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TODAY’S WORLD: The Promise of Persecution

The promise we do not like to claim!

 

After being released from prison, a Christian human rights lawyer was able to phone his family. His wife was delighted to hear from him, but she could hardly make sense of what he was saying. The reason was not a poor phone signal; rather, the isolation and torture he had experienced while in prison had left the man unable to speak coherently. What was his “crime”? He had assisted fellow believers.

 

For more than 50 days his captors had given him “shock treatment” by holding an electric baton to his face and piercing his skin with toothpicks. At another time propaganda had been broadcast continuously into his prison cell by means of a loudspeaker for 68 weeks. During his imprisonment the man had no access to reading material or TV, and he had no genuine human contact at any time. His one “meal” each day consisted of a single slice of bread and a piece of cabbage. As a result he lost about 50 pounds in weight as well as many of his teeth because of malnutrition. After his release from prison he was not really free but was kept under house arrest. Although his wife and family members escaped to the west, the man refused to leave his home country as he believed God had a work for him to do there.

 

 

TYPICAL OF MANY

This one man’s experience is typical of so many others. All across the world there are individuals who are persecuted for their faith in Christ and are suffering. Those of us who enjoy freedom should be concerned. Hebrews 13:3 exhorts us to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them” (KJV).  Do we think of those who are being persecuted, and do we pray for them? Are our hearts moved for them in their trials? We should, in a sense, know what it means to be “bound with them” as we take their distressing experiences to heart.

 

Did you know that the Bible has a lot to say about persecution? I decided to do a little research by looking up such words as persecute, persecution, suffer, suffering, oppressed, oppression, trouble, and tribulation in my concordance. What a lot of references I found! Persecution is just one word; the others help us to understand what persecution means. It is not an isolated concept, for it leads to suffering, oppression, and trouble. The Psalmist was experiencing it and asked God how long it would continue before his tormentors were judged (Ps.119:84). Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, declared that “man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). You will understand what he meant if you have ever stood near a fire and watched the sparks flying up into the night sky. Troubles can be plentiful. As part of the human race we are “born unto” them. Persecution is just one of those “troubles”.

 

Other Scriptures add breadth to the subject. Persecution is often meted out by the proud upon those who are poor (Ps.10:2). It can result in the persecuted soul being brought very low, for those who do the oppressing are characterized by being stronger than the victims they oppress (Ps.142:6). Another fact to consider is this: those who love God’s Word can often be persecuted on account of it. The Psalmist alluded to this when he wrote, “All Thy commandments are faithful: they persecute me wrongfully: help Thou me. They had almost consumed me upon earth; but I forsook not Thy precepts” (Ps.119:86,87). He found it difficult to understand why he had to suffer for his belief in God’s Word and his love for it.

 

 

A REAL EXPERIENCE

There is a saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This, however, is not always true. Unkind words can wound deeply. Paul faced reproach for his trust in the living God (1 Tim.4:10). Nehemiah and his fellow-workers were mocked mercilessly as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. They were called “feeble Jews” by their opponents who ridiculed their efforts. Tobiah the Ammonite taunted the builders by saying the wall was so fragile that the weight of a fox would cause it to collapse (Neh.4:2,3).

 

Others have faced false accusations. Charles Spurgeon, the well-known British preacher of the nineteenth century, and his wife, kept some hens. Critics accused them of being mean because they always sold the eggs and never gave any away to family members or friends. It was only after the deaths of both Mr. and Mrs. Spurgeon that the truth became known. All profits from the sale of the hens’ eggs were used to support two needy elderly widows. The accusations had therefore been very unkind and must have hurt the Spurgeons.

 

However, if taunts do not succeed in damaging the Lord’s work, Satan will resort to other tactics. We find this in the experience of Nehemiah. When the accusations of the enemy did not cause the work to cease, Sanballat, Tobiah, and their associates “conspired … to come and to fight against Jerusalem” (Neh.4:8). Nehemiah now faced the physical presence of the enemy.

 

 

EXAMPLES ABOUND FROM SCRIPTURE

Persecution can have a profoundly detrimental effect upon those who experience it, and a believer who is under pressure might sometimes question the ways of God. It is a great comfort to know that the Lord Jesus was severely tested when here on earth and is “touched” by our trials and sufferings at this present time (Heb.4:15). He was accused of using Satan’s power to perform miracles, and His parentage was questioned by His hostile accusers who labelled Him “a Samaritan” (Mt.12:24; Jn.8:41,48). How it must have hurt the holy Son of God to hear their vile taunts! But there were other ways in which He suffered.  Before His crucifixion He was scourged and cruelly treated by Pilate’s soldiers. Indeed, Isaiah had prophesied that His face would be marred more than any other man’s (Isa.52:14). Truly, He was hated without a cause.

 

Making our way through the pages of Scripture, it is possible to compile an extensive list of individuals who experienced persecution. The first was Abel (Gen.4) who was killed by his jealous brother, Cain. Joseph, in a similar way, faced the hostility of his own brothers. Hated by them, he was sold as a slave and transported to Egypt. There, falsely accused, he found himself in prison with his feet painfully fastened in iron fetters (Ps.105:18). Surely he was tempted to think he had been abandoned by God! The nation of Israel suffered slavery in Egypt and were a persecuted people (Ex.1). Moses, their deliverer, deliberately chose to “suffer affliction with the people of God” (Heb.11:25). Others, like him, found that there is a price to pay for faithfulness. Daniel’s three friends faced the burning fiery furnace (Dan.3), and Daniel himself was cast into the den of lions (Dan.6). Jeremiah, like so many prophets of old, was persecuted (Jer.17:18; Jas.5:10). David, too, in so many of his psalms, described his feelings as he faced the relentless persecution of a cruel enemy and pleaded for God’s deliverance (Ps.31:15).

 

The same theme runs through the New Testament. John the Baptist died as a martyr for his faithfulness in speaking the truth (Mt.14), and others trod the same path. Stephen was stoned; James was beheaded, and according to tradition both Peter and Paul experienced martyrdom. The list is extensive and proves beyond question that many of God’s servants suffered severely at the hands of ungodly men, as Hebrews 11:36-38 teaches.

 

 

FOR US TODAY

The prospect of persecution is one from which we cannot escape. In His discourse adjacent to the temple in Jerusalem shortly before His death, the Lord Jesus outlined future events associated with His return. He made it clear that before the “fearful sights and great signs … from heaven” His followers would face persecution and be “brought before kings and rulers” (Lk.21:11,12). He also taught His disciples in John 16:33 that they would face difficulties in the world. His words should leave us in no doubt: “In the world ye shall have tribulation”. The final part of the verse – “be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” – is perhaps quoted rather more often. We rejoice that our Saviour has overcome the world, but we are not so keen to be reminded that we shall face tribulation in the world! We love to think of our blessings, which are many, but we tend to forget what our Lord has promised for those who seek to be faithful to Him – and that is persecution.

 

This particular promise is not isolated. Paul, in his final epistle to Timothy, assured his younger colleague that all who aspire to godly living shall suffer persecution. He does not mince his words in 2 Timothy 3:12: all who live in a godly way shall suffer persecution. The expressions are definite. The word “suffer” has its own meaning too and makes it clear that persecution will by no means be a pleasant experience, for it involves suffering. The Lord Jesus also reminded His followers of truths He had already shared with them when He used the word “remember” in John 15:20. He, our Master, is greater than us. If He was persecuted in this world, we must not be surprised if we receive the same treatment.

 

When Paul and Barnabas visited the places where they had preached the gospel in order to encourage the new believers, they exhorted them “to continue in the faith” and made it clear that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Like their Master, these two servants did not want any new disciple to be deluded. The pathway ahead is difficult, and persecution is to be expected from the world. They believed the words spoken by the Lord Jesus: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn.15:20). Early on, the new believers in Thessalonica had been warned by Paul that they would face opposition from a hostile world. When it arose, Paul was concerned that they should not “be moved” by the afflictions, for “we are appointed thereunto,” he declared (1 Thess.3:1-4).

 

In fact, although we may find it difficult to understand this, the Lord has a purpose in allowing us to be persecuted. Philippians 1:29 states: “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” The word translated as “given” actually means graciously bestowed.  Have we grasped this? Not only has He graciously enabled us to believe in Christ; He also has graciously bestowed upon us the privilege of suffering, or of being persecuted, for His name’s sake! Although we may not relish the prospect, persecution is divinely permitted and is a means by which we can be drawn nearer to our dear Saviour who suffered for us.

 

 

IN CONCLUSION

In drawing these thought to a conclusion, two final points must be considered. What can we do when we face persecution for the sake of our Master? Psalm 119 supplies the answer: we must draw upon the Word of God. The persecuted writer of this psalm placed his hope in the Word (v.81), looked expectantly for it (v.82), refused to forget it (v.83), acknowledged that it was faithful (v.86), did not forsake its teaching (v.87), and vowed that he would obey it (v.88). We need that Word too! In the trials of life we must cling to its promises and feed upon its truth. Only in this way can we be strengthened and brought through.

 

But if our present pathway is fairly easy, let us never forget those elsewhere who are facing the persecution of a hostile world. As they experience the heat of the furnace, let us constantly remember them in our prayers.