Persecution Is Our Friend?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 24:9 (Holman) Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name.
Jesus knew He needed to warn us about the likelihood of upcoming persecution. Otherwise we might have distrusted God when it happened.
Hatred was often our Lord’s lot; it is also frequently the lot of His followers. When persecution against believers breaks out, and becomes the habit of a society, meanness and unkindness against Christians can become contagious, and proliferate. When our enemies begin to enjoy provoking us, gentleness toward Christ-followers begins to be doled out in short supply.
It is heartbreaking when the best people in a society receive the worst treatment. In many nations, jailed Christians have made prisons nicer places.
To see the first fulfillments of Jesus’ prediction here, we have to go no farther than the book of Acts. Persecution soon broke out against Christ-followers, and has dogged believers all the way through human history, as many of us learned in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and elsewhere. Persecution of believers has become so plentiful and commonplace that we are in danger of becoming numb to the cries and stories of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The widespread hatred of Jesus’ followers in this day and age leaves us dazed, but these atrocities against His people never take God by surprise. He knows in advance if oppression is coming, and uses it for His purposes.
The cross illustrates this. It stands as the ultimate emblem of human persecution, yet God ordained it to be the way He paid our redemption.
Persecution has often been a painfully brutal friend of believers. Jesus told His followers to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (AC 1:8). They didn’t accept this geographical mandate right away. The breakthrough did not come until, when Saul of Tarsus was on a tear, “a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (AC 8:1). Ironically, the same man who precipitated the scattering of believers from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria also spearheaded the Gospel’s spread to the ends of the earth. The culprit became our champion.
Persecution sent believers everywhere. This is what made it possible for us to “be hated by all nations”. This prediction was an amazing statement of faith on the part of Jesus. When He was crucified, and laid in a tomb, no one would have ever thought His influence would be felt “by all nations”.
Jesus foresaw a day when His Gospel would be unstoppable. He was foreseeing the distant future, beyond the fall of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Twelve’s lifetimes. He foresaw persecution and expansion of Christianity taking place simultaneously all around the world. The two often go together.
Persecution increases expansion, which increases persecution, which increases the expansion, etc. On and on it goes, continuing to this very day.
Tertullian, a Pastor during severe persecution against the early church, assessed it right, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Many, if not most, of us in this room are worshiping here in freedom today due to this persecution/expansion paradigm. My Wilcox ancestors were on the boat with William Penn on his last transatlantic trip to America.
Persecution drove many of our ancestors here, where they found freedom to express their faith, and to freely share it. If it is time for the flower of USA Christianity to be hard pressed here, its seeds will, like those of a dandelion in the wind, be scattered to all the ends of the earth.
The Twelve felt destruction of the Temple would mean the end of the world as we know it, but Jesus saw it as the opportunity for His message to no longer be bound to one place. No one site, no one people group, no one nation, no one skin color, no one language–limits were removed. Henceforth Christianity would be international, not national; common, not ethnocentric.
Persecution has never surprised or nonplussed God. He has used it not only to increase expansion, but also to capture the persecutors’ attention and bring notice to the truth. Baptists and other martyrs have died for religious freedom. We have benefited from them. William Tyndale died at the stake, his last words a prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” God did.
Matt. 24:10 Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate
Persecution will cause many to “take offense”, to stumble. People who are commanded to love each other can, under pressure, betray one another.
Daniel Defoe wrote, “Tis the easiest thing in the world to hire people to betray their friends.” Wyatt Earp’s dad said, “There’s family; all the rest is strangers.” Actually, under terrible circumstances, even family can betray us.
These assessments may be overly harsh, but do remind us we can fail to show loyalty. Something better is expected of us Christ-followers. We are to be loyal to one another, but being human, we fail often under pressure.
We love to tell stories that exonerate and honor believers who stood true in the early days of church persecution. We are right to do this. There is, though, another side to the story we rarely tell. Not everyone stood true.
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the persecution under Nero in 64 A.D. “First those were seized who confessed they were Christians; and then on their information a vast multitude was convicted.” How devastating it must have been for the person who sat next to you at the Lord’s Supper on Sunday to have turned you in on Monday for the sake of blood money.
This happened to Jesus—Judas Iscariot, one of His own tightly knit band of disciples, betrayed Him. It happened in Paul’s day–he complained of deserters. It has happened in every century since. It still happens.
Disloyalty is a terrible thing, but do not be harsh toward those who falter along the way, and do it. Speak kindly of and to those who leave us and turn against us. It could be done by one of us or one of our loved ones.
Some stumble headlong in order to escape persecution or pain. Others are tripped up by nothing more than the fear of embarrassment or ridicule.
For me, I think the ultimate test might be to protect my loved ones. What if my wife, my breath, were threatened with torture due to my faith?
Some say God is preparing to use difficult times ahead to help purify His USA churches. I don’t know about this. I cannot predict the future.
We do, though, in these growing-more-difficult days need to ask ourselves a serious question. If we are unwilling to sacrifice, take up our cross, and endure difficulties during relatively good, albeit not perfect, times, why would we think we would stay true during hard times?
Even if persecution does not force us to betray others, it can result in our hating God and/or hating the persecutors. Even without persecution, we have too often disliked unbelievers. This harshness devastates our witness.
Matt. 24:11 Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.
In difficult times, false teachers claim to have an authoritative message, as if it were from God. They develop their own ways and ideas for people to follow. The most dangerous ones are those whose words are meant to try to make our lot easier, who try to make us compromise, who tell us not to be true to the Bible, who say we should lighten up a bit.
Heretics have been among us from the first. Judaizers said people had to embrace Judaism, and follow Old Testament laws such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and observing the festivals to be saved. Gnostics taught that a select few were given the secrets of salvation; they believed Jesus became God by gaining much knowledge. Arius believed Jesus was not fully God. People have at times claimed special writings were conveyed to them. These and other heresies have happened in every generation of the church.