Summary: There are severe forms of persecution, and less severe; but there is no such thing as a non-persecuted Christian!
Jesus promised his disciples the night before he was crucified that their lot was to be no different than His. Jesus said: “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also!”
Persecution Is on the Rise
The Pew Research Institute reported that nearly 73% of the world’s population lives in areas where their religious liberties are restricted.1 Six hundred million people on this planet are experiencing the severest forms of persecution. Most of them are Christians. The definition of that persecution includes physical mayhem, beatings, rapes, killings, and prolonged detentions without cause – all for simply exercising a universal right to believe and to worship as one sees fit.”2 And it’s getting worse, not better!
The least we can do – which is the most we can do – is pray for them. This Sunday is dedicated to that cause.
Members of the Body of Christ = Members of the Persecuted Church
The Apostle Paul says in that well-known verse to Timothy, “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2Tim 3:12) You might say, “Well, I’m not suffering like a Chinese evangelist in jail,” or “I can’t compare myself to a Colombian pastor fighting to stop the bandits taking the young people, making the boys “child soldiers. and girls sex slaves for guerilla fighters.” True, but the degree of severity is the only difference.
There are severe forms of persecution, and less severe; but there is no such thing as a non-persecuted Christian! It’s absolutely vital we remember this. Persecution has become limited in our minds to extreme violence, or something that the state does to others. But the biblical understanding is much broader.
There are four broad types of persecution mentioned by Jesus in his teachings. In Luke 6:22 Jesus proclaims: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.”
There are four distinct verbs used here by Jesus to define persecution:
Every Christian should be able to identify a situation in which he or she experienced at least one of these – even here in the so-called Free world. It is persecution, however, only when suffered for the cause of Christ – not for our own foibles and personality.
There are also five sources of persecution mentioned and illustrated in the New Testament:
1. Priests (see Acts 7:54-59, the deacon Stephen is stoned by Jewish religious extremists
2. Rulers (see Acts 12:2 Herod Agrippa kills James)
3. Merchants (see Acts 19 when the leader of the silversmiths in Ephesus drives Paul out of the city)
4. Mobs (Acts 17:5)
5. Families (see Mt 10:35-36, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and…one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”)
One of the five always applies! Persecution is not just pastors getting beaten in China, or killed in Pakistan, or burned in Nigeria and India; it’s being cut out of your father’s will in because you want to become a missionary; it’s when a husband withdraws his love because his wife has become a Christian; it’s when a family excommunicates a son because he rejects the teachings of Islam.
We have allowed the human rights community to limit the term “persecution” in two ways – they say it occurs when there is physical violence, and secondly when the state perpetrates this violence. But it is far broader than that. A more biblical definition is “any hostility experienced from the world resulting from one’s identification with Christ.” It can be psychological and verbal, not just physical, and as we have seen, can come from far more sources than the state. Don’t underestimate the power of this form of abuse. And yet… persecution is one of the best ways to tell whether you really are alive in Christ!
We should fight every aspect of persecution wherever it raises its head. But there is also a deeper, cosmic struggle between our Lord and the principalities and powers. Like it or not, we’re involved. It’s like the saying in Korea, “when the whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.” The whales for them were Japan and China. Our “whales” if you like, are the Lord, and the Principalities and Powers. It’s not an even fight, but it is a deadly one. And we shall be wounded in the fight!
There’s a house church in Xian, central China. And they start every service by going round all the members with the question, “What are your wounds of the week for Christ?”
Persecution: The Ultimate Invitation to Intimacy with Christ
We hear a lot these days about how persecution actually contributes to the expansion of the church. It’s an important and inspiring lesson. But not all persecution increases the number of new Christians. There are parts of the world today – look at large swathes of Israel and Iraq for examples – where persecution is strangling the church. Be comforted though – that’s not the norm.