Responding to Persecutors

When Christians react in kind to hostility, whether from government, society, or individuals, Satan triumphs – Matthew 5:12. 

Crown of Thorns - Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash
The reality of persecution for many Christians raises several questions. How should they react to persecutors, especially when they are persecuted by governing authorities? Should they respond with indignation, civil disobedience, or public protests, or should disciples of Jesus follow his example and that of the early church? - [
Crown of Thorns - Photo by BBC Creative on Unsplash].

Our desire to live without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warns us that all men who choose to follow him will have “tribulation.” And he summons us to follow the same path that he did, for the “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, likewise, will they persecute you” - (John 15:20, 16:33).

Everyone who decides to become his disciple is called to emulate him by “taking up the cross.” And in Christ’s day, crucifixion meant suffering a violent and most shameful death. Yet disciples who refuse to “take up their cross” for his sake are “not worthy of me” - (Matthew 16:24).

And it is a “blessing” and not a curse to suffer for him, as counterintuitive as that may be. To follow the slain Lamb often entails suffering, and Christians should not be surprised when persecution does come. Moreover, we are to “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted - for “great is our reward in heaven.”

But the mind oriented by the present evil age sees suffering for Christ as a curse. Only the eye of faith can perceive that it produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” - (Matthew 5:12).

And the teachings of Jesus about suffering and persecution are echoed in the writings of the Apostles.

IN THESSALONICA


In the city of Thessalonica, the church received the gospel in “much tribulation,” yet its members welcomed Paul’s message despite hostility. In this way, they became “imitators” of him. Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted the way of discipleship that is characterized by suffering, and thereby, they became “examples” to the other churches in the region - (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).

By enduring persecution, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow countrymen.”

Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produces hostile reactions - (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

After being compelled to leave Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to assess the situation. He wanted no one to “shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this… WE ARE DESTINED TO SUFFER TRIBULATION.” Thus, according to the Apostle, persecution results from following Jesus.

Years later, Paul expressed similar sentiments to Timothy, including “what manner of persecutions” he endured.  He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to imitate - for “ALL WHO DESIRE TO LIVE A GODLY LIFE IN CHRIST JESUS WILL BE PERSECUTED” - (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE


CHRISTIAN HOPE IS FORWARD-LOOKING. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the “age to come.” Suffering in the present is not pleasant, but it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).

If anything, to suffer “unjustly” is a SIGN OF DIVINE APPROVAL, evidence that one is a true follower of Jesus, though that is not true of human suffering brought on by our sin and circumstances. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God's approval.” To endure rejection is what it means to follow the Lord who “also suffered for you, LEAVING YOU AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW” - (1 Peter 2:19-20).

We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence” of their destruction but also of “our salvation.” God has graced us to suffer for His kingdom and we ought to respond with the understanding that it produces everlasting rewards - (Philippians 1:28-29).

THE DISCIPLE’S RESPONSE


But we also instinctively respond in kind to personal and corporate attacks. Human society sees self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified responses to threats and assaults. But Jesus prohibited his disciples from engaging in retaliation, and he provided no exceptions to this rule. Revenge may be the “way the world works,” but disciples are called to something vastly different.

When we are persecuted, we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely by showing mercy to our enemy that we emulate God and become “perfect” like Him - (Matthew 5:44-48).

Likewise, in his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts disciples to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  They are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but the disciple of Jesus must “not avenge” himself. Instead, he is called to leave justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” IF, HOW, AND WHEN HE SEES FIT - (Romans 12:14-21).

The Apostle Peter also teaches us to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God,” which, logically, means our unwillingness to endure persecution and our determination to avenge ourselves demonstrates His disapproval.

And Peter points to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how we are to respond to hostility – for to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” - (1 Peter 2:19-23).

Our desire to react to evil with evil stems from our tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies”. But we must recall what we once were.  No one is born a disciple of Jesus. Every believer is a convert.  Previously, we were “enemies” of God, and we were only reconciled to Him “by the death of his Son” – He died for us “while we were yet sinners” - (Romans 5:6-10).

The true “enemies” of Christ are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of their satanic overlords.


Betrayed by Judas - clipart.christiansunite.com
[Betrayed by Judas - clipart.christiansunite.com]


But on the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the political enemies of Israel. Instead, he triumphed over “the principalities and powers.”  And now, in him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself and has bequeathed the ministry of reconciliation to us. AND SINCE WE HAVE RECEIVED MERCY, WHO BETTER TO SHOW MERCY TO OUR PERSECUTORS?

We are called to emulate Jesus.  When unjustly condemned, He did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish authorities that betrayed him or the representative of Rome that executed him. And when he was dying, he prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who had condemned him to death and nailed him to the Cross.

When persecution does occur, if we wish to be his disciples, we must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, and especially not with violence.  One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When we react to hostility with hostility, Satan triumphs, and we demonstrate just whose disciples were truly are.



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