For the past several decades, the American church has been fighting against society’s grain. Our nation is striving to create its own identity apart from the church, and this often times results in an ostensibly counter-church movement in politics. This newfound "opposition", for lack of a better suited term, has caused fear in the hearts of American Christians, a fear of persecution against the church.
Persecution is not new to Christianity. In fact, Jesus warned his disciples several times that they would face opposition for preaching the truth of the gospel (John 15:18-20), and this warning continued in many of Paul’s epistles. The fact of the matter is that persecution is almost guaranteed when one decides to follow Christ; however, Christians should not fear persecution as the enemy in our lives. Rather, God often uses persecution in the church to strengthen it and further his kingdom.
In the seventh chapter of the book of Acts, the church’s first martyr, Stephen, is put to death for speaking out against the Jewish religious council. This story offers several insights into the church’s struggle with persecution.
When we do the work of the Holy Spirit, success does not always mean what we think it means.
The book of Acts portrays the success of the apostles, evangelists, and missionaries alongside their suffering. Luke, the author of the aforementioned book, describes Stephen as “full of grace and power”. His multitude of opponents, the religious leaders at the time, “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking”. After being seized for causing these disturbances, the “council saw that his face was like the face of an angel”. In Acts 7, Luke paints this vivid picture of a commanding Stephen addressing his opponents with all truth and power. If Hollywood were to film this scene, a triumphant score would play alongside his Spirit-filled words. After an overwhelming success, Stephen was stoned to death.
Luke makes it clear that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and was fulfilling God’s will in his life, and though the first martyr remained faithful and courageous, he lost his life. The reality of our faith is that our success in not predicated on our comfort or security. Our success relies only on our obedience to God.
God uses persecution to further his kingdom.
Following Stephen’s death, the church was “scattered throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1b). However, what looks like a defeat, God used as a victory. Luke continues in the fourth verse, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word”. This dispersion was the first time in history that Christianity officially spread outside the city of Jerusalem. What the Jewish council thought was an overwhelming victory against a small cult turned out to fan into flame its influence over the world.
God will not be stifled by persecution. Regardless of what our nation’s government or its people do or think, God will continue to act according to his will. Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and chairmen of the Communist Party of China, aimed to snuff Christianity out of his country. Bibles were banned and laws were put into place to stymie the spread of the gospel. China now has the fastest growing church in the world.
God will always be with us in the midst of persecution.
Stephen’s death was not a lonely experience. As he died, Luke records that he called out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”. In the face of certain death, all Stephen could focus on was the glory of Christ. When Luke finally describes Stephen’s death, he simply writes that “he fell asleep” (Acts 7), an almost peaceful description for an otherwise violent situation. God does not leave his people to die in solitude. In fact, Paul implies that martyrdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:3), and it is only through the Holy Spirit that one can endure dying for Christ. We are not alone in the face of persecution.
Ultimately, it is not persecution we should fear. Our concern should primarily be with our obedience to the Holy Spirit. Our reality is that, currently, the church of America is not facing persecution. Our brothers and sisters overseas who are being killed for their faith, who cannot meet to worship our Lord out in the open, who get disowned for loving Jesus, are facing real and tangible persecution, and we belittle the blood of true martyrs when we complain and worry over the opposition we face in America. Though bearing witness to the gospel may be difficult, we can freely talk about Jesus without fear of losing our basic human rights.
Our enemy is not persecution. Our battle does not take place in the political arena. Our weapons are not man made; rather, we fight with the power of the Holy Spirit, wherever that leads us. The true enemy lies within our own hearts and minds. We should not only follow God's will when it is convenient and safe. He will call his most loyal disciples to risk danger that threatens the safety of their livelihoods. Though persecution is a potential threat, we march forward in God’s will for our lives. Regardless of what trials and tribulations we may face, we must always remember that God is with us and has a plan to use us to further his kingdom.