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.”
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. 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.”
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.” 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.