Biblical reflections on the persecution of believers.
To ‘persecute’ means ‘to pursue’. That is, a persecutor is one who seeks after another in order to do them harm. It is not, for example, the suffering anyone may expect in this world, and it is especially not a result of personal wrongdoing (1 Peter 2:20). Rather, to be persecuted is to receive deliberate harm from the hands of others.
Warnings in Scripture.
Jesus warned His followers that theirs would be no easy road – they might be delivered up to councils or beaten in synagogues, and they might stand before kings to bear witness (Mark 13:9). He also warned of the origins of persecution, coming not only from religious and secular rulers, but even members of a believer’s own household (Matthew 10:36). In fact, Jesus warned that Christians would be hated by all for His name’s sake (Mark 13:13).
This is not to say that every non–Christian will hate or mistreat all Christians. But it does suggest that there will be opposition from some quarter or other in every nation and in all ages. This accords with both historical events and current experience. From the moment of Stephen’s stoning in the early church through to today’s suffering saints in countries like India or Nigeria, God’s people have often paid dearly for fidelity to their Lord. To be sure, opposition will wax and wane depending on the time and place. But in this world, even in the epochs of greatest peace for the church, it is never utterly extinguished. And smouldering embers may be rekindled.
Paul himself went out of his way to bring back those who had been ‘deceived’ into following The Way, only to be confronted by the risen Christ himself. Jesus told Paul that in persecuting His followers he was, in fact, persecuting Himself (Acts 9:4). In these words are found one of the greatest comforts for the persecuted Christian – the persecutor does not afflict the Christian for who he is, but for the One to whom he is united.
Truths to Cling To.
We Christians must remember that contrary to appearances, persecution does not isolate the believer from their brethren (1 Peter 5:9) and can never separate them from God’s love (Romans 8:35). God comforts those who are afflicted (2 Cor 1:4) and His appointed suffering is temporary (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Peter 5:10). In God’s good time, each trial will make way for an ‘incomparable weight of glory’ (2 Cor 4:17). Suffering does not have the final word and it is never out of God’s control.
Actions to Take.
The question which remains is that of our response, and God graciously guides us in this. If a believer can flee persecution, they may (Matthew 10:23). But if this is not possible, they are to endure suffering for doing good in imitation of Jesus (1 Peter 2:19–21). Christ endured suffering by entrusting Himself to the One who judges justly and will one day vindicate His suffering servants. In short, endurance requires faith in the day of judgement and the justice of God. It is perhaps due to the fact that we Western Christians are little persecuted that we often find the pleas for retribution in the book of Revelation so jarring (Revelation 6:10). The persecuted wait patiently for Him who will judge justly. Meanwhile, other disciples are to minister to their suffering brothers (James 1:27).
As children of God, we know that the path of Christ is no easy road and is thus the road less travelled. But its old wooden sign reads, ‘Life’ and so we hold this destination in our hearts as we weather the storms along the way.
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