Acts 4:23–31 shows how persecuted Christians are encouraged by focussing on the sovereignty of God, as evidenced by His actions in the past. But the New Testament has even more instances of focussing on God’s sovereignty over future history to encourage persecuted Christians.
Strength from God’s sovereignty over future history
1. After the last Beatitude about the kingdom of God belonging to those who are persecuted (Matt 5:10), Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:11–12). This theme of heavenly rewards for the persecuted is seen throughout the New Testament climaxing with several strong statements in the book of Revelation (Rev 2:10–11; 3:10–12).
Hebrews 10:32–36 shows how the early Christians followed Jesus’ instructions to rejoice over persecution because of the coming heavenly reward. After listing the persecutions the readers suffered (10:32–33), the writer says that his readers endured such persecution because of their hope of heaven: “…and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (10:34). Then he urges them to persevere keeping the heavenly reward in mind: “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (10:35–36). The prospect of the heavenly reward is used here to encourage Christians to faithfully endure persecution.
2. Two of the most difficult things about persecution are the injustice and the shame that the persecuted are subjected to. The Bible is alert to both these issues pointing to the judgement as the place where justice is served and shame is transferred from the persecuted to the persecutors.
The Bible is alert to the injustice of persecution. And the faithful, who are endowed with God’s attitude of repulsion towards injustice, would also be troubled by the apparent dishonour to God and his principles through the triumph of the wicked. The Bible often records the righteous crying out for justice through punishment upon the wicked who persecute and hurt them (1 Sam 24:12; Ps 79:10; Isa 6:11; Jer 18:21; see Luke 18:7). Usually these cries and prayers are those of people who are still living on earth. The book of Revelation, however, records martyrs in heaven also doing so (6:9–10), during the intermediate state before the final triumph of Christ. Paul’s injunction to show kindness to enemies is given in the background of God taking on the role of enacting vengeance upon the wicked (Rom 12:19–20). The answer the martyrs receive to their cry in Revelation 6 is that they are to wait a little longer until the number of the martyrs is complete (6:11). Following this, the tables are turned and the wicked rulers cry out in despair, in terror under the hand of God’s judgment (Rev 6:12–17).
It is from the background of commitment to the justice of God that we should interpret the praise to God in the book of Revelation for the fall of Babylon, the great prostitute, who wreaked havoc in the world. The description ends with the words, “And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev 18:24). Revelation gives the response to this: “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (19:1–2). This is followed by more praise and three more exclamations of “Hallelujah!” (19:3, 4, 6).
If heaven is alert to the issue of the injustice of persecution, it is inevitable that the persecuted on earth also would be alert to it. The book of Acts shows that Paul appealed for justice in the face of persecution and did all he could to ensure that he was treated justly. He even protested, when he could, about unjust treatment (see Acts 16:37). Clearly he was alert to the fact that condoning injustice and letting it pass unchallenged was damaging to the cause of the gospel. Later, in Romans 13, Paul would say that government authorities are the agents of God’s justice carrying out God’s wrath against evil-doers. Therefore it is right for us to appeal to the law for relief in times of persecution.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of persecution is the shame that comes with it. This is particularly true in the more communally-oriented, so-called “shame and honour” culture of Sri Lanka where doing things that go against community values (such as embracing another religion), is considered a shameful act and an attack on the honour of the whole community. The North African martyr Dativus, the senator, prayed before his death: “Lord Christ, let me not be put to shame. Christ, I beseech you, let me not be put to shame. Christ come to my aid, have pity on me, let me not be put to shame. Christ, I beseech you, give me the strength to suffer what I must for you.”
The humiliation of persecution is most painful because it makes the persecuted to look like failures and fools and their faith to look powerless. But the Bible is keen to remind the faithful that taking on hardship for Christ is a wise investment the benefits of which are of eternal duration. On the other hand, the rich farmer who had much honour on earth is called a “fool” because “the one who lays up treasure for himself… is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20–21). Being called a “fool,” of course, is the ultimate expression of shame, and in this case it extends to eternity.
The awareness of the shame factor that comes with discipleship is often seen in the Bible. Peter and John “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41). What the world saw as a shame had become a badge of honour. But the greatest honour for those who experience the cost of discipleship is in the future, especially in heaven. After describing how the grain of wheat, which falls into the ground and dies, bears fruit, Jesus said that the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Then he said that those who serve him will need to follow him (to death). Then he said, “If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him” (John 12:24–26). In Romans 5 Paul talks about rejoicing in the hope of glory and then proceeds to talk about suffering and how God uses it to refine us. The final character that emerges from suffering is hope. “And hope,” says Paul, “does not put us to shame” (Rom 5:5).
Jesus warns believers: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38; see also 2 Tim 2:12). In the millennium those who were martyred and persecuted “came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev 20:4). The honour of reigning is the complete opposite of the shame of being hounded by those who reigned while they lived on earth. To this we can add the many passages that talk about the shameful judgment that awaits those who reject Christ and his people (e.g. Matt 11:20–24; 12:41–42; Rev 17–19). Luke 12:20 clearly presents the judgment of the unjust in terms depicting shame. There Jesus called the rich man—who was not rich toward God—a “fool”.
3. Persecution is hard to endure. It seems too unjust and shameful. It is therefore not surprising that those who are persecuted would be tempted to be bitter. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty over the future challenges the temptation to bitterness. These unjust people who are causing much shame to the Christians will one day be judged. While we must be angry over their injustice, we will not be bitter, for these people are to be pitied since “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
Lessons learned about the sovereignty of God and persecution
This section has presented several important principles about how Christians respond to persecution.
- Fellow Christians help us affirm the sovereignty of God amidst persecution. Therefore they must ensure that they get the support of other Christians when they are under threat.
- It is vital for Christians under persecution to be united.
- We find strength from the fact that God has always turned the powerful opposition of people into good, even if that is through a tragedy like the death of Christ.
- Because the vision of sovereignty comes from the Bible, it is very important that Christians stay close to the Scriptures in times of persecution.
- The vision of the sovereignty of God gives us courage to persevere in the difficult work of evangelism. So our great prayer is for strength to evangelise and for God’s power to be shown as we do so.
- God will confirm our commitment to evangelism by encouraging us in different ways.
- The persecuted have reason for rejoicing because of the prospect of future rewards in heaven.
- While the injustice of persecution is difficult to bear we know that justice will be served at the future judgement.
- While the shame of persecution is difficult to bear we know that honour awaits the persecuted at the judgement and that shame awaits persecutors.
- The vision of God’s sovereignty helps us to avoid bitterness amidst the pain of persecution.