A Biblical theology of persecution

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By Prof GPV Somaratna

While the Bible graphically describes the introduction and spread of sin in the world, it also depicts the presence and reality of oppression and persecution in the world. There are many examples of people persecuting the people of God, people persecuting each other, and so on. Christians can define Persecution as the negative reactions by governments, ideologies, societies, and families to the presence of Christ. It is used for the purpose of silencing the positive witness of believing individuals and communities by its opponents. 

The Biblical concept of Persecution 

The basic Hebrew word for persecution and the Greek word for persecution both emphasise the perception of to pursue or bring trouble. The meaning of these words can include pursuing or pressing on, to oppress, harass, and also to bring to punishment. It was the understanding that sacrifice, suffering, shame, and even death were the normal cost of being a Christian that drove the evangelistic efforts of the first century Church.

The Nature of Persecution 

Both the Old Testament and New Testament report physical, social, mental, and spiritual persecution. Extreme physical persecution includes taking another’s life. In Genesis 4, Cain’s act of murdering Abel is given. Other bodily harm would be maiming the body. Social persecution, which may be called discrimination, involves making individuals or a group outcast.  According to the First Book of Maccabees, Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 BC) tried to eliminate Judaism by persecuting the Jews. The threat demanding Peter and John not to preach the gospel can be regarded as mental and spiritual persecution.

Persecution is Evil and Temporal

Persecution, at its core, is essentially a form of spiritual matter that is completely evil in its origin and power. The Apostle Paul describes spiritual struggle, noting that the ultimate source of persecution of God’s people is Satan: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. 

Objective

From the point of view of God’s plan, persecution is anticipated and necessary. Jesus foretold the necessity of His own persecution and death in fulfilling the mission that God the Father ordained for Him. The Bible predicts that those who follow Christ and God’s Word and who practice His commandments will be persecuted. Christ was destined to encounter and endure violent persecution and ultimately death in order to inaugurate God’s plan for the salvation of the world. “Persecution is the avoidable standard of the Christian life because the world hates Christ, and we bear in our own lives the marks of that enmity.” Persecution is essential to establish the Church of Jesus Christ. Persecution is not only a necessary axiom of identifying with and following Christ, but also is a necessary force in the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Persecution and elimination are essential steps in the process of the coming of God’s Kingdom. However, they are not unfortunate and temporary setbacks. Jesus understood that the expansion of the Church and God’s Kingdom upon the earth would only be achieved in the context of a cosmic battle against the kingdom of darkness. Persecution is a necessary consequence of our identification with Christ. Jesus’ statement, “for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” will explain the significance of it. If you stand up for the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re going to be persecuted. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” is the advice given by Paul to Timothy.

Old Testament

As we noted earlier, the persecution in the Old Testament include Abel, who offered a better sacrifice than Cain; Lot, also a “righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men” who rejected him and who “kept bringing pressure on him and moved forward to break down the door” of his house in Sodom; Elijah who spoke against the prophets of Baal and against the idolatry of Israel, and was persecuted by Jezebel for his godly stand; Jeremiah, who spoke God’s message of condemnation against Judah for her sins and the coming judgment against her to be brought by the Babylonians. Jehoiachin rejected his message, beat him, and finally dropped him into a muddy cistern. 

New Testament

In the New Testament, include Jesus who preached God’s grace and judgment, was persecuted by His hearers, plotted against by His adversaries, rejected, tried, and finally crucified. His was a perfect and God-honoring life and message, reflected in part by the Old Testament prophets whom, as Jesus reminds them, they had also persecuted and killed.

John the Baptist, who spoke out against the adultery of Herod Antipas and was beheaded. Stephen, the deacon, who, preaching the gospel before the Sanhedrin and proclaiming God’s judgment because of the sins of the people, was rejected and stoned. Paul, who was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned as he preached from place to place, and was finally killed in Rome.

All of this persecution of the godly came as the result of the sin and the animosity of sinners who rejected these who lived godly lives and also rejected their message that sinners must repent and turn in faith to Jesus Christ for salvation.

The Lord acted

The Lord, too, in his righteous indignation, raised up adversaries against His backsliding people, against Abimelech for his murder of his seventy brothers, sons of Gideon; against Solomon for his sin, and against Judah and Babylon for their wicked, ungodly acts. Also the Lord, through natural elements and His own direct power, brings persecution and calamity on the whole world.

Reasons for Persecution 

The Bible shows that godly testimony will often result in ridicule, scorn, deprivation, physical harm, and even death. The underlying biblical reasons given for persecution consist of hatred of evil toward the good. Often wicked men opposed God and rejecting His divine precepts. Jesus indicated that since the world hated Him, it would hate His disciples also. He declared that if they persecuted him, they would also persecute His disciples. The Bible’s climactic teaching about the believer and persecution: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus” would be subject to persecution. 

The Goals of the Persecutors 

Though there are not extensive biblical texts related to the goal or motive of the persecutors, the Apostle Paul’s testimony of his own pre-conversion motives as a religious persecutor of Christians provides sufficient insight. Paul states that his personal goal in persecuting Christians was to force them to blaspheme against Christ. He acknowledges that he sought to destroy the Church and to destroy the Christian faith. Jesus acknowledged that the purpose of the persecutors was to cause His followers to “turn away” or “fall away” from their faith and to hate and betray each other.

Reaction to Persecution 

Some contemporary leaders have proposed a confrontational response. Strategies of confrontation are those in which Christians openly challenge the persecutors. Many Christians have been killed by resorting to this method. More commonly, Christians document human rights abuses in order to elicit assistance from a court system or domestic or foreign human rights advocacy organizations. Sometimes they engage in nonviolent protest against a hostile government, societal groups, or both.

The biblical method is different. There is not one aspect of salvation that man can initiate or work enough toward, for we cannot help ourselves, nor save ourselves, which is why Christ came, died, and rose again. Christ is the Hope for all. The Lord does not promise the people of God an easy life but a life of hardship. Therefore one cannot turn to violence to react to persecution. We cannot help God by breaking His commandments. 

In fact Jesus asked us to turn the other cheek. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head”. Love: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is the advice of the Lord. The Lord’s Prayer is clear; the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us” do not mean that we are lost if the old unforgiving spirit raises its head just once. No one who cherishes a grudge against someone dare approach God in search of mercy.

We are not expected to take the law into our own hands. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay, “says the Lord. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  Therefore “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”. Jesus clearly asked His disciples not to resist, but to escape if they could. They needed to realize that in their tribulations they would ultimately be victorious.

We cannot fully comprehend all of God’s purposes in allowing Christ’s followers to be persecuted. Only those purposes which are clearly articulated in Scripture may be known to us, and they are few in number. The book of Acts records the fact that the early believers left Jerusalem and scattered to other key cities as a result of intense persecution. Here, one may conclude that God purposed to use persecution to spread and multiply the Church. Persecution serves to test and strengthen one’s faith. There is a mysterious purpose in persecution and suffering related to bringing about the Kingdom of God. Scripture tells us that Jesus was “perfected” as the author of salvation and in His obedience through suffering. A firm stand with Paul and other saints: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 

Challenge is another response proposed by some Christians.  “You should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly”. 

Jesus taught His followers that those who abide in His Word “will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  A number of key passages in His Word are extremely motivating in encouraging the believer to persevere in the face of persecution. These New Testament perspectives greatly encourage and inspire perseverance through tribulation and persecution:  It is a great honor to be persecuted.

it is an honor to share in the sufferings of Christ and to be found worthy of His cross. Let’s be clear: persecution and suffering for any reason, even for Jesus, is never fun and should never be sought. Persecution is truly blood, sweat, and tears. It is separation from those you love, incarceration, abuse, humiliation, having one’s children grow up without a father or a mother, and yet, it was exactly this that the early Church did: their willingness to remain faithful witnesses, to suffer and die authenticated their faith in Christ. When brothers and sisters are paying great prices for their faith it is the church’s task to intercede for them. It is a divine opportunity for the local church to care for their families and never to forget them. We should constantly remind them, and ourselves, that their suffering is for Jesus.

Survival 

Responses of survival are strategies whereby Christians aim to preserve the life and the most characteristic activities of their communities, including worship, education, community life, and sometimes evangelization. One response is simply to carry out these characteristic Christian activities against the wish of persecutors and in secret. This response is dangerous and precarious under regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and China. In some cases, Christian communities adopt strategies of cultural adaptation, such as speaking in a language acceptable to the regime, showing patriotism outside the walls of the church, or even hiding their faith through deception or feigning conversion to a non-Christian religion. Small Christian communities in Iran, for instance, speak a different language outside their churches, and Protestant churches in Russia regularly put their patriotism on display. In other cases, Christian communities forge tactical alliances with a dominant religious community, accommodate the authority of the state by scaling back their activities, or develop a cooperation of common purpose with regimes and groups that engage in persecution. Finally, one of the starkest and simplest survival strategies is to flee, either elsewhere within the same country or outside their state’s borders, as Christians often do in settings of war and rampant violence, such as contemporary Iraq, Syria, Libya, and northern Nigeria.

Strategies of association

Strategies of association are a step more proactive. They aim beyond simple survival and include building relationships, bridges, and partnerships. Such practices manifest the community’s faith and build resilience in the face of persecution. Strategies include engaging in interreligious dialogue, cooperating with other Christian communities, and forging coalitions and partnerships inside countries. Catholic and Protestant Christian communities in northern Nigeria, for instance, have formed ecumenical partnerships as well as close ties with mainstream Islamic leaders in the face of the rampant violence carried out by Boko Haram. Christian communities also forge ties with actors outside their country, including members of their own church, advocacy groups, or foreign governments. 

Another associational response is to provide social services, not only as a way to live out the faith but also as a way to gain credibility and build bridges with hostile actors. When Protestant churches in Russia carry out a ministry to alcoholics, for instance, they gain the favor of local governments. In obedience to the commandments of Scripture, Christians in some settings of persecution have practiced forgiveness as a way of inviting their enemies to peace. 

Pakistan’s Paul Bhatti, for instance, forgave the militants who killed his brother Shahbaz for the latter’s work on behalf of religious minorities while he served as Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs. Trying to communicate at a time of persecution may be difficult and dangerous. Therefore it is always better to take precautionary steps to avoid such a situation. 

Christ’s advice to His disciples/followers is not to resist but to escape if they could. They are told that in their tribulation they would ultimately conquer through Him.

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