There’s been a lot of talk lately about persecution of Christians in America. I suppose it’s true that there’s more than there used to be—there’s been some name-calling and a lawsuit about wedding cakes, though the defendant won that one.
It’s worth noting that this sort of thing is relatively mild compared to what’s going on around the world and what has gone on throughout church history. Just a couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of the death of two famous British martyrs, and there have been thousands of others.
So for Americans, things could be a lot worse than they are now. And there’s no guarantee that they won’t be.
How should we respond?
As always, we ought to take our cue from the Scripture.
When the first persecution of Christians occurred, shortly after Pentecost, the church responded immediately—with prayer. And what did they pray for? That God would smite their persecutors? That he would send fire from heaven to turn the wicked into a smoking crater and thereby justify and endorse his people? Or that he would lighten their load, lessen their pain?
No, none of these things. They prayed, first, of their confidence in God (Ac 4.24) and of their certainty that such persecution was no surprise to him (Ac 4.25-28). And then, remarkably, they prayed for two things: for boldness to continue to obey in the face of the persecution (Ac 4.29), and for power to carry out their commission (Ac 4.30).
And this was just the beginning.
Since there are lots of examples of persecution in the early church, the letters of the apostles have a lot to say about how God’s people should respond to persecution. Peter’s first epistle is built entirely around that theme, and Hebrews has something to say about it as well. Paul’s epistles, unsurprisingly, bring it up repeatedly.
I find the situation in Thessalonica particularly instructive. Paul arrives in this Macedonian seaside city of hot springs on his second missionary journey, not long after receiving the vision of the man from Macedonia calling, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (Ac 16.9). After a brief stay in Philippi, which included a beating and a night in jail (Ac 16.12-34), Paul’s entourage worked their way down the Egnatian Highway to the next major city, Thessalonica (today’s Thessaloniki). There they were welcomed into the home of a man named Jason and began preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath days, as was their practice (Ac 17.2-3). Before long Paul’s theological opponents stirred up a mob who came looking for trouble (Ac 17.5). Unable to find Paul, they seized Jason, his host, and dragged him—literally—into court (Ac 17.6).
Jason was able to get out on bond (Ac 17.9), but with his bond in jeopardy should more trouble ensue, and unable to prevent such trouble, since they hadn’t started it, the believers decided it the better part of valor to get Paul out of town (Ac 17.10).
So he had to leave. Gettin’ the trash out of NYC, and all.
This stuff isn’t new, folks.
Shortly later, Paul, now down in Achaia, the southern part of Greece, writes this little group of beleaguered believers a couple of letters, reviewing their relationship and situation, and instructing and encouraging them for what lies ahead. In 1 Thessalonians in particular he talks to them about persecution and how to deal with it.
If it would work for them, with all they were facing, it will certainly work for us.
Recently I came across a really helpful summary of Paul’s teaching on this point, written by Michael Martin, author of the volume on the Thessalonian epistles in the really excellent New American Commentary series, who at the time of writing was a professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco. (He’s now their academic VP, and the seminary is now called Gateway Seminary.)
I’d like to summarize and extend his remarks in the next post. What are the big ideas we take into battle as we face persecution?