One of my pastor friends recently called me and said he had been beaten up while he was visiting a family who attends his church. He had taken his wife and other church members with him, and sadly, they too were physically assaulted. He was then forced to sign a document which said that he had been doing forceful conversions, which he did so that he could leave the place. Once he was able to, he called many pastors and sought help to take legal action against the people who had attacked him.
During our conversation over the phone, he sounded very perplexed. He asked me question after question: Why had this happened to them? Why had they been falsely accused? Why had he been beaten? Why had his wife been beaten? What had they done to deserve the treatment they received? As I listened to his questions, what struck me was that he was clueless about what the Bible says about persecution.
I visited the church and listened to him preaching. And I found that he never dealt with foundational topics like suffering, persecution, and the cost of discipleship. Instead, he preached mainly about blessing, anointing, and receiving various gifts of the Spirit. The result of this imbalanced teaching and preaching was that he and his members were gripped by fear. They thought it was totally unexpected and strange that a few of them had been beaten.
It is understandable that people do not like to talk about suffering, and that Jesus’ call to costly discipleship—which includes even physical persecution— is not very attractive. But that does not mean that we avoid these topics. Instead, it would be wise for us to prepare one another by reflecting on what Scripture teaches about persecution. As we read through the New Testament, we find that the apostolic authors prepared Christians for persecution by talking about it with clarity. For example, in 1 Peter 4:12, Apostle Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Far from being shocking, fiery trials are to be expected as we follow in Christ’s footsteps.
So, how should we prepare ourselves and our churches to face persecution? Here are a few truths that we should remember while we face persecution and threats in ministry:
The suffering of the Son of God had been planned before the foundation of this world, and it rightly came to pass the way God wanted it to.
1. Jesus’ Suffering And Death Was Planned And Executed By God
Even though it seems like Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross were planned and executed by religious leaders of his time, we must not forget that ultimately God is the one who orchestrated everything, and God is the one who was in complete control of the suffering and death of His son. The suffering of the Son of God had been planned before the foundation of this world, and it rightly came to pass the way God wanted it to. We read the gospels, that Jesus says, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (Jn. 10:18). Jesus clearly understood that ultimately, it was not the religious leaders, Pharisees, Scribes, and Roman soldiers who planned and killed him. Jesus’ death, and its manner, and even all the mocking and the insults he faced, was in God’s control. After narrating the events leading up to Jesus’ legs not being broken, John writes, “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’” (Jn. 19:36). As we reflect on how God was sovereign over the death of Jesus, we can be assured that he is in complete control even of his followers’ suffering and death.
2. Our Lives Are Controlled By Our Sovereign God
A truth that brings comfort to our souls is that God is the author of everything and the one who moves all things according to His will. Nothing takes place unless he moves things on earth. God is sovereign over our ministry. God is sovereign over bringing people to church, bringing people into repentance, and saving people. God is sovereign over even the suffering that we face for doing right.
We see Jesus using powerful imagery in Matthew 10. Before sending out His disciples to preach the Gospel, Jesus informs them that they will face persecution. People will oppose the gospel, hate and reject it. But, no one can do anything or harm us unless father permits it. Here is what Jesus says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Sparrows are little birds, and the sparrow was used for food by very poor people because it was very cheap. In fact, Luke says you could get five for two pennies. And yet, Jesus says, “Not one of them falls on the ground without your Father knowing it” (Matt. 10:29). If this is referring to the death of birds, God has got a long list of dead birds! God is sovereign over even the smallest insignificant events on earth, nothing happens outside of his will. God knows about cheap little birds. And then Jesus assures his disciples that they are more important than the cheap birds. We may struggle with the fear of dying, but God will take care of us and nothing will happen in our lives and ministry without his permission. Therefore, we can find comfort and can work hard for the Lord, without fearing men.
God is sovereign over bringing people to church, bringing people into repentance, and saving people.
3. God Enables Us To Overcome Fear Of Suffering And Death
When Jesus was preparing to send out his disciples for ministry, He clearly told them, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Here, Jesus uses the idea of killing the body and He compares it with destroying the soul to show that God has so much more power. He tells his disciples they are to fear the one who can determine the destiny of souls, not the ones who can only determine the destiny of bodies. He’s not telling his disciples that they will go to hell if they fear. What he is saying is that they are to get their fear right before they go and preach the gospel. Fear the one who is really powerful. Fear the one who determines the destiny of souls.
But notice what happened to Jesus’ disciples at the time of his arrest. They all fled the scene and were even embarrassed of being associated with him. And even in John 20:19-31, they were hiding in a secure room behind closed doors, fearing that they may face the same fate as Jesus. For the disciples, death was still death. Fear was still fear.
But there was a dramatic change in the book of Acts. This group of cowardly frightened men became brave as lions! This all happened because of the appearance of Jesus and the pouring of the Holy Spirit. This changed everything. The disciples’ eyes were opened to a completely new world, a world, in which death was a minor thing, and fear was no longer crippling. This is the power of God for us who are trusting in Jesus and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God has given us everything we need to overcome the fear of death and to face persecution with boldness.
As we live our lives, let us not be caught off guard like my friend and his church. Instead, let us have peace in the midst of persecution, knowing that God was sovereign over Jesus’ death, God is sovereign over every detail of our lives, and God is the one who enables us to endure suffering.