Christian Response to Persecution

SYNOPSIS:  When Christians react to hostility from State or Society with anger and rebellion, Satan triumphs.

julius caesar marble statue

According to some accounts, the persecution of Christians around the world is on the rise. This raises a fundamental question – How should Christians react to persecution, especially, when implemented by governing authorities? Ought we to respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Do we not have the civil “right” to do so in Western-style democracies? Or should we follow the examples of Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church?

(2 Timothy 2:10-13) – “For this cause, am I enduring all things, for the sake of the chosen, in order that, they also may obtain the salvation, which is in Christ Jesus along with glory age-abiding. Faithful the saying—for, If we have died together, we shall also live together, If we endure, we shall also reign together; If we shall deny, he also will deny us, If we are faithless, he faithful abideth,—for deny himself he cannot!” – (From the Emphasized Bible).

The Apostle Paul described a church in the city of Thessalonica that received the gospel in “much tribulation”. By welcoming the gospel in the face of local hostility, the Thessalonian believers became “imitators” of Paul and Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10).

Instead of anger or dismay, the Thessalonian Christians accepted a gospel accompanied by persecution, and, “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” In this way, they became “ensamples to all who were coming to the faith.”

Also, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of earlier Christians, those “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their “own fellow-countrymen.” Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produced hostility and persecution (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

After leaving Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to ascertain the situation, having heard of the church’s afflictions. His purpose was to ensure that no one would “shrink back in these tribulations. For you, yourselves know that hereunto are we appointed. For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand–we are destined to suffer tribulation” (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).

Paul expressed a similar sentiment in a later letter to Timothy, who had closely observed his life including, “what manner of persecutions” the Apostle endured.  He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples – “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

Paul was not the first to teach persecution to be an expected occurrence in the life of the church.  This understanding comes directly from the teachings of Jesus. In his “Sermon on the Mount,” he declared the “blessedness” of disciples persecuted for righteousness’ sake. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-12).

The human desire to live in peace without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warned all who would follow him – “In me you may have peace. In the world, you have tribulation.” His disciples are called to follow the same path as their Lord. A “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20, 16:33).

Followers of Jesus are called to emulate him by “taking up the cross,” and crucifixion is a graphic symbol of suffering, torture, and violent death. The believer who refuses to do so, he or she “is not worthy of me” (Matthew 16:24).

Thus, persecution for the sake of Jesus and his message is an expected occurrence. To follow the sacrificed Lamb is to suffer for him. Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does occur.

How are disciples to react to persecution?

Jesus instructed his disciples – “Rejoice and be glad” when you are persecuted, for “great is your reward in heaven.” This is precisely why disciples are “blessed” when they are persecuted.  A this-age mindset sees suffering for Christ as a curse; however, the eye of faith understands that it produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” (Matthew 5:12).

Christian hope is forward-looking. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in “the age to come,” after the return of Jesus in glory. Suffering is not pleasant or something to be sought out for its own sake.  However, suffering for him and his gospel “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).

To suffer “unjustly” is a sign of Divine approval, evidence that one is a true disciple of Jesus. This is not true of general human suffering brought on by sin or circumstances. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God’s approval.” To endure persecution and rejection is to follow Jesus, who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” (1 Peter 2:19-20).

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church not to “be frightened in anything by its opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence of their destruction but of your salvation.” God has graced Christians, not only to believe in Jesus but, also, to suffer for his sake. Paul used the Greek verb charizomai, meaning, “to grant, grace, bestow, freely give; that is, to “grant as a favor” (Philippians 1:28-29).

Thus, Paul argued that to suffer for Jesus is a gracious gift from God, and high honor, indeed! Christians are to react to persecution with patient endurance, grace, and the understanding that suffering for Jesus produces everlasting rewards in the coming age.

How should a believer respond to persecutors?

Instinctively, humans respond in kind to personal attacks.  Self-defense and retaliation are seen by society as necessary responses to threats, whether against individuals, groups, or nations.  It is the way the world “works.” Yet, retaliation is prohibited to Christians in the New Testament, whether justified from a human perspective or not. It may be the “way of the world,” but disciples are called to something different.

When persecuted, Jesus taught his disciples to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.” It is precisely in this way they “become sons of the Father heaven…and perfect just as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48).

Building on the commandment of Jesus for disciples to pray for those who persecute them, Paul exhorted the churches of Rome – “Bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  Christians are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but believers must “not avenge” themselves and, instead, they must leave vengeance in the hands of God who will “repay” how and win He sees fit.  Who knows whether today’s persecutor may become tomorrow’s fellow Christian? (Romans12:14-21).

To individual men and women who believe in standing up for their “rights,” the teachings of Jesus seem idealistic, unrealistic, even immoral. But to those who are concerned with the victory of the kingdom of God over Satan’s realm, non-retaliation is the only choice. Retaliation is not manful resistance to aggression; it is unconditional surrender to evil.

Likewise, the Apostle Peter taught to “patiently endure” unjust suffering, to do so demonstrates “God’s approval.” He pointed to Jesus and his sacrificial death as the ultimate example of how Christians must respond to hostility, for, to “this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example.” Though unjustly condemned to death, the Son of God “committed no sin and no guile was found on his lips. Though reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but trusted to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:19-23).

The desire to respond to evil with evil stems from a natural tendency to view persecutors and accusers as enemies. This may be an understandable human reaction, but one that is contrary to scriptural teaching. Christians must recall what they once were.  No one is born a “Christian,” every believer is a convert.  Before they became Christians, they were “enemies” of God. Disciples were only reconciled to God “by the death of his Son,” who died for them “while they were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-10).

The Apostle Paul is the quintessential example of a bitter enemy of Jesus who became reconciled to him by the sheer mercy of God.  In his zealousness, he had viciously persecuted the early church in Judea. Through his persecuting activities, Saul of Tarsus demonstrated himself to be a “blasphemer and persecutor and violent aggressor.” He was an “enemy” of God and His people, yet “he was shown mercy” (Philippians 3:61 Timothy 1:13).

Only a sudden visitation by the Risen Christ caused Paul to turn to him. The impact of his violent persecution was so severe that many believers hesitated to accept Paul’s conversion, so much so, it became necessary on one occasion for Barnabas to mediate on his behalf. No one could have foreseen how God would turn one of the church’s bitterest enemies into the gospel’s greatest advocate (Acts 9:1-99:26-27).

Paul declared, the “enemies” of Christ and his Church are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” The real struggle is “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of the hostile spiritual forces at work behind the scenes (Ephesians 6:12).

On the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow mankind but, instead, triumphed over “the principalities and powers.” Indeed, “angels, authorities, and powers were subjected to him.” In Christ, God was reconciling a fallen world to Himself, “not reckoning their trespasses to them,” and He has bequeathed to us the ministry of reconciliation. “Him who knew not sin in our behalf became a sin offering” (2 Corinthians 5:18-21, Ephesians 1:21Colossians 2:15-161 Peter 3:22).

Man is not the “enemy” of the church. Satan, sin, and the powers hostile to God that enslave humanity are the real enemies. The example of Saul of Tarsus is a clear object lesson – Men and women once hostile to the church may receive the mercy of God and become holy vessels for His use. Since each of us was once separated from God and His “enemy,” who better to show mercy to persecutors?

The New Testament portrays persecution and unjust suffering as expected norms in the walk of the disciple of Jesus.  Saints, therefore, ought not to be surprised by “the fiery trial that comes upon them… as though something strange was happening” (1 Peter 4:12).

To be accounted worthy to suffer for Jesus is to receive great honor and a cause for rejoicing for the everlasting reward sure to follow.  If anything, Christians should become concerned when their lives are void of any real suffering for the gospel. If the surrounding pagan society finds no reason for hostility, then, indeed, “The salt has lost its savor.”

Christians are called to emulate Jesus, to walk the same path of self-denial and service to others.  When unjustly tried and condemned, Jesus did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish priestly authorities that betrayed him or to the representative of pagan Rome that condemned him to a horrific and shameful death.

Despite the hostility of society or the State, Christians are not to treat persecutors and accusers like “enemies.” Instead, as much as possible, they should respond with acts of mercy and forgiveness.

As he died a horrible death, Jesus prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who nailed him to the cross, “because they know not what they do.”  He understood who the real enemy was. In their own way, his human persecutors were victims of the hostile “powers and principalities” that hold humanity in thrall.

All this means that when persecution occurs, whether perpetrated by the State, society, or individuals, Christians must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, rebellion, and, especially, not with violence.  One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When Christians react to hostility with anger, bitterness, and rebellion, Satan triumphs, not Jesus.

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