What do you think of when you hear the word persecution? Do you think it is something God sanctions as part of His plan, or something He is working to eliminate? Listen to Sha’ul [Paul] when he is speaking to the Corinthians (II Cor 11:21-26):
“…But whatever they dare to boast about—I’m talking like a fool again—I dare to boast about it, too…I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles”.
This was part of a long passage where Sha’ul was boasting in what Yeshua was doing through him – not that he was boasting because of his own merit or abilities, but because YHVH had blessed Him to be able to survive and endure through trials and unjust persecution.
So what does YHVH Father say about persecution (speaking through Yeshua, since we know that Yeshua speaks only His Father’s words (John 12:50) and that He is One with Abba Father (John 10:30). In Matthew 5:10-12 He says:
“God blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way”.
In the verse at the top of this blog (John 5:20), Yeshua says that persecution is a natural result of being His follower. Why would we not be persecuted, since He was persecuted so viciously, and as His servants we are no greater than our Master?
Sha’ul says he was persecuted by his own people, the Jews, as well as by the Gentiles (the Romans). This time period (64-68 AD) was also the beginning of the first government sponsored persecution of Christians. This was during the reign of Nero, and began a long succession of cruel and merciless tyrants who ruled the Roman Empire from the 1st – 3rd centuries AD. Nero was the last of the Caesar’s and was known for his hatred of the Christians. Tacitus the historian wrote that Nero was strongly suspected of setting the great fire in Rome (64 AD). He went on to lay the blame on the Christians, which justified his subsequent persecution of believers: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians” (Tacit. Annals XV).
By the mid-2nd century AD, mobs could be found willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon in which Christians were mass-slaughtered by being thrown to wild beasts under the decree of Roman officials for reportedly refusing to renounce their faith (according to St. Irenaeus) was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings.
The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. The Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution. Over 20,000 Christians are thought to have died during Diocletian’s reign. This persecution lasted until Constantine I came to power in 313 and legalized Christianity.
Over the last 1700 years, persecution against Jews has been rampant and widespread across the world, but persecution against Christians, although strong in Islamic nations and Godless nations such as China and India (and historically Russia) for many years, has greatly intensified in the Middle East over the past 10-15 years. Christians in America have not generally known true persecution, but we are now seeing the atrocities of it reported daily in places like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. We are seeing beheadings like we have never known in our lifetimes, and detestable acts of cruelty against men, women and children that are too horrible to even describe.
This could be a sign that the End Times are drawing closer, as Yeshua described in Matthew 24, but it could also be a warning to all believers that they will be persecuted: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Messiah Yeshua will suffer persecution”. (II Tim 3:12) How will you prepare yourself to be stand firm in the face of persecution – will you be able to face the worst form of persecution, and will YHVH be able to say of you that you were one of the martyrs who: “… overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death”? (Rev 12:11) The best way to prepare yourself is by strengthening your relationship with YHVH.