Five years ago I read Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s. I can remember it well. I would get off work, pull it from the bookshelf, and immediately be gripped by the accounts it contained. Many days I would struggle to read as hot tears filled my eyes seeing the stories of men and women who stood for Christ in the face of persecution.
I praise God for these accounts, as well as the countless untold stories of people who have given their earthly bodies for the sake of Christ. The Scriptures describes these as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Both then and now I often pray, Lord give me the faith to endure whatever You choose to use to make me more like Your Son.
In that prayer comes the recognition of one of the reasons God has chosen to allow His children to be persecuted.
To Make the Church More Like Christ.
God has predestined His children “to be conformed into the image of his son” (Romans 8:29). God uses whatever means He deems necessary to accomplish that purpose in the lives of His children. He loves His Son so much that He has determined to make all of His children share His image and His identity.
Truly living a Christ-like life will never be celebrated by a world opposed to the one true God. Throughout every age, the Church has experienced the world’s hatred for following Christ. The swath of experiences among Christians varies from being ridiculed and mocked to losing a job, to be disowned by family, to being murdered.
However, the fact remains that if you follow Christ in this life, persecution will be inevitable. Jesus Himself makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is one’s life.
Jesus spoke to His followers saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Persecution should not come as a surprise. Jesus states in John 15:20-21, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
Jesus experienced persecution even though there has never been a more loving or likable person on earth. He was the personification of meekness, kindness, and true righteousness. Yet He was persecuted and ruthlessly murdered.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones remarks, “If you try to imitate Christ the world will praise you; if you become Christlike it will hate you… Do we know what it is to be persecuted for righteousness sake? To become like Him we have to become light; light always exposes darkness, and the darkness therefore always hates the light.”
To Purify the Church
This may sound harsh, but there have always been wolves and goats among the sheep. And because God desires and requires a pure bride, He often refines her as silver in a crucible. One purpose for persecution is to sort out the counterfeits.
Those who are not true Christians will not endure persecution. They will turn and run, showing their true colors when their feet are held to the flame (1 John 2:19). It typically does not take long for the person who has not truly been regenerated to recant any profession they may have made. Christ Himself illustrated such people in Matthew 13:20-21. Here, Jesus is delivering the parable of the sower and He states, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Far too often Western Christians favor the fairy tale life between themselves and the world. They attempt to convince themselves that, “And they all lived happily ever after,” applies to their lives. However, the church cannot expect to be able to hold heaven’s hand while making eyes at hell and everything to be okay. James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” God will not stand for this. He will purge the church of worldliness.
To Grow the Church
There is an oft-quoted statement about the nature of the persecuted church that Tertullian, an early church father, probably coined, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
We understand this truth, but more accurately, Jesus, and faith in Jesus, is the imperishable seed of the church. Perhaps stated in a modern context, it could read, “The blood of the martyrs has been the miracle-grow of the church;” or even, “The blood of the martyrs has been an Ebenezer for the church.”
One would think persecution would decrease the growth of the church, but that is not the case. Acts 8:1-8 testifies that after the persecution of Stephen, Saul ravaged the church. It sent believers fleeing all over the world. They took with them the message of the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in the city in which the persecution raged people were finding joy!
To Bless the Church and Give Them Reward
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord makes this pronouncement, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
These words are true no matter how tough it is to believe. The persecuted life is blessed. It may be tough to respond with rejoicing, but that is the command. This is a supernatural response, which only the Spirit-filled child of God is capable of. The wolf and goat are incapable.
The apostles patterned this in Acts 5. They were beaten and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, yet after that, they left the presence of the council, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41-42). And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus. We see another account in which Paul and Silas sing hymns after being beaten and imprisoned (Acts 16:25). God allows His name to be glorified in the midst of great persecution.
Paul encouraged the Corinthians to keep an eternal perspective in the face of persecution, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Hebrews 12:1-2 instructs, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Joy set before Him motivated Him to endure the cross.
Christ looked to His reward.
The church is to look to Him as theirs.
For the Glory of God
The question posed by the title of this article could have simply been answered: For His own glory. God has willed to glorify Himself in all things and especially in allowing the persecution of His church.Jesus claimed, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake” (Matthew 24:9). His name’s sake is inseparably tied to His glory.
When the Christian stands in the face of persecution, he shows that his greatest treasure is Christ. He echoes the words of the apostle, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Peter encourages the Church, saying, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
Lord willing by the testimony of the church enduring persecution some will be saved!
The saint that is persecuted must take heart that the Judge of the earth will do what is just. He does all things for His glory even for the good of his children.
Let me leave you with this Scripture to meditate on as you continue praying through the Orange Letter Campaign this year, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:12-14).