When Persecution Comes

  • Steve Hatter
Prison window

“Surely this can’t be happening!” seems the lament of many in the faith community of late. The specter of religious persecution has come to the fore in our national conversation about the Coronavirus. The purpose, scope, and method of instituting dramatic government-mandated restrictions on public meetings to worship—arguably necessary to prevent the virus’ spread—has polarized the nation and sadly, the church. As I think about the ongoing debate, I’m concerned as a church leader about whether public gathering restrictions do indeed constitute the beginnings of real persecution in America. However, there is something even more essential to consider. That more important consideration is my personal responsibility before God. How will I respond respond when authentic persecution—meaning consequences as severe as a prison sentence, or even execution—comes? How will you respond? The Bible teaches that persecution for following Jesus Christ in faith will come to every believer. It’s not a question as if, but when. And then it’s a question as to how severe. Jesus said as much in John 15:20:

“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.'”

2 Timothy 3:12 says that:

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Jesus, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, preached this as recorded in Matthew 5: 10–12:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in  heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, as a Christian, we need to reconcile that persecution is a part of choosing Christ, and we must prepare ourselves spiritually and emotionally, if not practically.

The Apostle Peter spoke much about persecution in the New Testament Book of First Peter, which he wrote to Christians scattered throughout the northern areas of Asia Minor. Peter anticipated the persecution he and other Christians would endure in the final years of Roman Emporer Nero’s reign. At the time Peter wrote, he knew the path of pressure he and other believers were traveling upon. In The political-governmental realities of the day eventually resulted in Peter being cruelly martyred. But Peter did pen a marvelous treatise on the Christian’s response to persecution before his brutal execution, and we have that beautiful guidance for us today.

The endurance Peter called believers to strive for is similar to Job’s, a man who suffered despite his righteousness. Peter maintained that this was the kind of pure perseverance that God expects from His people. In his appeals to persevere, he offered them two essential means to success. First, the Apostle sought to remind them of the magnificent grace gift of their eternal salvation (1:3–13; 4:13; 5:1, 4). He then gave them a practical roadmap of sorts, instructing them about proper Christian behavior amid unjust suffering (4:1, 19). Let me show you this in more detail.

Praise for Salvation

 To begin his encouragements to persecuted Christians, Peter desired to declare the Christian’s sure salvation (1:3–12). He started with descriptions of God’s mercy “that caused us to be born again to a living hope,” through Christ’s resurrection, such that the Christian has “an inheritance that is imperishable” (1:3, 4). Peter reminded that God’s power is guarding—through faith—this undefiled and unfading inheritance “kept in heaven” for them, and “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:4, 5). They were to rejoice in their eternal assurance, understanding suffering as temporary. Further, Peter suggested they also see value in suffering because trials have a refining effect: “you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:7). Perhaps more convincing to readers, Peter recounted the past revelation of God’s salvation plan. He reminded that the prophets long ago predicted: “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” as a service to future believers, a mystery into which “angels long to look” (1:11, 12).

The Holy Life

With the miracle gift of eternal salvation reinforced, Peter turned to instruct on how to live a holy life while suffering (1:13–5:11). He began by focusing on the implications of salvation both in terms of practice—the marks of a true believer—and position, or the place of each believer in the larger body (1:13–2:10).

Regarding practice, Peter’s first mark was that a Christian must set his hopes exclusively on “the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). Such a fixed hope should then inspire a holy life—a second mark—set apart from “the passions” of “former ignorance,” as one seeks to emulate Christ as one called by Him (1:14–16). Calling to holiness represented a sober reality, Peter asserted, that should include a godly fear as a motivator—a third mark: “conduct yourselves with fear throughout your exile” (1:17, 18). Even as a Christian seeks holiness in respectful fear of God, there is also an invitation to love fellow travelers in His spirit—a fourth mark (1:22–25). A final indicator of one saved by grace is a longing for God’s word, “the pure spiritual milk” (2:1–3). Regarding the Christian’s position in the larger body of Christ, Peter called believers “living stones” who are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood,” with Christ the “Cornerstone” (2:4–10). Do you have these five marks…a fixed hope, a holy life, godly fear, love for fellow Christians, and a longing for truth found in Scripture?

The five marks laid down, Peter turned next to instruction on the submission of the believer (2:11–3:12). Here Peter appealed to excellent behavior—one was to keep conduct honorable as a witness to the Gentiles (2:11, 12). He instructed on the importance of believers submitting to human authority as a key element of their witness, yet living “free” as “servants of God” (2:13–17). Peter instructed slaves and masters (2:18–25) and on marriage concerning wives submitting to husbands, and husbands honoring wives (3:1–7). Lastly, he addressed a right response to evil: “Do not repay evil for evil,” “but on the contrary, bless” (3:8–12).

Peter’s closing instructions on suffering (3:15–4:6) included its fundamental reason, which is righteousness (3:3–4:6). The Christian would sanctify the Lord (3:13–17), serve as an example (3:18–22), and exemplify living for the will of God (4:1–6) in sanctified suffering. Practically, the believer was also to have alertness in view of the end of all things (4:7–12), while always trusting God amid fiery trials (4:13–19). Peter ended with a list of right attitudes within the church (5:1–5) and then the applied reality of resisting the Devil (5:6–11). 

Is the onset of the Coronavirus marking the beginnings of real and intense persecution of Christians in America? I cannot say. However, I can say that a biblical perspective on persecution is vital always, but perhaps most especially now. I can also encourage you to be ready to respond well, in faith, when abuse comes.

Let’s be ready—individually and together—WHEN persecution comes!