Persecution: An essential mark of the people of God

2 11 2010

I’ve never been to Morocco.  The country featured recently on a TV ad and before the destination had been announced I said aloud, ‘I know where that is, it’s Morocco!‘  Sure enough.  The incident was not some supernatural revelation or special call to Christian service, no.  I had been researching the Kingdom of Morocco for a Christian mission presentation at my local church.  The beauty of this north African country and the attraction of the mysterious lurking in the strongly Arabic culture commonly associated with the romantic holiday destinations of Marrakech and Casablanca are clear.  But the TV advertisement sits less comfortably now after my research for my thinking about Morocco has been marred by a darker side to this nations attitude to Christian faith.  Morocco has expelled 128 Christians from its land since March 2010 and those who remain are under constant surveillance; harrassed by police and media and sometimes imprisoned. 

“…a Moroccan Christian who fled the country five years ago said Morocco has never been as moderate as it has tried to portrayed itself. “The fact is religious freedom in Morocco simply does not exist. The West is presented with a façade that is now exposed,” he said.“

The situation in Morocco brings a wake-up call not only to Moroccan Christians but also to we Christians who presently know little or nothing of persecution while living in Britian today.  This caused me to go back to the New Testament to examine the relationship between persecution and the Christian life.  The answer we get may be a surpising one…

Persecution: An early feature of the Christian Church

  • My survey began with Stephen who comes immediately to mind as the first Christian martyr, called to give his life for the defence of the faith.  The persecution from the religious leaders of Judaism in Jerusalem was unrelenting and the early Christian Church was forced to flee the city (Acts 6-8).
  • Even with their flight from the crisis of persecution in Jerusalem the anatagonism against the people of the Way continues to be recorded as we read on through Acts 9 where Saul of Tarsus vehemently opposes the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth and brings them back to Jerusalem for trial and imprisonment.
  • Further afield the New Testament record shows clearly that the consistent pattern in the Christian Church through those early years is one marked out by persecution, harrassment, stoning, false accusation, imprisonment and even death.  The letter to the Hebrews (including those of the Diaspora) makes it abundantly clear that the Christian Church experienced persecution as a matter of course rather than an occasional incident in their history (Heb 10; 1 Pet 5:10).
  • Paul’s letter to the Church of Thessalonica intersperses the themes of persecution and opposition to the faith and those who embrace it with the hope of God’s work of sanctification and the promised appearing of Christ at his second coming (1Thess 2:1ff; 14-15)
  • Paul himself suffers for the gospel; indeed, it was to be a feature of his ministry since the time of his calling (Acts 9:16).  But his theology of suffering extends beyond his own unique calling and he calls Christians to share in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10)  Paul instructs his young lieutenant not only to expect suffering as part and parcel of his remit as a soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:3) but that this will be ‘normative’ for all who want to follow Jesus Christ:
    • “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Tim 3:12)

Persecution: An Essential Mark of the People of God

Has Paul overstated the case here?  Is this a case of hyperbole? Is it true that all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus WILL be persecuted?  Where did Paul get that idea from – was it just a little personal subjectivity creeping in to his theological perspective on suffering? I think not. He sees what the writer to Hebrews had also seen: persecution is a determining mark or characteristic in the life of the people of God.

  • Hebrews ch 11 gives us a convenient summary of many of the saints of old who suffered for their faith.
  • Abel heads up the list as the man killed for the offering he made to God (11:4)
  • Abraham’s own journey of faith is couched in language that may be construed as the suffering of a man who lives as a stranger in a foreign land all the days of his life (11:9)
  • Along the way Joseph too is mentioned – a man who suffered much at the hands of his brothers but who’s faith remained firm in the providence of God to keep him in the midst of that suffering and to work out his greater purposes (Gen 50:20; Heb 11:22)
  • Moses himself is singled out in Hebrews 11:25 in his preference ‘to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time’.
  • The Hebrew writer summarises the matter in his own way in verses 32-38. That summary include these references:
    •  
      • being thrown to the lions
      • being burned at the stake or in the furnace
      • being put to the sword
      • being tortured
      • being imprisoned
      • being jeered
      • being flogged
      • being chained
      • being stoned
      • being sawn in two
      • being beheaded
      • being in poverty
      • being destitute
      • being persecuted
      • being ill-treated
  • The Prophets of old which would include many others not listed in Hebrews 11 were subjected to similar treatment and persecution. Jesus himself makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount as he completes the ‘Beatitudes’ with the surprising remark:
    • “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mat 5:11,12)
  • James affirms such truth in his own letter as he holds up the prophets as an example to us for patience and perseverance in the face of suffering and persecution (James 5:10)
  • As though such a profile was not sufficient to persuade us of the reality of the assertion that ‘persecution is a distinguishing mark of the people of God’, we finally turn again to Jesus himself.  He holds out no comfort blanket to his disciples or followers. He makes it as plain as the nose on your face that followers of the Way will follow in his own footsteps, quite literally.  His call to ‘take up the cross daily and follow him’ may just about have been misunderstood as a symbolic kind of language for a close identification with the Savour in some kind of spiritualised way in which we die a death with him.  But there is no mistaking the teaching of Jesus when he explains in detail the nature of the relationship into which followers of Christ move when they embrace him by faith as their Lord and Master.  In John 15:18ff Jesus says it plainly:
    • “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
    • “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…”
    • “They will treat you this way because of  my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.”
    • “They hated me without reason…”
    • “They will put you out of the synagogue…”
    • “They will do such things to you…”
    • “…when the time comes you will remember that I warned you…”

Persecution: An Example to Challenge our faith and testimony

Such a body of evidence surely brings a challenge to our own situation as those who claim to be followers of Christ.  If we are not experiencing persecution then we must ask ourselves, why not?  When was the last time you had to ‘suffer’ for being a Christian?  When were you last jeered or laughed at, let alone beaten, imprisoned or lashed for your faith?  Is it that we are so indistingushable from the world around us that there is no offence of the gospel, no aroma of death as Paul put it to the Corinthians?

The Seven churches of Revelation while clearly factual centres of Christian witness in a geographical location may well represent the church of the ages down through history.  It is noteworthy that in almost every letter to each of the churches the question of suffering and persecution is broached in one way or another:

  • Ephesus – endured hardship for my name
  • Smyrna – Be faithful…
  • Pergamum – You did not renounce the faith…
  • Philadelphia – you have been kept from the hour of trial coming on the whole earth
  • Others called to ‘persevere’ and to ‘overcome’

Preparedness for the prospect of persecution is a matter that can only fit us better for the day when it will come.  At times that doesn’t appear to be too far away!  Our present flabbiness in Christian culture and our general ease in Christian faith in the West continues to lull us into a place where we have become ineffective in our engagement with the world.  Tertullian of North Africa reminded the church of the early years facing opposition and persecution that ‘the blood of the martyrs is seed’.  He saw in the trail of death and destruction wrought by persecution the conviction of belief and courage of faith that sparked revival in the church and an attractiveness for unbelievers about the truth of the gospel that was worth dying for.   Views of this nature are today branded as fanatical and fundamentalist but we do need to take a long hard look at our present western European context as Christians who are more obsessed with self, with comfort & with leisure than with spiritual discipline, endurance and pleasing our Commanding Officer (2 Tim 3:3-4).  Perhaps if some of the other marks of the true people of God were more evident in our lives then persecution would be more evident too.  Certainly, the biblical testimony expects that even if we don’t.

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2 responses

20 12 2010
John Thomson

Excellent. Robust and biblical. And challenging.

24 09 2011
John Thomson

Has the writer of this blog died and gone to heaven?

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