The first Christian century was a brutal one for a growing minority who dared profess their faith as followers of Jesus Christ. Believers encountered a double whammy of injustice and persecution from leaders of the prevailing religious structure who despised those who would dare advocate divergence from their traditional Jewish law and the Roman authority who would tolerate no supreme allegiance except to Caesar.
The Book of Acts corroborates other historical accounts of how Christians were harassed, threatened, stoned and imprisoned. Mob action resulted in Stephen’s death; James was beheaded. Such a great persecution arose that Christians in Jerusalem were dispersed and scattered like refugee Christian communities in Iraq and Syria today.
In chapter four of Acts, Peter and John had been arrested, threatened and ordered not to preach or teach in the name of Jesus, a restriction imposed on many believers across the Muslim world today. The response of the church to this situation is a model for how the global church should respond–they prayed! When Peter and John reported the threats and potential harm that would inevitably spread to any Christian believer, they relinquished the situation to God in prayer. But note the content of their prayer, beginning in Acts 4:24-25, was not the expected plea for protection and safety. It is instructive for believers who continue to face such threats in our contemporary world.
When they heard it, they lifted their voices to God and said,
“Sovereign Lord who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against His anointed.’”
We are asking the same question today. “Why do the nations rage?” Why do those in authority in Muslim nations set themselves against Christ and those who follow Him?” Why does ISIS indiscriminately behead Christians in Libya, al Shabaab slaughter Christian students in Kenya and Boko Haram massacre Christian villagers in Nigeria? They recalled this perplexing plea from Psalm 2 hundreds of years earlier. The question of why the righteous suffer has been raised through the ages without satisfactory explanations.
1.They recognized the consequences of a sinful world. Since Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in a jealous rage history confirms we live in a fallen world. The merciful character of God has provided a redemptive alternative, but His moral nature does not allow coercive manipulation of choices by those who inflict injustice and are committed to the destruction of those who do not conform to power structures and imposed ideologies.
It is an illusion to think that military intervention, diplomacy or human negotiated peace accords can offset the self-centered arrogance of a heart without Christ. Only the transforming love of God can change hearts so filled with hatred they are committed to the destruction of life. We should not be surprised that the nations rage when they do not know the King of kings and Lord of lords. What a different world it would be if both Jews and Palestinians knew the Prince of Peace. Wars and violence will wax and wane, persecution and suffering will be inflicted by those representing conflicting ideologies because we live in a fallen world that does not know the living God.
2. They reflected confidence in a sovereign God. The New Testament church in Jerusalem affirmed their belief in a God who made the heavens and earth and everything in them, including those who were wrecking havoc and threatening their peace and security. They continued their prayer in Acts 4:27-28 to remind God:
“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 plan had predestined to take place.”
The greatest tragedy to occur in the world was not the massacres carried out by angry Muslims or a terrorist attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. It was not even when hundreds of thousands were killed on the battlefields of two world wars in the twentieth century. The most heinous injustice occurred when the sinless Son of God was betrayed and crucified by an conspiracy of Jews and Gentiles and the unlikely alliance of political adversaries, Herod and Pontius Pilate. But this did not take God by surprise. The church acknowledged that God not only knew this would happen, He planned for it to fulfill His purpose of bringing redemption to a lost world.
We want to believe that an all-powerful, loving God would intervene against barbarity and savagery of evil. Our shallow theological perceptions would justify a God who has such concern for those being threatened and victimized that he would provide a hedge of protection to mitigate any possibility of suffering and injustice in our world. To the contrary, we have a God with greater concerns than our safety and security–a God who is, indeed, using the conflicts and chaos for His ultimate purpose to be glorified among the nations.
3. Therefore, they renewed their commitment to a saving word. They did not ask God to remove the threats and harassment they were experiencing, so they could live in peace and prosperity. They did not pray that God would destroy their adversaries and create an environment in which they could propagate the gospel without danger or retribution. They concluded their petition in Acts 4:29: “And now Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.”
Confident that Jesus was the answer, they prayed for boldness to proclaim the good news of hope and salvation, even in the face of personal risk and danger. They were aware that “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4)–faith to believe in a sovereign God who is working in all things for good to those who love Him and are called to His purpose. They could relinquish the situation to Him, even if it cost them their lives.
The church today needs to follow the example of earlier believers and understand biblical realities of being hated and persecuted for the sake of Christ. Yet, rather than responding with paranoia and fear of ISIS lone wolf enemies among us and the spread of global terrorism, we should engage the threat with the most powerful weapon supplied by our divine leader–to love our enemies. The radical contrast of countering hatred with love my be counter-intuitive, but it is the power that draws even Muslims to discover a new way in Christ. There was no equivocation in the admonition of Jesus to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
The threat is real. Many fellow believers are suffering unbelievable atrocities and are even giving their lives. There is the possibility it may touch more of us in the West–no one is exempt. We need to recognize that we serve a sovereign God who is fully aware of what is happening and has not relinquished His throne. We need to pray for boldness to stand firm in our faith and engage the enemy with the powerful witness of God’s love.