If They Persecuted Me…

It goes without saying that a centrally important aspect of the Christian faith is the fact that Jesus was persecuted and put to death. And one of the more sobering passages of Scripture is his assurance that “‘a servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

Certainly this has held true throughout the history. Shortly following its founding, the church was intermittently persecuted by the Roman Empire for roughly two and half centuries: there is in fact a reality behind the cliché of “throwing the Christians to the lions.”

As bad as that was at times, the Great Persecution in Persia during the 4th century perhaps exceeded it. One estimate puts the number of Christians put to death in those years at a startling 190,000.

And so it has gone for nearly two millennia: Christians have suffered and died all over the world as missionaries in distant lands, citizens under totalitarian regimes, and in many other situations. Though our own day is no exception, this fact can sometimes be lost on the American church. Persecution here generally takes the form of derogatory comments, being at least politically infamous if not incorrect, or the occasional ill-conceived law. But there are still many places in our world where claiming to follow Christ carries a heavy price, a price that can be as high as one’s life.

Three relatively recent examples:

1. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was recently sentenced to death by an Iranian court after refusing to recant his Christian faith. Thankfully, international pressure may be causing Iran’s Supreme Court to review the case. Still, Nadarkhani’s fate very much remains in question.

2. This month has also witnessed deadly violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians protesting the burning of a church. It reportedly claimed the 26 lives and injured nearly 500. According to one account:

Most eyewitnesses have said the riot began when some 1,000 Copts, trying to stage a peaceful march and sit-in outside of Maspero on the Nile, where Egypt’s state television headquarters is located, were attacked by unknown assailants with sticks. As the violence got out of control, the army was called in, and a speeding armed personnel carrier rammed protesters on the roads and sidewalks as security forces clubbed mostly unarmed civilians.

3. Last November, forty-two Iraqi Catholics died when their church was besieged by al-Qaeda suicide bombers. The attack was reportedly motivated at least in part by the conversion of Muslim girls into the Egyptian Coptic Church. Due to the overall pattern of violence against Christians in there, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton recently mentioned the country as one of the worst offenders in failing to punish violence against non-Muslim minorities.

We could consider many other examples, including the still tenuous situation of Christian house churches in China, frequent violence against Christians in parts of Africa, and the choice many must make between their family and their faith.

How should all of this affect you and me? Just a few quick thoughts:

1. We can rightly be thankful for the robust religious freedom we enjoy and pray that God would continue to uphold it.

2. We can pray regularly for those who are persecuted in the name of Christ. (Ongoing news in this regard can be found here.) Pray for God’s mercy in alleviating their suffering and granting strength to persevere.

3. We should understand that all these things are an occasion to both grieve and hope. We grieve for the obvious tragedy of men, women, and children suffering for their faith. However, we may hope that God, as he so often has in his mysterious providence, will grow his church through the faithful witness of his persecuted people. Such providence once led the early church father Tertullian to observe, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

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. (Mat. 5:10-12)

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

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