The Christian life is full of paradoxes, seemingly absurd propositions that when investigated prove to be true! There are theological paradoxes. For example, we believe in the Trinity, that God is one and God is three. One God eternally exists as three distinct Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. The oneness of God is the plurality of Persons in community. We also have living paradoxes – like slavery leads to freedom (Romans 6:18, 1 Corinthians 7:22) and the foolish are wise (1 Corinthians 3:18, 4:10).
As we think about the Great Commission venture, we engage another paradox – the power of persecution. You see, on a human level, we may initially perceive persecution as being undesirable, counterproductive, or simply bad. Yet, upon further inspection, through the eyes of faith, we will see persecution as something else – something powerful.
And we know that all things [including persecution] work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose(Romans 8:28).
As we continue learning lessons from the book of Acts, I want to briefly highlight 3 ways the Lord used persecution to accomplish His plans and purposes in the early church.
Persecution accomplished three things in the early church:
- It mobilized the church.
- It confirmed the words of the Lord.
- It unified the disciples.
Persecution mobilized the church
Remember Jesus’ words to the disciples just before His ascension: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
It was persecution that propelled the disciples to share the gospel ‘to the end of the earth. And we see the genesis of this dynamic in Acts 8:1-5:
Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Christ Is Preached in Samaria. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.
Persecution was both a crucible and catalyst in the early church – and the result of this scattering was just the opposite of the desire and design of the persecutors!
Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).
Persecution confirmed the words of the Lord
The disciples were certainly carried along by the power of the Holy Spirit as they were scattered and spread the gospel, as Jesus had foretold. As they experienced the explosion of church growth amidst the intense opposition and persecution, I wonder how often they would have reminded themselves of Jesus’ words, when He stated, “I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Jesus spoke of persecution all throughout His earthly ministry. We note two bookends of teaching on the topic, first with words from His first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake (Matthew 5:10-11).
And near the end of HIs earthly ministry in the upper room, just before Jesus is taken, He leaves the disciples with this promise:
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20).
Following the Lord is a path marked with suffering, yet at the same time, a path also filled with blessing – another paradox! His words would no doubt have affirmed the disciple’s experience!
Persecution unified the disciples
After hearing of the phenomenal growth of the church, Barnabas goes to Antioch to encourage the believers:
The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord (Acts 11:22-23).
Why did Barnabas encourage them to remain true to the Lord? Because the fiery darts of persecution sought to scatter and silence them, for a house divided can not stand! Unity in the Lord was paramount in continuing to fight the good fight of faith amidst the opposition and persecution.
For much of our history in the United States, the church in America has experienced a relative lack of persecution as compared with much of our brethren around the world. Today this is changing before our very eyes, as open hostility, opposition and persecution to believers in America grows at breakneck speed.
How shall we then live in light of this growing persecution? Our 1st Century brothers and sisters should inform, instruct and inspire our witness!
First, we should see persecution not as a stumbling block, but as a catalyst to our witness. As persecution galvanized the early church, we should be galvanized to keep the main thing the main thing – and what is that main thing? With a resolute heart, remain true to the Lord. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “May God in His mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may He lead us to Himself.” As we abide in Christ, He will empower and work though our witness, even in the face of increasing persecution, as we see in the book of Acts.
Next, remember the words of the Lord. Remember persecution is an affirmation that God’s Word is true. And on a personal basis, persecution can serve as a confirmation that we are ‘living out loud,’ as the Lord Jesus commands us to do and as those 1st Century believers could attest.
Finally, persecution should serve to crystalize our unity of purpose as God’s people – to know Him and make Him known! We see that purpose exemplified as we track with the early Church in the book of Acts. So encourage one another, exhort one another, pray for one another and stand with one another in the Great Commission!