In my previous blog, I pointed out that the early church wasn’t allowed to revel long in its state of bliss before the enemy sought to disrupt God’s work by bringing persecution upon the faithful followers.
I began our exploration of the topic of persecution by discussing: The Reality of Persecution.
In this blog, I want to consider: The Reason for Persecution.
There are two primary reasons for persecution.
- The Secular Reasons for Persecution
Persecution that we see and often experience, at least at the surface level, is a result of a direct challenge to existing authority and power structures.
Let me give you a good example in the Bible. Most of us are probably aware of the silversmith in Acts who got the people whipped into a frenzy because Christians were disrupting business as usual in Ephesus.
The account comes from Acts 19, and the story paints a vivid picture of why Christians are so often hated.
Reading the account we learn that a serious disturbance developed in Ephesus concerning “the Way.”
It was instigated by a silversmith named Demetrius, a man who had a business manufacturing silver shrines of the Greek goddess Artemis, or Diana. Not only was his business profitable to him, but it brought much work to other craftsmen as well.
Preaching the gospel of Christ, Paul began to persuade many that handmade gods were not really gods at all. As that message spread, the silversmiths and craftsmen faced a threat.
So Demetrius called a meeting to address the issue. He reminded the other workers and tradesmen that their business and wealth came from the very thing Paul was preaching against.
He attempted to seem concerned about the temple of Artemis and the influence of the goddess, but his true motive was clear. His position and wealth were being threatened.
He accomplished his purpose and caused such anger that the city folk began rounding up friends of Paul, treating them harshly, and wishing to prosecute them.
Ultimately, the case was dismissed, but the point is clear. The gospel of Christ was disrupting things, and the wealthy, powerful, secularists didn’t like it.
Another example is what the believers were facing in Acts 4.
And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead (Acts 4:1-2).
Why would the powers that be have a problem with Peter and John teaching the people and preaching the resurrection of Jesus?
The simple answer is that the message was a threat to their religious and political system.
Acts 4:1 mentions three groups of people: “the priests,” “the captain of the temple,” and “the Sadducees.”
The “priests” were, just that, ordinary priests. They rotated in their time to be at the temple and minister, and they were there to conduct the evening sacrifice. They really didn’t have a lot of political power, but they would have been perturbed at the distraction of this new “Way,” nonetheless.
The “captain of the temple” was the one in charge of what we might call the temple police. He had the job of maintaining order on the temple grounds and had great authority to do so. He was second in rank only to the high priest.
Then “the Sadducees” who were the real instigators.
In the Gospels, the group that seemed to lead the rejection of Christ was the Pharisees. The Sadducees rejected Christ too, but they were not really center stage.
But we need to understand, their opposition to Christ was really not spiritual, though they disagreed with the theology of Christians.
Their primary problem with the gospel was the threat to their influence.
John Phillips says
“they were aristocratic, wealthy, and influential. The high priest was usually chosen from their ranks. They collaborated with the occupying Roman power, and at this time, they dominated the Sanhedrin. To the Sadducees, the Messiah was simply an ideal and the messianic age a process.”
From a theological standpoint, Kent Hughes says they were the “materialistic rationalists of their day – denying the supernatural, denying evil spirits, denying angels…and above all, they denied the Resurrection.”
They were what I would describe as politically correct. They opposed any type of opposition to Rome. They didn’t want to upset the apple cart.
“They were the educated, wealthy elite. But they were also unprincipled collaborationists, political sycophants who would sell their mothers to stay in power. Though a minority, they controlled Jewish political and religious life. They were evil control freaks, and they did not want anyone rocking their boat.”
Now we can understand why they strongly opposed the Gospel of Christ, and why they were willing to do whatever it took to stop it – including persecution.
Verse two says they were “grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”
Why? The Jewish leaders had put Jesus to death as a blasphemer, but the apostles were boldly proclaiming Christ the Messiah.
What did that look like for these “leaders?” It looked like a clear attack and an undermining of their authority. If Christ was the Messiah, the Jewish leaders were fools for having killed Him.
Beyond that, the apostles were preaching that Christ had been resurrected and the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.
If the resurrection was true, the Sadducees were heretics and their religion was false.
Moreover, if what the apostles were preaching was true; if Christ was the Messiah, and He had risen from the dead, that would mean He is the supreme authority, and their services and positions were no longer needed.
Christ was a rival and a direct threat, and they would have nothing of it, and thus, we read in verse three that they arrested Peter and John and put them in jail.
The Sadducees were pawns of Satan and just didn’t know it but their motivation was purely secular.
- The Spiritual Reasons for Persecution
Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 6:12 that
…we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places].
He told the Corinthian believers,
…though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
It’s pretty apparent that though the Sadducees may have had their own fleshly or secular reasons for doing the things they did, there was also a spiritual reason for it.
I’d like to highlight three truths to consider in regards to the spiritual reasons for persecution.
First, Satan’s Plans for Persecution
Don’t think for one second that Satan is not rooting on all forms of persecution and loving every second of it – especially when it comes to the body of Christ.
In America, persecution may look a little different than it did in the first-century church, or than it does in other parts of the world.
But make no mistake, persecution is here.
I really appreciate John MacArthur’s take on it. He said,
“Instead of threatening the body, Satan’s persecutions today aim at the ego. They threaten our selfish pride, need for acceptance, or status. Satan has largely destroyed the spiritual effectiveness of the church without having to kill the individual believers in it. In fact, letting believers live self-centered, complacent, indolent, worldly lives is more effective in keeping people from being attracted to the Christian faith than killing them. Martyrs are respected for the strength of their character; compromisers are despised.”
Man so fears a strike against his ego, he remains silent in the face of evil. What an indictment against the body of Christ.
What a strange twist on the idea of persecution. Our fear of persecution, actually in a strange way serves as a form of persecution against Christ’s church – for so often it renders us weak and ineffective.
In recent years we have seen stronger and more overt forms of persecution coming after the church.
In the last blog I mentioned Jack Phillips, the Klein family, Barronelle Stutzman, and teachers and doctors being fired over religious convictions. I also mentioned government efforts to force church closures and impose fines and force vaccines on those who may be morally opposed.
There is an abundance of other examples, from t-shirt shop owners to photographers, website designers, coaches, and more.
What we are seeing is only the beginning.
It is Satan’s attempt to prevail against the body of Christ.
Second, Consider God’s Power over Persecution
The body of Christ has always faced persecution.
For the first three centuries, Christians were thrown to wild animals, crucified, turned into human torches, and just about any other cruel death evil men could devise.
In Hebrews 11 we read that believers endured cruel mockings, scourgings, imprisonments, stonings, were sawn into, slain with the sword, and were forced to wander about destitute, afflicted, and tormented while
“… others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35).
But it never stopped the body of Christ.
Christ said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Persecuting the church only makes it makes it stronger.
John MacArthur says,
“Far from destroying the church…persecution merely served to purify and strengthen it. It matures the church the way trials mature individual believers. After surviving three centuries of violent attacks the church emerges as the dominant force in the Roman Empire. In the words of the church Father Tertullian, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’”
Third, Consider God’s Purpose in Persecution
Persecution serves as a means of:
Both Paul and Peter spoke of identifying with Christ in suffering.
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10).
But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:13).
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing [this], that the trying of your faith worketh patience (James 1:2-3).
Gold is refined by a craftsman placing ore in a crucible and heating it to temperatures in excess of 1000 degrees. As the impurities rise to the top of the molten metal, the dross is skimmed away. This process can be repeated at the refiner’s discretion until the end result is the purity he desires.
In much the same way, God uses difficulties like persecution to refine us, drawing out our dross, purifying us in the process (Malachi 3:2-3), resulting in our sanctification.
There is very little that will bring a body of believers together the way persecution will.
The early church suffered atrocities beyond our imagination, yet it only united, pressed on, and spread like wildfire across the globe.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to sound like a glutton for punishment and that persecution is desirous.
But I do want to offer the truth that it is a reality for believers, there is a reason for it, and when called on to face it, God is faithful. He always has been and He always will be.