Christians Must Expect Persecution
“All those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.”—2 Tim. 3:12.
1. As we read the Bible’s account of persecution of God’s servants, what questions arise in our minds?
EVERYONE who has read the Bible is familiar with the many accounts of the persecution of servants of God because of their faithfulness in his service. This persecution has taken the form of verbal abuse, imprisonment, beating and even death. Outstanding examples of faithfulness in the face of persecution are Job, Daniel when in the den of lions, Paul who “five times received forty strokes less one,” and, above all, Christ Jesus who surrendered his very life to persecutors. The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews gives this description of the sufferings of faithful servants of God in pre-Christian times: “They were stoned, they were tried, they were sawn asunder, they died by slaughter with the sword, they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, while they were in want, in tribulation, under ill-treatment . . . They wandered about in deserts and mountains and dens and caves of the earth.” Even as we read this graphic account we are moved to ask: Why? Yes, why should a faithful servant of God have to suffer such ill-treatment? Could God not protect him? And do Christians of today have to expect such persecution? If so, how can they faithfully endure it and come out victorious?—2 Cor. 11:24; Heb. 11:37, 38.
2, 3. (a) Where do we have to look to find the origin of this persecution? (b) What led up to the establishment of enmity between Satan and the servants of Jehovah?
2 For the origin of this persecution and the reason for it we must go right back to the beginning of the Bible and find it in the first three chapters 1-3 of Genesis. Here we read of the creation of the earth and the forming of it for human habitation. Finally, we get the account of the creation of the first man, Adam, and then his wife, Eve. In kindness, God gave them instructions for living and keeping in harmony with their Creator. They were given great freedom to move around in their paradise home and eat of the fruit and vegetation they found there. Adding to their joy was the loving dominion they were given over the animal creation in the garden, and the marvelous prospect of raising a family in these happy conditions. (Gen. 1:28-30) Righteously, God gave them the requirement of obedience to him, and this meant abstaining from eating the fruit of a certain tree in the garden. Of course, this was not a hardship, since there were many other trees from which they could eat to satisfaction. (Gen. 2:17) God did not hide from them the fact that disobedience to this simple requirement would mean loss of their lives.
3 At this point a third party entered the garden in the form of a serpent. Speaking cunningly to the woman, he seduced her by false promises to eat of the forbidden fruit. Later, Adam joined her in this act of rebellion against God. For this they were justly sentenced to death by God. Going on further to deal with the serpent, God said: “And I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you in the head and you will bruise him in the heel.” (Gen. 3:15) The serpent really meant is elsewhere identified as Satan, the Devil. (Rev. 12:9) The woman is shown to be God’s great heavenly organization of holy creatures, represented as his wife. (Rev. 12:1-6; Isa. 54:1-6) In this sentence expressed against Satan, Jehovah God established that enmity or hatred would exist between Satan and the seed or offspring of God’s woman. Only the final destruction of Satan would put an end to this enmity.
4. How has Satan’s enmity expressed itself, and why, especially in this period of time, must we prepare to endure persecution?
4 The reproach and persecution that has been heaped upon servants of the true God ever since that time has been the expression of Satan’s enmity as foretold by Jehovah. By thus violently opposing these servants of God, Satan has been trying to cause them to turn against Jehovah, just as he did in the case of the first human pair. This fiery hatred of Satan has not burned itself out during the almost six thousand years since it was originated in Eden. In Jesus’ day it blazed furiously against him as Satan tried to stamp out this promised ‘seed of the woman.’ Jesus warned his followers that the same persecution would also be heaped upon them. “Bear in mind the word I said to you, A slave is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) And now, in the time of the end of this system of things, Satan’s enmity against Jehovah’s servants reaches new heights of violence and fury, just as John said at Revelation 12:13-17. Yes, he knows full well his end is approaching (Rev. 12:12), and he will not desist from expressing his bitter enmity against all who serve Jehovah. That enmity will subside only when “the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan,” is crushed under the heel of the seed of God’s woman right after Armageddon. So, we must prepare to endure persecution.—Rev. 12:9; 19:11 to 20:3.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF PERSECUTION
5. What is one of the milder forms of persecution, and should it dismay us?
5 Throughout the Scriptures we read of many different kinds of persecution used by the adversary against Jehovah’s faithful servants, all of which are still used by him today. One of the milder forms of persecution is verbal abuse. The purpose of this is not only to cause the servant of God to shrink back but to poison the minds of others so that they will not listen to the preaching of the good news. Of course, no one likes to have vile language hurled at him or lies told about him. But Jesus said that this was no cause for alarm but, rather, the contrary. “Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every sort of wicked thing against you for my sake.” And just why should we be happy under such unpleasant treatment? “Rejoice and leap for joy, since your reward is great in the heavens; for in that way they persecuted the prophets prior to you.”—Matt. 5:11, 12.
6. What did Jesus say about opposition from relatives, and how does Job’s experience help us to endure this?
6 A subtler form of persecution and one that is often very hard to bear is opposition from relatives. Sometimes newly converted Christians find that relatives whom they love dearly and who have always been very close to them now begin to oppose and persecute them, because of their new way of life. The faithful man Job had this to bear at the height of his suffering. After his losing almost everything he had, his wife turned against him, saying: “Are you yet holding fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9; 19:17) But Job, although in great pain and, no doubt, cut to the quick by this unkind onslaught from one who should have comforted him, held fast his integrity to Jehovah. And so must we under similar trials, hard though it may be. Jesus said it would happen this way: “For I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a young wife against her mother-in-law. Indeed, a man’s enemies will be persons of his own household.”—Matt. 10:35, 36.
7. What is the right attitude toward imprisonment as a form of persecution?
7 A favorite method of persecution used by Satan is imprisonment. He has often used this after making false charges, as was the case with Jacob’s son Joseph, thrown into an Egyptian prison on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. This must have been very hard for Joseph to bear, knowing full well he was innocent of the vile charge. What did he do? Make a jailbreak and set himself free and try to vindicate himself of the false charges? No, indeed, Joseph did no such thing. He patiently waited for Jehovah to set him free in His own time and way. This is exactly what Jehovah did, and it resulted in Joseph’s being exalted to a high position under Pharaoh, and being used further by Jehovah for his own glory and praise. What a wonderful reward for Joseph for faithful endurance under persecution!
8. From what other examples of imprisonment of Jehovah’s servants can we draw courage?
8 Other servants of God, such as the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul were thrown into prison because of their boldness in speaking the truth of God’s Word although forbidden to do so. It is always the public declaration of the truths of Jehovah’s purposes that the adversary wishes to stop. Because of their faithfulness as Jehovah’s witnesses in preaching the good news thousands of our brothers were thrown into prisons and concentration camps in Hitler’s Germany. Thousands of others have suffered similar persecution in Communist prison camps. One brother recently released spent twenty-four years in Nazi and Communist prisons and refused to compromise. Many in Nazi prisons could have bought their release by renouncing their faith, but they never have it a moment’s consideration. Indeed, they continued preaching in prison and found many of Jehovah’s “sheep” there. In all these trials they were sustained by God’s promise at Revelation 2:10: “Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil will keep on throwing some of you into prison that you may be fully put to the test.” Yes, they were “fully put to the test” and proved to themselves that Jehovah could bring them through.
9. How has the adversary used physical violence as a form of persecution?
9 Going farther than simple imprisonment, persecution in Bible times often took the form of violent physical abuse. The apostles were ordered to be flogged by the Jewish Supreme Court to try to discourage them from preaching about Jesus’ resurrection. (Acts 5:40) Paul and Silas had their clothes torn from them and were then beaten with rods at Philippi because of their Christian missionary activity. (Acts 16:22, 23) More recently, in Africa, hundreds of our brothers were rounded up by soldiers and cruelly beaten with the butts of rifles in order to try to compel them to worship a national emblem idolatrously.
10. How has mob violence been used against Christians?
10 Mob violence is another weapon of persecution used by Satan both in Bible times and today. It was used by the Jews against Jesus Christ, after his outspoken preaching in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth had outraged their religious susceptibilities. (Luke 4:28, 29) The apostle Paul was the object of mob action on at least two occasions, at Thessalonica and at Lystra, where Paul was so severely stoned by the mob that he was dragged outside the city and left for dead. But Paul recovered and, with marvelous courage, went back into the city to strengthen the disciples there, encouraging them to remain in the faith, saying: “We must enter into the kingdom of God through many tribulations.” (Acts 14:19-22; 17:5) Thousands of our brothers in the United States and other countries have courageously endured mob action in recent years and have had their faith strengthened thereby.
11. (a) What is the ultimate weapon of persecutors, and what encouraging examples of faithfulness until death do we have? (b) What can strengthen us to faithfulness in the face of violent death?
11 The ultimate weapon of persecutors is death. This too has been extensively used by Satan as he has been permitted by Jehovah. In the early days of the young Christian congregation the brothers were strengthened by the magnificent example of Stephen, stoned to death by a fanatical mob of Jewish religious leaders. Later, the apostle James was put to death by the sword at the hands of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 7:57-60; 12:1, 2) The finest example of faithfulness to death under persecution is the Lord Jesus Christ. Concerning him Paul says: “For the joy that was set before him he endured a torture stake, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) It takes courage to remain steadfast in the face of certain death. It was courage that enabled Jonathan Stark to face death by hanging with complete composure, in the fall of 1944 in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. As the hangman, a hardened criminal, hesitated, and as the camp commander forgot to shout his orders, Jonathan spoke up: “Why are you hesitating? Take your stand for Jehovah and for Gideon.” What is it that enables Christians to look violent death in the face without a tremor? It is their sure hope in Jehovah’s promise to resurrect them even as he resurrected Jesus Christ. “Prove yourself faithful even to death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10) “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”—Matt. 10:28.
CHRISTIAN CONDUCT UNDER PERSECUTION
12, 13. (a) Are we surprised when persecution arises and why do you so answer? (b) What should be our reaction to verbal abuse?
12 Since persecution is clearly something that Jehovah allows to come upon his servants as a test of their integrity, we should not be surprised when persecution of one kind or another arises. Indeed, if we are not having to endure some such trial, we wonder if we are really on the Christian path. Of course, not everyone has to face death in order to experience the hatred of the adversary. Sometimes it is simply the verbal abuse that eventually is heaped upon all who share in the Christian’s work of preaching the good news from house to house. In this case, what should be the reaction of the Christian preacher?
13 The best way to answer this question is to ask: What would Christ Jesus do? We do not have to guess the answer, for it is given for us in 1 Peter 2:23: “When he was being reviled, he did not go reviling in return. When he was suffering, he did not go threatening, but kept on committing himself to the one who judges righteously.” If Jesus had reviled those who abused him, he would have degraded himself to their low level and he would have become like the Devil, which name means “Slanderer.” He would have denied the purpose for which he was born, which was to “bear witness to the truth,” not to be a slanderer of those who opposed him. (John 18:37) Jesus knew that any abusive speech hurled at him was only by permission of his Father, and so he demonstrated complete submission to the will of Jehovah by enduring this persecution in silence. When we are similarly subjected to derisive speech and lying accusations, there may even be an opportunity to make a mild-tempered answer, as Paul showed. “When being reviled, we bless; when being persecuted, we bear up; when being defamed, we entreat.” (1 Cor. 4:12, 13) When hot and angry words are being poured out, a quiet word can often be like oil on troubled waters. “A mild tongue itself can break a bone.” (Prov. 25:15) Yes, one who is so opposed that his spirit is as hard as bone can sometimes be entreated by a quiet answer.—Prov. 15:1.
14. (a) What understanding will help us to withstand persecution? (b) How did the apostles demonstrate the right outlook on persecution?
14 To be able to withstand bitter persecution over a long period of time we must understand why it is permitted. When we have studied the Bible and know the origin of wickedness, then we know that Satan is completely committed to trying to destroy the faith of every individual who serves God. We know that if we are to be blessed by Jehovah with life everlasting in his New Order, then our fitness to live there must first be proved. Our integrity and steadfastness must be tested. Jehovah has told us he will permit Satan to bring persecution upon us for this purpose and our faithful endurance will prove to be a vindication of his great Name. Knowing this, we can even rejoice under persecution as the apostles did. The Acts of the Apostles is a thrilling record of the testing of the faith of that small band of Christians. They were thrown into jail, and when God’s angel miraculously released them they immediately resumed their preaching in a bold manner. Once more they were haled before the Supreme Court of the Jews. Although they were commanded to stop preaching about the resurrected Jesus, they boldly replied: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) This time they were flogged and ordered to preach no more. Did this finally silence them? Did the increasing severity of the persecution now daunt them and make them hide away? Read the answer in Acts 5:41, 42: “These, therefore, went their way from before the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of his name. And every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.” Yes, they were happy that Jehovah had given them this opportunity of demonstrating their burning love for him. That is the right outlook on persecution.
15. What should be our attitude toward men who persecute us? Give examples.
15 But what should be our attitude toward the men inflicting the persecution? Jesus gave the simple answer: “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” (Matt. 5:44) Is this humanly possible? Could our brothers in Germany feel love for their Nazi persecutors who brutally beat them with steel whips until they were unconscious, who compelled elderly persons to do hard labor and bear heavy burdens until they collapsed, and who kept them so short of food that many became so weak that they were too helpless to resist the rats that gnawed them to death? Could they still show love to men who treated them so inhumanly? It depends on what kind of love you mean. They could obviously not feel brotherly affection for them as indicated by the Greek word philia. But what of the unselfish, principled love known by the Greeks as agape? Yes, that kind of love they could and did show. By continuing to preach to their persecutors, by manifesting Christian principles in dealing with them, they showed such love and this even resulted in some of the persecutors’ becoming Jehovah’s witnesses.
16. What outlook will help us to show love to human persecutors?
16 Some persecutors, however, carry on their ill-treatment of Christians in ignorance. Many are blinded to the truth of God’s Word by Satan, who presents himself as an angel of light. (2 Cor. 4:4; 11:14) When we can see Satan as the original and chief persecutor of the servants of God, and men as simply his tools, it helps us to take a more loving attitude toward human persecutors. Stephen saw things this way and, even as he was dying, cried out: “Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them.”—Acts 7:60.
17. Name two good things that can result from persecution.
17 So persecution should not always be regarded as a bad thing. It often has good results when we faithfully endure it. First, it strengthens us individually, providing we understand it and why Jehovah permits it. One who has undergone persecution because of his faith and has come out victorious with the backing of Jehovah’s holy spirit feels a sense of joy beyond description. He is grateful to Jehovah for allowing him to demonstrate his faithfulness and for giving him the strength to endure. He is drawn much closer to Jehovah. Secondly, our faithfulness under opposition is often a source of strength to our fellow believers. Paul’s faithful endurance in prison bonds and his boldness in continuing to preach the good news in that condition had a very strengthening effect on many of the Roman Christians. “My prison bonds have become public knowledge in association with Christ among all the praetorian guard and all the rest; and most of the brothers in the Lord, feeling confidence by reason of my prison bonds, are showing all the more courage to speak the word of God fearlessly.”—Phil. 1:13, 14.
18. What other good result can come from faithful endurance under persecution?
18 A third fine result of faithful endurance under persecution is that Jehovah’s name is honored. “For if someone, because of conscience toward God, bears up under grievous things and suffers unjustly, this is an agreeable thing. For what merit is there in it if, when you are sinning and being slapped, you endure it? But if, when you are doing good and you suffer, you endure it, this is a thing agreeable with God.” (1 Pet. 2:19, 20) Jehovah is always pleased when we take a wise and upright course. He says: “Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me.” (Prov. 27:11) From the time of Adam’s fall Satan has taunted Jehovah. If we fail to endure under persecution, we just give Satan a further reason for taunting God. But when we draw strength from God’s Word and his holy spirit, and stand firm under all kinds of opposition, we give Jehovah a living answer to the taunter. Then Satan has to turn away without satisfaction. We do want to make Jehovah glad, do we not? Then let us joyfully, yes, happily, suffer shame on account of his matchless name.
19. Why do we not need to be ashamed when persecuted for serving Jehovah?
19 Looking at persecution in this way, we will never be ashamed. Although we are “objects of hatred by all people” on account of Christ’s name and are regarded as “the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things,” we have no reason to be alarmed or concerned. (Matt. 10:22; 1 Cor. 4:13) That was how Paul felt about it as he said to Timothy: “Therefore do not become ashamed of the witness about our Lord, neither of me a prisoner for his sake . . . For this very cause I am also suffering these things, but I am not ashamed.” (2 Tim. 1:8, 12) With this Peter also agreed. “But if he suffers as a Christian, let him not feel shame, but let him keep on glorifying God in this name.” (1 Pet. 4:16) If we are convinced that our belief is right and we are doing God’s will, then all the shameful treatment, abuse and persecution we shall have to endure will not make us discouraged or quit Jehovah’s service. This has proved true in the case of Jehovah’s witnesses in Portugal in modern times. Though an entire congregation was recently arrested, brought to trial and falsely condemned, this has not made Jehovah’s witnesses in that land forsake the service of their God.
20. How can we be sure that we can even stand alone under persecution?
20 Our confidence in Jehovah will enable us, if necessary, to stand alone under persecution. The faithful man Job stood such a test without human help or consolation, and Jehovah kindly sustained him. “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome Jehovah gave, that Jehovah is very tender in affection and merciful.” (Jas. 5:11) Paul, too, had to take such a lone stand in Rome and came out victorious. “In my first defense no one came to my side, but they all proceeded to forsake me—may it not be put to their account—but the Lord stood near me and infused power into me, that through me the preaching might be fully accomplished and all the nations might hear it; and I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will deliver me from every wicked work and will save me for his heavenly kingdom.” (2 Tim. 4:16-18) In our own times we have seen the steadfast examples of brothers like Stanley Jones and Harold King, who endured up to seven years and five years respectively of solitary confinement in Communist China’s prisons. Surely, Jehovah does not forsake those who put their whole trust and confidence in him. “Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”—Heb. 13:6.
21. In spite of certain persecution, why can we face the future with full confidence?
21 Keeping Jehovah’s sure promises in mind and remembering the faithful example of our brothers under persecution, we do not need to fear the future, even though it will bring down upon us all of Satan’s fiery wrath, his death throes. We know that Jehovah is allowing us to undergo a testing for the proving of our faith and for the vindication of his great Name. We know too that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but along with the temptation he will also make the way out in order for you to be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) For this reason we will face the future with full faith and confidence, assured that we can overcome “all the wicked one’s burning missiles.” (Eph. 6:16) And finally we shall be able to cry out joyfully: “Thanks to God, for he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”—1 Cor. 15:57.