IS IT PERSECUTION TIME?
I am in the slow process of writing a second/expanded edition of Raptureless, due out late in 2013. This week I will share a whole new chapter from that forthcoming edition. It is a short chapter about an important topic. Enjoy!
- Jonathan Welton
THE PERSECUTION MINDEST
Now that we’ve addressed several major end-time misconceptions, I want to look at something I call the persecution mindset. In a nutshell, it is defined like this: Many western Christians believe that Christianity in countries with persecution is better than Christianity in countries with no physical persecution. Some even see the lack of persecution as evidence of the Church being anemic!
Typically, one of the first thoughts to come to mind when pondering persecution is the ever-popular quote from Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” I appreciate Glenn Penner’s take on it:
Some have mistakenly believed that these words can be found in the New Testament. They’re not. In fact, the phrase, itself, is a paraphrase of a statement made by an early church leader called Tertullian in 197 A.D. in a book he entitled The Apology. In it, Tertullian writes to the Roman governor of his province, refuting various false charges being made against Christians and the Christian faith, arguing that the followers of Christ were loyal subjects of the empire, and thus, should not be persecuted. At any rate, Tertullian observes, the persecution was failing to destroy Christianity. He writes, “kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers (allows) that we thus suffer. When you recently condemned a Christian woman to the leno (pimp, i.e. accused her of being a prostitute) rather than to the leo (lion), you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
As is true with many popular statements, this phrase has been taken at face value for so long that to challenge it is, in the minds of some, paramount to challenging the very words of Scripture. The notion that persecution always causes church growth is so widespread that it is considered irrefutable by some. An accompanying assumption is that persecution typically causes the Church to be purified, and believers to walk more closely with God. Thus, persecution is often seen to have a benefit for the Church.1
People who think according to the persecution mindset will say (or believe) things like, “If only America had some persecution; then our churches would have ‘better’ Christians.” However, as we can see from Penner’s explanation, this was not Tertullian’s intention whatsoever. He was describing the reality that persecution could not kill the Church, not naming persecution as the force behind Church growth and holiness.
Many Bible verses speak of the early Church’s experience of persecution, but we must be careful to read these verses in their historical context. We must not apply the historical reality that they faced to all generations, for all time. Following are some of the passages that speak of persecution:
When considered in their historical context and with the understanding that most of the “endtimes” events prophesied in the Bible happened in AD 70, we can see that these verses were written regarding only the earliest period of Church history (AD 30–70). During that time, Christians faced horrible persecution under the evil Temple leaders. Men like Saul (who later became Paul) persecuted the Church from house to house and dragged people from their homes (see Acts 7:54-8:3).
While persecution certainly did not end with the destruction of Jerusalem at AD 70, we should not take from these verses a universal expectation of persecution for all time. Such an idea is an assumption that removes these verses completely from their context.
Here are four things we do learn from these passages:
- We recognize the valor of the early Church to stand up as a witness for Christ, even to the point of death.
- We learn that we must love all people, even those who would be enemies. The early Church did not become hateful toward their persecutors but continued to love.
- We learn that we should be willing to follow the early Church’s example and suffer persecution if the need arises.
- We see that, as the context indicates, they were going through fiery trials, but we are not told to expect every Christian to face persecution everyday of their lives for all time. That is a modern fallacy.
The New Testament was written regarding first century realities. It does not teach an expectation that all Christians are to suffer persecution for all time. Even Jesus wasn’t persecuted as much as some with the persecution mindset say that Christians should be. This leads us to the question, If Jesus is our model, then who should be persecuting us?
Jesus was beloved of sinners, and even the government leaders found no fault in Him (see Matt. 27:23-24). At first, only the religious leaders hated and persecuted Jesus. Even the early Church suffered persecution primarily at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders until AD 64, when Nero burned one third of Rome and began to vigorously persecute Christianity.
The proof text of the persecution mindset is found in Jesus’ command to pick up our cross and follow Him. I addressed this misunderstood passage in my earlier work, Eyes of Honor:
Many have been taught that self must be daily crucified and that the self is evil and must be denied. Although Jesus did say to deny self, the definition of self has been very convoluted. When Jesus referred to self, He was not talking about the soul. Also, He was not talking about the self as synonymous with the flesh. We know this because Jesus said to deny self, whereas the only answer for the flesh is crucifixion in Christ (see Gal. 2:20).
The best way to understand self is to define it as a person’s reputation. Let’s look again at what Jesus said regarding denying self with our new definition:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
It is clear in these passages that Jesus is talking to the non-believer and telling them how to become His follower. “Deny yourself” is something Jesus told those who were considering becoming His followers. He told them what it would cost them. The cost would be that they would lay down their lives and the control of their lives. This point is even clearer in Luke 14:
Jesus spoke very plainly in these verses instructing his potential followers not to expect life to be easy. The first-century understanding of “taking up the cross” meant being willing to lay down one’s reputation and be branded by society as a criminal. Jesus died a criminal’s death on a criminal’s cross and His followers had to count the cost of laying down their reputations to become rejects of society.2
Clearly, these passages are not, as some have interpreted, about embracing persecution in our daily lives.
ON EARTH AS IN HEAVEN
So many have held up persecution as a saintly quality in the Christian’s life, but let’s think about it in light of the growth of the Kingdom of God. If our prayers are effective and if Jesus is answering them, then this world will become “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), which would certainly include a lack of persecution. We can pretty safely assume no Christians are being persecuted in Heaven. Logically, if the Lord’s Prayer is being progressively answered, the outcome should be that Earth becomes more and more like Heaven. Thus, the more the Kingdom expands on this Earth and the saints mature into their calling as ambassadors of that Kingdom, the less persecution Christians should face.
Where God’s will is in full effect, persecution does not exist. It wasn’t present in the Garden of Eden, and it isn’t present in Heaven, either. Between that historical point and our future goal, many Christians have experienced persecution. That does not make it holy. Rather, while we live in the interim timeline between the Garden of Eden and the Garden City of Revelation 22, we are to pray Heaven into the Earth. And thankfully, the outcome of this expansion of the Kingdom of God will include a squelching of all persecution.
- The New Testament verses about persecution applied to specific people and circumstances historically, and they are not to be read as statements that apply to all people for all time.
- In their historical context, these verses tell us about the intense persecution Christians faced leading up to the AD 70 Destruction of Jerusalem.
- Though persecution has always existed, we should not expect it, call it evidence of the radical Christian life, or believe it is the “seed bed” of Christianity.
- Much of the persecution that Jesus and the early Church experienced happened at the hands of the religious leaders.
- When Jesus said to “deny yourself,” He was talking to potential converts (not believers), telling them about the cost of being His follower and the scorn it would bring upon them in that day.
- Heaven is a persecution-free zone, and naturally, persecution will decrease as the Church brings the culture of Heaven down to Earth.
We would love to have you join us for the upcoming San Diego Kingdom Bootcamp, April 25-27.
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Dear Pastors, I have three weekends in May that are not yet scheduled. Most of 2013 is full, but if you fill out the hosting form, we are still scheduling these final three weekends.