INTRODUCTION. This fairly long post is a consideration of the New Testament’s prominent teaching on persecution and how we, as American disciples, can respond to it when it comes.
One of the young women at our church has taken a stand for Christ at her school and has thereby placed her job at risk. Her school wanted all the teachers to affirm the school’s LGBTQ and pro-abortion stances and this teacher refused. Praise the Lord that she refused! But her stance has definitely jeopardized her job. In fact, it would be an answer to prayer if she does not lose her job. Suddenly, her faith in Christ has become much more expensive.
NEITHER UNEXPECTED NOR SURPRISING
Which brings up an important subject. It seems that in America, disciples of Jesus are often surprised when following their crucified Savior, the one who was despised and forsaken of men, suddenly becomes painful or expensive or risky. This is very curious to me, not that a follower of Jesus would suffer some form of persecution, but that being persecuted for their faith would come as an unexpected surprise to any disciple of Jesus. The New Testament, start to finish, is full of declarations and examples announcing to the believer that persecution and affliction will certainly come upon them simply because they follow Jesus. Some of the best-known passages follow. Even a cursory reading of these makes it unambiguously clear that persecution and hatred from the unbelieving world should be expected, and the question is not “if” persecution will come, but “when” and “how.”
2 Timothy 3:12 – Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
COMMENT. Paul is preparing Timothy to take over his ministry of the gospel, so he tells Timothy of the persecution that will be coming to him. Paul states categorically that Timothy will be persecuted. In fact, the only way for Timothy to avoid persecution is to for him to not desire to live a godly life. This, of course, is not an option, because all believers “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). All true disciples will be persecuted, and “all” means all.
1 Peter 4:12 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.
COMMENT. In Peter’s letter to believers experiencing the fires of testing, he takes time to explicitly state the case about persecution. Do not be surprised by any fiery ordeal, as though it is something strange. It is not strange; it is normal. Fiery ordeals (like persecution and affliction) are normal parts of the Christian life which the Lord brings in for our testing. The Lord brings an ordeal to test our faith and to prove that it is the genuine article. Instead of groaning in the unexpected pain, rejoice that you have been considered worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake.
1 Thess. 3:3, 4 – 3 so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. 4 For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.
COMMENT. Again, as Paul writes to these new believers under the heavy artillery of intense persecution, his primary encouragement is for them to stand firm. There is little of what we would call sympathy or empathy. For the apostle Paul, the issue is obedience. Will these professed disciples of Jesus in Thessalonica endure their appointed affliction and continue to profess Christ, or will they collapse under the pressure and make a shipwreck of their faith? As Peter has said (above), we are destined for this. Persecution and affliction are our appointed duties. Therefore, the true disciple will stand firm.
Matthew 10:16 (10:21, 22) – “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”
COMMENT. Anyone who knows anything about sheep and about wolves knows that what Jesus describes here is a dangerous situation for the sheep. Sheep are defenseless, slow, frail, docile animals, the very definition of the word “prey.” By contrast, wolves are vicious, cunning, fast, and strong. They travel in packs, relentless predators in pursuit of their prey. And Jesus sends His new covenant disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. It seems almost a death sentence. Sending sheep into the midst of wolves would be akin to something extreme like telling His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him.
The gospel mission requires that Jesus’ disciples are willing to go wherever He sends them as sheep in the midst of wolves. (“We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” – Romans 8:35) Not all will be killed for their faith, but some certainly will (Matt. 10:21). Not all will be scourged (10:17), but all will be hated because of Jesus’ name (10:22). And despite these dangers and threats, the disciple obeys His good shepherd (John 10) and goes out into the midst of a world of wolves, proclaiming from the housetops (Matt. 10:27) that men should repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20). Persecution is real for sheep among wolves.
John 15:18-20 – “18 “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
COMMENT. Jesus is in the Upper Room giving His apostles, and by implication, His new covenant church, final instructions for life on mission before His crucifixion, and part of the necessary instruction has to do with the persecution His church will experience. Jesus’ message in these verses is clear: “The world hates you and they will persecute you.” While possibly unsettling and uncomfortable, these words are certainly unambiguous. Jesus leaves no room for misunderstanding, and it is the naïve and foolish disciple who is caught by surprise when the world reveals its true colors in hatred and persecution.
These are just some of the more prominent examples of the New Testament’s predictions of the persecution and hardship that will come upon disciple’s of Jesus just because they follow the King of kings. So, it would seem that believers would expect affliction to come.
THEN, WHY ARE WE SURPRISED?
But in America, it is easy to miss even these blatant messages and to overlook or downplay our promised persecution. Despite these scriptural billboards, we are often shocked when our alienation from the world produces painful consequences. So, why are we still surprised, even with all these promises?
Perhaps the most significant reason is the messages that believers receive from pulpits in America. The overwhelming majority of preaching pastors in America will not deliver a single sermon in their preaching lifetime on persecution. Ever. For the pastor, sermons on persecution are not popular with most congregations, so it is best to avoid them. Also, it is possible the pastor doesn’t really believe in persecution, so why would he tell his congregation about it?
Another factor is the idea that real persecution will never come to America. For those pastors who do preach on persecution when their text demands it, many of them will also add a phrase like, “Of course, persecution has not come to America yet.” This phrase is said such that the congregation can relax, secure in the knowledge that, not only has persecution not come to America yet, but, if we play our cards right and continue to behave ourselves as decent, quiet, law-abiding Christians, it probably never will. This is dangerous thinking, because, if we consider Paul’s teaching in 2 Tim. 3:12 (see above), the fact that we are not experiencing persecution in America can only be attributed to the fact that we are not “living godly in Christ Jesus” or because we are not vocal enough in our witness for Jesus that the world feels a compulsion to silence us.
But I think also a disciple can be surprised by sudden affliction because, even though they were prepared to suffer and expected that their bold witness for Jesus would draw enemy fire from the world, the timing took them off guard. With the woman who I mentioned at the top of this post, she knew that her biblical view of human sexuality and her view that abortion is murder were in conflict with most at her school, but she did not realize that her Christian values could put her job at risk. The world’s hatred of Christ was suddenly vented on her. So, in America, even devoted disciples can be stunned when Christ’s words are suddenly manifested in real life. And, for right now, these sudden but not life-threatening attacks from the world will be more economic and psychological than physical. A missed promotion. Losing a job. A rejected application. Lost relationships. Ostracism, alienation, loneliness. But the severity will increase, because the Scriptures call for it and the Scriptures must be fulfilled. There will be imprisonments and scourging. There will be oppression and violence and death.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
In the face of these promises of persecution and affliction, what should the disciple of Jesus do? As in all matters of faith and godliness, the believer is to see the example that Jesus gave us, that we should follow in His steps. “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). And we are to continue boldly “pressing on toward the goal for the prize” (Phil. 3:14), not letting our promised persecution derail us, but rather enduring the suffering the Lord allows as we continue on in obedience.
SDG rmb 8/31/2022 #564