Even though the handbook for the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that there is no universal definition of persecution, my study dictionary (Collins English Dictionary) defines “to persecute” as: “to oppress, harass or maltreat, especially because of religion or race.” Persecution is often systematic and carried out by one group against another, possibly including some Grace & Truth Magazine readers as victims – if not now, then it will in the near future.
The Word Jesus Used
According to Vine’s Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the New Testament word for “persecution” (Gk. dioko) means “to put to flight; to drive away.” From the same root we get our English word “to pursue.” Notice what happens when we put the dictionary definitions into our Lord Jesus Christ’s first teaching on the subject: “Blessed are those who are [put to flight, driven away, oppressed, harassed, maltreated] because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10 NIV). And, let us be sure to notice the phrase: “because of righteousness.” If someone brings difficulties on himself by his own irresponsible behavior, whether by simple lack of consideration for others or by deliberate efforts, what happens to him is hardly persecution. The consequences of his actions are simply his fault. Persecution is totally different.
Let me tell you what persecution is by using examples of people I have known and ministered with personally. Kaboogi was killed by a spear in his back while sharing the gospel with his neighbors. Somaia jumped to her death rather than be raped by two friends her brother brought home, threatened because she had left the family’s religion to follow her Lord Jesus Christ. Aasia was kicked out of her home and cut off from her family when she became a Christian. She was given absolutely nothing to live on and had nowhere to go. Nahoum was hit by a flying rock that cracked his skull as he travelled from one village to another, witnessing for his Lord Jesus Christ. I could go on. These people, and many more, know what it is to be “blessed” by persecution.
Why Did Our Lord Jesus Say “Blessed”?
Using the Vine’s Dictionary we see that word “blessed” (Gk. makarios) strictly means “honored and glorified.” We might say today “deeply happy and internally content.” Our Lord Jesus Christ, having promised this inner satisfaction to His disciples, immediately went on to say that all people who would follow Him should know that earthly persecution brings great heavenly reward – so abundantly great (Gk. polus) that we really should “rejoice and be glad” even when facing such horrible hostilities (Mt. 5:10-12). Abundance on earth is not a Christian promise. So you need to discipline yourself to keep uppermost in your heart and mind that this life, today, is not all there is.
A Different Level Of Persecution
As I write this my old church in a foreign country has had its congregation cut in half as work permits are revoked for Christian expatriates. After being called in to government security offices, people have been given just 48 hours to leave the country. National workers who have helped lead the ministries serving local needs are being beaten up and otherwise mistreated. They are likely to suffer worse persecution once their colleagues have gone safely home.
Of course, no earthly opposition can affect the Christian’s heavenly compensation. The reward (Gk. misthos), literally meaning “wages,” which comes later when we are in the Lord’s presence, ought to be motivation for standing firm and struggling on every day against any form of persecution. Both the Bible and Christian history record examples of people who suffered but stood firm for the Lord Jesus Christ.
More Types Of Persecution
Changing laws in Western countries, such as the legal acceptance of immorality and the banning of Biblical displays in public places, are often viewed by Christians as persecution. These believers will surely suffer more as they stand up against the erosion of a Christian heritage.
Having lived under religious law for nearly four years, I have seen church buildings demolished and people with mutilated limbs and students, especially women, unable to get their deserved grades in university exams – thereby suffering severe loss of career choice. Because I am a Christian, I have personally experienced barriers, delays and hindrances from government authorities. But I have also been the recipient of some beautiful acts of kindness and generosity from individuals of the same religion who harshly persecuted my fellow believers.
Responding Christianly To Persecution
From God’s Word, the Bible, believers are given instructions as to how they should react when they are being persecuted. Seven of them are:
Our Lord Jesus tells us to “rejoice and be glad” (Mt. 5:12). The word “glad” (Gk. agalliao) means “to exult greatly, to feel or express great joy and happiness.” I know this is tough when your own government is using an airplane to bomb you every day, but Jesus commands it because He knows the benefits of looking toward the heavenly benefits rather than the earthly losses.
The Lord also said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). Deal with your enemies the same way God dealt with us when we were His enemies. He had a plan to win us back to Himself and He paid a heavy price to bring it into fruition. The context tells us this is the way to act like God the Father, and in so doing, to perfect our Christianity (Mt. 5:43-48).
He also said, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Mt. 10:23). There is nothing wrong with running away. God has used this to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:1, 11:19). Running away from persecution speeded up the translation of the Bible in some parts of Africa. Population movements brought many native speakers nearer to the big cities – and to the linguistic teams who could more easily study the various written languages and then translate the Scriptures.
The Lord Jesus told His followers: “Keep in mind that it [the world] hated Me first.” “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:18,20). Our minds are very important. What we regularly think will determine if we stand or fall as Christians. Considering the Lord Jesus, especially in His suffering and death, will help us bear persecution. Physically, He suffered horribly. Spiritually, His holy body was made sin for us and for our salvation (2 Cor. 5:21).
Our Lord also said to Saul, who was violently destroying the new Christian movement, “Why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4-5). Any persecution of Christians is a persecution of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are His body. He knows our persecution – He feels it. He can and will intervene, if and when and how He chooses, in His sovereign and all-powerful way.
Following his conversion to Christianity, Paul wrote: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). Another definition of “to bless” is “to call upon God to protect” (Collins English Dictionary). I am sure this is the Spirit’s thought here as Paul works out what his new Master said about praying for persecutors.
The apostle also wrote, “For Christ’s sake I delight in … persecutions” (2 Cor. 12:10). “Delight” (Gk. eudokia) shows a deep, underlying pleasure – something unaffected by daily events. Through years of sacrificial ministry Paul had learned that God and the world in which we live view weakness and strength very differently. God’s power is displayed clearly from those who have no power of their own.
Putting these seven instructions together I suggest that we should respond Christianly to being persecuted by doing at least five things:
Cultivate a heart joyfully focused on heaven.
Pray that God would change the hearts of our tormentors while there is time for them to repent and be saved.
Scatter to share the gospel – if possible where it is presently unknown.
Remember it is our Lord Jesus Christ who is being persecuted. We are to bear His cross. Thank Him that He has shown us the way.
Enjoy the unshakable knowledge that our weakness gives God opportunity to show His great power.
For the Christian, it does not matter what the UNHCR can or cannot define. Our Lord Jesus Christ said we can know that we are citizens of His eternal kingdom when we are persecuted on this earth for the sake of living righteously. Stand fast in the Lord!
By Colin Salter
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