for the average Christian, I would especially recommend it for any pastor whose preaching and teaching ministry is intended to be directed toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And certainly I am with you always, to the very end of the world” (Matthew 28:18-20). I would encourage you to read it, mark it up, be taught by it, and use its material as illustrations in your own preaching and teaching.