Must Christians Be Persecuted?

“All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” —I Timothy 3:12

THE TRUTH OF the Gospel of Christ, the great divine plan for human salvation, has never been popular in the world. Jesus, the central figure in this glorious kingdom message, the one who brought “life and immortality to light through the Gospel,” was himself crucified because he proclaimed unpopular truth and exposed popular error. Some of his apostles and others in the Early Church, suffered violent deaths, and for the most part all the early Christians were bitterly opposed by unbelieving Jews of that time, as well as by Gentiles.

Throughout the age there have been many martyrs to the truth, some having been burned at the stake, others thrown to the lions. Imprisonment has been the lot of many. The experiences of all these have been quite in harmony with the terms of the narrow way which Jesus outlined for his disciples when he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”—Matt. 16:24

Jesus also said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) As appraised by human wisdom, it would seem that the world had overcome Jesus. Certainly he was cruelly put to death by self-seeking human elements of the religious world of his day. But in this experience Jesus was the real overcomer. Because he knew it was his Father’s will that he should die as the Redeemer of the fallen and dying race, he meekly surrendered to his enemies, and continued to love them even though they put him to death.

Throughout the age many of the faithful followers of the Master were persecuted. Also during this present harvest period at the end of this Gospel Age, those who have espoused the cause of truth and who have faithfully let their light shine, have often found themselves the targets of those who, under the influence of the “god of this world,” hate the light, and therefore oppose the light bearers.—II Cor. 4:4

To a considerable extent, however, the position of religionists in the world has changed during the last fifty or sixty years. While the fundamentalist groups of nominal churchianity are still quite outspoken in their opposition to present truth, the modernistic viewpoint is one of indifference to all doctrinal viewpoints. The theory of religious liberty and tolerance is stressed so much these days by the major groups of churchianity that it has led to a large degree of freedom from persecution for those who are actively engaged in proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom.

Through contacts with the brethren by mail, and otherwise, we have found that some are wondering just where the Lord’s people today stand with respect to the matter of being persecuted. If those who live godly in Christ Jesus must inevitably suffer persecution, are we not lacking this witness of the Spirit if we are not being persecuted? We find that on the part of some there is almost a desire to make our message a little more radical, or of a ‘smiting’ nature, in order to draw persecution upon ourselves.

This surely is a matter for serious consideration. It would be tragic indeed should the Lord’s people today be refraining from letting their light shine in the manner enjoined upon them in the Scriptures, and because of this, discover later that this was the reason for escaping the bitter persecution which in former days came upon other followers of the Master. It is important, therefore, that we examine our position carefully, for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not the present lull in bitter opposition against the truth on a wide scale is necessarily out of keeping with what we should expect, or is an evidence of a lack of faithfulness on the part of the Lord’s people in letting their light shine.

Looking at the Past

While it is true that Jesus, the Captain of our salvation, was bitterly persecuted and finally put to death upon the cross by those who hated the light of the Gospel which he proclaimed, there were times during his ministry when he experienced comparative quiet and peace. He was not always being attacked, and on many occasions the opposition leveled against him was merely in the nature of word battles. The Lord’s people today who are faithfully bearing witness to the truth frequently encounter this sort of opposition.

It was not until the Father’s due time came that the bitterness of Jesus’ enemies was permitted to manifest itself in the death sentence which was inflicted upon him. The providence of the Lord operated in a similar manner toward the apostles and others in the Early Church. Ananias was instructed to inform Saul what great things he would suffer for the name of the Lord Jesus, and he did suffer many things. Indeed Paul finally suffered martyrdom in a Roman prison.

Nevertheless, Paul enjoyed seasons of freedom from severe persecution. Note, for example, the time he spent in Antioch, when he and Barnabas labored together in this part of the Lord’s vineyard. There is no record of special persecution during those years. Under the leadership of Paul and Barnabas the church at Antioch prospered spiritually and increased in number. Moreover, the Lord raised up a number of able servants in Antioch, and it was decided by the congregation to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary tour, since their services by this time could be spared in the home ecclesia.

On that first missionary tour they frequently found themselves in the center of a storm of opposition. One of these occasions was at Antioch in Pisidia—a different city from the Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians, and where the church grew so rapidly under the leadership of Paul and Barnabas. But even these manifestations of hatred toward the truth did not seriously interfere with the proclamation of the message.

The record informs us in connection with Paul’s ministry in Corinth that the Lord especially protected him from ‘hurt’. In a vision Jesus said to Paul, “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.” (Acts 18:9,10) The desire to persecute Paul was in the hearts of many in Corinth. In fact, they hailed the apostle before the deputy in charge for punishment, but the case was dismissed.

“I have much people in this city,” the Lord told Paul. In other words, there was a work to be accomplished in Corinth which would have been greatly hindered had the prejudices of the people been permitted to operate in outward and violent attacks against the Lord’s servants. This brings before us a very important consideration in connection with God’s dealings with his people, for it reveals that while at times he permits persecution in violent form to come upon them, at other times he provides freedom from such experiences because he has a certain work to be accomplished which can best be done while his people ‘sail on quiet seas’.

Brethren in the Early Church recognized this. Paul wrote to Timothy, saying, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (I Tim. 2:1,2) Paul recognized that it was the Lord’s will for his people at this time to be free from severe persecution. The apostle would not have recommended a prayer to this end had it been contrary to the Lord’s will.

Nor has it been true that all the Lord’s people who have been called upon to endure persecution because of their faithfulness, have experienced the same decree of suffering. In Hebrews 10:33 the apostle speaks of those who were made “a gazingstock,” and also those who “became the companions of them that were so used.” This was on the principle that when one member of the body suffers, they all suffer.

Even today, when the members of the body of Christ in many parts of the world are enjoying a period of comparative freedom from persecution, there are still brethren in some other parts of the world who are severely suffering because of the truth. This is particularly true of those in a few portions of Europe and South America. We do not have much opportunity, except through prayer, to manifest our sympathy toward these dear ones, yet if our sympathy is genuine we will share a measure of pain with them.

However, on the whole, at the present time the Lord’s people are remarkably free from physical persecution. But there is no need to conclude that this is due to lack of faithfulness in proclaiming the truth. Neither is it necessary to wonder whether or not the Lord’s people have been sufficiently outspoken, or condemnatory, in their manner of witnessing. The real reason is, it seems to us, that the Lord has a work to be accomplished through a widespread witness of the truth which could not be done if he permitted the forces of opposition against the truth to have their way.

Just as the Lord held back the opposition in Corinth because he had ‘much people’ in that city to be reached by the brethren, and just as Paul recognized the need of the Lord’s people at times to have peace, and recommended prayers to this end, so now the church would seem to be in one of those periods. The lack of bitter persecution today is not due to unfaithfulness, but to the Lord’s making possible the outworking of his purposes through the united efforts of his people to herald wide the glorious Gospel of the kingdom.

Let us, then, utilize our present favorable opportunities to study the truth, and faithfully apply its principles in our daily lives. And let us also zealously use every privilege we have of proclaiming ‘good tidings of good’. If we do this, we will find that even now, in this quiet and favorable time, the truth is not popular.

Yes, even in this time the Lord’s people have to endure the cold indifference of an unbelieving world. Even now they are looked upon by many as deceivers and as anti-Christian. To endure this mild opposition will help to prepare us for greater opposition later, if, or when, it comes. Certainly, if we are not faithful now when the cost of discipleship in terms of persecution may not be as high as it has been during other periods of the age, we would not be faithful if called upon to endure the fiery flames of persecution.

Paul also was persecuted. He was stoned, imprisoned, and finally beheaded, but he was not harmed as a New Creature. His life, and all its interests, were hidden with Christ in God. Knowing this, shortly before his execution he wrote, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”—II Tim. 4:8

We do not, like Paul, have to fight with beasts at Ephesus, but we do war against our bitter enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. But no matter how severe the battle rages, our ‘risen with Christ’ life is hidden and protected so that no harm can come to us. Our outward man may perish; the things of earth to which the outward man is so prone to cling may one after another slip away. But what does this matter since we are setting our affections on things above?

If we are indeed ‘risen with Christ’ we will be aspiring to the heavenly things, that home, and those joys which are ‘eternal in the heavens’. May our faith increase, enabling us to lay hold of these heavenly treasures with a firmer grip as the days go by. May our appreciation of things above increase as faith’s vision becomes more keen.

May it be that our light affliction which is “but for a moment” will continue to work for us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (II Cor. 4:17,18) Truly, the prospect before us is glorious! May we give “all diligence” to make our “calling and election sure” that, in the Lord’s due time, this prospect may mature into the actual and eternal glory of the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!—II Pet. 1:4-11

Dawn Bible Students Association
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