I used to think that interest in the persecuted church was a specialty within a specialty. There are social justice issues, like poverty, homelessness, amnesty, and displaced people groups, and in my head the persecuted church was a subset of these. I probably wasn’t alone in thinking that it’s a highly specialized, and therefore a peripheral, issue. Christian persecution is off-radar for many churches and a blind spot for many individual Christians.
But we need a paradigm shift, from thinking of persecution as a specialized issue to the reality of the Bible, where the theme of persecution is vast, deep and rich. It has a bearing on many central areas of theology. It’s also very important to God, and by sidelining it we do a disservice to ourselves and to the church.
Maybe Christian persecution is on your radar, but you’re not really sure how to approach thinking about it or respond to it. This article won’t be a full answer by any means, but I do hope that the exploration of the significance of persecution will inform our prayers and response.
On account of the Lord
Let’s begin with definitions. In a fallen world, everyone experiences suffering and mistreatment. We can’t include all Christian suffering and general mistreatment under the umbrella of persecution, that would be too inclusive. But should we swing to the opposite end of the spectrum? Should it only be counted as persecution when the gospel is proclaimed and opposed?
It’s hard to go past Jesus’ definition of persecution in the Sermon on Mount (emphases mine):
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. (Matt 5:10-12)
Here’s Luke’s version:
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
Here Jesus describes a whole range of mistreatments, including insults, false testimony, hate, exclusion, and rejection. Persecution can take many forms, but it counts as persecution when Christians are singled out on account of Christ and because of righteousness.
Some modern examples that come under this definition include:
- overlooking a candidate for a job promotion because they are Christian
- church property being deliberately destroyed
- the Chinese government eradicating peaceful Christian meetings under the pretence of ‘maintaining public order’
- subjugating the lower classes in India, who are mostly Christian, in the name of religious nationalism
- choosing to rape a Christian woman rather than a Muslim woman because she does not have the same legal rights under Sharia law.
The difference between persecution and general mistreatment is the motivation. Persecution arises when victims are targeted on account of the Son of Man; chosen because of their righteousness in Christ; selected because they belong to Jesus. The Christ factor makes persecution distinct from other kinds of suffering and mistreatment.
Persecution, understood this way, is a very important biblical theme. Firstly, the suffering and death of Jesus shapes our lives as Christians. Secondly, the suffering of the church is counted as the suffering of Christ. Thirdly, persecution shows the goodness of God in the midst of evil. Finally, persecution is part of God’s timeline for history.
For the Lord
Persecution characterizes the Christian life: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Tim 3:12).
Persecution is the norm for Christians! We see this throughout church history, which is bursting with bloody accounts of martyrdom. The persecution of French protestants motivated Calvin to write the Institutes of the Christian Religion and many biblical commentaries. Persecution goes right back to the New Testament apostles, and further back to the Old Testament prophets who were killed and tortured (we can read about it at the end of Hebrews 11 and in Acts 7). But the normality of persecution shouldn’t surprise us—the head of our church was persecuted. Why should the rest of the body be any different? (See John 15:18-20; 1 Pet 4:12-16.)
Take up your cross and follow me
As Jesus’ identity is revealed to the disciples, he explains:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:22-23)
If Christian practice, discipleship, self-sacrifice, and even martyrdom ought to be modelled on Christ’s own death (cf. Heb 12:1-4), then we in the comfortable west are in a tricky situation. What does it mean when Christians aren’t persecuted? Should we go looking for it? We know that we who are free from persecution should certainly show solidarity and love to persecuted brothers and sisters: “Remember… those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb 13:3). But the command to ‘take up your cross’ calls Christians to a radical commitment, which may provoke persecution from those hostile to Christ. This call also prepares us for future persecution, that we might not shrink back nor ask God to take it away, but rejoice in being counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name (Acts 5:41; Phil 1:29).
Christian living and dying is to be characterized by persecution, in the same way that the cross characterizes Christ’s life. Even when free from persecution, Christians should share in and anticipate persecution.
With the Lord
Christ’s suffering as the head
The church is his body, the fullness of Christ (Eph 1:23), so God takes persecution personally. On the road to Damascus, Christ meets Saul, who pursued and killed his disciples. He says in Acts 9:4-5, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul probably had no idea he was attacking God himself when he persecuted Christians, but because Christians are ‘in Christ’, their afflictions are Christ’s afflictions. After all, how else can people “plan evil against” God (Ps 21:11), except by attacking his people? Christ states “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). All people will be judged on this vicarious treatment of Christ.
What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions
This concept of being attacked in the place of Jesus may help us to better understand Colossians 1:24. Here, Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Were they deficient? Inadequate? Paul cannot mean he supplemented Christ’s atoning work on the cross, or that the suffering of others can affect salvation. I think Paul was saying that he’s bearing Christ’s sufferings for the sake of the church because that work is not finished. He endured suffering as he preached the gospel to build Christ’s church (as we see in Phil 1:12-14). It’s purposeful. When Christians are persecuted, they demonstrate their solidarity with Christ and his purposes. We share in his unfinished sufferings because we share in his unfinished mission. And the persecution will end when Christ’s mission is complete. The persecution of Christ’s church is nothing short of persecuting Christ, God himself. And like Christ, Christians will carry on enduring persecution, for the sake of building the church.
How long, O Lord?
Much of the suffering experienced in the Psalms is, in fact, persecution. Usually, the Davidic figure doesn’t cry out for salvation due to sickness or general suffering, but rather when he’s hunted down by ‘the wicked’. God’s enemies are the Psalmist’s own enemies. We see this clearly in Psalm 119, when the persecutors are those who ignore God’s law and persecute the Psalmist, who by contrast keeps it (vv. 20-24, 53, 61, 69, 78-79, 84, 86, 92, 95, 110, 115, 139, 150, 157, 161). As God’s people cry out for deliverance, they are comforted by God’s promises to rescue, vindicate and judge.
How can God allow good people to suffer? Where is God? In this particular case, how can God allow his own people to suffer? There are no easy answers here, but a brief look at the Psalms shows us:
- God sees the death of his saints as precious (e.g. Ps 116:15)
- Attacks on God’s people are linked with attacks on God (e.g. Ps 69:7-9, 139:19-22)
- God opposes the evil of persecution, and the perpetrators are his enemies (e.g. Ps 5:9-12, 73:8-20)
- God promises to judge the wicked (e.g. Ps 1:5-6, 37:12-38; 94)
- God’s people can trust in God for deliverance and vindication (e.g. Ps 9:12, 37:28-40, 53:4-5, 119:84-96)
Part of the comfort must be that God is not finished yet—the final judgement is to come.
Let’s look at a modern case study of persecution.
Open Doors’ World Watch List has ranked North Korea as the No. 1 persecutor of Christians eight years in a row. North Korean Christians face the severest persecution, even more than in Arabic nations. Foreigners can barely get inside information, much less provide help. God’s people are systematically pursued and crushed. Evil seems to be winning. Where is God’s justice and goodness in North Korea?
The government tests chemical weapons on the lowest class in society, including Christians, because they do not worship Kim Jong Il as god. A government official was issued a written order to collect a Christian family and observe the effect of lethal chemicals on them. To his surprise, their death was peaceful. As the chemicals were applied… the parents looked after their children… and sang to them… The peaceful way they died shocked the official. He saw their faith, hope and love. After they died, the official became a Christian and defected, escaping to China with the written policies.1
Where was God in North Korea? He was right there! Despite this evil, the Christian family trusted in God, who guarded them with the peace that transcends understanding. The communist government official saw the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 lived out and the evil in him was conquered. The silent expression of faith of a dying Christian family is more powerful than any clenched fist. Like Christ, the triumph was one of humility. Here is God’s strength made perfect in absolute weakness.
Persecution highlights the evilness of sin, which rages against a good God and his people. The final fulfilment of God’s absolute triumph over evil lies in the future, but in smaller ways, even now, even in North Korea, God demonstrates his power to subvert the plans of the wicked. The Sovereign Lord uses even his enemies and the evil of persecution for good and for his glory.
Awaiting the Lord
Lastly, Christian persecution is also a sign that God’s salvation plan is drawing to a close. It is an indicator of the end of human history.
In Luke 21 Jesus explains the signs that point to the end of the age:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake… But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. (Luke 21:10-12, 20)
‘Jerusalem’ here refers to God’s people. Jesus foretells that the situation on earth will worsen, particularly in the form of Christian persecution, before the final redemption of the world.
Revelation 6 gives a heavenly perspective. The enthroned Lamb is worthy to break the seven seals and open the scroll, because he was slain to conquer and redeem. Each seal corresponds with an earthly event, giving signs of the Lord’s return:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Rev 6:9-11)
God will not allow persecution to continue forever. In this scene, we see heaven’s anticipation of the full complement of martyrs. God will not allow this to continue forever; there will come a time when the persecutors of his church have heaped up their sins to the limit and Christ will return (cf. 1 Thess 2:16). Once these things happen, the Lord will return to judge the world and avenge the blood of his saints. Persecution is a harbinger—the day of judgement will come once persecution reaches its fullness.
Clearly persecution is very significant to God. Firstly, Christ’s suffering and death gives shape to our Christian lives and commitment. Secondly, the suffering of the church is counted as the suffering of Christ. Thirdly, persecution testifies to the goodness of God in the face of evil. And lastly, persecution is part of God’s timeline for history.
For me, this has implications for how I see and pray for my Christian development, for the worldwide church, for the gospel, against evil forces, and for the return of Christ. I was surprised to see that persecution is primarily not a social justice issue. Persecution is cross-shaped. It’s deeply intertwined with the gospel. Christ died to give birth to the church; Christ and his people continue to suffer for the sake of the church. Persecution will end when God’s salvation purposes are achieved. And I have been rebuked for my lack of indignation for the honour of the Lord’s name, my neutrality to evil, my forgetfulness for my persecuted family, and for failing to pray for God’s glorious purposes that no evil can stand against. Maybe you’re in the same boat?
May God give us his eyes.
1.Story source via personal conversation with journalist Elizabeth Kendal in 2009. Some alternative corroboration is available at http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2004/02/01/bbcs-film-human-rights-and-chemical-weapons-testing-prisoners-north-korea-br and http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/NK/Chemical/index.html.