Christian Response to Persecutors

Jesus on the cross - Photo by Esau Gonzalez on Unsplash
When Christians react in kind to hostility, whether from government, society or individuals, Satan triumphs. 

The reality of persecution in this life raises several questions. How should Christians react to their persecutors, especially when the persecution is by governing authorities? Should they respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Or should disciples of Jesus follow his example? - [Photo by Esau Gonzalez on Unsplash].
  • (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8) – And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, giving welcome to the word in much tribulation, with joy of Holy Spirit; So that you became an example to all who were coming to the faith in Macedonia and in Achaia. From you, in fact, sounded forth the word of the Lord, not only m Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith which is toward God has gone forth, so that no need have we to be saying anything.”
Paul described a church that had received the gospel in “much tribulation." By welcoming the gospel despite hostility, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the Apostle - and of Jesus. Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted a message that was accompanied by persecution. In this way, they became “examples ” to many others throughout the region.

By enduring persecution faithfully, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints, those “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow-countrymen.” Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produced hostility and persecution - (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

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 for this we are appointed. For even when we were with you, we told you beforehand--we are destined to suffer tribulation.” Thus, persecution is an integral part of following Jesus.

Paul expressed similar sentiments in his later letter to Timothy, a young man who had observed his life, including “what manner of persecutions” he had suffered.  Paul pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to follow - “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” - (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

By no means was Paul the first or only church leader to teach that persecution is an expected occurrence in the lives of disciples.  His understanding came from the teachings of Jesus. For example, in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus declared the “blessedness” of the disciple who was persecuted for his 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).
Our desire to live without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warned all men and women who would follow him that “in the world you have tribulation.” He summoned his disciples to follow the same path; a “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” - (John 15:20, 16:33).

All who would choose to follow Jesus were called to emulate him by “taking up the cross,” and in his day, crucifixion was a graphic symbol for suffering, torture, and violent death. The believer who refused to do so was “not worthy of me” - (Matthew 16:24).

Persecution for his sake is an expected occurrence. Moreover, it is a “blessing,” not a curse, as paradoxical as that is. To follow the sacrificial Lamb is to suffer for him. Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does occur.

Jesus instructed us to “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted, for “great is your reward in heaven.” This is precisely why disciples are “blessed” when they endure persecution. A this-age mindset focused on the “meat that perishes” sees suffering for him as a curse. However, the eye of faith understands that suffering produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” - (Matthew 5:12).

Christian hope is forward-looking. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the “age to come.” Suffering in the here-and-now is not pleasant.  However, suffering for the gospel “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).

To suffer “unjustly” is a sign of Divine approval, evidence that one is a true follower of Jesus. 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.” 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).
  • (Philippians 1:28-29) - “And not being affrighted in anything by the opposers, the which is for them a token of destruction, although of your salvation, and this from God, because to you has it been given as a grace in behalf of Christ, not only on him to believe, but also to suffer for him.”
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 sake. Paul used the Greek verb charizomai, meaning, “to grant, grace, bestow, freely give; that is, to “grant as a favor” - (Philippians 1:28-29).
Thus, to suffer for Jesus is a gracious gift from God. Christians are to respond to suffering by grace and the understanding that enduring tribulations for the gospel will produce everlasting rewards.
Instinctively, we respond in kind to personal and corporate attacks.  Self-defense and retaliation are seen by society as necessary responses to threats from individuals, groups, or nations. Yet retaliation is prohibited in the New Testament, whether justified from a human perspective or not. It may be the “way the world works,” but disciples are called to something quite different.

When we are persecuted, Jesus taught us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely in this way that we emulate God:
  • (Matthew 5:44-48) – “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Be loving your enemies, and praying for them who are persecuting you, that you may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens: because his sun he makes arise on evil and good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have you? Are not even the tax-collectors doing the same? And if you salute your brethren only, what more than common are you doing? Are not even the nations doing the same thing? You, therefore, shall become perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Likewise, Paul exhorted the churches in Rome to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  Christians must “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but believers must “not avenge” themselves; instead, they must leave vengeance in the hands of God who will “repay” how and when He sees fit - (Romans 12:14-21).

Likewise, Peter taught his churches to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates the “approval of God.” He pointed to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how a Christian must respond to hostility – For to “this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example.”
  • Though unjustly condemned to death, the Son of God “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).
Our desire to respond 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 Christian. Every believer is a convert.  Before we became disciples, we were “enemies” of God. We were only reconciled to God “by the death of his Son” who 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 these hostile forces. On the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the enemies of Israel, instead, he triumphed over “the principalities and powers.”  In him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself, “not reckoning their trespasses to them,” and He has bequeathed to us this same ministry of reconciliation.

Man is NOT the “enemy” of the church. Satan, sin, and the powers hostile to God that enslave humanity are our real enemies. For that matter, men and women once hostile to the church may later receive mercy and become holy vessels for His use. Since each of us has received such mercy, who better to show mercy to persecutors?

We are called to emulate Jesus, to walk the same path of self-denial and service to others that he did.  When unjustly tried and condemned, Jesus did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish authorities that betrayed him, or to the representative of pagan Rome that condemned him to death. When he died, Jesus prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who executed him.

When persecution does occur, disciples of Jesus 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, not Jesus.


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