Persecution around the World
I was intrigued to find that Wikipedia has a long article on persecution of Christians. This subject demanded attention because it has been a major historical phenomenon, extending to all ages of the church and to all regions of the world. You would think that a hatred so universal for a people so innocuous, together with a toleration so general for all the bizarre and basically malignant world views that men have conceived, would be a clue to unbelievers that there is something special about Christianity. Yet in what respect could our religion be singularly objectionable to mankind except that it is true and men hate the truth?
Last week we used Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a window onto persecution in the past, especially during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. But persecution has been no less severe in modern times. The startling fact is that the century of church history with the worst record of persecution was the twentieth. There were doubtless more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. The chief perpetrators of violence against Christians were the Communist regimes in Russia, China, and Indonesia. The killing of people by repressive governments is called democide. Scholars have determined that from 1900 until 1987, the victims of democide numbered about 170 million. About 62 million were killed by Russian Communists, 35 million by Chinese Communists, 21 million by German Nazis, 10 million by Chinese nationalists, 6 million by the Japanese in and before WWII, etc (1). How many of these were Christian martyrs, no one can say. But since Christians were special targets of official disfavor under all these governments except the Chinese nationalists, it is likely that the death toll of believers ran into millions.
Persecution has by no means abated since the fall of Communism. If anything, it has worsened with the rise of Islamic extremism. To give you a better picture of the situation today, let me read you accounts of recent persecution worldwide (2).
In December, 2011, security forces raided several congregations as part of a crackdown timed to coincide with the Christmas season. More recently, the deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance was sentenced to two years of so-called “re-education through labor”: in other words, to hard labor (3).
Little information about persecution has leaked to the outside world from this tightly closed nation, which watchdog groups have rated as the nation most hostile to Christianity (4).
A crackdown on Christianity is underway in southern Laos, leading to five arrests on March 25, 2012 (5).
In 2011, a mob attacked a Baptist house church, injuring many, including the pastor as well as women and children (6).
Muslim violence against Christians has sometimes erupted to horrific levels. In 1999, fatalities ran into tens of thousands when gunmen attacked Christians who presumably supported the independence of East Timor. In a later wave of persecution, six hundred churches were destroyed. In 2006, three Christian girls were beheaded as reprisal for some Muslim deaths in previous clashes between Muslims and Christians (7).
The government is currently conducting a fierce campaign against the Kachin minority group, which is primarily Christian. They have tortured and killed civilians, destroyed churches, and even destroyed whole villages (8).
Christians are suffering mounting persecution from hard-line Hindu activists. In 1999, an Australian missionary and his two sons were burnt to death as they slept in their vehicle. In 2007, Hindu activists destroyed twelve churches and killed nine people. A year later in the same province, a wave of violence left 500 Christians dead (9). More recently, Hindu extremists have engineered attacks against churches in many different provinces. Many Christians have been injured. The leader of one Hindu group is agitating to rewrite the nation’s constitution to legalize killing of Christian evangelists (10).
Doubtless this is one of the most dangerous places for Christians in the world. In 2001, Islamic gunmen fired on a Protestant congregation, killing 18 people. In 2002, an attack on a church left five dead. In the same year, masked gunmen stormed a Christian missionary school and killed six. Again in the same year, seven Christians were executed by terrorists who took control of a public building. In 2007, a Christian missionary couple were gunned down. In 2009, militants seized a church and burnt alive six Christians, including four women and a child. In 2010 a Christian woman was sentenced to death after she gave water to thirsty Muslim farm workers. They accused her of blaspheming Mohammed. She remains in jail, although a Muslim cleric has offered about $6000 to anyone who will kill her. In 2011, a Christian minister was shot dead (11).
On March 13, 2012, the government closed down an evangelical church (12).
Since the revolution in 1979, some converts to Christianity have been executed. The dramatic growth of Christianity in recent years has prompted the government to take repressive measures. Many Christians have been arrested and jailed. In April, 2012, A pastor named Youcef Nadarkhani remained in jail after being condemned to die (13).
One of the worst atrocities in the Middle Ages was committed by Tamerlane, the Muslim warlord, who beheaded 160,000 Christians. Iraq has been a religious battleground ever since. In connection with the wars following the rise of Saddam Hussein, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled from the country. Recent anti-Christian violence includes the bombing of five churches in 2004 and an attack on a Catholic cathedral in 2010, when 58 were killed (14).
The Grand Mufti, highest Muslim cleric in the country, recently stated that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region” (15).
In the midst of the general turmoil, Islamic extremists have undertaken the ethnic cleansing of minority Christians. Tens of thousands have fled from their homes (16).
Some of the worst suffering Christians have endured in recent decades has occurred in the bloody civil war between the Muslim north and the largely Christian south. It has been estimated that radical Muslim forces have slaughtered about 1.5 million Christians since 1984 (17). In the 90’s the Muslim government descended so far into barbarity as to reinstate crucifixion as a method of execution. One of the victims was a minister of the Anglican church, whose death was witnessed by a foreign missionary (18). Since 2011, a new outbreak of persecution has forced thousands of Christians to flee the country (19).
Coptic Christians have long been the target of especially vicious persecution by Muslims. At least hundreds of Coptic girls have been kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married to a Muslim (20). Many Copts have been seized and tortured in unspeakable ways, including variations on crucifixion (21). In 2010, Muslim fanatics gunned down six people as they left a Christmas service. In 2011, the explosion of a car bomb as worshippers left a New Year’s Eve service killed twenty. In the same year, twelve died and 230 were injured when two churches were set on fire (22).
A brutal Muslim offensive against Christians is underway. By early 2012, over 30,000 Christians had been displaced from their homes (23). On February 26, 2012, a suicide bomber went into a church and detonated his explosives, killing two besides himself. On March 24 of the same year, attacks on three villages left ten people dead, including a pastor (24).
You say, “All this is happening on the other side of world. We are safe here.” Think again. Our closest neighbor is Mexico.
On September 17, 2011, authorities in an eastern village expelled seventy believers, leaving them homeless. Local Catholics had threatened to crucify or lynch them (25).
You say, “But Mexico is an underdeveloped country. It is not in the same class as Western democracies.” True, in a country like ours, we face persecution in a different form. Consider these stories.
A Christian father recently refused to let his child take sex education classes in a government school. When he refused to pay the fine imposed on him, he was put in jail. He was still there on March 26, 2012 (26).
In 2010, the government passed a law banning homeschooling. Since then, the state has taken custody of one child belonging to parents who refused to comply, and more than a dozen other homeschooling families have fled the country (27).
We can see from these examples that in developed nations like the United States, the worst persecution presently threatening us is attacks upon our freedom to rear children according to the Bible.
First Incentive to Stand Firm despite Persecution
Last week we looked at the fullest discussion of persecution anywhere in the Bible—Jesus’ discourse to the Twelve before He sent them out to evangelize the cities of Israel. The dominant theme of this discourse was a warning that they would face certain persecution. The ominous picture that Jesus set before them must have stirred up fear in their hearts. They were not human if the terrible prospect of suffering for the cause of Christ did not cause anxiety. But to calm their hearts, Jesus gave them four reasons not to be afraid. The reasons sound an antiphony of positives and negatives. The first is positive, the second negative, followed by another positive and another negative.
Jesus assured them every injustice would someday be made right (Matt. 10:26). Here is a positive reason not to fear. God is watching and listening. He hears the secret counsels of wicked men and sees them plotting against the righteous. The day will come when all their quiet maneuverings behind the scenes will be broadcast everywhere and all their nasty undercover schemes will be laid out for all to see. As we read, “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.” The day of reckoning for the persecutors of God’s people will be the Last Judgment. After declaring all their grievous sin, whether plain or hidden, God will cast them into hell.
In other words, while judging wicked men, God will make known all facts that will vindicate His servants. Thus, His servants have an obligation to make known all facts that will vindicate God (Matt. 10:27). We have an obligation to share with others the truth about God that we have learned in private conversations, in secluded study of His Word, or even in public services of the church. The world at large does not know this truth, which puts God in a proper light, showing Him to be the author of all goodness and grace. Once before, Jesus warned His disciples not to hide their light under a bushel (Matt. 5:14-16). Here, He is repeating the same exhortation when He says, “What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.”
Second Incentive to Stand Firm despite Persecution
The second incentive to be bold in witness is negative (Matt. 10:28). Jesus reminded the Twelve that although persecution was a daunting prospect, the wrath of men is much easier to face than the wrath of God. No one who lets fear stop him from serving God and going forth as His witness can count Himself a disciple of Christ. By choosing a life of disobedience to God’s will, he makes himself a rebel against God. He is therefore no better than the persecutors whose wrath cowed him into disobedience, for “he that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). The fate of every rebel is to suffer the wrath of God forever in a place called hell. There, God will destroy both body and soul. How foolish to fear man more than God, when man can do no more than kill the body! He cannot harm the soul of a believer, much less kill it or endanger its eternal blessedness.
In hell, the body suffers a process of decay and disintegration that never comes to completion (Mark 9:47-48). That is the destruction of the body that Jesus is referring to. There, the soul suffers a perpetual decline of human feeling, a decline that never fully takes away its capacity to feel pain. That is the destruction of the soul that Jesus is referring to. Yet the spirit of man, being molded in the image of God, is indestructible even in hell. Its indestructibility is a curse, however, for it is the seat of thinking, and among its thoughts will never be found any of consolation.
Third Incentive to Stand Firm despite Persecution
As the Twelve learned that the earthly results of their work for God would be personal suffering rather then personal glory, Jesus comforted them by pointing to the greatness of the Father’s love, the greatest of all positive reasons not to fear (Matt. 10:29-31). To what extent is the Father involved in the lives of His children? His concern for them is infinite. Jesus said, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Imagine! The Father studies us so carefully that He knows the number of hairs on each of our heads! Yet Jesus did not say that the Father has counted our hairs, but that He has numbered them. For some of us, obtaining the total count would present no great challenge; it could be gauged pretty close even by a casual observer. Perhaps, then, what Jesus was saying is that a number has been assigned to each individual hair. This is hair 15; this is hair 1628. Scripture says that the Father knows each star by name (Psa. 147:4), and there are more stars in the universe than there are hairs on the heads of all the people in the world. Why then would it be unthinkable to suppose that He knows each hair on my head by a designated number? If God knows me so intimately, I can be sure that He will never put me through any persecution that does not serve a higher good—perhaps to help me grow spiritually or to advance His kingdom.
Another proof of the Father’s love is that His heart feels the pain of much less valuable creatures than we are. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. . . . Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” As they flit with happy freedom from place to place and fill the air with cheerful snippets of song, sparrows are among the most delightful of God’s little creatures. Yet a man is worth far more. This teaching is important grounds for assurance that God loves us.
Fourth Incentive to Stand Firm despite Persecution
Jesus concludes with a final negative reason not to fear persecution. He again warned the Twelve how awful it would be to incur God’s displeasure (Matt. 10:32-3). Since we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), we all deserve to fall under the wrath of God, but Jesus Christ has provided an escape by taking that wrath upon Himself. His suffering on the cross, when He went through the pain that we all would endure in hell forever, counts as the punishment for our sin if we merely believe on Him, accepting His redemptive work on our behalf and putting ourselves in the role of His disciples. Thereafter He graciously serves as our intercessor and defender before the Father (Isa. 53:12; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). Whenever Satan accuses us of being sinners that God should destroy, Jesus reminds the Father that our sins have been washed away by His blood.
But we must remember that Jesus will treat us just as we treat Him. If we confess Him before men, so will He confess us before the Father. But if we deny Him before men, so will He deny us before the Father. The significance in His confessing or denying us can hardly be disputed. Jesus meant that whether we risk persecution by identifying ourselves as His disciples will be the decisive test of whether we believe on Him. If we confess Him as our Lord, such loyalty can spring from only one source, genuine faith, and He will say to the Father that we are members of His body. As a result, we will be safe from God’s hand of judgment. If we deny Jesus, such disloyalty can spring only from spurious faith, and He will say to the Father that He never knew us. As a result, we may avoid the wrath of man, but we will suffer much worse, the wrath of God.
Out of fear, many facing martyrdom have chosen to recant their faith, but later have repented of their cowardice and heroically accepted death for the sake of Christ. Christ did not deny them because they denied Him at first. What counted was their final decision.
How to be Worthy of Christ’s Love
We have no hope of life forever unless Christ confesses us before the Father, and He will not confess us unless He loves us. Therefore, our goal must be to prove ourselves worthy of His love. Jesus said a man is worthy only if he is willing to give Jesus precedence in two ways:
1. He must be willing to take up a cross and follow Jesus (Matt. 10:38). The meaning of this requirement has been much debated. What does the cross signify? In Philippians 2:8, the cross is an emblem of our Lord's willingness to do His Father's will, however agonizing or terrible the consequences might be. And the same willingness is required of us if we wish to be considered our Lord's disciples. We must unconditionally accept God's will for our lives.
His will may be that we endure persecution. Or perhaps He will ordain some other affliction or hardship. If we accept our lot graciously, with a surrendered spirit, we are truly taking up our cross and following Jesus, for, like Jesus, we are living in obedience to the Father.
2. The second requirement of anyone who wishes to be worthy of Jesus’ love is willingness to lose his life for Christ’s sake (Matt. 10:39). Indeed, losing our lives is the only way to secure them, and holding on to our lives is the sure way to lose them. Here is one of the profound paradoxes at the heart of spirituality. The life we must lose refers to the self-seeking life that, apart from divine grace, every one of us would embrace. It is the pursuit of all those aspirations and dreams which sculpt the future into a paradise for gratifying self. But a life of mighty striving for a future we have fondly imagined causes us to lose another life that is far more satisfying. As Jesus said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it.”
What is the life we lose? It is the only life worth having—eternal life in the presence of God, for as the psalmist said in addressing God, “In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psa. 16:11).
Yet the cost of attaining the true happiness at God’s right hand may go beyond mere surrender of selfish ambition. We may be required to lose more than our way of life. We may be required to lose life itself—to suffer a martyr’s death. Yet we should not shrink from paying a price so paltry compared to what we will gain.
Throughout His sermon to the Twelve, Jesus has been warning of violent enemies. But He has saved to the end His strongest argument to remain faithful under persecution. It is the argument that entirely clarifies the choice between dying for Christ and living for self. Dying for Christ is but the road to true happiness. Living for self is eternal suicide.
The Blessing in Persecution
For all who face persecution, the most precious source of consolation is the last of Jesus’ brief but profound sayings known as the Beatitudes. The Seventh exhorts us to serve God by trying to make peace between man and man and between man and God (Matt. 5:9), while the Eighth warns that they who obey the Seventh will not necessarily be loved (Matt. 5:10). Indeed, all the righteous—especially those busy in proclaiming the gospel and teaching the Christian way of life—will encounter opposition, hatred, even persecution. But they will lose nothing. They will gain everything, even the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, Jesus admonishes them to rejoice and be glad.
Notice that Jesus heaps favor on those who will suffer for His sake. The Eighth is the only Beatitude that He emphasizes by repetition (Matt. 5:11-12). Twice He says the persecuted are blessed. Moreover, He promises them not only that they will gain the kingdom of heaven, but also that their reward in heaven will be great. He implies that those who suffer the most will obtain the greatest reward.
Have you suffered persecution as a Christian? As Peter says (1 Pet. 4:12), there is no merit in being persecuted for our faults—that is, if the world catches us in actual wrongdoing, or if we make ourselves obnoxious by offending people or interfering in their business. But if we are persecuted for our faith and not our faults, we can rejoice.
If persecution has targeted you, the look on your face should not be gloomy but joyful. Encourage yourself with the reminder that persecution is the certain experience of every effective servant of God.
But if you have never tasted persecution, you should reexamine your work for God. It is obvious that the devil sees you as no threat. As far as he can judge, whether you live or die makes no difference to the cause of Christ. However, the result of taking the safe course through life, stepping gingerly around every risk in testimony, will be that you will find no reward awaiting you in heaven. So, always dare to do right despite any risk of great injury to yourself. Then great will be your reward, of such a measure that in anticipating it you have reason to rejoice and be exceeding glad.