Joyfully Persevere Part 2: The Characteristics of Persecution

Yesterday, I shared the first section of a chapter from my book “Cultivating a Gospel-Shaped Attitude.”  Here is the second installment of this short series entitled “Joyfully Persevere.”

If you are interested in purchasing the book click here.

Characteristics of Persecution

 

The word translated as “persecute” in Matthew 5:10 is the Greek word dioko, which refers to a systematic or organized program of opposition aimed at harassing or causing a group of people to suffer. Persecution can come in many different shapes and sizes, but the New Testament shows us three primary characteristics of persecution. Recognizing these three characteristics will help us to remember that we are not experiencing something new in the midst of being persecuted.

 

A. Physical harm

 

         As I write these words, I am reminded that recently, one of our Southern Baptist missionaries, Cheryll Harvey, was found dead in Irbid, Jordan. Authorities believe she was killed as the result of her missionary work.[1] Cheryll is not the first, nor will she be the last Christian to be killed as the result of preaching the gospel. In Acts 3, Peter and John were arrested and kept in jail overnight for healing a lame man and preaching the gospel outside of the temple. But when the apostles continued to preach the gospel, the persecution turned violent and eventually led to the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 6–7).

From that point forward, the history of the church has been marked by times of severe persecution along with stories of the men and women who held fast to their faith in Christ, even if it meant their death. The earliest persecution of Christians took place by the hand the Jewish authorities, but it did not take long for the Gentile authorities to follow suit (Acts 13–14). At first, the Gentiles were inconsistent in their opposition to Christianity, but soon the hostility began to grow. By the time 1 and 2 Peter were written (approximately AD 67–68), it is apparent that the Roman authorities were beginning to adopt a more hostile position toward Christianity. The first official state-led persecution of the church occurred between AD 64–67 during the reign of Nero.

Throughout the next two centuries, the church would periodically face periods of empire-wide persecution, but most of the time, the threat was more local. The official threat from the Roman Empire ceased after Constantine became emperor, but that did not remove the problems of persecution. Only God knows the number of men, women, and children who have been arrested, tortured, and even put to death due to their faith in Christ, but one thing is for certain: until Christ returns, there will be times when the church is going to face physical harm due to their faith.

In 2 Corinthians 11:24–27, Paul describes the physical suffering he incurred as the result of preaching the gospel.

 

Five times I received at the hand of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers, in toil and hardship, though many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

 

This passage is a brutal reminder to us of the suffering that the apostles and early Christians experienced as a result of preaching the gospel. But these verses should also remind us about the difficulty we will sometimes face. We live in a world that is violently opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it should never surprise us when this opposition occasionally boils over into physical attacks against Christians.

 

B. Verbal assaults and slander

 

Persecution, however, is not limited to physical attacks. In the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us that persecution can also involve being verbally assaulted and slandered. Notice what He said in verse 11: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” The word translated “revile” here is the Greek word oneidizo, which carries with it the idea of disgracing or abusing another person. This word is reinforced by the addition of the phrase, “and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.”

In this respect, Jesus is telling us that as His followers, we will experience the same thing He did while He was here on earth. The New Testament shows us that as soon as the word about Jesus began to spread, there were people who reviled Him and spoke all manner of evil against Him. At first these comments were disguised as questions (see Mark 2:7, 18, 24), but it did not take long before the scribes and Pharisees were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22). Of course, it only got worse from there, and even as Jesus hung on the cross, the Bible says the thieves who were being crucified alongside of Him “reviled him.” (1 Peter 2:23)

Jesus told His disciples that they would experience the same kind of verbal assaults and slander He endured (see Luke 6:22). In Acts 6:10–15, some of the leaders of a Jewish synagogue “secretly instigated men” to claim that they had heard Stephen blaspheme against God and Moses. After stirring up the people and the elders, they succeeded in having Stephen arrested, and they found false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered us” (Acts 6:13–14).

Later, the apostle Paul also faced the same kind of assaults and verbal slander. During his first missionary journey, after Paul preached in the synagogue at Iconium, the Bible says, “The unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (Acts 14:2). Even later, during the second missionary journey, the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching in Berea, so they traveled to the city and began to agitate and stir up the crowd against him (Acts 17:13). These are just a few of the examples we have in the Bible of the followers of Christ being verbally assaulted and abused due to their faith in Christ and proclamation of the gospel.

When we experience verbal persecution for the first time, it is tempting to get discouraged or to even feel rejected. I can vividly remember the first time I was verbally assaulted after surrendering to the ministry. It occurred just a few months after I started preaching and involved one of my best friends from high school, whom I will call Mike. Mike had gone to serve in the military after we graduated high school, and we lost touch with each other for several years. During that time, I had surrendered to the ministry and started doing some supply preaching in the area churches. One day out of the blue, I got a call from Mike who invited me to go “party” with him and some other friends from high school. Knowing what he meant, I declined and explained to him that over the past few years, I had rededicated my life to Jesus and that I was preparing to go into the full-time ministry.

That didn’t go over too well with Mike, who immediately began to remind me of my past. Then in anger, he launched a full-scale verbal attack. It didn’t stop there, though, because during the next several weeks, Mike talked to nearly every mutual friend that we had in high school to tell him or her what he thought of me.

When I look back on that time, it still hurts. The old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a lie. A better and truer statement is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are sure to kill me.” Mike had been a friend, and to hear the things he said about me just because I was a Christian nearly tore me apart.

I would like to say that this is the only time something like this has ever happened to me, but that would be a lie. In fact, there have been very few times over the past eighteen years of being in ministry when someone wasn’t slandering or talking bad about me. What makes it worse is that often these attacks have come from within the church, rather than from the world outside. Whenever I am slandered or verbally attacked, I have to go back and remember the words of 1 Peter 4:14 that say, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”


C. Isolation

 

The third kind of persecution we see in the church is isolation. John Stott says, “a subtle way to abuse the saints is to make them feel ignored, left out, or prejudiced against.”[2] This is perhaps the most frequent kind of persecution we face as Christians. Throughout our history, Christians have occupied a place of respect and influence within Western civilization. Over the recent decades, however, this influence has been waning, and now Christians are increasingly being marginalized and ignored. It is not uncommon to see the mass media openly denigrate Christians in ways that would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago. This has caused many Christians to have a great deal of angst about where we are heading, but I would suggest that it might, in fact, be a positive sign.

For the past several decades, evangelical Christians have identified themselves primarily by how a person votes and where they stand on certain social issues. Most of our efforts to influence society have been in the areas of politics and social policies. Rather than putting the emphasis on changing society through evangelism and discipleship, many churches invested heavily in a conservative political and social agenda. Back in the 1980s when I was a teenager, there was a movement called the Moral Majority that helped get Ronald Reagan elected. I was a committed young Republican back then and loved President Reagan, but we would have to admit that his election did little to nothing to stem the tide of immortality in the America. While the Moral Majority was winning the White House, the generation growing up in the middle of the 1980s—my generation—was on its way to becoming one of the most spiritually shallow and lost generations America has ever known.

But all is not gloom and doom. There are some signs of vitality and health in segments of the church, but I do want to make a point. Our strength comes from the gospel, not political or economic power. The growing sense that Christians are being persecuted and pushed to the sidelines in politics and society in general should drive us to a deeper dependence on the gospel. Historically, the greatest times of growth and expansion of the church have often taken place in hostile and difficult environments.

There could be many reasons why this is true, but I would like to suggest that when the church is marginalized and persecuted, it is forced to rely more strongly upon the power of the gospel. We have been trained to think that being excluded from the social discourse is a bad thing, but church history shows that the greatest periods of revival occurred during times when Christians were not in places of great power, prestige, or authority. When Christians are pressed against the margins of society and banned from the halls of power, the church tends to run to its true source of power and influence: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Knowing that we will be persecuted and being able to recognize the three major forms of persecution still does not answer the question of Why does persecution occur? Why is it that Christians in every age and in every place in the world can expect to be persecuted?

If you enjoyed this post please share it with others and come back tomorrow for the third installment in this series.


[1] “Faithful Servant,” International Mission Board News (September 5, 2012).

[2] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 55.

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Joyfully Persevering Part 1

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 4.21.03 PMEarlier this year I published my first book entitled “Cultivating A Gospel-Shaped Attitude.”  In this book, I examine the Beatitudes and show how they form a pattern for the believers life.  One of my favorite chapters in the book is entitled “Joyfully Persevering,” which deals with the seventh Beatitude— “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)  Over the past several days, I have felt like the message of this chapter is especially relevant for many believers today, so I thought that I would share it here on the blog over the next three days.  If you enjoy these portions of the book I hope that you share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter and click on the link below to order your copy of the book.

Click here to order a copy of “Cultivating A Gospel-Shaped Attitude: Understanding and Living the Beatitudes.”

Joyfully Persevering


“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(Matthew 5:10)

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a missionary who was working in a predominately Muslim country in the Middle East. In order to protect his ongoing work, I will not disclose his name or the country where he lives and works, so we will just call him Bill. One afternoon, Bill and I went fishing on the Chesapeake Bay along with one of my deacons. As we sat in the warm summer sun catching fish, our conversation began to drift to the work Bill was doing in the Middle East. He had been on the mission field for several years at this point, and he shared with us that God was really blessing their efforts. He shared with us that in the previous month, over thirty new converts to Christianity had been baptized in one of the churches he had helped plant.

That statement prompted me to ask about how they performed baptisms in a country where conversion to Christianity was officially against the law. I asked him, “When the churches baptize people, do you do it in people’s homes so that the authorities will not catch you?”

Bill looked up from his fishing reel, and to my surprise said, “Joe, they don’t baptize secretly in the churches I’ve helped to plant. Baptism is the public testimony of one’s faith in Christ; therefore, they baptize new converts in public.”

“But doesn’t that get them in trouble with the authorities?” I asked.

“Yes, it certainly does,” said Bill. “In fact, many of the new converts are arrested and tortured because of their baptism.”

The boat suddenly got very quiet as I contemplated what Bill was telling us. “What happens to them next?” I asked. Bill’s words that day still ring in my ears when I think about them.

“We don’t know. They are arrested, and we never hear from them again.”

Bill’s story is not an isolated case. Recently while preparing to preach a message about the persecution of Christians around the world, I came across the story of Asian Access (A2) missionaries who use a questionnaire to determine the level of commitment before people are baptized. According to Joe Handley, a spokesman for Asian Access, “When they’re meeting with folks and people show an interest in Christ, and they’re about ready to get baptized, they go through this list of seven questions. It’s a very delicate situation.” The questions are as follows:

1. Are you willing to leave home and lose the blessings of your father?

2. Are you willing to lose your job?

3. Are you willing to go to the village and to those who persecute you, forgive them, and share the love of Christ with them?

4. Are you willing to give an offering to the Lord?

5. Are you willing to be beaten rather than deny your faith?

6. Are you willing to go to prison?

7. Are you willing to die for Jesus?

The article goes on to say, “If he or she is willing to answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, then A2 leaders invite the person to sign on the bottom of the paper that of their own free will they have decided to follow Jesus. If they refuse, it’s more likely that they may be operating as a police plant.” The penalty for being caught signing the document is three years behind bars, while the person who did the evangelizing faces six years in prison.[1]

It is difficult for me to fathom this kind of persecution. But in Matthew 5:10–12, Jesus reminds His disciples that being persecuted is a natural part of what it means to be His followers and is actually a sign of God’s blessing. It may seem like an oxymoron to refer to someone who is being persecuted as being blessed, but this is exactly what Jesus does when He calls for us to cultivate the eighth gospel-shaped attitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). In this verse, Jesus calls for every believer to develop an attitude of joyful perseverance in the face of persecution.

A Gospel-Shaped + Christ-Honoring = Christlike
Attitude Actions      Character
Cultivated over time Exhibited over time
1. Poor in spirit Take personal responsibility for sin; turn to God for mercy  
 2. Mourn

 

 

3. Meekness

 

 

 

4. Desire for righteousness

 

 

 

 

5. Mercy

 

 

6. Purity

 

 

7. Peacemaker

 

 

 

 

8. Joyful perseverance

 Take the consequences of sin seriously

 

Submit to the will of God; yield control to the Holy Spirit

 

Right standing before God; live morally in corrupt world; pursue justice for the oppressed

 

Meet the needs of other people

 

Love God exclusively; avoid sin; stay focused

 

See the sovereignty of God; view people through gospel; focus on commonality; be part of solution

 

Know that God knows; know that God has a plan; look forward to future glory

 

 

 

The Inevitability of Persecution

Jesus is clear about the inevitability of persecution. In verse 10, He phrases this beatitude in the same manner He has all the rest, but in verse 11, He personalizes the issue by saying, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (emphasis mine). Jesus leaves no confusion about the matter: every believer will at one time or another face persecution because of the name of Christ. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is consistent with the rest of New Testament testimony concerning the certainty of persecution. Consider the following verses:

 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his run rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

(Matthew 5:44–45)

 

…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

(Matthew 10:22–23)

 

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

(Matthew 10:39)

 

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!

(Luke 6:22)

 

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.

(Luke 21:12)

 

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.

(John 15:20)

 

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

(1 Peter 4:12–14)

Throughout the New Testament, persecution is viewed as a normal part of being a Christian; therefore, it should never take us by surprise.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the necessity of suffering perhaps better than any other person in the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer was executed by the direct order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp, just two weeks before allied troops would liberate the camp. Prior to his death, Bonhoeffer wrote,

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Christ as the community of those “who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake” … discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact, it’s a jot and a token of his grace.[2]

Bonhoeffer understood that there is no way for believers to escape the inevitability of being persecuted. The question is not “Will we be persecuted?” but “When will we be persecuted?” In verse 12, Jesus reminds us that when the inevitable periods of persecution come into our lives, we are in good company because “they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

It did not take very long for the disciples to experience their first bout with persecution. In Acts 3, Peter and John were on their way to worship in the temple when they come across a lame man begging for alms outside of the Beautiful Gate. Peter called for the lame man to look at him and said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (verse 6). The Bible tells us that he immediately leaped to his feet and began to walk around, praising God and entering into the temple. As you might imagine, this scene caused quite a stir among the people who began to gather around, wondering what had just happened. Seizing this opportunity, Peter began to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them (verses 12–26), which quickly caught the attention of the priests, the captain of the guard, and the Sadducees, who then had Peter and John taken into custody.

Acts 4:2 says that it was their testimony concerning Jesus that got them into trouble, and this has been the pattern right down to this very day. If you read through the book of Acts and the subsequent history of the Christian church, you will see that whenever and wherever Christians take a strong stand for the gospel, persecution is sure to follow. To be faithful to the gospel means that persecution is inevitable. The sooner we accept this fact, the easier it will be for us to handle trouble when it arises.

If we want to return the church to its gospel roots, we will have to be willing to endure the inevitable hardships that come with persecution. We will also have to face the truth that oftentimes persecution will arise from within the ranks of church. The reason I say this is that there are always those in the church who are not really part of the true church. They have become members of the local congregation but have never truly been converted by the gospel. Strong preaching of the gospel will be an offense to them, and they will persecute the pastor and any other member of the church who strongly stands for the gospel. That may seem strange, but it is true. Every pastor who has taken a strong stand for the gospel has faced strong opposition—sometimes even to the point of being fired. But even more tragically some Pastor’s and church members yield to the persecution and end up compromising the gospel.

Not long ago I was reacquainted with a guy I knew early on in my ministry. We had both started out in the ministry about the same time and would periodically run into each other at denominational meetings, etc. In the early days, he had a sincere desire to preach the gospel and was faithful to the task. He started out in a small church, but he soon began to move through the ranks so to say. This man went through a progression of increasingly larger churches until he finally ended up in a county seat First Baptist church. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Southern Baptists, the county seat First Baptist church is usually the largest and most influential congregation in the entire county.

Suddenly, my friend found himself making a large salary and enjoying a great deal of influence within the community. He was on television twice a week and was invited to open every civic event in town with prayer. He was the Baptist equivalent of a mover and shaker. But then, something happened that brought about a crisis in his life and ministry. Some of the leaders of the church came to him and said they didn’t like the way he preached. To use their terms: “It was too bloody and messy.” They preferred more civilized and cultured preaching. “Tell us how to live and have better families,” they said, “but lay off preaching about the cross and Jesus dying all of the time.”

My friend knew what they meant, and he knew what was at stake. If he didn’t give in to their demands, they might fire him. He would lose his salary, his reputation within the denomination, and his standing within the community. My friend counted up the cost and decided it was too much to pay. He compromised and stopped preaching the gospel. Instead of taking people to the cross and showing them a dying Savior who was slaughtered for their salvation, he started showing them biblical principles about how to live a better life. His congregation was thrilled and began to grow. They even gave him a raise. It sounds almost like this is a success story, but as we sat and talked, he said to me, “You know, Joe, I miss the old days. I miss feeling the power of God in my preaching. I miss the feeling of knowing that I am being faithful to the gospel.” What a tragedy.

Persecution is a natural and inevitable part of the Christian life. It is normative for every believer, and we are all going to face it sometime or another. Once we have accepted this truth, we can begin to recognize the characteristics of persecution.

Please come back to the blog tomorrow to read the second installment in this series of posts. If you would like to order a copy of my book please click on the link below:

Click here to order a copy of “Cultivating A Gospel-Shaped Attitude: Understanding and Living the Beatitudes.”


[1] “South Asia Nation Struggles to Shape Itself,” Mission Network News (January 17, 2012).

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937): (6th ed. complete English Edition, SCM, 1959).