Posted by Benjamin Kwashi, 6 Mar 2020
Bishop Ben Kwashi explains the blessings of being persecuted.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
Does persecution bring benefits? If so, what?
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
For the last thirty years or so, Northern Nigeria, where I live, has seen a series of riots, persecutions and destruction. Sometimes whole families or communities are decimated; sometimes it is individuals who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who refused to deny Christ, choosing rather to be killed. In the vast majority of instances the names of these martyrs will be known and remembered only by their close relatives — and by the Lord. Some were those who were working for peace and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians; some were pastors; many were ordinary church members.
No-one in their right mind actually wants persecution; persecution is something which we work to eliminate. Modern translations which render Matthew 5:10 as “Happy are you who are persecuted” may encourage a dangerously wrong interpretation of Christian faith and practice. Suffering and persecution do not ensure a safe passage to heaven! We should not look for suffering. We must debunk the idea that passively accepting a state of suffering is a sign of being a believer.
Persecution and suffering are, however, part of life. God has never promised his people that they would escape all trouble, but he has always promised to go through the troubles with us. This is clear even in the Old Testament:
But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze. (Isaiah 43:1-2)
Jesus himself reinforces this not only with the promise that he will always be with his people, but also that his power has been proved greater than any evil. He said: ‘In this world you will have trouble [‘face persecution’, NRSV]. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33).
In the New Testament and throughout the years since then it has been clear that those who carry the message of the gospel will not always be welcomed; there will be intimidation, persecution, humiliation, and suffering. St. Paul, for example, knew all of these, but he refused to give up. Always, under all circumstances, his reason for living was to ‘press on’ with the gospel (Philippians 3:12).
Spreading the word
Stephen was one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to help with the administration and running of the early church. Stephen, however, was also a gifted preacher and teacher, and his bold and faithful ministry aroused such hatred that he was arrested and condemned to death. Thereafter persecution increased against all the Christians. One effect of this was that the Christians scattered, and of course they took their faith with them. In this way the gospel spread over a wide area, and more and more people eagerly listened as the gospel was proclaimed and explained to them. The gospel was moving on, and many responded — no matter the cost.
Still today, in various countries and situations many who come forward for baptism, do so knowing that they will be turned out of their homes, disowned by their family and abused by their former friends. It was to meet such a situation that Peter wrote his first letter to reassure and to bring hope to those who were beginning to face the storms of persecution. The letter instructs us and points us to the basis of our faith, Jesus Christ, our hope, now and for ever. Peter points to the glory of God’s calling: Christians are God’s chosen people, heirs of God’s blessing — but Christians are also called to suffer, to endure unjust abuse and undeserved persecution. This is our calling because it was Christ’s calling, and we are called to follow his example (1 Peter 2:21). Christ suffered for our sake, and as we follow him, we suffer for his sake and for the sake of bringing others to know him.
Questions for Reflection
1. How can persecution strengthen our faith?
2. How are persecution and evangelism linked? Can you think of examples from the Bible and from today?
3. In Acts 7:59-8:8, what do you think was the effect of Stephen’s death on (a) the church (b) the opponents of the gospel?
Almighty and most merciful Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ suffered pain, abuse, and death
that we might know freedom, joy, and life:
Strengthen, we pray, those who are suffering for the gospel now,
and grant to all your people such trust in you
that we may faithfully serve you in this life
and finally be with you in the kingdom of heaven.
Grant this for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ,
Benjamin Kwashi is the Bishop of Jos in Nigeria and General Secretary of GAFCON
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