Editorial

Are we ready for persecution? (Graziano Crepaldi)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
 


In the last five years, the persecution of followers of Christ has taken place in approximately 40 countries, and legal repression and discrimination has taken place in an additional 30 nations. The best estimate of the overall situation is that, in total, 340 million Christians in the world are part of persecuted groups in countries where resistance to the gospel includes imprisonment, beatings, torture, mob violence, and death. In 2020 about 4761 christians have been killed because of their faith and 4277 have been arrested while 1710 were kidnapped! (Source: Open Doors) The covid-19 crisis exacerbated the situation because many people were forced to be locked in their homes with their persecutors. In our work around the world, persecution has been a very present challenge, but the idea of suffering for the sake of the gospel makes us often very uncomfortable. In general our desire is to be safe, comfortable, admired and appreciated by the people around us. We have seen many believers not ready for suffering and some have even removed the concept of persecution from their doctrine statement . As we pay close attention to what is happening around us, we realize it is necessary to consider what it means to prepare ourselves for persecution. We believe this is an important topic for the church today (especially in the West) because it is a key topic of the Bible and it is an important teaching that Jesus gave to grow us as disciples.


Jesus told His disciples that they should expect to suffer for following Him. In Matthew 5:11-12 He said: “great is your reward in heaven blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Therefore, our suffering for the sake of Christ results in our great reward in heaven. Paul experienced this very thing as well and in Colossians 1:24 he wrote: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.“


It is important to clarify that we are talking about persecution and suffering for doing what is right, not for the impulsive and foolish things one might do. Sadly, we know many believers that are in pain because they don’t follow the teachings of Christ and they mostly suffer because of their sins, hurts and wrong attitudes. The benefits that come from our proper response to suffering for doing what is right are enormous. In Romans 5:3-5 we read: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.“ Therefore God has good intentions for us in all the suffering He allows. Let's cooperate with Him for our own good and for the sake of the Kingdom. 


We need to reflect on some important Bible passages for a better understanding of how God views persecution and how we should view it too. This is first a hostility experienced from the world because of our identification with Jesus and includes aggressive feelings, attitudes, words and actions. Surprisingly Jesus says in the Beatitudes that persecution is a blessing. He also defines the word for us in Luke 6:22 using four verbs. He says, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when
they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” Note that it is Jesus in you who is the reason for persecution. Unfortunately, many people today, assume that persecution is irrelevant to our days and it is part of the past . However, the Word of God teaches something completely different “in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted“ (2 Tim. 3:12) and in the Bible we see 7 different types of suffering that we will face if we want to follow Him...


Persecution from our own flesh

 
The first battle we have is against our own self that is not always ready to follow Christ. “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.“ (1 Peter 4:1-2). This is about the relationship between our personal sin and how our obedience affects our response to difficulties. Are we are ready for battle? 1 Peter 3:15 says “...always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect“. What determines a victory or a defeat in suffering experienced by believers is rather they remain faithful or not We keep our focus on Jesus and surrender our will to Him. In 2 Cor. 5:17 we read that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.“ We have been born again, the old is gone. We are new people when we are saved. This is not because of some choice we make, it is because our old self dies when we are regenerated. However, we still tend to return to that old self. We are drawn to the old ways of thinking and living because we still live in a fallen world. Paul compares this fight between the old and new self to the conflict between Abraham's two wives, and the two sons born through them. “At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.“ (Galatians 4:29). This is the difference between being born into slavery, by human effort, as opposed to being born into freedom, by the work of God through the Holy Spirit. 

Are we ready to die to ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him?


Persecution from Satan
 


In the New Testament it is clearly explained that we “...do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.“ (Ephesians 6:12). Satan attempts to destroy the church and oppose the Kingdom in two ways - the first one is from the inside and the second from the outside. Satan’s method to destroy the church from within is accomplished with the introduction of false teachings. “...in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.“ (1 Timothy 4:1). A second way in which Satan has tried to destroy the work of the church is by means of persecution. From the beginning, he has been the persecutor of the church of God. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.“ (Rev. 2:10). 

Are we disciples that are able and willing to fight against Satan and his strategies?
 


Persecution from our own family
 

In Luke 9:57-62 Jesus warns of possible costs of discipleship, He says that we must expect the loss of the respect with our family members. They are not going to appreciate the changes we have made in our lives. They are still blind because God has not removed the veil covering their spiritual perceptions. In Luke 14:26-27 we read that “If anyone comes to me (Jesus) and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. In this verses we see that the family members of the new converts did not graciously accept the changes that had entered in their lives and the disciples soon found themselves living with enemies in their households. Jesus’s words are not encouraging hatred for our family, but they lead us to understand the true Kingdom priorities. 

Are we available to stay loyal to Christ when our family will reject us?
 


Persecution from religious system

The challenges faced by Jesus in spreading the Gospel came mainly from religious leaders. In Luke 13:14 we read: “Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”. While the woman and common people respond to the miracle positively and “glorified God” (vs.13) the ruler responds with “indignation”. Jesus often opposed religious leaders because they were keeping others from entering in the Kingdom (Luke 11:52). The Son of God was questioned on his identity, authority, his teachings and lifestyle. Satan's nature is to oppose God.Therefore the greater the work and the more it glorifies God, the greater Satan's opposition will be. Some of the most severe persecutions experienced by disciples of Jesus have come to them from other “Christians” rising in indignation. Satan sends his demons to infiltrate and corrupt churches to try to destroy God's people from within (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). But Christ says, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This is why persecution makes us appreciate the real church (Ekklesia). Persecution drove Peter and John to closer fellowship with other believers. Acts 4:23 tells us exactly what they did as soon as they were threatened, “When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” Suffering brings believers together, makes them stronger and gives them a sense of unity.

Are we part of a community that is free from religious spirits? Are your christian friends real Kingdom friends? 

Persecution from government and people in authority

The 2020 could come to be regarded as a turning point in history. The Government’s response to a public health emergency has been restrictions on individual freedom. The police have been given extensive new powers to detain people they think might be infectious. This new laws have been used to attack christians and other minority groups, that suffer because of combined religious/ethnic nationalism, sometimes at the hands of the state. Violence and discrimination against minority religious groups is present in many nations around the world. In the new testament disciples, after meeting Christ started to set new boundaries. Meaning that they would no longer participate on pagan, as well as civic functions, which were ordinary practices of a Roman or Greek societies. In Acts Luke describes Paul's experience on the road to Damascus when Christ calls out, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4). Just few verses earlier, he writes, “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest.“vs. 1. Paul had physically and psychologically abused the members of the church, but Christ considers any attack against His church to be an attack against Himself personally. In Matt. 10:19 is written: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say“. Therefore we should not be afraid and keep trusting in God’s direction in time of need.

Are we living in a compromise with the spirit ruling this world? Are we afraid to expose ourselves for our faith in Christ?


Physical Persecution 
 

Jesus promised us that the world would treat us the way it treated him (John 15:20), but some Christians teach that followers of Jesus should not suffer or get sick. The disciples of Jesus do get sick and could experience beating for their faith. Christ’s redemption on the cross does not mean we will not suffer, but it equips us to face suffering. “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10). In our suffering, we have hope because we know that our suffering is brief and our blessings in heaven are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Do we see physical persecution (like Paul did in Philippians 1:29) as a privilege?
 


Martyrdom 
 

The dictionary defines a martyr as “a person who is killed because of his religious or other beliefs.” The word martyr comes from the original Greek “martur”, which simply means “witness.” The reason why this word became synonymous with dying for one’s religious beliefs is that the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted and/or killed for their witness. And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Rev. 14:13). God doesn’t call everyone to make the ultimate sacrifice, but the Bible calls all followers of Christ to be ready for hardship. We are in a state of “warfare” (Ephesians 6:12-20), and our Lord may call upon any of us to witness and even be martyred for our faith. Thus, we must be prepared!

Are we ready to lose our life for the sake of Jesus (Matt. 10:39) and find a new life in the kingdom?

How to Prepare for the Reality of Suffering

 
We need to examine our own hearts and and our love for God. In these 30 years of my faith journey, I have had the privilege of experiencing the first 6 levels of persecution that I have described to you in this article and it has not been easy to maintain a positive attitude in the midst of difficulties, but Jesus has always helped and rescued me. We don’t have to cultivate stoicism (we don’t look for persecution and we don’t provoke people) or asceticism (hide from the world because of fear), but focus on “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:8), who is better and more valuable, than anything we loose by following him. We need to share the Gospel of the Kingdom and make disciples the way Jesus did (by making the cost of following Him clear (Luke 9:57-62). We are offering Jesus, not a cozy life, and Jesus really is better than all of the good things of this world combined. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that draws people to Jesus, not our “convincing" message. Therefore, we need a lot of wisdom to handle the difficult situations that will come our way. It is important to include the subject of suffering well in our immediate follow-up with new believers so that they should not be surprised or caught off guard by suffering (1 Peter 4:12). We are called to love our persecutors and pray for them (Matt. 5:43-47) renouncing any intention to take revenge (Rom.12:14-21). All suffering is temporary. It isn’t worth comparing with the glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:16). We are sure that in His glory, all pain and suffering will be gone forever (Rev. 21:4).