GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY OVER THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Strength from God’s Sovereignty over Past History. A key to the biblical response to persecution is the belief that God is sovereign over history.
1. The account of the first time the Apostles encountered persecution from the Jewish authorities shows this. The first thing they did was to go “to their friends” (Acts 4:23). The Greek word used there indicates that these friends were close companions. This is important for all who face persecution. They need to have a close group of friends to whom they can go when we are attacked. When we know that our friends or those we lead are facing persecution we should make it a priority to ensure that they have our support and the support of other Christians. Ideally someone, especially their leader, should visit them immediately and offer them support.
2. When the friends heard the news of prohibition to preach from Peter and John they responded with united (Greek: “with one mind”) prayer (Acts 4:24). Unity among the believers is a great strength during times of persecution. History shows that persecution often unified the church as Christians realised they need each other when under attack. Sadly, however, some Christians choose not to associate themselves with persecuted Christians as that would make them also liable to being opposed.
3. Most of the prayer on this occasion consists of reflections on the sovereignty of God. They address God as “Lord” (4:24); but the word they use (Greek despotes) is not the usual word used for Lord (kurios). It means “one who holds complete power or authority over another.” Though the powers of the world were rising against them they are affirming that the God they serve holds ultimate authority. This idea is buttressed when they describe God as the one “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (4:24). The implication is that God, the Creator of everything, is greater than the authorities who are now attacking them, who are creatures he has made. Persecuted Christians must remember this however serious the attacks they receive may be.
4. Next the prayer describes how right through history powerful people, like kings, have opposed the Lord and his anointed (4:25-26). The opposition was severe as is evidence by the word “rage” that is used here. But it was all “in vain” because God was going to use even their opposition to carry out his purposes as verse 27 shows. This verse gives a specific instance of the opponents of God’s programme attacking his people: “…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….”
All the religious and political leaders of the time joined to kill Jesus because they thought that he was a threat to their control of and power over the nation. How much this is like today. But in the case of Jesus, the terrible human tragedy was fulfilling God’s great plan for the world, as the next verse says, “…to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (4:28). Clearly the disciples were also thinking of their persecution as paralleling the death of Jesus in being a means of fulfilling God’s plan for the world. And that is how Christians today also must look at persecution.
5. It is significant that the vision of sovereignty came to these early Christians from the Scriptures. Getting strength from the Scriptures is a key response to persecution. Even though the situation around us may look very bleak, the Bible reminds us that God is in control of history, and we are challenged to believe that even the present persecution will ultimately be used by God to carry out his great purposes.
6. Fear would have been the natural emotion the first Christians felt when they were told that their work of evangelism was illegal. But the vision of the sovereignty of God would have challenged that fear. So we find that the primary request these Christians made to God was not for their safety but for the effectiveness of their mission. They pray that God will help them to proclaim the word boldly and that God would confirm their message through signs and wonders (4:29-31).
Some will give up evangelism when persecution hits. Biblical Christians cannot do that as evangelism is a basic priority of the church. But if they are to continue evangelising they need boldness in the face of opposition and the powerful work of God in demonstrating the reality of the gospel through signs and wonders. These are two requests that Christians today can make to God: for boldness and for miraculous intervention. Elsewhere in the book of Acts we see that, in addition to boldness, wisdom is also needed in order carry out God’s mission in the face of persecution.
7. God immediately answers their prayer by filling them with the Holy Spirit so that they spoke the word will boldness and by showing his power shaking the place where they were gathered (4:31). This was a sign to these persecuted Christians that he is indeed with them and will help them to carry out his mission. In the same way God also sends us different experiences in the midst of the storm of persecution that act as signs that he is with us and will see us through.
Strength from God’s Sovereignty over Future History. Acts 4:23-31 shows how persecuted Christians are encouraged by focussing on the sovereignty of God, as evidenced by his actions in the past. But the New Testament has even more instances of focussing on God’s sovereignty over future history to encourage persecuted Christians.
1. After the last Beatitude about the kingdom of God belonging to those who are persecuted (Matt. 5:10), Jesus says, “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” (5:11-12). This theme of heavenly rewards for the persecuted is seen throughout the New Testament climaxing with several strong statements in the book of Revelation (Rev. 2:10-11; 3:10-12).
Hebrews 10:32-36 shows how the early Christians followed Jesus’ instructions to rejoice over persecution because of the coming heavenly reward. After listing the persecutions the readers suffered (10:32-33), the writer says that his readers endured such persecution because of their hope of heaven: “…and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (10:34). Then he urges them to persevere keeping the heavenly reward in mind: “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (10:35-36). The prospect of the heavenly reward is used here to encourage Christians to faithfully endure persecution.
2. Two of the most difficult things about persecution are the injustice and the shame that the persecuted are subjected to. The Bible is alert to both these issues pointing to the judgement as the place where justice is served and shame is transferred from the persecuted to the persecutors.
The Bible is alert to the injustice of persecution. And the faithful, who are endowed with God’s attitude of repulsion towards injustice, would also be troubled by the apparent dishonour to God and his principles through the triumph of the wicked. The Bible often records the righteous crying out for justice through punishment upon the wicked who persecute and hurt them (1 Sam. 24:12; Ps. 79:10; Isa. 6:11; Jer. 18:21; see Luke 18:7). Usually these cries and prayers are those of people who are still living on earth. The book of Revelation, however, records martyrs in heaven also doing so (6:9-10), during the intermediate state before the final triumph of Christ. Paul’s injunction to show kindness to enemies is given in the background of God taking on the role of enacting vengeance upon the wicked (Rom. 12:19-20). The answer the martyrs receive to their cry in Revelation 6 is that they are to wait a little longer until the number of the martyrs is complete (6:11). Following this, the tables are turned and the wicked rulers cry out in despair, in terror under the hand of God’s judgment (Rev. 6:12-17).
It is from the background of commitment to the justice of God that we should interpret the praise to God in the book of Revelation for the fall of Babylon, the great prostitute, who wreaked havoc in the world. The description ends with the words, “And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24). Revelation gives the response to this: “After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (19:1-2). This is followed by more praise and three more exclamations of “Hallelujah!” (19:3, 4, 6).
If heaven is alert to the issue of the injustice of persecution, it is inevitable that the persecuted on earth also would be alert to it. The book of Acts shows that Paul appealed to justice in the face of persecution and did all he could to ensure that he was treated justly. He even protested, when he could, about unjust treatment (see Acts 16:37). Clearly he was alert to the fact that condoning injustice and letting it pass unchallenged was damaging to the cause of the gospel. Later, in Romans 13, Paul would say that government authorities are the agents of God’s justice carrying out God’s wrath against evil-doers. Therefore it is right for us to appeal to the law for relief in times of persecution.
Perhaps the hardest aspect of persecution is the shame that comes with it. This is particularly true in the more communally-oriented, so-called “shame and honour,” culture of Sri Lanka where doing things that go against community values (like embracing another religion), is considered a shameful act and an attack on the honour of the whole community. The North African martyr Dativus, the senator, prayed before his death: “Lord Christ, let me not be put to shame. Christ, I beseech you, let me not be put to shame. Christ come to my aid, have pity on me, let me not be put to shame. Christ, I beseech you, give me the strength to suffer what I must for you.”
The humiliation of persecution is most painful because it makes the persecuted to look like failures and fools and their faith to look powerless. But the Bible is keen to remind the faithful that taking on hardship for Christ is a wise investment the benefits of which are of eternal duration. On the other hand, the rich farmer who had much honor on earth is called a “fool” because “the one who lays up treasure for himself… is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21). Being called a “fool,” of course, is the ultimate expression of shame, and in this case it extends to eternity.
The awareness of the shame factor that comes with discipleship is often seen in the Bible. Peter and John “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41). What the world saw as a shame had become a badge of honour. But the greatest honour for those who experience the cost of discipleship is in the future, especially in heaven. After describing how the grain of wheat, which falls into the ground and dies, bears fruit, Jesus said that the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Then he said that those who serve him will need to follow him (to death). Then he said, “If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him” (John 12:24-26; italics ours). In Romans 5 Paul talks about rejoicing in the hope of glory and then proceeds to talk about suffering and how God uses it to refine us. The final character that emerges from suffering is hope. “And hope,” says Paul, “does not put us to shame” (Rom. 5:5; italics ours).
Jesus warns believers: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38; see also 2 Tim. 2:12). In the millennium those who were martyred and persecuted “came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). The honour of reigning is the complete opposite of the shame of being hounded by those who reigned while they lived on earth. To this we can add the many passages that talk about the shameful judgment that awaits those who reject Christ and his people (e.g. Matt. 11:20-24; 12:41-42; Rev. 17-19). Luke 12:20 clearly presents the judgment of the unjust in terms depicting shame. There Jesus called the rich man, who was not rich toward God, a “fool.”
3. Persecution is hard to endure. It seems to unjust and shameful. It is therefore not surprising that those who are persecuted would be tempted to be bitter. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty over the future challenges the temptation to bitterness. These unjust people who are causing much shame to the Christians will one day be judged. While we must be angry over their injustice, we will not be bitter, for these people are to be pitied since “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Lessons Learned about the Sovereignty of God and Persecution. This section has presented several important principles about how Christians respond to persecution.
- Fellow Christians help us affirm the sovereignty of God amidst persecution. Therefore they must ensure that they get the support of other Christians when they are under threat.
- It is vital for Christians under persecution to be united.
- We find strength from the fact that God has always turned the powerful opposition of people into good, even if that is through a tragedy like the death of Christ.
- Because the vision of sovereignty comes from the Bible, it is very important that Christians stay close to the Scriptures in times of persecution.
- The vision of the sovereignty of God gives us courage to persevere in the difficult work of evangelism. So our great prayer is for strength to evangelise and for God’s power to be shown as we do so.
- God will confirm our commitment to evangelism by encouraging us in different ways.
- The persecuted have reason for rejoicing because of the prospect of future rewards in heaven.
- While the injustice of persecution is difficult to bear we know that justice will be served at the future judgement.
- While the shame of persecution is difficult to bear we know that honour awaits the persecuted at the judgement and that shame awaits persecutors.
- The vision of God’s sovereignty helps us to avoid bitterness amidst the pain of persecution.
 Prayers of the Martyrs, Dwayne W. H. Arnold, compiler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 93.