Christ-Like Response to Persecutors

When Christians react in kind to hostility, whether from government, society, or individuals, Satan triumphs

Jesus on cross - Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
The reality of persecution in this life raises several questions. 
How should Christians react to their persecutors, especially when persecuted by governing authorities? Should they respond with indignation, civil disobedience, and public protests? Or should disciples of Jesus follow his example and that of the early church? - [Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash].

In Thessalonica, the church received the gospel in “much tribulation," yet its members welcomed it despite hostility. In this way, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the Apostle Paul and of Jesus. Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted the way of discipleship that was characterized by suffering, and in that way, they became “examples” to the other churches in the region - (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).

By enduring persecution, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow-countrymen.” Indeed, in the New Testament, the proclamation of the gospel routinely produced hostile reactions - (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

After being compelled to leave Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to ascertain the situation, having heard of the church’s afflictions. He wanted no one to “shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this… We are destined to suffer tribulation.” Thus, according to the Apostle, persecution is an integral part of being the disciple of Jesus.

Paul expressed similar sentiments to Timothy, who had observed his life, including “what manner of persecutions” he suffered.  He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to follow, including Timothy, for “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” - (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

By no means was Paul the first or only church leader to teach that persecution is an expected occurrence for disciples.  His understanding was derived from the teachings of Jesus himself. For example, in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Christ declared the “blessedness” of the disciple who was persecuted for his sake:
  • Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” - (Matthew 5:10-12).
Our desire to live without conflict is understandable.  Nevertheless, Jesus warned that all who would follow him “in the world will have tribulation.” And he summoned his disciples to follow the same path that he did, for the “servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, likewise, will they persecute you” - (John 15:20, 16:33).

Everyone who chooses to follow Jesus is called to emulate him by “taking up the cross,” and in his day, crucifixion was a graphic symbol for suffering, torture, and violent death, and a most shameful way to die. Yet the believer who refuses to do so is “not worthy of me” - (Matthew 16:24).
Persecution for his sake is an expected occurrence. Moreover, it is a “blessing,” not a curse, as counterintuitive as that is. To follow the slain Lamb is to suffer for him. Therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecution does occur.

Jesus instructed us to “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted, for “great is our reward in heaven.” That is why disciples are “blessed” when they endure persecution. A this-age mindset focused on the “meat that perishes” sees suffering for his sake as a curse. However, the eye of faith understands that suffering produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come” - (Matthew 5:12).

Thus, Christian hope is forward-looking. Final rewards and everlasting life are received in the “age to come.” Suffering in the here-and-now is not pleasant.  However, it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).

If anything, to suffer “unjustly” is a sign of divine approval, evidence that one is a true follower of the Lord Jesus, though that is not true of human suffering brought on by sin and circumstances. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God's approval.” To endure rejection is what it means to follow the Lord, who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” - (1 Peter 2:19-20).

We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility to the gospel is “clear evidence” of their destruction, but also of “our salvation.” God has graced us to suffer for His kingdom, it is His gracious gift. And we ought to respond with the understanding that it produces everlasting rewards - (Philippians 1:28-29).

However, we instinctively respond in kind to personal and corporate attacks. Human society sees self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified responses to threats, whether, by individuals, groups, or governments, and yet retaliation is prohibited in the New Testament. Retaliation may be the “way the world works,” but disciples are called to something quite different.

When disciples are persecuted, they are to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is precisely in that way that they emulate God, and they become “perfect” like Him by showing mercy to their enemies - (Matthew 5:44-48).

Likewise, Paul exhorted Christians in Rome to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.”  They are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but believers must “not avenge” themselves; instead, they must leave justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” how and when He sees fit - (Romans 12:14-21).

So also, Peter taught us to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God.” He pointed to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how we are to respond to hostility – For to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” - (1 Peter 2:19-23).

Our desire to react to evil with evil stems from our tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies”. But we must recall what we once were.  No one is born Christian; every believer is a convert.  Previously, we were “enemies” of God and have only been reconciled to God “by the death of his Son,” who died for us “while we were yet sinners” - (Romans 5:6-10).

Trial of Jesus - clipart.christiansunite.com
The true “
enemies” of Christ are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of satanic forces. But on the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the national and political enemies of Israel, instead, he triumphed over “the principalities and powers.”  In him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself, and He has bequeathed this same ministry of reconciliation to us. Satan and the sin that enslaves humanity are our real enemies. And since we have received mercy, who better to show mercy to our persecutors?

We are called to emulate Jesus.  When unjustly condemned, He did not respond with anger or threats, either to the Jewish authorities that betrayed him or to the representative of Rome that executed him. And when he was dying on the Cross, he prayed for His Father to forgive the very men who had condemned him to death.

When persecution does occur, his disciples must not respond with belligerence, rage, civil disobedience, and especially, not with violence.  One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When we react to hostility with hostility, Satan triumphs, not Jesus.

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