Harassment or injury that is deliberately inflicted on persons because of social status, racial origin, or religious faith and beliefs, the purpose in the latter instance being to stamp out such beliefs and prevent their spread among new converts. The Hebrew verb ra·dhaphʹ and the Greek di·oʹko, which mean “persecute,” can also be rendered “pursue, chase.”—Ex 15:9; De 1:44; Ro 14:19; Lu 17:23.
Persecution takes various forms. It may be limited to verbal abuse, ridicule, and insults (2Ch 36:16; Ac 19:9), or it may include economic pressures (Re 13:16, 17), bodily injury (Mt 27:29, 30; Ac 5:40), imprisonment (Lu 21:12; Ac 16:22-24), hatred, and even death. (Mt 24:9; Ac 12:2) It may be promoted by religious authorities (Mr 3:6; Ac 24:1, 27), or it may be carried out by uninformed persons (Ge 21:8, 9; Ga 4:29) and ignorant ones (1Ti 1:13) or by unreasoning, fanatical mobs. (Lu 4:28, 29; Ac 14:19; 17:5) But often these parties are only the agents of more powerful and sinister instigators—unseen wicked spirit forces.—Eph 6:11, 12.
In the original prophecy at Genesis 3:14, 15, Jehovah God foretold enmity between “the serpent” and “the woman” and between their respective ‘seeds.’ The Bible as a whole bears witness to the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus clearly identified the serpent as Satan the Devil and at the same time told those persecuting him that they were ‘from their father the Devil,’ hence of his “seed.” (Joh 8:37-59) The book of Revelation shows that such persecution continues down to the time of Christ’s taking power to reign and even thereafter for a period, for when Satan and his angels are cast down to the earth, the dragon ‘persecutes the woman, waging war with the remaining ones of her seed who obey God and bear witness to Jesus.’ (Re 12:7-17) A prominent agent used throughout history by Satan is the “wild beast,” a symbolic figure explained in the article BEASTS, SYMBOLIC (Re 13:1, 7); another is “Babylon the Great,” discussed under the article bearing that heading. (Re 17:5, 6) The Satanic enmity toward those seeking to do God’s will in righteousness and his use of the above-mentioned agencies can be traced throughout all Biblical periods, as the following history shows.
History. Religious persecution has a history, according to Jesus, running all the way back to Adam’s son Cain. (Ge 4:3-8; Mt 23:34, 35) Cain killed his brother Abel because he was motivated by “the wicked one,” Satan the Devil. (1Jo 3:12) The issue involved in Abel’s death centered around faithful worship of Jehovah. (Heb 11:4) Job, a man of God whose name means “Object of Hostility,” in time became a target of wicked persecution instigated by Satan. Job’s wife and three friends were only tools used wittingly or unwittingly by this archenemy of God and man.—Job 1:8–2:9; 19:22, 28.
From time to time rulers of Judah and Israel inflicted much suffering on God’s special representatives. King Saul, for example, made David (‘the man agreeable to God’s heart’; Ac 13:22) the principal target of his hatred. (1Sa 20:31-33; 23:15, 26; Ps 142:6) During the rule of Ahab and Jezebel, many prophets of Jehovah were forced into hiding as fugitives or were killed. (1Ki 18:13, 14; 19:10) King Manasseh shed innocent blood “in very great quantity.” (2Ki 21:16) King Jehoiakim put to death Urijah, “a man prophesying in the name of Jehovah.” (Jer 26:20-23) Jeremiah suffered much persecution at the hands of government officials. (Jer 15:15; 17:18; 20:11; 37:15, 16; 38:4-6) Because of the unfaithfulness of his people Israel, Jehovah allowed other nations to persecute them at times, even to the point of taking them into exile.—De 30:7; La 1:3.
There are other instances where violent persecution, legalized by government decree, was turned loose on those maintaining integrity to Jehovah, as when the three Hebrews were thrown into the fiery furnace and when Daniel was cast to the lions. (Da 3:13-20; 6:4-17) During the reign of Persian King Ahasuerus, assault and persecution flared up against the Jews in general, and against Mordecai in particular, at the instance of wicked Haman the Agagite.—Es 3:1-12; 5:14.
Other sources of persecution may be former associates (1Pe 4:4) or friends and neighbors of one’s hometown. (Jer 1:1; 11:21) Jesus said that close blood relatives, members of one’s own household, would sometimes become rabid persecutors of those believing in him.—Mt 10:21, 35, 36.
The principal human instigators of religious persecution, however, have been the promoters of false religion. This was true in Jeremiah’s case. (Jer 26:11) It was also the experience of the apostle Paul. (Ac 13:6-8; 19:23-29) In the case of Jesus we read that “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Sanhedrin together and . . . Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them: ‘ . . . you do not reason out that it is to your benefit for one man to die in behalf of the people and not for the whole nation to be destroyed.’ . . . Therefore from that day on they took counsel to kill him [Jesus].” (Joh 11:47-53) Before Jesus finally died on the torture stake, he suffered severe persecution in other ways at the hands of ungodly men—supporters of the religious leaders bent on doing away with him.—Mt 26:67; 27:1, 2, 26-31, 38-44.
Persecution of Christians. With the death of Jesus, persecution of faithful servants of Jehovah would not end. This great Prophet had foretold this when, three days before his impalement, he declared to unfaithful Jerusalem: “I am sending forth to you prophets and wise men and public instructors. Some of them you will kill and impale, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city; that there may come upon you all the righteous blood spilled on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.”—Mt 23:34, 35.
Privately, Jesus had also repeatedly warned his disciples, saying, “You will be objects of hatred by all people on account of my name . . . When they persecute you in one city, flee to another.” “A slave is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” “Men will expel you from the synagogue. In fact, the hour is coming when everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God.”—Mt 10:22, 23; Joh 15:20; 16:2.
Soon after Pentecost 33 C.E., there were arrests, threats, and beatings. (Ac 4:1-3, 21; 5:17, 18) Then Stephen was seized and stoned to death, but not before he bore witness against his persecutors, saying, “Which one of the prophets did your forefathers not persecute? Yes, they killed those who made announcement in advance concerning the coming of the righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” (Ac 7:52-60; see also Heb 11:36, 37.) The murder of Stephen was followed by a great siege of persecution led in part by Saul of Tarsus, the results of which scattered the Jerusalem congregation far and wide, but thereby extended the activity of preaching the good news. (Ac 8:1-4; 9:1, 2) Later, Herod Agrippa I had James the brother of John slain with the sword and probably would have done the same thing to Peter had not the angel of Jehovah miraculously rescued him in the dead of night.—Ac 12:1-11.
With his conversion to Christianity, Saul the persecutor became Paul the persecuted, as he says, by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness. This occurred when he finally came to appreciate that he was fighting against the Lord himself. (Ac 9:4, 5; 22:4, 7, 8; 26:11, 14, 15; 1Co 15:9; Ga 1:13, 23; Php 3:6) The account of his ministry and travels thereafter tells how Paul, in turn, experienced much persecution at the hands of Christianity’s enemies.—Ac 13:50; 2Co 6:3-5; 11:23-25; Ga 5:11; 2Ti 3:10, 11.
Persecution of Christians by the authorities of the Roman Empire from and after the days of Nero is a matter of secular history. (See CHRISTIAN.) The charges varied, but the objectives always seemed to be the same, namely, the suppression of Christianity.
Proper Attitude Toward Persecution. If one keeps God’s commandments as a Christian, it is impossible to escape persecution, for “all those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” (2Ti 3:12) Yet true Christians are able to endure all manner of wicked persecution and still maintain a happy attitude free of malice and hatred of the persecutors. This is because they understand the issues involved—the source of the persecution and why it is permitted. Instead of being puzzled and worried over such experiences, they rejoice to share with Christ in the test of loyalty under persecution.—1Pe 4:12-14.
The Christian, however, must be certain that what he suffers is really for a righteous cause. The Bible account and pattern allow for no mixing in politics, plotting of conspiracies, nor any type of criminal activities as the basis for one’s being persecuted. Giving particular stress to this, the apostle urges: “Maintain your conduct fine among the nations, that, in the thing in which they are speaking against you as evildoers, they may as a result of your fine works of which they are eyewitnesses glorify God in the day for his inspection.” (1Pe 2:11, 12) He followed this up with counsel as to subjection to government officials, to slave owners, to husbands, citing the example of Christ Jesus as the model to be followed. (1Pe 2:13-25; 3:1-6) A Christian could be happy if suffering for the sake of righteousness (1Pe 3:13, 14) but should never suffer “as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”—1Pe 4:15, 16.
Christians also appreciate the prize awaiting those who endure. Concerning this reward, Jesus declared: “Happy are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them.” (Mt 5:10) Knowledge of the resurrection hope coupled with knowledge of the One who is the Source of that provision strengthens them. It fortifies them to be loyal to God even if threatened by death at the hands of violent persecutors. As a result of their faith in what Jesus’ death accomplished, they have been emancipated from the fear of such a violent death. (Heb 2:14, 15) The Christian’s mental attitude is important if he is to maintain faithfulness under the pressure of opposition. “Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who . . . became obedient as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake.” (Php 2:5-8) “For the joy that was set before [Jesus] he endured a torture stake, despising shame.”—Heb 12:2; see also 2Co 12:10; 2Th 1:4; 1Pe 2:21-23.
The Christian’s attitude toward the persecutors themselves is also an important factor. Loving one’s enemies and blessing those opposed enables a person to endure. (Mt 5:44; Ro 12:14; 1Co 4:12, 13) This too the Christian knows: Anyone forsaking home and relatives for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven is promised a hundredfold more, but “with persecutions” also. (Mr 10:29, 30) It is true that not everyone who hears the good news of the Kingdom will endure the heat of persecution, and some may attempt to sidestep the issues to avoid trouble. (Mt 13:21; Ga 6:12) But it is better to rely on Jehovah’s strength, praying as David did for deliverance from the persecutors, knowing he will not leave his servants in the lurch. Then one will be able to say with the apostle: “We are coming off completely victorious through him that loved us.”—Ps 7:1; 2Co 4:9, 10; Ro 8:35-37.