It is well recognized by those who work among persecuted Christians that few attempts have been made to develop a biblical theology of persecution. This is to be expected since most Christians in the West have little or no experience with persecution per se. The tendency is for Western Christians to misapply these passages to situations of general physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering because the biblical texts that speak to suffering for righteousness cannot readily be applied to a setting where there is little or no persecution.
Unfortunately, this misapplication is subsequently turned upon the text itself in future readings. So, the application influences future interpretations, resulting in the typical Bible student in the West never suspecting that the biblical texts that deal with pain and suffering might be dealing with suffering for righteousness’ sake rather than suffering because of sin. This influences how Western Christians view and deal with those who suffer for their faith. We fail to recognize that persecution is normative for the follower of Christ historically, missiologically, and (most importantly) scripturally.
There is a clear scriptural link between persecution and discipleship. Indeed, there can be no discipleship without persecution; to follow Christ is to join Him in a cross-carrying journey of reconciling the world to the Father.
Persecution is hardly an exclusively New Testament phenomenon. Numerous passages refer to the suffering inflicted on the people of God throughout the Old Testament historical narratives. The psalms of lament address the issue of the suffering of God’s people more clearly than any other portion of Scripture (including the New Testament). This train of thought is amplified by the call of the prophets to look ahead to the Day of the Lord, believing that history is under the control of an Almighty God who, from the foundation of the world, has set His plans in motion of reconciling the world to Himself.
All of this comes into focus with the coming of Jesus Christ, the revelation of the triune God. Through Christ, we see that sacrificial love is in the very nature of who God is. To suffer and die to accomplish His Father’s purposes was not to be unexpected. Weakness, suffering, and sacrifice are God’s modus operandi. This is how God accomplishes His work: not through strength or compulsion but through love and invitation. The Son of God suffers and dies, as do those who follow Him. A cross-centered gospel requires cross-carrying messengers. When Jesus declared, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), these words are to be taken much more literally than we are accustomed to doing.
The demand of Jesus on His followers is to tread the path of martyrdom. As He prepared to send His disciples out as sheep among wolves, He told them that they would likely die in the process of carrying out their ministry. In order to build His Church, His death, was necessary, as He points out in Matthew 16:18-21. This is the foundation. Without Christ’s death there is no redeemed community. But just as Christ’s cross was needed to establish His Church, our crosses are needed to build His Church (16:24). Both are needed. As Josef Ton observed, “Christ’s cross was for propitiation. Our cross is for propagation.”
This understanding that sacrifice, suffering, shame, and even death were the normal cost of discipleship fueled the evangelistic efforts of the first century Church.
Rather than following the common Western practice of thanking God for freedom from suffering, the early Christians thanked God for the honor of suffering for His sake (Acts 5:41). They knew that in order to bring life to others, they must die; to see others experience peace with God, they would have to suffer the violence of the world; to bring the love of God to a dying world, they would have to face the hatred of those whom they were seeking to reach.
This is the reality of persecution today. We continue the task of taking the gospel to the end of the earth, knowing that He goes with us and that we do not suffer alone. In all of our afflictions, God is afflicted, and just as Jesus demanded of Saul of Tarsus, so He asks of today’s persecutors, “Why do you persecute Me?” The knowledge that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love (Romans 8:35), that the Spirit prays for us when we can only groan in agony (Romans 8:26, 27), and gives us His words in the face of our accusers (Matthew 10:19, 20), provides the help that the disciples of Jesus require to remain faithful witnesses. God has provided all that is necessary for the disciple to stand firm.
There may be fear, but by God’s grace it need not control us. There may be terrible suffering, but suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to the child of God; disobedience to the Father is.
Sincerely in the HOPE of the Gospel, J. Mark Horst, President HERALDS OF HOPE, INC.