When Christians Face Persecution: Theological Perspectives from the New Testament

Written by Chee-Chiew Lee Reviewed By Luke Johnson

The annals of church history show that God’s people always experience persecution. The apostle Paul, a former persecutor, wrote, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Because Christians continue to face opposition, Chee-Chiew Lee, associate professor of New Testament at Singapore Bible College, offers When Christians Face Persecution to help the church better understand persecution by examining theological perspectives from the New Testament. The book seeks to answer a central question of how the New Testament authors interpreted, developed, and reapplied Christ’s teachings in their contexts. Lee aims to formulate a New Testament theology of suffering and persecution to bridge to contemporary contexts.

In the introduction, Lee defines persecution as “the unjust treatment meted out to people due to their faith in Jesus Christ as their God, and their Lord and Saviour” (p. 2). Building upon this definition, Lee distinguishes persecution from opposition and martyrdom. She then introduces three aspects of studying persecution in the New Testament context: the reasons for persecution, the responses to persecution, and the overall message of perseverance in persecution. These three areas form the three major parts of the book.

Lee first investigates why persecution occurred in the New Testament context. Polytheism in the Greco-Roman world created an atmosphere of religious pragmatism, where the populace worshipped different gods for favorable results. While the Roman Empire generally allowed people to practice local religions, they wanted to maintain the pax deorum, the “peace among the gods” (p. 14). The monotheistic Jewish worldview clashed with the Romans, particularly when Messianic expectations became political. Christians experienced opposition as they proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and Lord, with non-Jews interpreting the message as cultural subversion and Jews rejecting Jesus as the Christ. Beyond these visible reasons, the New Testament also presents Satan as an invisible source to influence and instigate persecution.

Second, Lee examines New Testament responses to persecution. As Christians faced official and non-official persecution, they responded in three main ways. First, they stood firm against calls to compromise and used persecution as an opportunity for witness. Second, some professing Christians apostatized or assimilated into the world to avoid persecution. Third, the church allowed some accommodation and adaptation for those who secretly believed in or temporarily denied Christ. Individuals like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Peter found grace from New Testament authors because courage or repentance later occurred. As Lee notes, “New Testament authors hold on to the same base line—faithfulness to Christ” (p. 93).

The book’s third main section is the longest and discusses the New Testament’s central message regarding how believers are to respond to persecution: perseverance. Living amid a Greco-Roman culture that valued honor and shame, remaining steadfast despite persecution provided a source of honor (cf. Acts 5:41). Using the literary devices of logic and emotion (ethos, logos, and pathos), the New Testament authors call their audience to persevere in the faith no matter how difficult the mistreatment. Believers will overcome because they fear God more than man and consider suffering for Jesus worth their lives (pp. 152–55).

Lee concludes the book by offering personal reflections on how to apply her content to contemporary contexts. She calls readers to embrace the New Testament theme of perseverance yet maintain a charitable attitude toward different responses to persecution. Empathizing with Christians who experience persecution rather than casting judgment displays Christlikeness and encourages the global church to remain loyal to Jesus.

Readers of Lee’s work will appreciate that she allows the New Testament authors to speak for themselves. While offering insight and occasionally making interpretive claims, Lee intends simply to report the facts, and she does not diminish the voice of the original writers to project her own. The first section’s historical context provides a solid footing for examining persecution in the New Testament. In the second section, Lee neither ignores the fear of persecution nor minimizes the temptation toward and consequences of wrong responses to persecution. The third section offers a valuable overview of the theme of perseverance from several books in the New Testament.

While Lee is faithful to engage some of the New Testament in her writing, she does not present a comprehensive treatment of persecution in the New Testament. Ephesians and James, two letters that discuss spiritual warfare and trials, are absent from her work. The Johannine epistles and Jude also merit inspection for added insights into perseverance, yet they are not featured in Lee’s investigation. Given that this book intends to present a New Testament perspective on persecution, one would expect more attention to these books and their contribution.

Overall, however, Lee accomplishes her task laudably. She answers her central question by overviewing several New Testament books and eliciting their teaching about persecution. Lee reminds all believers that God’s truth, which they study and prize, is worth the distress they face. Lee’s work should enjoy a wide readership in the church and among those who recognize Christian persecution around the globe. The book offers hope to believers who know suffering for Christ as a living, daily reality. It also reminds believers in contexts with less current suffering to prepare to persevere and to pray for their brothers and sisters in more persecution-heavy places.

Luke Johnson

Luke Johnson
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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