“But you, be on your guard! They will hand you over to local courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues. You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them. . . .Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I had the opportunity to hear last night from a missionary serving with a ministry called The Rock of Ages ministry. Justin and his family do prison evangelism. His was a pretty powerful testimony of God getting ahold of someone who was pretty thoroughly embittered by a much more difficult childhood than anyone should have to experience and had been exposed to just enough religion during it all to hate it. He spent many years consumed by alcohol and drugs, and had seen a bit of the inside of the prison system himself. Now God has called him to proclaim the Gospel to prisoners. Justin had a number of great observations to share, but one thing really stood out to me that I had not considered before. Prisoners who become followers of Jesus gain two things: eternal life and a target on their back. Other prisoners now know that their behavior is going to change to be more like Jesus’ behavior. This will serve them well outside the walls of the prison, but on the inside it means they can’t defend themselves. Their embrace of Jesus is like a green light to the unsaved prisoners to persecute them. Christians experiencing persecution is nothing new. It’s been happening since the very beginning. It is a tough topic to tackle, but fortunately, it is not one for which Jesus left us unprepared.
One of the sermons you don’t hear preached very often is the one about the time Jesus told His followers they would experience persecution if they stuck with Him. People like to hear sermons about happy and encouraging topics. We want to be told how much God loves us and how good life will be if we submit ourselves fully to Jesus. He will dry our tears and heal our wounds and fix our broken places, so that we can be more fully who He created us to be. And all of those things are true. We should celebrate those things in sermon and song. But sometimes that’s not how life goes even once we are following Jesus. Sometimes the world comes after us for reasons that don’t even begin to register on the scale of sensical. Sometimes we are going along, doing life as a follower of Jesus without bothering anyone else, and the world comes along and hates us without warning or reason. If all we have heard are sermons about how good life is when we live it with God, those times will threaten to break our faith and drive us from God. At the very least they’ll leave us with a crisis of faith.
This does not have to be.
One of the things about which Jesus and Paul and Peter and James and John were all explicitly clear in their writings and teachings was that following Him would lead to persecution. If you commit yourself to the path of Christ, Jesus said, you will be persecuted. The world will hate you. It will come after you. It won’t be fair or kind or gentle. Its singular goal will be to destroy you and your faith. He promised that. For some reason, though, the “Life Is Going to Be Hard if You Follow Jesus” sermons just don’t get the same traction and play as the “Life Is Going to Be Great if You Follow Jesus” sermons. It’s the strangest thing.
The hard, but good, truth is that while the Scriptures are indeed encouraging and comforting in what they have to offer us, they are also unashamedly honest about the difficulties and dangers of life both generally and as followers of Jesus. We see a perfect example of this in what Jesus says here as He continues to respond to the disciples’ question about the timing of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
For my money, I see Jesus identify four different kinds of persecution here. The first is religious persecution. This is the persecution that comes through the lens of religion. Around the world it often takes the form of the adherents of whatever is the dominant or national religion harassing followers of Jesus. There is no shortage of this and it seems to be getting worse every year. For most of the 20th century, for instance, an average of 100,000 Christians were put to death for their faith each year. Open Doors releases its World Watch list each year of the countries who have the worst records of persecuting Jesus followers. Each year we are treated to another list of nations where it is simply not safe to be a Christian. North Korea always tops the list. India is a rising member of the top ten as nationalist Hindus have been growing increasingly intolerant of Christianity with the implicit and sometimes explicit approval of President Modi. China is moving up the list with great intentionality as the communist region continues cracking down on churches. The rest of the list is nearly entirely majority Muslim nations. Afghanistan, for instance, is number 2 on the list even as the U.S. continues its near-total troop withdrawal, abandoning the incredibly vulnerable believers to the atrocities of the Taliban.
Religious persecution, though, can also happen within the church itself. When professed followers of Jesus get seduced by power within the church, they will often go after those who haven’t been and are pursuing the path of Christ when it conflicts with the path of power they have chosen. When people in positions of power have drifted from the path of Jesus in their own lives, they are often willing to persecute reformers right out the door so they can hold onto their places.
The second type of persecution Jesus mentions comes from the state. Now, sometimes this is also religious persecution when the state is connected to the dominant religion, but when the state is secular – as is the case in North Korea and China – this can get ugly fast. In North Korea, being caught owning a Bible is a death sentence. Even being caught doing something like looking at the sky for too long could mean a trip to the gulags as you might be praying and that would be unacceptable. The reality here is that the state wants all the power for itself. This is the temptation every state faces and most succumb to eventually. Our own state is wrestling with this in its own ways from both the left, but also the right. People in positions of power want to be able to exercise that power to accomplish their goals and don’t want to be faced with the challenge of a power greater than theirs which could stand in the way of their efforts. The state wants to be the sole and final arbiter of right and wrong. The existence of Christians making the truth claims we make represents an explicit challenge to all such claims of power by the state. The state doesn’t usually handle these challenges gracefully. If you need another example, go back to this past Monday’s sermon and read about Jack Phillips’ saga. The state of Colorado has been actively going after Jack for nearly 10 years because of his refusal to say he believes what they want him to believe.
A third type of persecution is family persecution. When a family has no tradition of faithfulness to Jesus in its history, a member coming to faith and thus breaking dramatically with family tradition is not going to be a welcome thing. Depending on the religious tradition of the family, this persecution can get very intense very quickly. This is particularly true in the Muslim world where it is not uncommon for the families of members who convert from Islam to Christianity to seek to put them to death to redeem the family’s honor.
One last type of persecution we see here is cultural persecution. As if all the other sources of persecution Jesus identifies weren’t enough, He rounds out with the warning that “you will be hated by everyone because of my name.” Christians living in a culture dominated by a non-Christian worldview are not going to be well-received by whatever is the dominant culture. Dominant cultures generally don’t play nice with sub-groups. This has historically been true even when Christianity happens to be the dominant culture. In most places for most of the last 2,000 years of human history, though, Christianity has not been the dominant culture and has suffered accordingly. Increasingly in this country we are being treated to an increasingly distressing series of examples of this.
This is all pretty grim stuff, yes? So, why spend a whole morning talking about it? Most notably because Jesus told us about, and so it’s worth our time to consider. But even Jesus doesn’t tell us this to scare us. He told the disciples these things so they would be ready for what was coming. Jesus decided it was better to be honest – not graphically so, but realistically so – about what was coming so there wouldn’t be any surprises when it happened. The world hates the church and that hatred will be worked out in various ways. If you are a part of the church, you can expect to be the recipient of that hatred at some point in your journey. Some followers of Jesus have the privilege of living in parts of the world where their experience of that hatred is lighter and less frequent. But rather than simply enjoying the boon of our location, we should leverage our benefits for the sake of our brothers and sisters who are not so geographically fortunate. If you are not experiencing the kind of persecution that your brothers and sisters around the world are, pray fervently for them. Pray for their strength, protection, and boldness. Pray they will stand firm and advance the Gospel in spite of the trouble they are facing. Pray their situations will change, but also that God will redeem their trials to grow their faith and advance His kingdom.
There is another reason Jesus told us this kind of stuff in advance. He told us so that we would be able to stand firm with the encouragement that He has already overcome the world. Even though we may not know the twists and turns our journeys may yet take in the days ahead of us, we do know where they will end. If we are in Christ, they will end in His kingdom, ruling at His side over a restored and glorified creation for all eternity. Your story in Christ does not end in persecution and defeat. It ends in victory and glory. That knowledge is yours so that you can stand firm and persist. The trials will not last forever. They will eventually come to a permanent end and the life that follows will go on eternally. That’s a truth worth living for. As you face this day and all the rest to come after it, I pray you will.