About two thousand years ago a blessed, divine storm hit the world with the force of explosion of a mighty supernova that sent vibrations across the entire planet and the world has not been the same since. Nothing in the history of the world has caused such momentous change and irreversible direction for humanity as the ushering in of the Church age by the arrival and ministry of Jesus Christ. This God-man brought some principles and practices that were so threatening to the irreligious status quo and so foreign to the norms of a fetid society that the reaction by both the civil and religious authorities were nothing short of ballistic. The converts to Christianity as well as Jesus Christ himself faced a torrent of unending invective, harassment, confiscation of goods, beating, scourging, imprisonment, and violent death. Out of twelve apostles chosen by Jesus Christ to establish and guide the early church all were brutally executed except one, the Apostle John, and he died in isolation in exile on a deserted island.
History shows that the Jews of ancient Palestine had a passion for God but not godliness, an obsession for law but were fervently lawless, a zeal for knowledge but not enlightenment, a craze for public, exhibitionistic prayers but could not communicate with God, enthusiasm for the welfare of the nation but not for each other and excitedly looked forward to the arrival of the Messiah but when he came did not recognize him. This mixed-up bunch of self-righteous zealots and thieving scoundrels were ill-prepared for the timely arrival of Divine blessedness in the form of Jesus Christ; hence all-out warfare and aggressive opposition through persecution.
All of that was then and the early Church, though bloodied, were unbowed and unswerving in their commitment to Jesus Christ and their affiliation to Christianity. The Church survived, prospered and spread world-wide and as can be evidenced across the globe is accepted or tolerated by most sovereign nations and in nearly all rational communities. So are we now at a stage in Christianity's development where persecution can be spoken of as in the past, where it no longer impacts believers, and the need for it, ordained or incidental, is gone forever?
To answer this prime question, our topic question no less, we need to examine and answer several other related questions.
What are the causes of persecution?
There are many reasons why people persecute each other ranging from simple dislike to the more rancid to do with ethnicity and who you are. As far as religious persecution is concerned it has to do with spiritual matters and for the Christian it has to do with his love and commitment to Jesus Christ and the way he lives.
1. It has to do with his living according to God's will, making the Bible the rule of his words and actions and bringing that sense of balance, justice, dignity, purity and reasonableness that lie at the heart of the Scriptures to all his activities. " For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you" (1 Peter 4:3-4)
2. It has to do with his living to the glory of God, that through his life the due respect, honour and glory due to God is maximised and embellished and nothing he does detracts there from. This so conflicts with the spirit and practice of the egocentric, narcissistic world that the status quo is bound to react.
3. It has to do with his living like Christ; his supreme example. Christ gave himself entirely up to God and would not deviate one iota from doing God's will even when it led to his death. Christ lived in defiance of the wishes of degenerate humanity and at no time was he ever amenable to bend, to compromise or to give in for the sake of a trouble-free life.
So whatever the reasons for the persecution whether theological, social, political or economic it must be clear that the world has not changed and neither has the Christians.
What are the consequences of persecution?
All ill-treatment handed out to believers from time immemorial have the same intention and can be summarised by a quotation of Joseph to his brethren, "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good." (Genesis 50:20a) Believers get persecuted in an effort to dilute their faith, discourage their efforts, prevent their programmes, deny people access to the truth and prevent people being converted to Christianity. Sometimes persecutions succeed but mostly they fail because God has great skill in wrong-footing persecutors.
Persecutions are used by God to do great and surprising things to further his designs. When the early church was persecuted and fled from Jerusalem God used that very means to evangelise the regions beyond and so commenced the great commission, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature..." (Mark 16:15) The more believers were persecuted the wider they spread and the wider they were spread the more they publicised the gospel.
There is also evidence that Christian maturity, some would call this entire sanctification, comes solely or partly through persecution and afflictions. When believers are threatened or put under strain and undue pressure then self-examination has to take place and confirmation of the desire to keep the faith occur. Believers according to the divine plan have to be tried, tested, and tempted and through endurance demonstrate that they are willing to enter heaven. It is because of this particular requirement that the Bible says:
"Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22) Notice the phrase "must through much tribulation" for that is the key.
"Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." (2 Timothy 3:12)
Will persecution go unpunished?
Persecution is wickedness and before God all acts of wickedness must be punished either in this world or the hereafter. It might appear that the perpetrators of evil escape justice because of their high position, status in politics or the power they wield but that perception is false. God takes powerful exception to those afflicting and persecuting Christians as we can see here.
"Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (Matthew 18:7)
"It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (Luke 17:2)
"LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear: To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress." (Psalm 10:17-18)
So it is clear that for Christians persecutions are not a thing of the past even although the form of them do not match exactly that of old. Persecution of today may be more subtle; overlooked promotion, invitations denied, miss-directions, subversive hostility and such like. We therefore conclude that persecutions are essential however undesirable they may be and their absence from the life of any believer prompts us to ask a final question.
What does absence of persecution indicates?
Christ and all the apostles and all the early Christians were persecuted. To be identified with Jesus Christ brings persecution in the same way that goodness attracts evil, opposites attract each other and a polished surface attracts dust. So we are impelled to ask this final question.
What does absence of persecution indicates?
We suggest three things.
1. Compromised Christianity. This is perhaps the biggest digression of believers from Biblical standards because it allows a watered-down Christianity that is ineffective and patently self-defeating yet it leaves those so compromised with the excuse of pretending they are still true to the faith.
2. Changed tactics. Because of the introduction of laws that prohibit certain kinds of aggressive behaviour and abuse, forms of persecution may emerge that do not look like persecution but if the conditions were different the persecutors would act just as diabolically as the ancient Roman Empire. Covert tactics are just as deadly and menacing even though they cannot be seen.
3. Apostasy or Backsliding. Theologically speaking apostasy and backsliding are not the same but they have one thing in common; a regression from Biblical standards. The fallen world does not persecute apostates and backsliders; they accommodate and absorb them.
Believers everywhere need therefore to take a reality check and see if they are still in and defend the faith or has done like Demas, "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world..." (2 Timothy 4:10).
Believers should always be mindful of the warning of Jesus, "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:26).
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