When Christians react in kind to hostility, whether from government, society, or individuals, Satan triumphs – Matthew 5:12.
The reality of persecution in the Christian life raises numerous questions. For example, how should we react to our persecutors, especially when we are persecuted by governing authorities? Should we respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Or should the disciples of Jesus follow his example and that of the early church?
In Thessalonica, the church received the gospel in “much tribulation,” yet its members welcomed Paul’s message despite hostility. In this way, they became “imitators” of the Apostle and of Jesus. Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted the way of discipleship characterized by suffering, and thus they became “examples” to the other churches in the region – (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).
By enduring persecution, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow-countrymen.” Indeed, in the books of the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produced hostile reactions – (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
After being compelled to leave Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to assess the situation, having heard of the church’s afflictions. He wanted no one to “shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this… We are destined to suffer tribulation.” Thus, according to the Apostle, persecution is part of what it means to follow Jesus.
Years later, Paul expressed similar sentiments to Timothy who had observed his life, including “what manner of persecutions” he had suffered. He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to imitate, for “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” – (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
By no means was Paul the first or only church leader to teach that disciples should expect to endure persecution. His understanding was derived from the teachings of Jesus himself. For example, in his “Sermon on the Mount,” he declared the “blessedness” of the disciple who was persecuted for his 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).
Our desire to live without conflict is understandable. Nevertheless, Jesus warned that all who would follow him in this world “will have tribulation.” And he summoned his disciples to follow the same path that he did, for the “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, likewise, will they persecute you” – (John 15:20, 16:33).
Everyone who chooses to become his disciple is called to emulate him by “taking up the cross,” and in Christ’s day, crucifixion was a graphic symbol for suffering, torture, and violent and most shameful death. Yet disciples who refuse to “take up their cross” for his sake are “not worthy of me” – (Matthew 16:24).
And it is a “blessing” and not a curse to suffer for him, as counterintuitive as that is. To follow the slain Lamb often entails suffering for him. Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does occur. Moreover, we are to “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted, for “great is our reward in heaven.”
But a this-age mindset focused on the “meat that perishes” sees suffering for him as a curse. Only the eye of faith can perceive that suffering produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” – (Matthew 5:12).
Thus, Christian hope is forward-looking. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the “age to come.” Suffering in the here-and-now is not pleasant, but it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting 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 follower of Jesus, though that is not true of human suffering brought on by sin and circumstances. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God’s approval.” To endure rejection is what it means to follow the Lord who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” – (1 Peter 2:19-20).
We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence” of their destruction but also of “our salvation.” God has graced us to suffer for His kingdom, and we ought to respond with the understanding that it produces everlasting rewards – (Philippians 1:28-29).
But we also instinctively respond-in-kind to personal and corporate attacks. Human society sees self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified responses to threats and assaults, whether from individuals, groups, or governments. Yet, Jesus prohibited his disciples from engaging in retaliation. Revenge may be the “way the world works,” but disciples are called to something vastly different.
When we are persecuted, we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely by showing mercy to our enemy that we emulate God and become “perfect” like Him – (Matthew 5:44-48).
Likewise, Paul exhorted Christians in Rome to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.” They 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 justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” if, how, and when He sees fit – (Romans 12:14-21).
Peter also taught us to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God,” which, logically, means our unwillingness to endure persecution, and our determination to avenge ourselves demonstrates His disapproval of us. And Peter pointed to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how we are to respond to hostility – For to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” – (1 Peter 2:19-23).
Our desire to react to evil with evil stems from our tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies”. But we must recall what we once were. No one is born a Christian – every believer is a convert. Previously, we were “enemies” of God and were only reconciled to Him “by the death of his Son.” Jesus died for us “while we were yet sinners” – (Romans 5:6-10).
The true “enemies” of Christ are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of their satanic overlords. But on the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the national and political enemies of Israel. Instead, he triumphed over “the principalities and powers.” And now, in him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself, and He has bequeathed the ministry of reconciliation to us. And since we have received mercy, who better to show mercy to our persecutors?
We are called to emulate Jesus. When unjustly condemned, He did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish authorities that betrayed him or to the representative of Rome that executed him. And when he was dying on the Cross, he prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who had condemned him to death and nailed him to it.
When persecution does occur, if we wish to be his disciples, we 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, and we demonstrate exactly whose disciples were are.