Persecution in the Church

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How many have seen a submarine in the water? If you haven’t seen one in the drydock, you don’t have the big picture. Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and many Christians don’t have the big picture regarding persecution. What is persecution? Where does is come from? Why does it happen? When will it end? These are questions we’ll answer this morning.

I hope you break out your Bible and read Jesus’ words in John 15:20-25.

So what’s the big picture? Jesus begins by saying, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’” He has told his disciples this truth already. He said the same exact thing back in John 13:16, “A slave is not greater than his master.”  Why does he repeat Himself? In 13:16 Jesus is talking about humility and service. In 15:20, He is talking about opposition and persecution. Jesus tells them to remember and makes a very troubling statement. “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” Remember that Jesus is talking to His disciples. In context, “You” refers to the disciples, but the persecution applies to anyone who is, or will become a disciple of Christ. What is the church made up of? Disciples of Christ. “They” refers to the world. Why all this opposition? Why all the hatred? “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.”  (Jo. 15:18) “Me” is a statement of reason for persecution. It’s not that the world doesn’t recognize Christ in us, opposition and persecution comes because they do recognize Jesus in us. 2 Tim. 3:12 reminds us, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Persecution is inevitable, but there is a caveat. It will come to those that truly want to live for Christ.

That’s the big picture of persecution. As Christians, we are associated with a real Savior. When you identify yourself with Jesus Christ, it implies a stand against the world – a life that is different and the difference is only explainable in terms of Jesus. If we are living consistent lives, our works and words will regularly contradict the lifestyles of those around us. Our work ethic, our language, our goals, our attitudes, our values set us apart. We should take to heart the admonition found in Eph. 5:11 where Paul says, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” The integrity of our speech, our unwillingness to gossip or slander, our joy, our willingness to forgive – these character qualities will provoke opposition. We need to recognize why that opposition comes. It’s not necessarily what we do, it’s Who we represent. Jesus is emphatic in v. 20: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” He provides the reason in v. 21 and says, “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake.”  Matt. 5:11 says, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” These verses provide the church with perspective and reason. Persecution is linked to the person and work of Christ. How people respond to us, positively or negatively, is ultimately determined not by who we are, but who Jesus is.

Scripture provides us with a number of examples where the apostles and disciples suffered persecution because they identified with Jesus. Peter and John were imprisoned and told not to speak to people about Christ because too many people were becoming followers (Acts 4:1, 17). The other Apostles were thrown in jail (Acts 5:17). Stephen, “full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” until Acts 7 where he is stoned to death for preaching the gospel. Great persecution of the church in Jerusalem began in Acts 8 where men and women were dragged out of their houses and thrown in jail led by a man named Saul. Herod killed James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1). Paul speaks of numerous instances of persecution, particularly in Corinth, Ephesus, and Jerusalem.

During the period of the Roman Empire, persecution was widespread beginning with Nero about 60 AD. Roman historian Pliny described the Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) as a, “Beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood.” Trajan (AD 98-117) was the first emperor to persecute Christians fully distinct from Jews. Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180) was convinced Christianity was a dangerous revolutionary force, preaching gross immoralities. Under Marcus, anti-Christian literature flourished for the first time. In 202, Septimius Severus issued an edict forbidding conversion to Judaism or Christianity. A great persecution followed especially in North Africa and Egypt. Decious became the first emperor to initiate an Empire-wide persecution of Christians. After executing Pope Fabian, he said, “I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop of Rome.” Valerian blamed Christians for plague and civil unrest in the empire. In 257, he ordered clergy to sacrifice to the gods of the state. Diocletion (AD 303) ordered all Christian churches and books be destroyed and persecuted the church because of a fear of treachery, conspiracy, and secrecy. In order to maintain better control of the empire under Diocletion, the empire was divided into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire which was also known as the Byzantine Empire Those two were ruled by Maxentius and Constantine. In 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and became the sole emperor. Believing that Jesus Christ was responsible for his victory, Constantine enacted laws that mandates religious tolerance throughout the empire.

You might be thinking, “But that’s all in the first couple of centuries.” A boat captain is facing charges for an incident took place in December 2014 when he and his second in command severely beat six Christian refugees before throwing them overboard to their death. On August 28, 2016, 11 missionaries to Syria were crucified or beheaded. An Oct. 5, 2016 attack on a Kenyan church left six dead. On Oct. 11, 2016, eleven believers were arrested at a house church in Uzbekistan when officers barged in the flat representing KGB, counter terrorism unit, police, and other agencies. All equipment and phones were confiscated and a search is being conducted of those devices. If Bibles or other Christian literature is found they will be prosecuted further. ISIS claimed responsibility for a mass shooting on Oct. 12, 2016 that killed at least 18 worshippers at a shrine in the Afghan capital. And remember Michael and Julie, our own missionaries to central Asia were under surveillance and faced deportation for engaging in unidentified activity. These recent stories reflect most, if not all, of the first century reasons for persecution – suspicion, fear, religious and political strategy, and protection of old beliefs and customs. It’s not just physical persecution that occurs, but we now see social, psychological, economic, and legal persecution. It is the consistent moral standards that set us apart. You won’t make many friends when you take a stand.

We’ve seen the big picture of persecution, we’re associated with a real Savior, and finally we are called to a radical servant hood. The church may suffer for reasons other than persecution. Pride, politics, class, ignorance, distraction, fear, or apathy, but it is only really persecuted when this relationship with Jesus Christ comes into play. What we consider persecution in the West really isn’t persecution at all. Dictionary.com defines persecution as the act or practice of persecuting; especially, the infliction of loss, pain, or death for adherence to a particular creed or mode of worship. It is part of a radical servant hood. Real persecution comes with the spiritual territory of a real and vibrant walk with Christ. But wait, something isn’t quite right. If real, authentic Christianity includes persecution, then how come there are millions of quiet, godly people serving Christ all over the world with no hindrance and no opposition? Let’s go back to John. Why did they persecute Jesus? There are spiritual things going on that we cannot see. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day persecuted Him because of Who He said He was. In Jo. 10:30 Jesus said, “I and my father are one.” In Jo. 14:9 Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Jesus was persecuted because he taught things the leaders considered subversive. It was dangerous; what Jesus taught undermined established religion; it went against the status quo. Remember Jo. 15:20 when Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”  Peter said it this way, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.”  (1 Pet. 4:16). The “if” clause expresses certainty, not probability. It is going to happen, expect nothing less. They did persecute Jesus so they will persecute people that are like Jesus and as long as there are people like Jesus, persecution will continue. The persecuted will always be with us. Paul told the Thessalonians, “We kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass.” (1 Thes. 3:4) Throughout the history of Christianity, the church has grown the fastest where persecution is the greatest.

So what now? As we’ve looked biblically at persecution, we need to overcome some misconceptions and shift paradigms that have produced a weak and anemic Christianity in the western world. First, we need to challenge the thinking of contemporary Christians that have a purely rational, two-dimensional worldview. Life in God is always more than flesh and blood. There is a spiritual dimension in the persecution of Christians, past and present. When you think about what you can’t see, the picture gets bigger. Persecution is never random, but is linked to a visible and real identity with Christ. Persecution is inevitable if the body of Christ is living in bold obedience to the Head of the Church.

Second, we must challenge the thinking of supporters and their role in the pastoral care of the persecuted church. The lessons from believers in extremes are invaluable to the present church on earth. They provide us with the costliest forms of discipleship known to Christianity. They enrich the whole body of Christ, but persecution also wounds the body. So, the unaffected parts (non-persecuted) are called on to minister to the affected (persecuted) parts of the body. We are a part of the big picture and must invest in their support.

Third, we need to teach persecution as integral to the gospel. We must enlarge and energize the support system for Christians facing persecution by educating and mobilizing the non-persecuted sections of the Church. Finally, we need to challenge the thinking of local churches and Christians that are involved in largely unimportant matters and help them recognize the big picture.

The church cannot forget its eternal purpose or be distracted with trivial matters. Just like the submarine on the water’s surface, you don’t see the whole picture and you’ll never appreciate the enormity of the boat. Persecuted Christians are radicals living in hard places sent to be our teachers. A man from Tajikistan asked Mia and Costel Oglice, “What will happen if I am not persecuted? What is wrong with me? I really want to live for the Lord.”  He has seen persecution first hand. This man is from the same place where Pastor Sergey Bassarab was killed in 2004. He was shot four times while praying in his church. His crime? Sharing Christ. What are you willing to do?

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