Disciples and Persecutors

When Christians react to hostility with hostility, whether from government, society, or individuals, Satan triumphs.

The reality of persecution raises several questions. How should disciples react to any opposition, especially when they are persecuted by governments? Should they respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests, or are followers of Jesus called to emulate his example?

The human desire to live without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warns that all men who elect to follow him will have “tribulation.” And he summons his disciples to follow the same path that he did. The “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” - (John 15:20, 16:33).

Each man who decides to become his disciple must conform his to Christ’s example by “taking up the cross.” And in his day, crucifixion was a violent and shameful death. But the disciple who refuses to do so is “not worthy of me” - (Matthew 16:24).

Moreover, it is a “blessing” and not a curse to suffer for him, although this is certainly counterintuitive and contrary to the “wisdom of this world.” Unlike the expectations of this fallen age, a disciple is to “rejoice and be glad” when persecuted for his sake since “great is his reward in heaven.”

To follow the slain Lamb often produces opposition, and his followers should not be surprised when persecution comes. But the mind that is dominated by sin and self sees suffering for him as a curse. Only the eye of faith perceives that it produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” - (Matthew 5:12).

And the teachings of Jesus about suffering and persecution are echoed in the writings of the Apostles.

IN THESSALONICA

In the city of Thessalonica, the church received the gospel in “much tribulation,” yet its members welcomed Paul’s message despite hostility. In this way, they became “imitators” of him.

Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted the way of discipleship characterized by suffering for the gospel. In this way, they became “examples” for the other churches in the region - (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).

By enduring persecution, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow-countrymen” - (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

After being compelled to leave Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to assess the situation. He wanted no one to “shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this… WE ARE DESTINED TO SUFFER TRIBULATION.” Thus, according to the Apostle, persecution results from following Jesus.

Years later, Paul expressed similar sentiments to Timothy, including “what manner of persecutions” he endured.  He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to imitate - for “ALL WHO DESIRE TO LIVE A GODLY LIFE IN CHRIST JESUS WILL BE PERSECUTED” - (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE

THE BIBLICAL HOPE IS FORWARD-LOOKING. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the “age to come.”

Suffering in the present is not pleasant, but it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).

If anything, to suffer “unjustly” is a SIGN OF DIVINE APPROVAL, evidence that one is a true follower of Jesus. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God's approval.” To endure rejection is what it means to follow the Lord who “also suffered for you, LEAVING YOU AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW” - (1 Peter 2:19-20).

We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility is “clear evidence” of their destruction but also of “our salvation.” God has GRACED us to suffer for His kingdom - (Philippians 1:28-29).

THE DISCIPLE’S RESPONSE

But we also instinctively respond in kind to personal and corporate attacks. Human society sees self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified reactions to threats and assaults.

But Jesus prohibits his disciples from engaging in retaliation, and he provides no exceptions to the rule. Revenge may be the “way the world works,” but disciples are called to something vastly different.

When we are persecuted, we are to “LOVE OUR ENEMIES AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE US.” It is by showing mercy to our enemy that we emulate God and become “perfect” like Him - (Matthew 5:44-48).

Likewise, in his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts disciples to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  They are to “render no one evil for evil.”

God’s justice is not blind, but the disciple must “not avenge” him or herself. Instead, his follower is called to leave justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” IF, HOW, AND WHEN HE SEES FIT - (Romans 12:14-21).

The Apostle Peter also teaches believers to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God,” which, logically, means our unwillingness to endure persecution and our determination to avenge ourselves shows His disapproval.

And Peter points to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how we are to respond to hostility – for to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” - (1 Peter 2:19-23).

Our desire to respond to evil with evil stems from our tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies”. But we must recall what we once were.

No one is born a disciple of Jesus. Every believer is a convert.  Previously, we were “enemies” of God, and we were only reconciled to Him “by the death of his Son” – He died for us “while we were yet sinners” - (Romans 5:6-10).

The true “enemies” of Christ are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of their demonic overlords.

But on the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the political enemies of Israel. Instead, he triumphed over “the principalities and powers.”

And now, in him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself and has bequeathed the ministry of reconciliation to the disciples of His Son. AND SINCE WE HAVE RECEIVED MERCY, WHO BETTER TO SHOW MERCY TO OUR PERSECUTORS?

We are called to emulate Jesus.  When unjustly condemned, he refused to respond with anger and threats, either to the Jewish authorities that betrayed him or the representative of Rome that executed him.

And when Jesus was dying, he prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who condemned him to death and nailed him to the Cross.

When persecution does inevitably occur, as HIS disciples, we must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, and especially, NOT WITH VIOLENCE.  One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When we react to hostility with rage and violence, Satan triumphs, and we demonstrate just whose disciple we truly are.



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