Persecution is generally defined as severe harassment and punishment on some people based on their religion, race, or a different political party. In the early church, the devil attacked the early believers by two main strategies: outwardly, thru persecution and inwardly, thru infiltration of false brethren. In the history of Christianity, persecution tended to strengthen the church. The false brethren coming with false teachings are more dangerous. These tend to divide and scatter the church. These evil attacks started almost immediately. But nothing could stop the growth of the church. It is now part of church’ history that the early believers were terribly persecuted, first by the Jewish religious leaders and later by the Roman Empire.

Just the way God’s true prophets were rejected by the people of Israel in the Old Testament, so Jesus was rejected by the religious rulers in Israel. Jesus told His disciples that they too will suffer rejection from the world, especially from the religious world. This rejection is a form of persecution. The early Christians were prepared for persecution and even expected it. Jesus warned them that the world (the unbelievers) will hate and persecute them. He also said that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth and will comfort them when they are persecuted. Without the Holy Spirit’s encouragement, the persecution of the Christians was enough to destroy the church. This is a reminder to us of the mighty power released by the coming of the Holy Spirit in the church. Halleluiah!  Listen to our Lord’s warning: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake because they do not know Him who sent Me” (Jn 15:18-21).

Immediately after the killing of Stephen great persecution started against the Church. Like the seeds from the hand of the Sower, most of the disciples ran away from Jerusalem, spreading the Gospel. The Apostles remained in Jerusalem. They stayed there to continue to lead the church from the ‘headquarter’. Godly men buried Stephen. These men may be Jewish silent converts, the way Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were, who buried Jesus. They mourned deeply for him. This is a picture of godly repentance that leads to salvation. This burial is so different than the way Ananias and Saphira were buried when none mourned for them.

Saul of Tarsus, extremely zealous for his Jewish faith, and hating the Christians, became the leader of the persecution. “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Ac 8:3).  The words ‘made havoc’ means to cause great and wide destruction like a tornado. It means to cause great confusion in the church. In Greek, the words ‘made havoc of the church’ mean to destroy, to maltreat, and to insult the believers. He ‘dragged them off’ by force from their houses and put them in prison. The women were strong believers too and were not afraid to stand for Jesus. The Christians were called ‘the followers of the Way’ because Jesus said He is the only Way to God (Jn 14:6).  According to Apostle Paul’s confession later, it seems that in prison the believers were tortured, and many killed. “I persecuted and pursued the followers of this Way to the death, binding them with chains and putting [followers of Jesus] both men and women into prisons” (Ac 22:4; AMP). The devil was behind this persecution, but he failed to destroy the church. Peter encouraged the believers: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16).

What are some of the effects of persecution?

*Persecution separated the true from the false believers. The unbelievers went back to the world. God allowed it to keep the church pure.

*Persecution increased the faith and the assurance of salvation of all true believers. The believers were sure that they have eternal life and nothing, not even death, can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus! “Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, should not be made perfect apart from us” (Heb 11: 35-40). They learned how to be faithful and patiently endure trials. They lost the fear of death. Like Apostle Paul they were sure that ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21). This endurance developed spiritual maturity and strong moral character. The effect was great hope for the future. “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3,4).   

*They understood and trusted Jesus in a new way, especially as their High Priest in heaven who is praying for them. They knew that Jesus feels their pain, and that they are not alone. “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). When Stephen was dying, he saw Jesus standing (not sitting on His throne). Stephen was greatly encouraged by this vision. As he lay down dying, he took it as a sign that Jesus is with him preparing to receive him in heaven. “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55, 56).   

*They were sure that Jesus will reward them for their faithfulness during persecution. “That is why they felt blessed, or happy. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mat 5:10-12)

*Many of the unbelievers who witnessed the killings of the Christians, became saved. They saw that the Christians were faithful to Jesus unto death. They were not afraid to die. That attitude touched many of them. The most famous of these religious unbelievers is Saul who became the Apostle Paul. He approved and witnessed the killing of Stephen. He never forgot his great peace, and his face like an angel, as he was dying. He did not forget that before his death Stephen prayed for forgiveness for his killers, including himself. Later, apostle Paul was persecuted more than others. He saw God working in all his trials. When he was in the prison in Rome, the Roman soldiers who guarded him became saved. “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil 1:12-14). This is how the church grew! Worship the Lord!

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