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16 September, 2019

The Christian Response to Persecution

Jesus Teaches all who come to him
By some accounts, the persecution of Christians around the world is on the rise. This raises the question: How are Christians to react to persecution, especially when implemented by governing authorities? Should they respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Do they not have the “right” to do so in western-style democracies? Or should we follow the examples of Jesus and the apostles?
The Apostle Paul described how the church in Thessalonica had received the gospel in “much tribulation” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). By welcoming the gospel, despite local hostility, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of Paul and Jesus.
Instead of anger or dismay, the Thessalonian Christians accepted a gospel accompanied by persecution, “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” In this way, the Thessalonians became “ensamples to all who were coming to the faith.”
The Thessalonians also became “imitators” of earlier Christians “in Judea…who suffered the same things” by their “own fellow-countrymen” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produced hostility and persecution.
After leaving Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to ascertain the situation, having heard of the church’s afflictions. His purpose was to ensure that no one would “shrink back in these tribulations. For you, yourselves know that hereunto are we appointed. For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand--we are destined to suffer tribulation” (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).
Paul expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to Timothy, who had closely observed his life including “what manner of persecutions” the Apostle had endured.  Paul pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples; “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
Paul was not the first to teach that persecution is an expected occurrence in the life of the church.  This understanding goes back to Jesus. In his “Sermon on the Mount,” he declared the “blessedness” of disciples persecuted for righteousness' sake. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10-12).
The human desire to live in peace without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warned those who would follow him; “in me, you may have peace. In the world, you have tribulation” (John 16:33).
Disciples are called to follow the same path as their Lord. A “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). Christians are called to emulate Jesus by “taking up the cross,” and crucifixion is a graphic symbol of suffering, torture and violent death (Matthew 16:24). The believer who refuses to do so “is not worthy” of him.
Thus, persecution for the sake of Christ is an expected occurrence. To follow Jesus is to suffer for him.  Christians should, therefore, not be surprised when persecution does occur.
How are disciples to react to persecution?
Jesus instructed his disciples to “rejoice and be glad” when persecuted because “great is their reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). This is precisely why Christians are “blessed” when persecuted.  A this-worldly mind sees suffering for Christ as a curse, but the eye of faith understands that it produces everlasting rewards.
Christian hope is forward-looking. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in “the age to come,” after the return of Jesus in glory (Revelation 22:12). Suffering is not pleasant, not something to be sought out for its own sake.  However, suffering for Christ “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
To suffer “unjustly” is a sign of Divine approval, evidence that one is a true disciple of Jesus (1 Peter 2:19).  This is not true of general human suffering brought on by sin or circumstances.  “When you do right and suffer for it patiently you have God's approval” (verse 20). To endure persecution and rejection is to follow Jesus who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow.”
Paul encouraged the church not to “be frightened in anything by its opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence of their destruction but of your salvation.” God has graced Christians, not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:28-29). Paul used the Greek verb charizomai, meaning, “to grant, grace, bestow, freely give; to grant as a favor.”
Thus, Paul argued that to suffer for Jesus is a gracious gift from God. Christians are to react to persecution with patient endurance, grace, and the understanding that suffering for Christ produces everlasting rewards.
How should a believer respond to persecutors?
The human instinct is to respond in kind to personal attacks.  Self-defense and retaliation are seen by society as necessary responses to threats, whether against individuals, groups or nations.  It is the way the world “works. “
Retaliation is prohibited to Christians in the New Testament, whether justified from a human perspective or not. Retaliation may be the “way of the world,” but disciples are called to something different. 
When persecuted, Jesus taught his disciples to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them” (Matthew 5:44Luke 6:28). It is precisely in this way that they “become sons of the Father heaven…and perfect just as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48).
Building on Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute, Paul wrote to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  Christians are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but believers are “not to avenge” themselves. They must leave vengeance in God’s hands.  He will “repay” how and win He sees fit.  Who knows whether today’s persecutor may become tomorrow’s fellow Christian?
Christians should feed their “enemy” when he is hungry and give them drink if thirsty. They must not be “overcome by evil but instead overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21); the implication is that capitulation to the impulse to retaliate is a victory for sin and Satan.
To individuals that believe in standing up for their “rights,” this teaching always seems idealistic and unrealistic, even immoral.  But those men and women who are concerned with the victory of the kingdom of God over Satan’s realm can see that nonretaliation is the realistic choice.  Retaliation is not manful resistance to aggression; it is unconditional surrender to evil.
Peter taught that to “patiently endure” unjust suffering is to demonstrate “God's approval.” He held up Jesus as the ultimate example of how Christians are to behave, for to “this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example.” Though unjustly condemned to death, Jesus “committed no sin and no guile was found on his lips. Though reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but trusted to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:19-23).
The desire to respond to evil with evil stems from a natural tendency to view persecutors and accusers as enemies. This may be an understandable human emotion, but it is contrary to scriptural teaching.
Christians must recall what they once were.  No one is born a “Christian,” every believer is a convert.  Before they became Christians, they were “enemies” of God and “ungodly.” Disciples were only reconciled to God “by the death of his Son,” who died for them “while they were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-10).
The Apostle Paul is the great example of a bitter enemy of Jesus who became graciously reconciled to him.  In his zealousness, Paul viciously persecuted the early church in Judea (Philippians 3:6). Through his persecuting activities, Saul of Tarsus demonstrated himself to be a “blasphemer and persecutor and violent aggressor.” He was an “enemy” of God and the church, yet “he was shown mercy” (1 Timothy 1:13).
Only a sudden visitation by the Risen Christ brought about Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-9). The impact of his violent persecution was so severe that many believers hesitated to accept that Paul had become a Christian, so much so, that it became necessary on one occasion for Barnabas to mediate on his behalf (Acts 9:26-27). No one could have foreseen how God would turn one of the church’s bitterest enemies into the gospel’s greatest advocate.
Paul declared that the church’s “enemies” are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” The real struggle is “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 6:12). Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of the hostile spiritual forces at work behind the scenes.
On the cross, Jesus did not overthrow mankind but triumphed over “the principalities and powers.” Indeed, “angels, authorities and powers were subjected to him” (Ephesians 1:21Colossians 2:15-161 Peter 3:22). In Christ, God was reconciling a fallen world to Himself, “not reckoning their trespasses to them,” and He has bequeathed to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). “Him who knew not sin in our behalf became a sin offering.”
This means that man is not the “enemy” of the church. Satan, sin and the powers hostile to God that enslave mankind are the real enemies. The example of Saul of Tarsus is a clear object lesson – men and women who once were hostile to the church, may receive the mercy of God and become holy vessels for His use. 
Since each of us was once separated from God and His “enemy,” who better to show mercy to persecutors?
The New Testament portrays persecution and unjust suffering for Christ as expected norms in Christian life.  Saints, therefore, ought not to be surprised by “the fiery trial that comes upon them… as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12).
To be accounted worthy to suffer for Christ, is to receive great honor and cause for rejoicing because of the everlasting reward that will follow.  If anything, Christians should become concerned when their lives are void of any real suffering on account of the gospel. If the surrounding pagan society finds no reason for hostility, then “the salt has lost its savor.” 
Christians are called to emulate Jesus, to walk the same path of self-denial and self-sacrifice.  When unjustly tried and condemned, Jesus did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish priestly authorities that betrayed him or to the authorized representative of pagan Rome that condemned him. 
Despite this world’s hostility, Christians are not to treat persecutors and accusers like “enemies.” Instead, as much as possible, they should respond with acts of mercy and forgiveness.
As he died horribly, Jesus prayed for His Father to forgive them who nailed him to the cross, “because they know not what they do.”  He understood who and what the real enemy was, that persecutors were in their own way victims of the hostile “powers and principalities” that hold humanity in thrall.
All this means that when persecution occurs, whether perpetrated by the State, society or individuals, Christians must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, rebellion, and especially not with violence.  One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” 
When Christians react to hostility from the State or society with anger, bitterness and rebellion, Satan triumphs, not Christ.

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