SYNOPSIS – When Christians react in kind to hostility, whether from government, society or individuals, Satan triumphs – Matthew 5:12.
According to many news reports, the persecution of Christians is on the rise in many countries. This raises some basic questions; for example – How should Christians react to persecution, especially when implemented by governing authorities? Ought they to respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Do they not have the “right” to do so, at least in western-style democracies? Or should disciples of Jesus follow his example and that of the Apostles and early church?
(1 Thessalonians 1:6-8) – “And ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, giving welcome unto the word, in much tribulation, with joy of Holy Spirit; So that ye became an ensample unto all who were coming to the faith in Macedonia and in Achaia: From you, in fact, hath sounded forth the word of the Lord—not only m Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith which is toward God hath gone forth, so that no need have we to be saying anything.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The Apostle Paul described a church in the city of Thessalonica had received the gospel in “much tribulation.” By welcoming it despite local hostility, the Thessalonian believers became “imitators” of Paul – And of Jesus. Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted a message that was accompanied by persecution (And “with the joy of the Holy Spirit”). It was in this way that they became “ensamples to all who were coming to the faith” throughout the region.
By enduring persecution faithfully, the Thessalonian disciples became “imitators” of the earlier saints, those “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow-countrymen.” Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ routinely produced hostility and persecution – (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
After leaving Thessalonica prematurely, Paul sent Timothy back 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.” According to Paul, persecution is an integral part ofwhat it means to follow Jesus – (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).
Paul expressed a similar sentiment in his later letter to Timothy, a young man who closely observed his life, including “what manner of persecutions” the Apostle suffered for the sake of the Kingdom. He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to follow – “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
But Paul was not the first or the only church leader to teach that persecution is an expected occurrence in the lives of disciples. His understanding came from the teachings of Jesus.
In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus declared the “blessedness” of disciples persecuted for the sake of righteousness:
“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 without conflict is understandable. Nevertheless, Jesus warned all men and women who would follow him – “In me, you may have peace. In the world, you have tribulation.” His disciples were (and 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).
Men and women who choose to follow 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 “is not worthy of me” – (Matthew 16:24).
Thus, persecution for the sake of Jesus and his Kingdom is an expected occurrence. Moreover, it is a “blessing,” not a curse, as paradoxical as this is. To follow the sacrificial Lamb is to suffer for him. Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does occur. Put another way, is the church in a good spiritual condition when it meets with no substantial resistance from neighbors, society, or even the State? – (Revelation 12:11).
Jesus instructed HIS disciples to “rejoice and be glad” when they are persecuted, for “great is your reward in heaven.” This is precisely why disciples are “blessed” when they endure persecution. A this-age mindset that is focused on the “meat that perishes” sees suffering for him as a curse. However, the eye of faith understands that suffering for the Kingdom 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.” Suffering is not pleasant or something to be sought out for its own sake. However, suffering for the gospel “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).
If anything, 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 and circumstances. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God’s approval.” To endure persecution and rejection is what it means to follow Jesus, the Lord who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” – (1 Peter 2:19-20).
(Philippians 1:28-29) – “And not being affrighted in anything by the opposers,—the which is unto them a token of destruction, although of your salvation, and this from God; Because unto you hath it been given as a favour in behalf of Christ, not only on him to believe, but also in his behalf to suffer.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The Apostle encouraged the church at Philippi not to “be frightened in anything by its opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence” of the future destruction of its enemies, but also 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. Christians are to react to suffering by grace and the understanding that enduring trials and persecutions for Jesus will produce everlasting rewards.
Responding to persecutors
Instinctively, humans respond in kind to personal and corporate 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 quite different.
When they are persecuted, Jesus taught us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely in this way that we “become sons of the Father heaven…and perfect just as the heavenly Father is perfect”:
(Matthew 5:44-48) – “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Be loving your enemies, and praying for them who are persecuting you: That ye may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens: because his sun he maketh arise on evil and good, and sendeth rain, on just and unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? are not even the tax-collectors the same thing doing? And if ye salute your brethren only, what more than common are ye doing? are not, even the nations, the same thing doing? Ye, therefore, shall become perfect: as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Building on the commandment of Jesus, Paul exhorted the churches of Rome to “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 when He sees fit. Who knows whether today’s persecutor may become tomorrow’s fellow Christian? – (Romans 12:14-21).
To men and women who believe in standing up for their “rights,” the teachings of Jesus appear idealistic, unrealistic – Even immoral(!). However, to men and women who are working for the kingdom of God and its victory 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 his churches to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates the “approval of God.” He pointed to Jesus and his sacrificial death as the ultimate example of how a Christian 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 our natural tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies“. This may be an understandable human reaction; however, it is one that is contrary to scriptural teaching and the example of Jesus.
Christians must recall what they once were. No one is born a “Christian”; every believer is a convert. Before they became disciples of Jesus, they were “enemies” of God. Disciples are only reconciled to God “by the death of his Son,” who died for them “while they were yet sinners” – (Romans 5:6-10).
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 viciously persecuted the 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, yet “he was shown mercy” – (Philippians 3:6, 1 Timothy 1:13).
Only a sudden visitation by the Risen Christ caused Paul to convert. The impact of his violent persecution was so severe that many believers hesitated to accept his conversion, so much so that it became necessary 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 greatest advocate of the gospel of Jesus Christ – (Acts 9:1-9, 9:26-27).
The “enemies” of Christ 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 the enemies of Israel but, instead, triumphed over “the principalities and powers.” In Christ, God is reconciling a fallen world to Himself, “not reckoning their trespasses to them,” and He has bequeathed to us this same ministry of reconciliation – “Him who knew not sin in our behalf became a sin offering” – (2 Corinthians 5:18-21, Ephesians 1:21, Colossians 2:15-16, 1 Peter 3:22).
Man is NOT the “enemy” of the church. Satan, sin and the powers hostile to God that enslave humanity are our real enemies. The example of Saul of Tarsus is a clear object lesson – Men and women once hostile to the church may receive mercy and become holy vessels for His use. Since each of us has received such mercy, who better to show mercy to persecutors?
The New Testament portrays persecution and suffering as expected norms in the life of the disciple; therefore, we ought not to be surprised by “the fiery trial that comes upon them… as though something strange was happening.” To be “counted worthy” to suffer for Jesus is to receive great honor and a cause for rejoicing because of the everlasting rewards sure to follow. – (1 Peter 4:12).
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.
When he died a horrible death, Jesus prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who nailed him to the cross – His human persecutors were victims of the hostile “powers and principalities” that hold all of humanity in thrall.
When persecution does occur, disciples of Jesus must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, and especially not with violence. One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When we react to hostility with hostility, Satan triumphs, not Jesus.