The New Testament church faced persecution from its inception. As the church grew and its influence spread from Jerusalem throughout Israel and to the rest of the Roman Empire, persecution grew more intense. But at no time was any of it out of God’s control. In fact, He used the persecution to scatter believers — and with them, the gospel — across the known world.
As we’ve seen over and over through our series on persecution, God is never caught off guard by our suffering and trials. On the contrary, He’s at work in the midst of all our circumstances, directing all things for His glory and our good (Romans 8:28). So rather than running from persecution, we need to look for what the Lord is accomplishing in the midst of it.
To help us understand how to biblically respond to persecution, we’ve been looking at a key episode in the life of the early church. In Acts 3, Peter and John healed a crippled man and preached a compelling gospel message to the awestruck crowd. That powerful moment was quickly interrupted by the temple officials, who arrested Peter and John and brought them before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4). Since they had broken no laws, the religious leaders tried to intimidate them into silence. Their plan did not work, and they were forced to release the two.
Acts 4:23 tells us that Peter and John returned to their friends and fellow believers to recount their imprisonment and trial. Undoubtedly the apostles warned that the same thing could happen to any of them. Christ’s warnings to the apostles about the persecution they would face for His sake were coming true (John 15:18; 16:1-4).
In previous posts we’ve drawn lessons from Peter and John’s response to the Sanhedrin. Today we want to draw three lessons from the response of the entire church to persecution.
After hearing Peter and John’s story, the whole body of believers prayed to the Lord.
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’ For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. (Acts 4:24-28)
The immediate response to persecution was praise to God. They recognize God’s absolute control in all things, and their role as His slaves. It’s a beautiful expression of confidence in God’s authority as Creator and Sustainer, and in His might to see them through any opposition or persecution.
And by acknowledging the invisible hand of God at work in the actions of Herod, Pilate, and everyone else who contributed to the murder of Jesus, they’re expressing their faith that the Lord is always at work in the midst of even the worst crises.
That attitude is critical when it comes to bearing up under persecution. The believer’s comfort in suffering comes from the firm confidence that God’s plans have not been thwarted, but that they are always unfolding in every situation. Our circumstances are never outside the power and purpose of the Lord. Persecuted believers need to find confidence and comfort in the preordained plans of our sovereign God. We need to look at our own suffering the way Joseph did, saying “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Another principle stands out about how the early church responded to persecution. After praising and thanking the Lord for His sovereignty, they made a prayerful request to Him. But it wasn’t for deliverance, as we might assume. Instead, they prayed for greater boldness in the face of persecution.
And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29-30)
Slaves don’t question their Master, and they don’t recommend alternative solutions to Him. The early church understood that the persecution they faced was part of the work the Lord prepared for them, and they accepted it as part of His sovereign plan.
Their request was for greater boldness in the face of opposition, and for the Lord to keep performing miracles to verify the gospel they preached. They weren’t concerned with their own safety but with the continued spread of the gospel. They didn’t want persecution to hinder or silence the preaching of God’s truth, so they petitioned the Lord for His sustaining grace and bold confidence in the face of persecution.
And that’s a prayer God loves to answer in the affirmative. “And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).
Persecution propelled the church toward thankful praise, bold proclamation, and finally, close fellowship.
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. (Acts 4:32)
We’ve already discussed how persecution purges the church of false teachers and phony believers, and how that leaves a purer church body, more fit for use and service to the Lord. It also stimulates fellowship and unity within the church. Persecution causes you to depend on your brothers and sisters in the faith. It knits your hearts together in fellowship, as you bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
Persecution inevitably produces unity, as the church supports and sustains each other in the midst of persecution. That support for each other is an expression of their mutual love for Christ. In the midst of suffering believers circle the wagons, protecting, defending, and encouraging one another. Individually they hold tightly together as they collectively cling to the promises and provision of God.
Today, believers stand on the shoulders of the faithful persecuted Christians who came before us. We owe a great debt to the early church fathers, the heroes of the Reformation, the Puritans, and countless others who history does not remember by name, but who nevertheless played an important part in sustaining and extending the reach of the gospel in the face of persecution.
As our world grows more hostile to the truth of God’s Word, let us commit to carrying on that legacy of faithfulness as we respond biblically to persecution.
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