In the recent film Paul: Apostle of Christ, 21st-century followers of Jesus are confronted with a 1st-century reality—what it looked like to be persecuted for the name of Christ. To be sure, millions of Christians around the world today are enduring persecution at this very moment—an issue that should regularly populate our prayers. Nevertheless, for many of us, especially in the West, persecution for Christ is a theoretical, abstract concept that’s fuzzy at best. The film brought that fuzziness into distinct clarity. Hiding, fearing arrest, experiencing imprisonment, facing the brutality of the Roman “games,” and suffering painful and tortured deaths, people who named the name of Christ paid a massive price for identifying with Him.
This painful experience is a significant and leading part of Jesus’s next warning about coming things. Again, it is led by blepete here translated “be on your guard.” Notice:
“But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (mark 13:9–13, emphasis added)
Regardless of when the Christ returns, the time between Jesus’s day and the day of His return will be marked by His people suffering persecutions. This is not only a feature of Jesus’s longest message in Mark, it is also presented as part of the opening Beatitudes of His first message in Matthew:
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (matthew 5:10–12)
Without being the least bit trite or flippant, we may say that persecution of Christ-followers was never going to be the exception to the rule; it is the normal response of a dark world to the light of Christ. While there is a danger in assuming that everything negative in life is just such a persecution event, that doesn’t alter the fact that real persecution exists in our world today.
I spent a number of years traveling to Russia to teach pastors and encountered many who had suffered the most intense of persecutions under atheistic communism. In one of my classes, I had a student several decades my senior who always—and I mean always—was smiling. The surprise came when I learned that he had spent twenty-five years in a labor camp for courageously declaring his faith in Jesus. I met another man who had been repeatedly beaten, and finally was shot in the head for preaching the gospel, and miraculously survived that shooting.
For them and millions like them, suffering was not a random circumstance for “those people over there.” It was their story and experience—and they had found Christ’s strength and love to be more than sufficient for those years in which they suffered for Christ.
Jesus’s warning rings true. As we move inexorably into the future and God’s promises along the way, we must be aware of the realities of the present. For many people, that may include persecution and suffering for the name and message of Christ. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we too will be ready for persecution if it comes our way.
Thoughts for Reflection:
Does persecution seem like a distant problem to you?
Go online and discover what persecution of Christians really looks like in today’s world, and how different it is from the relatively minor criticisms we may experience for following Jesus (one resource is The Voice of the Martyrs at https://www.persecution.com).
Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. And, ask God to strengthen your own faith and relationship with Him so that, should dark times of persecution arrive, you will be able to stand firm in Christ.