‘Will you write an article on persecution?’ they asked me. Well, I suspect my credentials in this matter are similar to many Christians in modern Britain. I have lived here all my life and been a Christian for over 40 years; I knew my family’s disapproval when I became a Christian; I have been vilified by work colleagues for my faith; I have known what it is to be physically attacked for doing Christian work but I have never known the fearful furnace of persecution as a follower of Jesus.
Christianity in the raw
Yet, undoubtedly, persecution is Christianity in the raw – the bread and butter of living by faith. It is an inevitable consequence of believing in Jesus Christ. Our loving Lord could not speak any more clearly when he said:
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… I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:18-21).
Paul couldn’t be any more specific when he wrote, ‘Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim. 3:12).
The history of Christianity is a story of persecution. From Jewish authorities at the time of Jesus and his apostles (John 11:53; Acts 5:17, 40) to the undulating persecutions of the Roman Empire; from Waldensians, Huguenots and Soviet gulags to modern-day China, India, Cambodia and Nepal; the Christian church has known triumph over persecution in following their Lord and Master, Jesus. The church’s history mirrors the Bible’s story which, from Abel through to the apostle John on Patmos, tells of the persecutions that followed God’s people. So is there a defect in our confession of Jesus if we have not endured persecution?
Spasmodic and systematic persecution
In the Cross of Christ, John Stott draws a helpful distinction between what he calls spasmodic and systematic persecution. He sees spasmodic persecution as personal persecution; maybe, unwarranted opposition from family members, antagonism from work colleagues or even intellectual condescension towards us because of our ‘naïve faith’. Systematic persecution is that which is deliberately targeted at Christians for their faith. It may be organised persecution or a spontaneous outburst; it may be a lone attack or it may endure for a sustained period; it can be a localised occurrence within a community or a national state-sponsored physical oppression.
The early months of World War II were known as the ‘phoney war’ in Britain. War was raging in Europe but mainland Britain appeared undisturbed. How the conflict affected you depended on where you were in Europe. Similarly, compared to the persecution known by many Christians in parts of the world today, Christians in Britain could be described as living through a ‘phoney war’.
In contrast, if you have ever seen Michael Palin’s fascinating travel documentary of North Korea, you will know how surprised he was to be asked at the border if he was carrying Bibles, because in North Korea, the Bible is a forbidden book, deemed illicit and subversive. The distrust and animosity towards Christianity, whenever it emerges amongst a nation’s people, is common.
Christians in Britain can be thankful to God that they still live on the credit of their forebears, whose vision and struggles of faith won the freedoms they enjoy in the exercise of their Christianity. However, as Britain’s Christian heritage is deconstructed and Christianity becomes more marginalised, the possibility of persecution grows. Spiritual ignorance is a fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding, antagonism and false accusations. Whilst I was writing this article, I read about a Christian teaching assistant who was sacked for saying they did not believe in gender fluidity.
The unseen hand
We need to understand that persecution, systematic or spasmodic, is not a random occurrence, but there is always an unseen hand at work behind its appearance. John graphically shows us this unseen hand in Revelation 12:13-17, when he describes the history of Satan’s opposition to God’s church. Failing to devour God’s Christ at his incarnation, he turns to make war on ‘those who have the testimony of Jesus.’ His hatred of Christ leads him to a relentless attack upon Christ’s universal church but these attacks are seasonal, limited to regions, are never beyond what believers can bear and will ultimately prove unsuccessful (Matt. 16:18). This is a pattern that Luke identifies in Acts chapter 9.
Christians are born again into a sea of unbelief and opposition in this world. That sea may be calm, but should the becalmed sea become restless or even stormy, the boundary of the waves is set by God (Prov. 8:29; Matt. 8:27).
When Jesus sent out his disciples on the inaugural outreach of his church, he warned them of the dangers that would accompany their task. Their Lord left them in no doubt, speaking in the plainest of terms, ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (Matt. 10:28). In seeking to comfort, encourage and give them hope in such times, Jesus taught them to consider the comprehensive minuteness of God’s care for the insignificant two-a-penny sparrows. If God our Father takes such loving care of these little creatures, how will he not care for his persecuted people, whom he values so much more (Matt. 10:28-31).
Persecution is a gift
Persecution is not something to be sought or to be ashamed of because we have not known such suffering for Christ. It is not to be thought of as earning brownie points. Rather, strange as it may seem to us, the Scripture presents persecution as a gift that is bestowed upon Christians. Jesus said that we are to think of ourselves as happy, or blessed when men revile and persecute us for his name’s sake (Matt. 5:11-12; Rom. 12:14). This gift of bearing Jesus’ name and a Christlike spirit before persecutors is built upon the promised empowering ministry of the indwelling Spirit (Luke 12:12). The real issue is whether we are prepared to follow Jesus no matter what cost we are asked to pay.
Every Christian is called upon to love their enemies, to do good to them, to pray for them, to bless them in the name of Jesus and to be prepared to not only believe in Jesus but suffer for him (Phil. 1:29). But not every Christian is given the privilege of doing so through the trial of persecution. There is no more Christ-honouring spirit to witness to the world than that which lives out the blessed words of our dear Lord Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’ (Luke 23:34), and the most beautiful expression of this spirit is when it is enacted in persecution for following Jesus.