Some Thoughts on Persecution

Persecution

The Bible plainly affirms that all Christians will face persecution. “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Of course, we may not all face the same degree of persecution. Some will be persecuted severely while others, in comparison, will face only minor persecution. Jesus indicated to Peter that he would have to die for His faith even though John might not (John 21:18-22). Today, there is relatively little physical persecution against Christians in this country, but there are brethren around the world in much more difficult situations. This should not surprise us. We will all be persecuted, but not with equal severity.

Even though a degree of persecution is inevitable, we are to pray that some persecution may be avoided. Paul told Timothy that Christians are to pray for those in civil governments “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:2-3). One of the roles God has given to civil governments is implied in this chapter. Civil authorities are to create and preserve an environment in which Christians can freely practice their religion. This means that the civil authorities are to refrain from persecuting Christians and are to protect their citizens (including Christians) from persecution by others. It is good in God’s sight to pray for our government and those around the world that this type of environment may be maintained.

Why should we pray for civil authorities to do their job in preventing persecution? It is not simply for selfish reasons (because we do not want to face persecution). Rather, it is because persecution hinders the teaching of the gospel. Paul went on to explain why it is good in the sight of God for governments to provide and maintain a peaceful environment. It is because God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). When Christians are unable to “lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2), it is harder for them to do the work they need to do in spreading the gospel.

However, some brethren claim that persecution can be good. They believe that persecution can actually help Christians spread the gospel. I have heard others say that persecution can do good by weeding out Christians who are less committed. Then the number that remains, though smaller, is a group that is more concentrated with strong Christians – those who are truly serious about serving God and are unwavering in their faith.

First, regarding the less committed Christians, we should not be so eager to have them weeded out of our number for us. If brethren are weak, we need to work to strengthen them (Romans 15:1-2; Galatians 6:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). We should not give up on them and hope something drives them away. If there are certain brethren who lead “an unruly life and not according to the tradition” that was handed down by the apostles, we are to “keep away” and “not associate” with them (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14). The Corinthians were told how to deal with a brother who was living in sin: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:13), not hope for persecution so he will leave on his own and we do not have to take action. We should never wish for persecution to prune the congregation.

Now, about the idea of the gospel spreading under persecution, this certainly did happen in the New Testament. Immediately following the death of Stephen, Luke recorded: “On that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). A few verses later, Luke said: “Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Some have read this and concluded that persecution is good in helping Christians spread the gospel.

First, notice how the persecution affected the church in Jerusalem. I said earlier that persecution hinders the teaching of the gospel. This is exactly what happened here. The Jerusalem church was nearly destroyed. Only the apostles remained. The rest of the brethren had either been put in prison (Acts 8:3) or forced to leave town (Acts 8:1). How effective was this persecution in aiding evangelistic efforts in the city of Jerusalem?

Evangelism came from those who were scattered. But why were they “preaching the word” (Acts 8:4)? Was it because of the persecution? Was that what motivated them? Remember the history of the church leading up to this point in the book of Acts. The church was established on the day of Pentecost, at which time “three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41) were baptized and added to their number (Acts 2:47). Shortly thereafter, the number was up to five thousand, and this number only included the men, not the women (Acts 4:4). A little while later, Luke recorded that “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14). The church was already growing at a tremendous rate. This could have only been accomplished by the word of the gospel being spread throughout that city. This is what the brethren were accustomed to doing. So when they were forced to leave, it was only natural to continue spreading the word of the gospel to others. Through the planting of the word of God in the hearts of men – not through persecution – God caused the growth (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6).

Some Christians observe their brethren around them and it appears that others are not very zealous in reaching the lost. Despite lessons being preached and encouragement being given to motivate Christians to teach others, it may seem that little is being done. So they might think that if we had persecution like the church in Jerusalem faced, then brethren would be motivated to preach the word as the first century Christians did. Actually, this is not what will happen. If persecution arises like that in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3), what will happen is that Christians will be scattered and the congregation in that place will be crippled or destroyed. Will Christians who are scattered go out “preaching the word” like those from Jerusalem? Not if they were not “preaching the word” before the persecution started. If one is unwilling to teach and defend the gospel with little or no persecution, how likely is he to do so when persecution is severe?

Pray for civil authorities “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2). We should never wish for persecution. Instead, we must be faithful and active in the Lord’s service regardless of what the consequences might be.


This article is one of the fifty articles included in the book Plain Bible Teaching: The First Ten Years. Click on the link to read more about the book.


When you subscribe, you’ll also receive 3 free PDF’s: Plain Bible Teaching on Hope, the latest issue of Plain Bible Teaching Quarterly Review, and Thankful.