Early Church: The persecution of the church has been a common theme throughout the ages. One only needs to read the horrendous accounts in the New Testament of the Apostles and Disciples to see the extent of how difficult a time it was. The brutal stoning death of Stephen highlights what Christians faced in the early church. In Acts 7 we see Stephen defending the Gospel in a Synagogue in Jerusalem. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And having said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. After Stephens death a great persecution came upon the church.” — Acts 7:51–60 — Acts 8:1–3. The event of Stephens death kicked off a terrible time for Christians. Saul, who would later become the Apostle Paul, was at Stephens murder and witnessed it with his own eyes. “And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in Thee. ‘And when the blood of Thy witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the cloaks of those who were slaying him.” — Acts 22:19–20. This event greatly impacted Paul and later in life he would also suffer a martyr’s death. In the days of the early church, there was much suffering and sorrow, yet the Christians of that age endured because they knew this was not their home forever. It’s important to remember these heroes of the past because they stayed the course in the face of hardships. They did not deny Christ, but suffered, even unto death, for the faith. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” — Matthew 5:10–12.
Persecution Dawn: It’s easy to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy today. If you live in the United States, you live in a country that based its laws upon Christian tenets. This has afforded people the right to freely worship Christ Jesus without fear of oppression. However, through the years, there has been an erosion at the moral fabric in our nation to the point that Christianity has become a target. We are not yet at the time where churches are forced underground, but the direction we are headed in our nation is more anti-Christian than pro-Christian. This is distressing because much like the early church and the martyrdom of Stephen, one event could push things over the edge to outright hostility and laws against Christianity. If this last year has taught us anything, it has taught us that global changes can happen rapidly. It might seem far-fetched to some, but be not fooled, the enemy would love nothing more than an opportunity to silence the voice of those who believe in Christ. Around the world, the persecution of believers persists at horrific levels. In some cases, the types of violence against Christians echoes what the early church endured. Look no further than the rise of ISIS (2014–2019) in the Middle East. The Jihadists of ISIS carried out stonings and crucifixions against Christians and anyone else not adhering to their terrorist views. Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, China, etc… all conduct anti-Christian actions. In our years of missions abroad, we have heard horrific stories of what it’s like to be a Christian in some of these repressive countries. It makes you appreciate the simple right to freely worship Jesus. It also makes you want to ensure that these rights and freedoms are never lost. Christians must stand strong upon their foundations and not be shaken. Our beliefs are not based upon the changing tide of society, but the never-changing Word of God. We must hold fast. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “FOR THY SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:35–39.
Worldly Separation: As Christians, we live in the world, but are not of the world. We are sojourners looking for the city whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). Our life does not consist of the things we possess outwardly, but what we possess inwardly, and that is — the Holy Spirit. This way of life puts Christians at odds with the world because the world is opposite of the doctrines of Christ. The worldly way consistently attempts to stand opposed to God, calling what is evil good and darkness light (Isaiah 5:20–21). You only need to look for yourself at the world around you and you will see that this is true. But this is nothing new under the sun, for it has been the way since the beginning. Christ also adamantly warned those who followed Him that the world would despise them as well. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. ‘If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.’” — John 15:18–19. The hope for us as Christians resides in the fact that we are saved from the bondage of sin and death. Even though we might face persecution at times we are eternally sealed with the blood of Jesus. There is power in this knowledge and it’s what gets us through the hardships in life. But we must never let go or forget what we have in Him. We are in the world, but not of it.