24. Suffering Under Persecution

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 24 : Suffering Under Persecution

Acts  8:1    On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

There is no doubt about it that the early church suffered real opposition, but the truth is that that opposition has carried on around the world in varying intensities for the two thousand years since and, as we said in one of the recent meditations, it is said that in 70% of the countries of the world today, persecution takes place in some form or other.

Now we have touched on this subject more than once already, simply because it occurs in Acts a number of times, but this time we will seek to consider it in more general terms under several headings.

First, the Reason for Persecution. As we noted in the previous meditation, Jesus came into the world as the Light of the World and the Gospel writer John declared of him, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5) Light and darkness just don’t go together. Later on he recorded Jesus saying to his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Jn 15:20) The apostle Paul warned Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) What we tend to forget is the verse that follows: “while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (v.13)

The implication is that persecution comes from those who are deceived, who are self-centred, godless and unrighteous and who are shown up by believers, and are therefore hostile to anyone living a godly life. Jesus, warning the church at Smyrna, shows Satan as the one causing persecution: “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days,” (Rev 2:10) but by using the word ‘test’ implies, as is shown in Job 1 & 2, that Satan can only do this by God’s permission, and he does it for a specific reason, to test, try and purify the church. When we wonder at the fact that God allows persecution, we see he is giving Satan leeway to act, and the marvel therefore is that He restrains Satan so much of the time, for Satan is a destroyer and would love to destroy the entire church, but is stopped by the Lord.

Second, the Fact of Persecution. Whether we call it persecution or opposition, it is seen in the book of Acts again and again. We see it in 4:1-3 when Peter and John were put in jail by the temple authorities for preaching Christ. We see exactly the same thing happening again in 5:17,18 when the apostles were jailed over night by the religious  establishment (although released by an angel). They were rearrested and eventually flogged before being released (5:40). Later Stephen was opposed by the Jews of a local synagogue (6:9) who took him before the Sanhedrin with false accusations (6:12-14), the end outcome of which he was stoned (7:57,58). Following this general persecution broke out against the church (8:1) and Saul went after the Christians (8:3) to put them in prison. After Saul was converted and started to preach Jesus, the Jews conspired to kill him (9:23). In Acts 12 we find Herod intending to persecute the church and has James put to death and Peter imprisoned (12:1-3).

Once Paul started his missionary journeys we see opposition again and again, and most times it is from his fellow Jews: in Pisidian Antioch (13:45,50), in Iconium (14:5), in Lystra (14:19), in Philippi (16:19-24), in Thessalonica (17:5-9), in Berea (17:13), in Corinth (18:12,13), in Ephesus (19:23-), although occasionally it was from others who felt challenged by what Paul was saying and doing and who felt threatened.

Third, the Wonder of Persecution. This is not so much about the fact that it happens, but that the disciples, apostles and church generally carried on in the face of this. Anyone with an open mind must be challenged over the way that, despite sometimes the most terrible of opposition from the authorities – later it was less the Jews and more the Roman authorities – with people being mistreated in every way possible. Although the writer to the Hebrews may have been writing about an earlier period, what he said certainly applied also to the early church: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Heb 11:35-38) Listen to the apostle Paul’s own testimony: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned.” (2 Cor 11:24,25)

In the face of all this, any thinking person must consider, what is it that makes these people go through such awful things for their faith and at the very least the answer has to be, because they utterly believe that all they have been taught about God and Jesus is true. Of the original twelve apostles, Judas committed suicide leaving eleven and of those eleven, ten were put to death for their faith, the apostle John being the only one to die of old age, but not before he had also been persecuted and sent to the prison island of Patmos for some time. The apostle Paul, who we may suggest was Gods replacement for Judas, also died for his faith after many years of opposition. All of these men testified: we have seen Jesus, we saw all he did, we heard all he taught and we are utterly convinced he is the Son of God, the only one who brings true salvation for sinners. Such was their conviction that it drove them on until eventually they suffered violent death for it. Their motivation was what they had seen and heard (see 1 Jn 1:1-3). Similarly Luke’s motivation for writing his Gospel and then Acts was all he had been told (Lk 1:1-4), and it utterly convinced him. Thus it has been down through the last two thousand years, that millions of others have heard and responded and then found, “He is alive! It IS true!”

With such an incredible motivation we end this series.

1. We Know

Meditations in 1 John : 1 :  We Know!

1 John  1:1   That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

I like the opening of 1 John in the same way I like the opening of Luke 1, for both of them are so down to earth. Luke wrote, Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account.” (Lk 1:1-3) Luke spoke of eyewitnesses who had passed on what had happened involving Jesus. John goes one step further and is  basically saying, “I was one of those eyewitnesses!”

After the first chapter, John uses the word ‘know’ 33 times! John writes near the end of the first century and if persecution was often a problem for the early church in the first three hundred years of its life, the growing presence of heresies in that part of the world was possibly even a greater enemy to be resisted. Truth was thus a primary currency of the early church and they considered it vital to pass on the truth about Jesus and to resist the perversions of the truth that a variety of heretics sought to bring.

One particular group of heretics were the Gnostics who majored on having special knowledge. For them knowledge was all important but their knowledge declared that matter was evil and because of that God could not have existed in a sinful human body, i.e. the incarnation could not have happened. Their knowledge was that of a special group, not given to the world at large. John combats this by declaring all these things in his letter openly, for anyone to see and know. Christianity was to be a faith open to all; all it needed was repentance and submissions to God.

And so, even with the opening of his Gospel, John has this slightly mystical  or philosophical feel to his writing which would appeal to many of his era: “that which was from the beginning”. This beginning was not merely the beginning of Christianity but the beginning of everything. In his Gospel he had begun, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn 1:1-3) For John there was no doubt about Jesus: he was with God and was God and had been God from beginning of time, and had been part of the godhead bringing creation into being.

Although he does not name Jesus in these verses it is clear that this is who he is referring to. At the end of verse 2 he calls him “the Word of life.” Referring to Jesus in his Gospel he declared, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (Jn 1:4) and to make sure no one misunderstood, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14). A word is a part of communication and this ‘Word’ was God’s communication to us, His Son.

But with John there is nothing mystical in all this. Their experience of the Son of God had not been some weird experience induced by drugs. No, it has been in daily experience: “we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched”.  This is why I said this is all so down to earth. God isn’t found in strange and mystical experiences. Eastern religions are so often like certain modern philosophies that demand some ‘special out of body type of experience’ to authenticate or make sense of life. In his book Kim, Rudyard Kipling has his young hero, Kim, encounter a holy man in India who is seeking some such experience. Eventually the old man, short on food and drink, falls into a water-filled ditch and has his ‘experience’. That is the sort of weird and wonderful deception the enemy seeks to bring to the world and it is a far thing from Christianity which is based on factual history.

This is why we have the Gospels, factual accounts of the things that happened in time-space history. John, writing near the end of that first century, is aware of the tendency of human beings who like the strange, the weird, and the spectacular. Yes, there is the divinely supernatural at the heart of Christianity but it is not to exalt man; it is simply the working of Almighty God. The same sort of thing was seen in unbelieving Naaman when he was sent to Elisha to be cured of his leprosy and was told by him – via his servant! – to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. Naaman was furious: “Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.” (2 Kings 5:11,12)

No, our faith is based upon facts of time-space history and we respond to the God who brought all things into being and who, in the course of time, sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. It all happened back there in history and John saw it, John had been there with Jesus and had travelled with him for three years. Oh yes, John knew, and he wants to pass that knowledge on to us to act as a foundation for our faith. Let your faith be built as you read God’s word intelligently.