In light of the brutal murder of 21 Christians in Egypt this weekend, I received a good question yesterday about suffering: “How do we apply the passages on persecution when we in the West don’t have much of it?”
Here are some examples of passages that are commonly referred to:
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29)
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12)
““Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)
The first step in this is define what we mean by persecution. At its core we are talking about active opposition to the people of God because of their commitment to Christ. This obviously has varying levels. There is the boldest and most extreme, which involves the torture and murder of someone for their faith. The watching world was horrified to see this take place this weekend with the beheading of 21 Christians in Egypt by Islamic terrorists. There is also the far less intense persecution that comes simply from claiming Christ as Lord. This may include shunning from family, lose of promotion, mocking, ridicule, or other forms of opposition.
When we think about persecution it is important to note that there are varying levels of it but one stream: it is about opposition to Christ.
Secondly, when we are thinking about opposition, it is helpful to remember the fact that persecution is not primarily about individual Christians but the entire body of Christ, and Jesus Christ our Lord. The Bible portrays persecution as a communal reality where individuals, even in different locations, share in the persecution. In some cases the word that is often translated fellowship (koinōnos) is used to capture this sharing of sufferings. In other words, believers share, or have fellowship in the sufferings of other Christians because they are part of the body of Christ. Let me give you some examples:
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.” (Hebrews 10:32-33)
“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:7)
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” (Philippians 4:14)
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,” (2 Timothy 1:8)
What’s more, the Apostle Paul saw that the suffering that he endured was what was required or designed for the church to endure as she continued on the faithful testimony of Christ. This is why he could rejoice in his sufferings. This does not mean that the cross was in some way insufficient but that the ongoing ministry of Christ’s church includes suffering; it is not an accident.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” (Colossians 1:24)
When we think about persecution it is important to remember the corporate nature of suffering. As our brothers and sisters suffer, we are to share in this suffering.
How do we do this? Well, by thinking rightly about it, rejoicing in it as part of God’s wise design, praying for those suffering, showing compassion to them (Heb. 10.34), and preparing ourselves to do the same thing if called to. My eschatology is more pessimistic than optimistic; things are going to get worse. It is important to settle the issue of loyalty to Christ within a proper framework of suffering now. This we do even as we share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Thy Kingdom Come…”