When Jesus sent the apostles on the “limited commission” (Mt.10.5f; Lk.9.2f), He warned them that they would face opposition and persecution. Such a caution must have been strange to them, given that they were going to all of Israel to promote the near advent of the kingdom of heaven. What self-respecting Jew would dream of opposing the promised kingdom? Yet, clearly Jesus was preparing them for the ultimate work we find them doing in Acts as He describes their place among the Gentiles and the certainty of violent persecution – “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt.10.34).
As Acts begins, there is the impression that the apostles are almost underground. They had seen Jesus crucified, and though He had risen, He had been selective about His appearances. He had met with them behind closed doors in the upper room; walking down a lonely road late in the evening; early in the morning beside the lake; at a predetermined location in Galilee. Even after He reminds them of their mission in Acts 1.4f, Luke notes that they retire again to the upper room in Jerusalem. They do not yet appear emboldened in their discipleship. After all, they had seen what the Jews did to the Lord. And He had told them of suffering that was to come (Jn.15.8f; 16.33). And come it did. In twenty of the twenty-eight chapter divisions in Acts the disciples of Jesus are opposed, threatened, imprisoned, abused, or killed. Persecution is one of the most prevalent themes of the narrative.
Occasionally people in our present circumstance will decry the rise of persecution against Christianity. Granted, there are places in the world where people who profess some form of service to Christ are faced with physical violence. But for most disciples in this nation, real persecution is unknown. That is not to say that we have never seen opposition or social/moral pressure or perhaps even ostracization or discrimination. Nonetheless, the freedoms insured by our system of government still afford us the luxury to profess our faith without serious fear of bodily harm. We are blessed. In fact, we are so blessed that we almost glamorize the idea of persecution. Paul told Timothy that, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim.3.12). Perhaps we feel a sense of guilt because most of us haven’t suffered such. Or maybe we have convinced ourselves that we aren’t working hard enough or we would be suffering more. Personally, I am most thankful that I have been able to live, marry, and raise children without concern that I or they might be harmed for my faith. I hope they never face such. Even a cursory glance at the history of persecution – real persecution – underscores the horrors that brethren have endured. Paul’s review of his suffering (2 Cor.11.23f) does not provide me fodder for my bucket list. However, if we indeed must endure pain and bloodshed for the cause of Christ, there are things to learn from the reactions of Christians in Acts.
When faced with opposition/persecution, disciples placed themselves in God’s hands. There is absolutely no record of Christians in the first century meeting opposition with rebellion, threatening, violence, or reprisal. In fact, the apostles consistently complied with authorities when they were arrested, tried, or detained. In Acts 4.1f, Peter and John are taken into custody by the Sadducees and temple guard. At this point, there were thousands of Christians in Jerusalem (v.4). It would be a safe conclusion that the apostles could call upon the brethren to rise up and make their collective voices heard. Yet they organized no resistance and called for no public spectacle. Instead, they accepted their imprisonment and boldly proclaimed Jesus at the next day’s hearing, where they were threatened and released (v.21). In chapter 5 the apostles are again detained until an angel delivered them (v.19f). By this time, Luke has ceased attempting to number the disciples, noting merely that there were “multitudes” of believers (v.14). Again, rather than inciting a movement to further the cause, the apostles return to the temple and proclaim the good news, in keeping with the instruction of the Lord (v.20f). This time they are beaten. But they accepted such, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (v.41). And so continues the pattern throughout the book. Stephen is accepting of his circumstance (Acts 6.9-7.60); the saints do not rise up at Saul’s rage (8.1f); Peter doesn’t cry for judicial reform at James’ death (12.1f); Paul again and again submits himself to potential suffering at the hands of various authorities without inciting rebellion from among his brethren (13.50f; 14.19f; 16.19f; 17.5f; 22-28). Consistently, in the midst of the most painful persecutions, God’s people put themselves in the hands of God, doing their job of proclamation and profession while allowing God to take care of them, the circumstances, and the outcome. Persecution, for the Christians in Acts, was the ultimate occasion of true faith. Jesus had told them to be “harmless as doves” (Mt.10.16) and had set the example of One Who did not “quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets” (Mt.12.19). We can see, in retrospect, that persecution was a significant catalyst in the promotion of the gospel, but they may not have always recognized such (though Paul did). Instead, they persisted in being peacemakers (Mt.5.9), complying with authorities (Rom.13.1f; 1 Pet.3.13f), returning good for evil (Rom.12.17f) and trusting in the Lord to care for them, no matter what they faced. Given our penchant for outspoken politicizing and the increasing tendency of Christians to boldly speak against our present government, perhaps we should give grave consideration to the attitudes displayed by our brethren of old.
When faced with opposition/persecution, disciples prayed to and give praise to God. Most are familiar with Paul’s disposition about the things he suffered. “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor.4.17). “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor.12.10). Clearly he saw himself as deserving of such suffering due to his own persecution of God’s people. Yet he witnessed such humility in the face of oppression long before his own suffering. From their first arrest, the disciples looked to God when they were opposed. In Acts 3.23f, the apostles proceed immediately after their release to gather with the saints and raise their voice to God, praising Him for His purposes and begging that He might empower them with courage and boldness. Note that their petitions were not merely cries for deliverance, but calls for the accomplishment of God’s will. When beaten by the authorities in Acts 6.41f, the apostles glorified God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Him. Again, in 12.5f we find brethren gathered in prayer as James has been murdered and Peter is imprisoned. Paul and Silas are found praying and singing praises while imprisoned at Philippi (16.24f), and Paul turns to the Lord in praise and prayer again and again as he makes his way to Jerusalem and finally on to Rome, warned, attacked, threatened, and imprisoned. For those disciples, such suffering was met with determined focus upon the mercy of God and His ultimate will for mankind. So it must be with us. If we are persecuted for the cause of Christ, so be it. If our humiliation can bring honor to Him, can prompt others to give serious thought to the truth of the gospel, can promote His kingdom, then let us embrace our difficulties and discomforts with joy, enthusiasm, and praise that we too are counted worthy to suffer.
When faced with opposition/persecution, disciples persisted in their work. Our brethren did not cave to intimidation, to incarceration, nor to violence. Peter, only weeks removed from his desertion of the Lord, stood boldly before the temple guard and proclaimed, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (4.19f). When threatened, they “spoke the word of God with boldness” (4.31f). In 5.17f they stood undeterred by a night in prison, but returned to the temple to teach the people. They again defended their actions to the authorities with the cry, “We ought to obey God rather than man” (v.29). Though beaten for such determination, they continued to teach daily in both public and private. Stephen met his accusers with a spirited defense of the truth, resulting in his death (6.9-7.60). Those scattered at Saul’s persecution “went everywhere preaching the word” (8.4). And Paul is noted repeatedly for his dogged determination to proclaim the gospel, though pursued, abused, stoned, opposed, arrested, threatened, mistreated, and beaten. Our brethren of old met opposition with resolve. They recognized the power of the word and the import of the work and they persisted when persecuted. May God help us, if the day arrives that we must “resist to bloodshed” (Heb.12.4), that we will not shrink from our devotion to and declaration of the glorious gospel of Christ.
When faced with opposition/persecution, disciples were judicious in their actions. Clearly the disciples in the first century met tribulation with resolve, courage, and boldness. However, they were also wise in their actions and reactions. We tend to glorify martyrdom and, at times, seem to associate the spread of the gospel with widespread sacrifice of life. But our ancestors in the faith were not careless with their life. As noted above, Luke’s account begins with the disciples meeting in private (1.13). And while the early chapters find them publicly teaching and preaching in the temple (chapters 2-6), the rise of violent opposition and the killing of Stephen appears to change the overt character of their work. Saul is seen searching for Christians from house to house and Luke notes that they responded by scattering throughout the surrounding regions (8.1-4f). They did not line up in the streets so that their arrest might be made a public spectacle. The hesitation of Ananias in Acts 9.10-17f likely well describes the caution of the disciples at this time, as does the reluctance of the brethren in Jerusalem to accept the converted Saul among their number (9.26). The fact is that they did not run blindly into trouble, nor did they calculate the public impact of martyrdom and thus sacrifice their lives as some kind of evangelical strategy. Dead men are somewhat limited in their ability to preach. So, we find the Christians in Damascus delivering Saul by lowering him in a basket from the city walls (9.23-25), and those in Ephesus pleading that he would not present himself before the confused mob (19.30f). In 12.1-17 there is obviously some secrecy regarding the meeting place of those praying for Peter’s deliverance. Time and again, when confronted with dangerous violence, Paul moves from place to place (14.5-7; 17.10f; 17.13f; 20.3f). And he did not hesitate to exercise his rights as a citizen of Rome in order to spare his life, bring credibility to his cause, and continue his work. He does so in Philippi (16.36f – even demanding that the magistrates personally deliver him), in Jerusalem (22.23-29), and in Caesarea (25.1-12). It is tempting to think of the early Christians as men and women who were ready at a moment’s notice to make a public statement of their faith by presenting themselves as martyrs for the cause of Christ. No doubt, many brethren died for their convictions as we see them portrayed in Rev.6.9f, crying out to the Lord for justice. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that they sought out or glorified their own death. There is the possibility that we may someday face death for our faith, and in such circumstances the Lord expects our faithful profession (Mt.10.28-33; 16.24f). But courage and resolve are most effective when tempered by wisdom and discretion.
In Acts 14.22, Paul reminded the Galatian Christians that, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” Such was the lot of most disciples in the first century, and for many others who have professed faith in Christ throughout history. In contrast, most of us have been spared the difficulties and decisions that come with physical violence. Perhaps such is simply a part Satan’s strategy. We are plagued by apathy, temporality, lethargy. Rarely do such problems accompany persecution. But with the obvious decline of morality and the present cultural trend away from godliness and the influence of Christianity, there remains the possibility of violent opposition in our future. May we look to those who have blazed the path of commitment in the face of conflict and bring glory to our Lord, rejoicing that we are counted worthy to suffer.