Summary: A sermon for International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
(Show video clip for International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.)
It wasn’t long after the church’s first Pentecost that the first follower of Christ was martyred for his faith. With furious opponents gathered around him, Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God.” (Acts 7:55) He was stoned to death. The battle was begun.
In the first few centuries after Christ, persecution of Christians was not systematic, but if they were accused, they were required to recant. It was not hard to escape punishment. All they had to do was deny Christ.
(My resource for the following accounts of persecution in the early centuries of the church is Gonzalez, Justo, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1, HarperSanFrancisco, 1984.)
In the year 155 A.D., Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna was arrested. The proconsul tried to persuade him to recant and save himself. Surely given his advanced age it would be better for him to avoid torture and death. All he had to do was worship the emperor. Why be so stubborn? The bishop answered, “For eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?” He was burned at the stake.
If someone denied Christ, the authorities could use that to weaken the faith of others. At the same time, for every believer that did not deny Christ but faced death instead, many others would come to faith.
Writing in Carthage towards the close of the second century, a church theologian named Tertullian put it this way: “The more you mow us down, the more in numbers we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
In the third century, conversion to Christianity was outlawed, and persecution intensified. More than ever, the goal of the authorities was not dead Christians, but apostate Christians. (Apostate means that they turned their backs on their faith, on their God.) The authorities tried everything to get them to recant, to curse Christ and accept the official religion of the empire.
In 202 A.D., five young people, some of them teenagers, who were in training and preparation for baptism were arrested—three men and two women. The father of one of the young women tried to persuade her to save her life by abandoning her faith. She answered that, just as everything has a name and it is useless to try to give it a different name, she had the name of Christian and this could not be changed. After a long, drawn-out trial, in which they all continued to stand firm, all five were thrown to the beasts in the arena.
The battle continued.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you. No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20)
In 1 Peter, the writer tells the believers scattered throughout Asia Minor, “do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)
In about 170 A.D., a widow named Felicitas and her seven sons stood before the authorities in Rome. In response to promises and threats, Felicitas told the prefect that he was wasting his time, for “while I live, I shall defeat you; and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you all the more.” She and her sons were taken to different parts of the city and executed.
The video clip showed a Hispanic woman who faced persecution with very much the same attitude. “They tortured our pastor and the rest of the church. They came and killed them. They told us we couldn’t pray or worship God. … I told them, if you kill me I will be with Jesus. If you want to kill me or let me live…it’s not important, I win.”
What an amazing attitude! Can you imagine being so confident of victory? Can you imagine looking your potential executioner in the eye and boldly stating, “Kill me or let me live. It doesn’t matter. Either way, I win. Either way, I have already won.” Can you imagine?
The video clip of persecuted Christians around the world invites us to imagine just that.