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VIDEO The Persecution and Endurance of Christians, Part 2

John MacArthur Nov 4, 2007

We return in our study of the Word of God to the 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel.  Luke is the predominant historian of the New Testament, having written this gospel as well as the entire book of Acts.  And, of course, the focus in Luke’s writing is on the person and work of Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel of Christ after His ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit.

But as we come to chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel, let me just review for you where we are in the story of our Lord.  It is Wednesday night. It is Wednesday night of Passion Week, the final week of our Lord’s life and ministry before the cross.  On Thursday, He will celebrate the Passover with His disciples.  On Friday He will be crucified.  And on Sunday He will rise from the dead.  Following that, He will make appearances only to those who believe in Him, after which He ascends back to heaven to reign and to intercede.  It is Wednesday of that final week.

On Monday, He came into the city.  It is called His triumphal entry.  He was hailed as potentially the Messiah although the same crowd that hailed Him as Messiah, by Friday are screaming for His blood; fickle, superficial, and shallow.

It was Monday that He came into the city.  It was Tuesday that He went into the Temple and threw out the money changers for the second time in His ministry and said, “You have turned My Father’s house, a house of prayer, into a cave of robbers.”

The next day, Wednesday, He came back to the Temple, spent the whole day there teaching the crowds and being confronted by the leaders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians who tried to trap Him in His words so that they could have some reason to bring Him to the Romans for execution.  He has managed to parry every blow they thrust at Him.  He ended His day in the twilight and walked out of that Temple ground.  Following Him were His own disciples.  It was the last time He would ever set foot in that place until He comes again.  And, in fact, when He comes again, His feet will land on the very Mount of Olives where He was sitting in the evening of that Wednesday, talking to His disciples about His Second Coming.

Everything looks grim.  Everything looks disappointing.  Everything looks as bad as it can get, even to the disciples.  And yet they have a glimmer of trust and hope that somehow He is going to bring the kingdom.  And so, He sits with them on the side of the Mount of Olives, the western side, looking at the eastern wall and the Temple Mount and He speaks to them about His coming in glory and judgment to reign.

What He tells them is it is not now, it is much later.  He is going back to heaven and in the future He will come again to fulfill all kingdom promise and all judgment promise.  They don’t have that in their theology.  Not two comings of Messiah, they thought it would all happen with one.  Jesus makes clear the first time He comes to die, to provide the sacrifice for sin.  The second time He comes to reign, to judge sinners and to reign with the saints.

And so, in this 21st chapter, Jesus speaks concerning His Second Coming.  You might say this is Jesus’ own sermon on His Second Coming.  The full text of what He said will be brought to your mind if you compare the 13th chapter of Mark and Matthew 24 and 25.  But we’re in Luke so we’ll look at the Lucan text.

Whenever you talk about the Second Coming, whenever you talk about prophecy, there is among many people the assumption that you’re dealing with something that is just frankly dark, mysterious, hidden, secret, obscure and that maybe we shouldn’t even spend much of our time dealing with it because it is so oblique, so hard to comprehend.  Prophecy can be bizarre. I agree with that.  It can be oblique, it can be esoteric. It can be made mysterious.  But you have to work hard to do that because, frankly, the Bible is clear.  I am one who believes that what the Bible says about the future is as clear as what it says about the present or the past, that what the Bible says about things to come is as clear about…as about what the Bible says regarding things that are.

And in order to understand its clarity, you must, first of all, assume its clarity.  That’s not a stretch, is it?  Remember, the Bible is revelation, not mystery.  It intends to end the darkness, to bring knowledge where there is ignorance.  It is revelation. That is, it reveals, it discloses, it opens up.  That is its purpose.  When Jesus talks about the future, it is so that we can understand the future, not be confused by it.

But there is a foundational interpretive principle that you have to bring to bear on prophetic literature in Scripture just like any other element of Scripture, and it is this, we must interpret Scripture beginning with this foundational principle: How would the original hearers of this truth have understood it?  How would they have understood it?  Because it is first and foremost a revelation to them, which is then recorded for all the rest of us; it is intended to make clear the truth to those who heard it.  And when it comes to prophetic text, as any other text, the truest interpretation will determine what the original hearers would have understood.  And, frankly, while people have languished in confusion over this particular sermon of our Lord, I find it utterly unnecessary to do so. It is anything but obscure. It is anything but confusing. It is plain, straightforward, and simple if you just understand that He’s talking to plain, straightforward, simple men.

When Jesus was speaking to the disciples, He was not speaking to the theological elite.  He was speaking to fishermen, people working with their hands, uneducated, no rabbi, no scribe, no Pharisee, no one of any significance at all.  They had a hard time believing almost anything He said. That’s why He had to repeat it so many times.  And even when they heard it, they…they couldn’t quite trust in it and that’s why Jesus identified them so often as “Oh you of little faith.”  No matter what He said, they seemed to be confused by it.  They were not elite theologians. They were not gifted with some unusual ability to grapple with deep things.  They were just plain people understanding things in a very plain way.  In fact, the whole Bible was written for plain people.

You can make prophecy bizarre.  Many people have worked hard to do it.  You can make it esoteric, mysterious.  And you can invent interpretations of prophecy that would have been inconceivable and incomprehensible to the mind of the disciples.  And if they couldn’t get it, then it’s got to be the wrong interpretation because this was said to them.  So here we join Jesus and His disciples again.  And we feel at home because we’re a lot like them.  He speaks to them concerning the future.  And He tells them in this sermon, in Luke 21, that He is coming again.  That’s in verses 25 to 28. That’s kind of the high point of the sermon.  In fact, you remember I pointed that out to you last time that in verse 27 He says you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud and great glory.  And He’s referring to His Second Coming.  So He does promise them that He’s coming.

But He also…and He’s already said this several times…He also promises them that there’s going to be an intervening time before He comes.  And He explains to them what is going to happen in the world during that time.  He says He’s coming. That’s verses 25 to 28.  But He says in the preliminary time, before He comes, there are going to be things that will happen and He lays them out specifically.  These are preliminary to His coming and they go from verse 8 through verse 19.

Then in verses 20 to 24: an event that’s going to happen right before He comes.  So you’ve got the promise of His coming in the middle.  You’ve got the preliminaries to His coming.  And then starting in verse 29 to the end of the chapter, you have the preparation for His coming.  So this is a very well thought out and well crafted presentation by Luke of Jesus’ teaching.

Now we’re looking at the preliminaries to His coming.  Let’s pick up our Lord’s words in verse 8.  He said, “See to it that you be not misled for many will come in My name saying, ‘I am He, and the time is at hand.’  Do not go after them.  And when you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.”  And He continued by saying to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines.  There will be terrors and great signs from heaven.  But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.  It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.  So make up your minds to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves, for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.  But you will be delivered up even by parents, and brothers, and relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death and you will be hated by all on account of My name.  Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance, you will gain your lives.”

Now the disciples had a very, very sort of well-defined eschatology that they were familiar with because it was the current eschatology of the Judaism of their day.  They had hopes and expectations about the arrival of Messiah.  In fact, that was the brightest hope in the heart of any Jew.  And what did they expect?  Well I have told you in the past. Let me just give you a brief summary.

They had an intense interest in the Messiah’s arrival to set up His kingdom.  And the Old Testament promised all kinds of elements in that kingdom and they were aware of them, that Israel would be restored to prominence, freed from its enemies, its enemies would be punished by the arrival of Messiah, who would set up the throne of David again and reign in Jerusalem.  And there would be a transformation of the land itself, a river flowing out of Jerusalem to the east through the desert.  The desert would blossom like a rose.  It would change the nature of the world so that animals that were formerly enemies now became compatible and people would live long age.  All kinds of things like that.  They understand it would be dominated by righteousness and peace.  They understood that Jews from all over the globe would be gathered together into the land and that the Lord would reign, Israel would be prominent and the Lord would actually reign from Israel over the whole earth.  They were waiting for this to happen with the coming of Messiah.  They knew Isaiah 9:6 and 7, that a Child would be born to us, a Son will be given to us, “the government will be upon His shoulders, and His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of peace.”

They were familiar with the words of Isaiah.  “There will be no end to the increase of His government, or of peace on the throne of David.  And over His kingdom to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forever more, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”  They knew all of that very well.  They were very familiar with Isaiah 11:1 and 2: that a Messiah would spring from the stem of Jesse, a branch from His roots would bear fruit and the Spirit of the Lord would rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.

They were familiar with the words of Jeremiah in chapter 23, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous branch and He will reign as King and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days, Judah will be saved.  Israel will dwell securely.  And this is His name by which He will be called, the Lord our righteousness.”

They knew the words of Zechariah 14 that the day will come when the spoil that had been taken from them would be brought back to them.  That living waters would flow out of Jerusalem.  That there would be no more curse and Jerusalem would dwell securely.  They were familiar with Daniel 2:44: that the God of heaven would set up a kingdom never to be destroyed and the kingdom not left for another people but for them, and it would last forever.

They expected their Messiah to come and establish a kingdom.  They knew that before that kingdom there would be a time of Tribulation.  There would be a time of judgment.  There would be a judgment of Gentiles.  There would be a judgment of rebels among the Jews.  They knew there would be wars and catastrophes; there would be an escalation of iniquity.  All of that is in the Old Testament; that the Lord would triumph over it all and establish the glory of His kingdom, save Israel.  Salvation would spread to the world, and the Lord Messiah would reign and rule.

As far as they were concerned, the time was now.  The time was ready.  The time was ripe.  After all, they were believers in the Messiah. He was here.  And they knew the Messiah would have a forerunner, one like Elijah, and that was John the Baptist, and he had come as well and pointed to the Messiah and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”  And now the Messiah is here and He entered Jerusalem triumphantly and several hundred thousand people hailed Him as the Son of David and gave Him hosannas with expectation that He would be that Messiah.  But it’s all fading very fast.

In the first place, He stripped the leadership of Israel publicly and openly by cleansing the Temple.  He engaged in conversation with them and unmasked them as false.  The people are turning away from Him.  And He keeps talking about His death.  He has stopped short of doing what they expected Him to do.  When is the triumph going to begin?  When is the glory going to come?  When is judgment going to fall?  When is the kingdom going to be established?

And that’s what they asked in verse 7, “When will these things be?”  And He has to tell them: not for a long time.  Long being relative, they probably thought it was weeks, maybe months, maybe a few years.  We now know it’s as least 2,000 years.  Yes He’s coming.  Yes He’s coming.  Yes every generation should be prepared for His coming.  He lays that out at the end of this message.  But for the beginning of it, He says there are some things you should expect.  This is very, very important, folks, because you want to be sure that the plan that Jesus established didn’t go bad.  He ends up on a cross.  The world gets worse.  Somebody might say, “Wow, whoever Jesus claimed to be, He was not.  Whatever He claimed to do, He did not do.  The world hasn’t changed since He came. It’s worse than it is now every way you look at it.”

Was that a surprise to Him?  Not at all, and so, to secure us from being fearful or terrified, He explains exactly the way things will go until He comes; three things to expect.  Verse 8, deceivers, deception, false Christianity will flourish.  “Many will come in My name,” many saying, “I am He, the time is at hand.” “Do not go after them.”  And the Bible is clear about the proliferation of these false Messiahs and false apostles.  I told you, Josephus says that after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there were so many people claiming to be the Messiah in the days after that, that Pilate was executing one a day.  And it goes on today.  False Christianity abounds and flourishes.  It’s larger than the true church.

Secondly, disasters, and we looked at that.  Verses 9 through 11, wars and disturbances are further described in verse 10, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, global wars.  Great earthquakes, plagues, famines, terrors like fire, hurricanes, winds, tornados, tidal waves, you name it.  Great signs that come from heaven and we discussed those.

But the third thing…the first is deceivers, the second is disasters, and third is the distress of persecution.  Before all these things, verse 12, “They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you.”  This had to be the biggest jolt that they had yet heard.  I mean, the idea was the Messiah comes, sets up the kingdom and everything is good for us.  What?  The Messiah comes, doesn’t set up the kingdom and it’s going to be bad for us.  If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s going to be bad.  And it’s going to be bad and it’s going to get worse and worse and worse until He finally comes.  This is a total shock.  This is outside the box of any of their thinking, totally unconventional, hard to believe.

And then He describes that persecution as being delivered to synagogues and prisons. That describes the Jewish persecution which was vicious against the early church, but ceased in 70 A.D. when Judaism was crushed by the Romans in the destruction of Jerusalem.  But between the words of our Lord in 30 A.D. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., forty years of Jewish persecution of Christians.  Following the Jewish persecution came the Gentile persecution, referred to in verse 12, bringing you between kings and governors for My name’s sake.  And that has not stopped, that still goes on.  Christians are still persecuted in the world today.  And it escalates and escalates and escalates.

But then He gives us a hint about why.  Verse 13, “It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony and don’t worry what you’re going to say, I’m going to help you by the Holy Spirit give you a good confession.”  The strategy, amazing strategy of the Lord is this.  Between His first and Second Coming, fulfill the great commission.  Between His first and Second Coming, go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.  Between His first and Second Coming He gathers in the redeemed church.

And in order to expedite that, He brings persecution.  What does persecution do?  It does two things.  One, it scatters the church.  We see that in the book of Acts very early.  The believers went everywhere because they were persecuted.  They had to flee for their lives and with the fleeing came the spread of the gospel.  Acts 8, Saul was in hearty agreement, putting him to death, that is Stephen, “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.”

Well isn’t that what Jesus said to them in Acts 1?  You are to preach the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world?  Well to help them get to Judea and Samaria, they might not have gone unless they are persecuted and it’s been that way, the persecution of the church is the scattering of the church.  There’s a second component in persecution: The persecution of the church demonstrates the triumph of saving faith.  When you can survive the persecution and you can die a triumphant death, confessing Jesus Christ and not denying Him, there’s a viability, a credibility, and a power to your testimony.

Let me put it another way.  There is no other religion in the world that has a Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, only Christianity.  And there’s no other religion on the face of the earth that’s been persecuted anywhere close to the way Christians have been persecuted and the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.  This is an evangelistic strategy.  As the Lord gathers in His church by scattering His church through persecution and making their testimony powerful and viable and credible as they face death triumphantly and make a good confession of Christ, which the true believer does make because the Lord enables him by the Holy Spirit and He doesn’t have to worry about what he’s going to say, the Lord will show him what to say in that hour.

So, Jesus said you’re going to be persecuted.  You’re going to be persecuted by the Jews.  And they were.  We went through the history of that last week.  Then you’re going to be persecuted before kings and governors.  This is Gentile persecution.  Let me talk about that for a little bit, give you some history.

The history of Gentile persecution begins in the book of Acts also.  And it begins with the Romans. It begins with the Romans.  The Romans persecuted Christians and they persecuted Christians for several reasons.  Originally they left the Christians alone, according to Acts 18 verses 12 to 15.  They left the Christians alone.  Why?  Because originally the Romans viewed Christianity as a sect of Judaism and Judaism was religio lecita, that is “legal religion.”  The Romans didn’t see a particular threat to Judaism so it hadn’t been banned.  And they saw Christianity as simply a sect of Judaism and they left them alone originally.

However, it didn’t take long for this to change dramatically.  The influx of Gentiles into the church became a problem for the Romans.  As Paul began to move and have an impact and as churches were being established and the gospel was penetrating the Roman world — Rome obviously dominating the world of the Mediterranean at that time — the Romans began to see Christianity as distinct from Judaism.  For one reason, the Jews hated Christians.  It didn’t take Rome long to figure out that if the Jews hate Christians, then Christianity is not a part of Judaism.  And so because of Jewish hostility toward Christians, because of the influx of Gentiles into the church, the Romans began to recognize Christianity as distinct from Judaism.  Christianity they then outlawed. It became an illegal religion.

And there were several factors — and I think it’s helpful to understand this — that led to this outlawing of Christianity and the subsequent persecution.  So let me give you a little bit of that history.

First of all, there were political motivations, political.  The Christians allegiance to Christ was singular.  It was dominant.  And they obviously had an allegiance to Christ that was far about their allegiance to Caesar.  This aroused suspicion that they were disloyal to the Roman state.

To maintain control over their vast empire…Now you remember, the Roman Empire is vast, surrounding the Mediterranean and moving eastward.  The one thing the Romans asked…They gave great freedom to their nations that they colonized and conquered, but one thing they asked is that their subjects’ ultimate loyalty to be the emperor.  The emperor was the embodiment of the Roman state.  And if you demonstrated loyalty to the Caesar, you were demonstrating loyalty to the Roman state.

Now keep in mind, in ancient times always there was a union of religion and state.  In fact, the first nation in human history that did not have an allegiance between religion and the state is the United States of America.  Prior to that, all civilizations had religion and the state joined inseparably.  So there was a union of religion and state.

Refusal then to worship the Roman gods or the emperor was treason.  It was treason.  Well, the Christians refused to worship the emperor.  They refused to worship the Roman gods.  They refused to make the required sacrifice in worship to the emperor.  They were therefore seen as traitors.  Nothing was more serious to the Romans than traitor attitudes.

They also proclaimed the kingdom of God, which caused the Romans to suspect them of trying to overthrow the government.  They had another King and they had another kingdom.  Now the Christians knew they were under pressure, under duress, under persecution.  So to avoid any unnecessary confrontation with Roman authorities, Christians began to hold their meetings in secret.  Now we’re still in the first century.  They began to hold their meetings in secret and at night in clandestine places, often associated, for example, with the catacombs.

Well the Romans eventually knew they were doing this and that heightened the Romans suspicions, that if they have to do this in secret, they must be hatching some kind of anti-government plot.  Furthermore, Christians generally refused to serve in the Roman army.  This also caused them to be viewed as disloyal; plenty of political motivation for the persecution.

But in addition to that, there were closely tied religious motivations, secondly.  The Romans had a very broad and somewhat tolerant attitude toward religion.  They allowed their subjects to worship whatever gods they wanted to worship, as long as they also worshiped the Roman gods.  Their…Their approach to religion was all inclusive and what bothered them about Christianity was Christianity was exclusive.  Christians preached an exclusive message that there is only one true God, one Savior, and one way of salvation.  And they not only believed that, but they propagated that.  They preached that.  They were evangelistic, trying to win converts among the nations that were part of the Roman world.

This went against the prevailing, dominant role of religious pluralism.  Christians therefore were denounced, strangely, as atheists because they rejected the Roman pantheon of gods, because they would not worship the emperor as God, and because they didn’t worship idols.  And the Romans couldn’t disassociate a god from an idol.  If you had no idol, you had no god.  They were atheists.  And so, here are these subversive atheists, assaulting the unity and the peace of Rome with their exclusive God and exclusive message.

The secrecy of Christians also led to lurid, false rumors of gross immorality.  They assumed that they were in dark places and secretive places doing wicked, evil things because that’s what they did even in the open.  That is, the Romans.  They misunderstood what was meant by eating and drinking the elements during the Lord’s Supper, which led to charges of cannibalism; that the Christians met to engage in lurid, immoral activity and eat each other.

They even attacked the Christian gesture of a holy kiss, which was an embrace, as best we can tell, cheek to cheek.  That gave rise to false accusations of sexual misconduct.  They painted a…a very, very evil picture of Christians, religiously.  What kind of religion was that?

Socially they had another motivation, another category overlapping. The leaders of Roman society feared the influence of the Christians on the lower classes.  You have to understand that there’s no middle class in ancient world as there is still in some countries in the world, no middle class, typically Third World countries.  You have no middle class, what you have is a mass of humanity that are poor.  And you have a small group of elite people at the top who control all the wealth and have all the power and usually abuse the people who are poor.  This is what foments revolution.  This is why there was a Russian Revolution.  This is why there was a French Revolution.  This is why there…there is revolution typically anywhere in the world.  The oppressed have the numbers.  And finally they arise, get organized, and overthrow the elite.

Well the leaders of Roman society feared the influence of Christians on the lower classes because the Christians were drawing people from the lower classes.  Remember 1 Corinthians 1?  “Not many noble, mighty, lowly, the base, the lowly, the no-names, the nobodies,” which is to say, there was a growing number of Christians who were from the slave population, ten to twelve million slaves in the Roman Empire.  The wealthy aristocrats, easily threatened…easily threatened by the fear of slave revolt, feared that Christians were fomenting this revolt, particularly because Christians taught that there’s neither bond nor free in Christ.  And so they failed to recognize the status of the elite.

Haunted by the ever-present specter of the potential of the slave revolt, the wealthy aristocrats began to turn up the heat on Christians.  And it is true Christians held themselves aloof from much of public life.  Everything was connected to idols.  If you went to a theatrical event, if you went to a sporting event, if you went to any kind of civil event, there would be idolatry involved in it.  And there would be all the kind of behavior that went along with their evil idolatry.  And so Christians just could not really engage in the activities of the culture.  They were completely counter culture.  They did nothing to accommodate the culture whatsoever.  They couldn’t, their conscience restrained them from doing that.

To put it in the modern vernacular, they had no interest in contextualizing.  They couldn’t participate because everything involved a sacrifice to a pagan deity.  And so they threatened on every level: politically, religiously and socially.

One other factor probably should come into play, economic.  There were economic reasons why the Romans went after the Christians.  It’s overlooked but the persecution of the early church had a lot to do with the dent that the gospel was making in the false god trade.  You remember Acts 16?  Paul cast a demon out of a girl, a slave girl at Philippi who was making a fortune for her masters by telling people’s fortune.  She was a medium for demons that were speaking through her and doing their demonic magic, as it were.  And when he cast the demon out of her, they lost their source of income.  Do you remember? The same thing happened… That’s in Acts 16. In Acts 19 there was a riot at Ephesus and they tried to kill Paul because he made such a dent in the idol trade there.  Remember his preaching of the gospel had caused people to burn all their idols and shut down the sale of idols?  They went after him.

Early in the second century, Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, lamented in a letter to Emperor Trajan that the spread of Christianity, he says, has caused the pagan temples to be deserted and the sales of sacrificial animals to plummet.  You remember now, you’re living in a superstitious time.  People attribute plague, famine, and natural disaster and all the other things that happen in life, to the gods being unhappy.  And the idea was the gods are unhappy because the Christians are forsaking them.  And all of this is coming on us because all these Christians are forsaking the gods and the gods are mad.  It prompted the Christian apologist Tertullian to remark, “If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there’s a famine, if there’s a plague, the cry is at once, ‘Christians to the lion.'” The gods were mad because of the Christians.  For reasons, perhaps related reasons, Christianity became a hated and despised religious sect in the Roman Empire.  In the…In his letter to Emperor Trajan, Pliny scorned Christianity.  He said, “It’s a depraved and extravagant superstition.” And went on to complain, quote: “The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities but in the villages and the rural districts as well,” end quote.  It’s going everywhere.

Sure the gospel was penetrating, people were being converted.  The church was growing.  And it had a detrimental effect on Roman life.  The Roman historian Tacitus, a contemporary by the way of Pliny, describes Christians as a class hated for their abominations.  Suetonius, another contemporary of Pliny, dismissed them as a set of men adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition.

And so persecution came and it began to foment and it began to develop.  The first official breakout of persecution is 64 A.D., the month of July, six years before the destruction of Jerusalem, under the Emperor Nero.  You remember July of A.D. 64 a fire ravaged Rome, destroying or damaging much of the city.  Popular rumors pinned the cause or the source on Nero himself.  You remember Nero fiddling while Rome burned.  Probably not accurate but Nero needed a scapegoat.  He needed somebody that people already thought were responsible for bad things, and that was the Christians.  And so he blamed the Christians already destroyed by the populace, began to savagely persecute them in an organized way.  Christians were arrested, cruelly tortured, thrown to wild animals, crucified and doused with oil and put on sticks and lit as torches for Nero’s garden parties at night.

This first, official, organized persecution basically was in the vicinity of Rome.  But attacks on Christians began to spread and move wider.  And they were unchecked by the authorities.  According to tradition, both Peter and Paul were martyred under this persecution in the time of Nero.

Three decades later, you move into the 90s, the first century, during the reign of Emperor Domitian, another government sponsored persecution of Christians breaks out.  We don’t know a lot of the details but it extended all over the area around Israel and it went all the way to Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey.  It was this persecution under Domitian that caught John the apostle and had him exiled to the Isle of Patmos.  And among those martyred at that time was a man named Antipas, a faithful pastor.

One notable example of Christian martyrdom in that time is Polycarp, the aged bishop of the church at Smyrna, around 160 A.D.  He was arrested for being Christian, tied to a stake and burned.  And when asked to deny Christ, Polycarp said this, “Eighty and six years…eighty and six years have I served Him and He never did me any injury.  How can I then blaspheme My King and My Savior?”  And he died triumphantly.

It wasn’t long until you had an empire-wide persecution, extending through the whole Roman Empire in the year 250 under Emperor Decius. Rome at that time faced serious internal issues, economic crisis, natural disasters, external issues, the incursion of barbarians.  Decius was convinced that all these difficulties were coming again because of the Christians who were forsaking Rome’s ancient gods.  He issued an edict requiring everyone to offer a sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor and obtain a certificate attesting that they had done that.  And if they didn’t do that, they were to be imprisoned, tortured, and then slaughtered.

It didn’t last long, however. By July of the next year, 251, Decius died in a battle.  Persecution didn’t end.  Jump from 251 to A.D. 303.  Fifty-two years later the most violent empire-wide persecution came under an emperor named Diocletian.  It was an all-out attempt to exterminate the Christian faith.  He issued a series of edicts ordering churches to be destroyed, all copies of the Bible to be burned, all Christians offer sacrifice to the Roman gods or be killed.  It wasn’t until the Edict of Milan — Constantine was part of that — in 313 that that persecution ended, ten years of it.  And then by 324, Constantine had established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.

Did that end persecution?  No.  The Holy Roman Empire, the false form of Christianity, began to persecute the true church.  In the most massive persecution yet came during the Middle Ages.  When I say massive, I mean massive.  According to historian John Dowling, a reputable historian, the Roman Catholic Church put to death 50 million heretics between A.D. 606 and the mid-1800s, many of them true Christians, 50 million.  Murderous was that period of time.

The Reformers came along, denounced the Catholic system of indulgences and works righteousness.  In the time of the Reformation, the 1500s, the response from Rome was vitriolic and violent, and, of course, added to the 50 million that were slaughtered during that time.  Godly leaders like Jan Hus, Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, many others, martyred for their faith.  It was Hus, secured to a stake where he would be burned, said with a smile, “My Lord Jesus was bound with a harder chain than this for my sake. Why then should I be ashamed of this rusty one?”  When asked to renounce, Hus declined saying, “What I taught with my lips, I now seal with my blood,” and gave testimony to the glory and honor of Christ and the truth of the gospel in his death.  And that’s what Jesus said would happen.  It will turn out for your testimony because the Spirit will show you what to say.

The triumph and testimony of Jan Hus has been the cause of the conversion of who knows how many countless thousands through history.  He died — by the way — singing a hymn, as the flames engulfed his body.

No other religion has this history.  In many places in the world today, believers continue to be persecuted.  Muslim- and Hindu-controlled countries, especially Africa and the Middle East, especially murderous toward Christians; though other nations such as communistic states are also antagonistic and during the development of communism, Christians were massacred wholesale.  1997, an article in the New York Times reports, quote: “More Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ.” Twentieth century, more Christians died than in the nineteen centuries before, New York Times, February 11, 1997.

In addition, an incalculable number of faithful believers have been rejected by their families, hated by their parents, hated by their siblings, by their friends, arrested, beaten, persecuted short of death, all on account of loyalty to Christ.  There’s a relatively new book called The New Persecuted, published in 2002.  A Roman Catholic journalist, Antonio Socci: He estimates that in the 2,000 years of church history, seventy million Christians have been martyred.  The number is likely much greater since he minimizes the number of those executed under the Roman Catholic Church.  God knows. I don’t know how many but the numbers are staggering.

He also says that of these seventy million Christians, two thirds have been killed in the last hundred years.  He claims that an average of 160 thousand Christians have been killed every year since 1990; 160 thousand a year since 1990.

So was our Lord right when He said you can expect this in the time between My first and My Second Coming?  He was right about the wars.  He was absolutely right about the earthquakes and the plagues and the famines that they would increase and escalate and become worse and worse and worse.  And we see it played out just the way He said it.  Don’t think for one split second that the purpose of Jesus failed at the cross.  Don’t think that what He intended to do didn’t come to pass.  He laid out exactly what would happen and that’s the way it is in the history of the world.  And it’s going to get worse, not better.  If you think persecution of believers is going to go away, you’re wrong.  The church is going to continue to be persecuted because it’s going to continue to be scattered for purposes of evangelism.  And it’s going to continue to have to give its testimony of triumph in the face of persecution so to demonstrate its truthfulness and validity, and persecution will continue and get worse.

Let me jump all the way to the book of Revelation chapter 6, as we close, and take you into the future time called the time of tribulation when persecution will reach its greatest point.  Come into chapter 6 of Revelation, you’re in the time of tribulation.  The church has been raptured.  The gospel has been preached to the world after the rapture.  The gospel has been preached with power by two witnesses, preached with the supernatural means by an angel flying in the heaven preaching the everlasting gospel, been preached by 144 thousand Jews, twelve thousand from every tribe.  The results are the greatest revival in human history.  People are being converted.  And when they’re being converted in the time of tribulation because Antichrist rules the world, they’re also being persecuted, persecuted like never before.  Many of them are martyred.

We meet them in chapter 6 verse 9.  “He broke the fifth seal.” This is the angel breaking the judgment in the time of tribulation.  “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God and because of the testimony which they had maintained.”

Now you’ve got the people who were slain and killed.  When?  During the time of the tribulation.  They are given a white robe, and to rest a little while longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been should be completed also.  God knows it’s going to happen.  He even knows the exact number of those who come to faith in Christ after the rapture of the church who will be then martyred.

Chapter 7 and verse 9, “After these things I looked and behold a great multitude which no one could count from every nation, all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands, crying with a loud voice saying, ‘Salvation to our God that sits upon the throne and the Lamb.'” Here is a group of people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation gathered around the throne.  They have been saved.  They’re crying out about salvation.  They’re celebrating the work of the Lamb.  Who are these people?  Verse 14, “Who are they?”  Verse 13 he asks the question, “Where did they come from?”  I said, “My Lord, you know.”  He said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the Great Tribulation.  They’ve washed their robes, made them white in the blood of the Lamb and they are now before the throne of God serving Him day and night.”

These are the martyrs of the time of the tribulation, those who were slaughtered for their faith.  Two witnesses in chapter 11, verse 7, two witnesses, God sends two amazing witnesses.   Chapter 11 verse 7, “After they had finished their testimonies,” their testimony concerning the gospel, “the beast that comes out of the abyss,” the Antichrist, “will make war with them and overcome them and kill them.”  Chapter 12 verse 17, “The dragon,” meaning Satan, “is enraged with the woman,” the woman represents Israel, “and went off to make war with the rest of her offspring who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”  One of the greatest slaughters in the time of the tribulation is going to be the Jews that Antichrist will kill who will have come to faith in Christ.

Chapter 13 verse 7, speaking again of the Antichrist, the great blasphemer that dominates the world at that time:  “It was given to him to make war with the saints and overcome them and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him.  And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, every one whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the Book of Life of the Lamb who has been slain.”  He’s going to rule the whole word, that is everybody who is not in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and he’s going to make war with the saints.  They’re going to be killed, martyred, gathered under the altar from every tongue and tribe and people and nation crying, “How long, oh Lord, how long, how long until You come and bring judgment on those who kill Your people?”

False religion has killed millions and millions and millions of people through the centuries.  The final system will even be more deadly in the future.  We don’t expect persecution to go away.  It will keep going like this until the Lord comes to judge.

Why?  Because God spreads His gospel through persecution.  Because God gives testimony to the strength of saving faith and the glory of the gospel through martyrdom and through suffering.

Now let’s go back to Luke 21 and close.  Here is the end of this on persecution, however.  Verse 17 says, “You’ll be hated by all on account of My name.” That is exactly the way it’s been through the history of the world.  “Yet not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your lives.”  Powerful statements and I’m going to tell you what they mean next Sunday.  Let’s bow in prayer…and they’re absolutely important words.

As we bow our heads in prayer for just a moment, I don’t know how to make the message any more urgent than the Scripture makes it.  I’m not intending to do that.  Except to drive it home to your own heart and say this, look, history is not random, it’s not cyclical.  It has a beginning and an end.  And it is prewritten by God and Jesus knew exactly the way history would go.  He didn’t expect to come and build some wonderful religion that everybody would embrace. He knew better than that.  He knew the truth would be so exclusive that it would be hated; so narrow, so defined that it would be despised, even inside families.  And that’s exactly the way it’s been.

This has led to the spread of the gospel. It has led to the opportunity to proclaim the gospel in the direst of situations.  And this kind of persecution short of death even leads to the strengthening of believers who are made perfect by their trial and who are given assurance because tested faith is assured faith.  When your faith stands the test, then you know it’s the real thing.

So the Lord has His purposes in our suffering, purposes of dependence, purposes of evangelism.  The question comes down to you.  This is the truth. Look at history.  Jesus knew exactly what would happen, and it did.  It is and it will be this way.  This is God who is speaking here.  And when He says He’s the only Savior, that’s the truth. That’s the truth.  You must turn to Him and Him alone.  Do that today.

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/42-258/the-persecution-and-endurance-of-christians-part-2

VIDEO The Persecution and Endurance of Christians, Part 1

We have had an unusual week here in Southern California, as you know, and yet it’s not something unexpected.  We have had our lives dominated this past week by the horrific fire storms that have torched Southern California.  The combination with which we are very familiar, severe drought, dry brush, excessive heat, dry Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 100 miles an hour, fallen power lines, and a few crazy arsonists have engulfed our communities in an inferno that has for a while, at least, put a million people out of their homes, the largest mass evacuation of people in the history of the state of California.

We are all fully aware of the terrible danger of wind and fire in our community.  We see it with our own eyes and have friends who even lost their homes in these fires last week.  But fire is not new.  We’ve seen it before here in Southern California. The world has seen it throughout all of its history, really.  In fact, the world has a long history of fire.  Though we can’t do without fire — even the ancient world was dependent on fire for warmth, dependent on fire for cooking — fire could also destroy and fire can also kill.

Just in the last few hundred years, there have been some severely devastating fires even in our own country.  In 1846, a period of twenty years of fires in the state of Oregon burned about two million acres of forest there.  1871, a very famous fire took place in Wisconsin, it burned 1.2 million acres and it started the same day as the famous Chicago fire which burned down the city of Chicago to the ground and thousands were consumed in that fire.

This year in our own United States there have been massive fires in Georgia, Florida, Utah, Idaho, more in California burning at least two million acres of brush.  And you can throw in fires from Australia and Poland and Greece and Italy and France and Spain and Portugal and Bolivia and Brazil and…and particularly in Indonesia.  Over the last 25 years there have been some amazing fires in Indonesia.  In 1982 and ’83, one fire in Indonesia burned nine million acres of forest.  A lot of lives were lost in 1997 and ’98, another part of Indonesia, east Sumatra, 24 million acres consumed in a fire.  In fact, some scientists calculated 2.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide unleashed into the atmosphere out of that fire.

And we all know about city fires through history.  Amsterdam has burned; London; Stockholm; Copenhagen; Washington D.C.; Rome; Philadelphia; Canton, China; Santiago, Chile; Moscow; Montreal; Tokyo; New York; Detroit, Pittsburgh. We don’t think of the Pittsburgh fire. That was in 1845. One thousand buildings burned to the ground in Pittsburgh. Boston, Vancouver, Seattle, Shanghai.  One of the most amazing fires that I’ve ever been made aware of on my several visits to Nova Scotia was the fire that ensued in the harbor of Halifax, capital of Nova Scotia, when the largest explosion pre-atomic bomb in the history of the world took place. A munitions ship sitting in the harbor exploded and literally set the entire city on fire. Volcanic fires, fires from incendiary devices and bombs, fires from atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; deadly fires have been long a part of human life.

And in a more primitive time in the world, fire was a very real danger for those people who lived in structures that were flammable and most of them did.  But the fires that we have seen, the fires that we will see, are really just a preview of the fires that are going to come into this world in the future because just prior to the time when the Lord Jesus returns, this world is going to experience some fires the likes of which they will not be able to comprehend.  Revelation chapter 8 takes us forward to the period of the tribulation just before Jesus returns to judge and to reign, to judge sinners and to establish His kingdom for His saints. Just prior to His coming judgment will be unleashed on this world.  One of the forms of that divine judgment will be fire.

Revelation chapter 8 verse 6, “The seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them.”  These are angels and each blows a trumpet and the blowing of that trumpet unleashes a judgment.  “The first,” in verse 7, “sounded. There came hail and fire mixed with blood.  They were thrown to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up and a third of the trees were burned up and all the green grass was burned up.  And the second angel sounded and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea and a third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures in the sea and had life died, a third of the ships were destroyed.  Third angel sounded. A great star fell from heaven burning like a torch.” Fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. “The name of the star is wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood. Many men died from the waters because they were made bitter.”

And so, fire will come and consume the grass, a third of the green plants, and even pollute the sea and pollute the fresh water.  In the 9th chapter of the book of Revelation and verse 17, the end of the verse mentions fire, smoke, and brimstone.  A third, verse 18 says, of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire, and the smoke, and the brimstone.  A third of the plants, a third of the trees, and now a third of the population of the earth destroyed by fire.

In the 14th chapter of the book of Revelation, there is a judgment that comes from an angel and verse 18 introduces that angel to us with these words, “And another angel, the one who has power over fire.”  Fire is so much a part of judgment that there is a super angel who is in charge of fire to be dispensed in divine judgment.

Chapter 16 and verse 8: Here are more angels, not trumpets this time but bowl judgments.  And in chapter 16 verse 8, “The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun and it was given to it to scorch men with fire and men were scorched with fierce heat and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.”  God has power over the fire.  God has assigned angels to dispense that fire to this earth.  And that will even include the sun becoming a source of fierce heat that sets people, as it were, on fire.

In the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation and verse 19, at the time when the nations of the world gather to fight against the saints, gather to fight against Christ, it says in verse 19 of chapter 19, “I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse,” meaning Christ, “against His army,” those are the saints. The beast was seized; with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  These two were thrown alive into the Lake of Fire which burns with brimstone.”  This is the fire of eternal hell.

The 20th chapter and the 10th verse, “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the Lake of Fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are and they’ll be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  Verse 15, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire.”  Fire has a very prominent place in the future. In the future of this earth, God literally will torch this planet so that one third of its plant life is destroyed and one third of its population is destroyed by fire.  And even hell is described as a Lake of Fire.  Fire has played a deadly role in the history of humanity.  It continues to escalate and escalate and escalate and it will find its final form in those future days of tribulation that I just read you, when the Lord unleashes fire as a part of His divine judgment in a deadly way, way beyond anything imagined, just before the return of Jesus Christ.

Should we be surprised by this?  No, because this is exactly what Jesus said life would be like.  Let’s go back to Luke 21, Luke 21.  And as we go back to Luke 21, we are sitting on the slope of the Mount of Olives with Jesus and His disciples.  And He is telling them about the future, telling them about the future.  He is telling them what to expect.  They are asking Him, “When are You going to establish Your kingdom?”  When is going to come the end of this age and the beginning of the glorious golden age?  When are You going to take Your power?  And what should we be looking for as a sign that this is going to happen?

Mark 13:3 and 4 actually tells us that four disciples posed these questions: Peter, James, John, and Andrew.  They posed them on behalf of the rest.  But they all wanted to know.  Jesus had just walked out of the temple for the last time, never to return again until He comes in glory in the future.  He turned around with them. They looked at the temple. Jesus said, this temple is coming down, “not one stone will remain on top of another stone.” Forty years later that’s exactly what happened.  And they tore down every stone because the Romans came in 70 A.D., set the temple on fire, consequently the gold that was all over the walls melted and ran down into the cracks of the stone.  And in order to dig out all the gold, they took every stone apart.  Jesus said it would happen that way, that’s exactly what happened forty years after this, no one can know the future, not forty years into the future but God Himself.  And if He knows the future in forty years, believe me He knows the future in thousands of years just as well.  No man even knows what tomorrow will bring.  He knew.  He said in verse 6, “These things you’re looking at, the day will come when there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.” He was right. Forty years later that’s exactly what happened.  And, folks, Jesus said that because He wanted us to know that what He says about the future is exactly the way it will be.  And that was the proof.  He was dead right about that, forty years later.  You can trust Him for the whole future.  If He tells you it’s going to happen, believe me, it will happen and you have proof that He knows the future.

So starting then in verse 8, He begins to describe for them what the future will be like before He comes.  The highpoint of this…this lesson that He gives through the whole 21st chapter is in verse 27.  And in verse 27 He says, “The Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  Yes He is coming.  Yes He is coming in power and great glory.  But before He comes there are some things this world must experience.  So you have the promise of His coming in verses 24 to 28.  You have the preliminaries to His coming in verses 7 through 24: What is life going to be like before Jesus comes?  And here is His description of it.  First of all, we have learned there will be deceivers, verse 8.  He said, “See to it that you be not misled for many will come in My name saying, ‘I am He and the time is at hand.’  Do not go after them.”  Religious deception will abound.  It will grow, as we already learned.  It will flourish.  It will escalate.  It will enlarge.  It will engulf the world so that while the true church grows, while true Christianity flourishes, while the Lord builds His church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, while the true seed is bearing fruit in the true church, there will grow a false form of Christianity out of all proportion that will be far larger than the real thing.  The deception in the name of Christianity will flourish.  False messiahs, false christs, false teachers, false prophets, false forms of Christianity as well as false forms of every other kind of religion, expect it and we have seen it.

Secondly, disasters will come.  Disasters, verse 9, “When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified for these things must take place first.  But the end does not follow immediately.”  There’s the indication that there’s going to be some events that happen before the end when He comes to judge and to reign, namely wars and disturbances.  What did He mean by that?  Verse 10: “He continued by saying to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom.” That defines the wars.

Disturbances are defined this way.  Verse 11, “There will be great earthquakes and in various places plagues and famines.  There will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” into which category you can put wind and fire, wind and fire.  We’re not surprised. We’re not surprised at all because we expect these kinds of things to happen because Jesus said they would happen.  Things from the sky like the wind, terrors like fire torching cities and lands and people.  Jesus said expect this. Don’t expect things to get better. Don’t expect the world to get better.  Don’t expect to be delivered from all the difficulties of life. It’s going to get worse and worse and worse because evil men get worse and worse and worse.  The consequences of sin get worse and worse.  And this is a scarred, stained, cursed planet groaning for its redemption and suffering the consequences of the Fall.  Expect then deception, expect disaster.

Human life will also in a very particular way be defined by a third component: distress, and in particular distress of Christian believers by persecution, distress of Christian believers by persecution. Look at verse 12.  And I believe this would have been the hardest thing for them to comprehend.  But before all these things, before nations start making war with other nations, before kingdoms start taking on kingdoms and you have wars stretching across the globe, before massive earthquakes, great plagues, great famines, terrors from the sky, all of these kinds of things, before that, in other words, most immediately this is what will happen.  “They will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.”  Persecution of the disciples of Christ, that very group to whom He was speaking, which certainly included the twelve and perhaps some others who were true followers of Jesus, the first thing that’s going to happen is the opposite of what you would expect.  This is so shocking to them.  Wars are one thing. They’re sort of outside of us. Plagues and famines and earthquakes and fires and hurricanes and tornados and volcanoes and all those other cataclysms of earthly life are outside of us.  They could understand that that could be a reality because that had already been a reality.  But persecution?  Their whole theology said when the Messiah comes, with the coming of Messiah comes the golden age.  Even after hearing Jesus say this they couldn’t swallow it because they went right from here into discussions about which of them was going to be the greatest in the kingdom; which of them again — the same old deal — is going to sit on His right hand and on His left hand. This was all about their glory. This was all about the golden age when God was going to exalt Israel and when the Messiah would certainly exalt those who believed in Him, when they would be lifted into prominence and influence and power, when they would have the fulfillment of all their expectations and everything the Old Testament prophets had predicted.

Persecution?  This was just absolutely opposite anything they would have imagined.  Before any of this other begins to really do its damage, you’re going to be persecuted.  In fact, specifically they will lay their hands on you.  That’s arrest language.  They will arrest you and they will, having arrested you, deliver you to the synagogues for trial and then put you in prison.  That’s the form of persecution.  Synagogues, by the way, contained the Jewish local courts.  In every village, in every town there were synagogues.  In those synagogues was the dispensing of local justice, both criminal and civil.  Twenty-three judges usually were required to sit and adjudicate on the cases that were brought to the synagogue court.

To be brought, by the way, before that court, was considered a severe discrediting and indignity.  The court would listen to the case, the court would make a decision, that is the judge would render his verdict, and punishment was executed immediately on the spot.  Generally speaking, since the Romans had not allowed the Jews to have the right of capital punishment, the Jews would have to do something to punish people short of stoning them to death. And so they would scourge them with whips. The way Jesus was scourged, in fact, by the Romans was the typical way the Jews scourged the guilty.  One judge would recite an appropriate psalm or Old Testament text that had something to do with the crime committed.  The second would count the blows.  And a third would command the blows and a servant of the synagogue, he was called, would deliver the blows and they would come immediately upon the adjudication and in full public view.

In the case of these believers, they would not only be scourged, but they would be put in prison.  This is just more than they could possibly process.  Now remember, they expected Jesus to conquer the Romans, not to be crucified by the Romans.  They expected Jesus to be received by the Jews and exalted as Messiah, not to be hated by the Jewish leaders who plotted His death with the Romans.  They expected the Messiah to capture the whole nation of people, not to be rejected by the whole nation of people.  To process that Jesus is rejected by the people and by the leaders, to process that He has not developed an army, that He’s not going to conquer the Romans, that He’s not going to establish His power and His throne, but rather that He keeps talking about dying and leaving, this is more than they could handle.  In fact, it was so hard for them to handle that even after He died and rose and spent days teaching them, before He ascended, they said in Acts 2, “Will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  They did not see a gap before a first and second coming. They saw everything the Messiah was going to do happening at the time He came and He came once.  And now they hear, not only are we not going to sit on His right hand and left hand there isn’t going to be any kingdom now.  Not only are we not going to be exalted and elevated and given positions of power and influence, we’re going to be persecuted.  This is absolutely antithetical to anything they would have imagined, contrary to all their thoughts.  Jesus said it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen at the hands of the Jews.

How do you know that?  Because, He says they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and then from there to the prisons.  And they had prisons.  This is Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Not only that though, there will be Gentile persecutions.  They will also be bringing you before kings and governors.  There was no king and no governor in the Jewish social structure.  The kings were Herods. They were Idumeans. They were non-Jews.  And the governors were Romans.  So now you have not only the promise of Jewish persecution, but of Gentile persecution. The whole world is going to gang up on you.

And that is certainly what happened.  If you go in to the book of Acts, it doesn’t take you very long to find out that the persecution breaks out immediately in the book of Acts and it comes from the Jews.  It starts in chapter 3. You see it in 4, 5, 8, 12, 13, 14, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, persecution by the Jews, of Christians.  And as you keep reading in the book of Acts, you see the gospel extend, chapter 13, toward the Gentiles.  Gentile persecution starts to break out.  You see it in chapter 16, 17, 18, 21, 24, 25, 26.  The whole world gangs up on them.  It is exactly as Jesus said it would be.  He said expect to be persecuted. You will be persecuted by Jews and Gentiles.

Why?  End of verse 12, “For My name’s sake.”  They persecute you because they hate Me.  They persecute you because they hate Me.  That’s the issue.  It isn’t that Christians are unkind, unlovable, not nice.  It’s what they represent that the unregenerate Jews and Gentiles hate.  They represent the gospel, which indicts all these as sinners on their way to hell who need to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and that’s the only way to be saved.  They hate that message.  They hate the Christ of the gospel.

So they have to be scratching their heads and saying, “This is not according to the plan.”  But Jesus gives them hope in verse 13.  And He says this, “It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.”  I love that.  It’s going to open up the door for you to take the gospel everywhere.  You remember what Paul said in Philippians chapter 1, that since he was a prisoner the gospel was furthered by his chains, and even brought into Caesar’s household so that he had led some in Caesar’s household to the knowledge of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The persecution of the church always brings gospel opportunity. Persecution of the church always purifies the church.  The persecution of the church always makes the church strong, it makes the church bold.

And a parallel passage, and remember now, Luke 21, teaching of Jesus here, is part of what He said. The rest of what He said is contained in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, combine all of those.  But in Matthew 24:14, this Jesus said as well on this same occasion, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations. Then the end shall come.”

Before the end comes, the gospel is going to go to the end of the world.  Well they might have wondered how that could happen then.  How could that possibly happen?  How could it possibly happen that the gospel could go to the end of the world when we’re going to be arrested, imprisoned and killed?  That’s only part of the story.  It’s going to create opportunity for your testimony.  Persecution of Christians has allowed Christians to give, strong, bold, confident, faithful testimony to the glory of the gospel.  You read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I’ve been reading it my whole life, just pieces and bits, and pieces, and over and over again.  And you hear these incredibly stirring, beautiful testimonies of those who were brought to the edge of the flames, about to be burned to death, or to the edge of the sword, or the guillotine for their love for Christ and how powerful their testimony is now resounding.

And so, in verse 14 the Lord says, “Make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves.”  Don’t worry about this.  Don’t think you’ve got to…This is literally technical language in the Greek for preparing and rehearsing a speech.  Don’t do that.  Make up your minds not to literally beforehand practice what you’re going to say.  No need.  Why?  Because, verse 15, “I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.”  I will give you what to say.

This isn’t the first time the Lord told them that.  This is not the first time the Lord told them they’re going to be persecuted.  But it was so hard for them to grasp even though He said it again and again.  Going way back into Matthew chapter 10, way back in the early part of His ministry He said this to them in verse 17 of Matthew 10, “Beware of men. They will deliver you up to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake,” same thing, Jewish persecution and Gentile persecution,  “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.”  Verse 19, “But when they deliver you up, do not become anxious about how or what you will speak, for it shall be given you in that hour what you are to speak, for it is not you who speak, it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.”  Ah, what a promise.  Don’t worry, don’t be fearful.  Don’t wonder whether you’ll be able to say the right thing in that hour, in that moment.

I remember reading some of the literature down around the time of John Calvin.  And there were young ministers writing John Calvin passionate letters, pleading with him to teach them what to say when they had to stand before the martyrs’ guillotine.  And what did Calvin need to teach them to say?  Nothing, but to depend upon the promise of God who said, “In that hour the Spirit will tell you what to say.”

In Mark 13:11, “When they arrest you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say but say whatever is given you in that hour for it is not you who speak but it is the Holy Spirit.”

Again, much earlier in the Lord’s ministry, in Luke 12, verses 11 and 12, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” That is so clear.  There is nothing ambiguous about that.  Don’t worry about it.  You’re going to be persecuted.  That’s right. You’re going to be persecuted.  It will give you an opportunity to give a testimony to the gospel, to make a good confession of the gospel and your faith in Christ.  Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, the Holy Spirit who dwells within you will show you what to say, and in such a way that none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute you.

You can go through the book of Acts and you can see illustrations of this, how that when they were brought before the authorities they said exactly the right thing, for which the authorities had no response.  Even in my little world, I have rested on this promise.  I get myself in situations where I’m under fire from people who hate the gospel, sometimes on worldwide television.  And people ask me, “How do you prepare for that?”  And I have always said this, “I prepare for that by simply trusting in the Holy Spirit.”  I’m actually excited. It’s an adventure.  I’m eager to find out what I’m going to say.  And sometimes I’ll replay it and I’ll say, “Wow! That was pretty good.”  But they’re never a match for the truth.  They’re never a match for the truth.

Yes, on the world stage there will come relentless persecution.  Don’t worry, it’s going to come.  You need to know it’s going to come because that will insulate you against it.  You don’t need to be surprised by this.

Now He’s already told them way back as we read in Matthew 10 and Luke 12.  But let me show you John 14.  John 14 is Jesus with His disciples the next night.  This is Wednesday when He’s on the Mount of Olives talking about His Second Coming.  The next night is Thursday.  He’s in the upper room. He’s having Passover with His disciples. This is one day later.  And in John 14:29 He is talking to them, all through this section, from the 13th chapter on, but look what He says in 29.  “I have told you before it come to pass that when it comes to pass you may believe.”

So what He’s doing is telling them to expect persecution so when persecution comes they won’t be surprised and say, “Hey, this whole thing’s gone south on us.”  Chapter 15, drop down to verse 19…well, verse 18, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” This is one night later He’s telling them this.  “If you were of the world, the world would love its own.  You’re not of the world, but I chose you out of the world. Therefore the world hates You.  Remember the word that I said to you.  A slave is not greater than his master, if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.  If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”  I’m telling you this.

Now go down to chapter 16 verse 1, and He says why.  These things I’ve spoken to you that you may not be…that you may be kept from stumbling.  “These things I’ve spoken to you that you may be kept from stumbling.”  I don’t want you to falter and fail when persecution comes because you didn’t expect it.

Verse 2, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he’s offering service to God.”  The Jewish persecution will come and they will think they’re serving God in persecuting you.  “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.”  The Jews not only do not know the Son, they do not know the Father either.

Then verse 4 is the key verse.  John 16:4, “These things I’ve spoken to you that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them, and these things I didn’t say to you at the beginning because I was with you.”  As long as I was with you, I took the heat.  As long as I was with you, I took the fury.  As long as I was with you, I took the animosity.  When I’m gone, it’s coming to you and you need to know it. You need to know it.

Now back to Luke.  How intimate will this persecution be?  Verse 16 of Luke 21, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death and you will be hated by all on account of My name.” Everybody is going to hate you on account of My name, right down to your intimate circle of friends and family.  You’re not just going to be hated by the Gentiles. You’re going to be hated by the Jews.  You’re not going to be hated by just the Jews. You’re going to be hated by your own parents and your own brothers and sisters who resent the gospel.  You’re going to be hated by everyone because of My name, for My name’s sake, because you identify with Me.

I’m telling you this now so that when it comes you will remember that I told you and you won’t stumble.  Expect it.  Expect it.

Is that the way it worked out?  Was Jesus right?  Well He was right about the wars. He was right about the earthquakes. He was right about the famines and the plagues.  He was right about the terrors in the sky, the wind and the fire.  He was right about all of those things.  He was right about the destruction of the temple, not one stone upon another.  You can go there today, stand there, and you will not see two stones on top of each other where the temple was.  He was right about that.

Was He right about the persecution?  Oh yeah.  And did it come before anything else?  Absolutely.  From its inception on the Day of Pentecost, here’s a little history, from its inception on the Day of Pentecost, the church of Jesus Christ began to face Jewish hostility.  All you have to do is look at the church.  The church starts in Acts 2.  In Acts 3 Peter and John heal a man crippled from birth.  In response to the healing, Peter preaches a powerful, evangelistic sermon in Acts 3.  And then we read this in Acts 4, “The priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead and they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day for it was already evening.”

The church starts in chapter 2.  Peter preaches his first sermon in chapter 3.  They’re put in jail in chapter 4 before anything else could happen, as exactly as Jesus had stated it.  Shortly after that, however, stung by the phenomenal growth of the church, 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost and thousands more soon after, you come in to chapter 5, the next chapter in Acts, and what do you read?  “The high priest rose up along with all of his associates, that is the sect of the Sadducees, filled with jealousy they laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail.”  Just exactly what Jesus said would happen at the hands of the Jews.  That’s chapter 5.

You come to chapter 6. You meet Stephen, a servant in the church.  Stephen is falsely accused.  He is arrested by the Jews.  He is put on trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.  And then he is, in chapter 7, stoned to death.  After his death, you come to chapter 8.  How does chapter 8 begin?  With a general persecution breaking out against all Christians, spear-headed by none other than a man named Saul of Tarsus.  The persecution begins and it spreads.

It finally reaches the apostles in the 12th chapter.  The first of the apostles to be martyred is James, the brother of John, and he is executed by the will of the Jews at the hands of Herod, chapter 12.

Soon after that, Peter, Andrew, Philip, James the son of Alphaeus, all crucified.  Bartholomew whipped to death and then crucified.  Thomas stabbed with spears.  And these are the very men to whom Jesus said you will be hated, persecuted and killed.  And they were.

Even outside that original circle of disciples, Mark was dragged to death through the streets of Alexandria.  James, the half-brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church, was stoned by order of the Sanhedrin.  Matthew, Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus, and even Timothy were killed for their unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ.  It was Clement of Rome, a contemporary of the apostles, who died around 100 A.D. who observed this, quote: “Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church have been persecuted and executed.”

Jesus said it would happen and it happened.  Jesus wasn’t limiting this persecution just to them.  He said it would start with them and it would continue.  The apostle Paul says, “All that live godly in Christ Jesus shall su…shall suffer persecution.”

Turn to Paul.  Before his execution, Paul encountered fierce opposition from the Jews primarily.  His bold, fearless preaching of the gospel astonished and enraged the Jewish population in Damascus, who then sought to kill him.  He had to flee for his life.  Acts chapter 9, he was lowered from the city wall at night in a basket.  The incident really charted the course for the rest of Paul’s life.  He was always on the run.

Luke records that in the course of his missionary journeys he was forced to flee from Iconium.  He was pelted with stones and left for dead at Lystra.  He was beaten and thrown into jail at Philippi.  He was forced to leave Thessalonica after his preaching started a riot.  He was forced to flee from Berea after hostile Jews from Thessalonica followed him there.  He was mocked and ridiculed by Greek philosophers at Athens.  He was brought before a Roman pro-consul at Corinth by his Jewish adversaries.  And he faced hostility constantly from the Jews and the Gentiles at Ephesus.  And that’s Paul’s life from Acts 14 to Acts 19.

As he was about to sail from Greece to Jerusalem, a Jewish plot against his life forced him to change his travel plans, and that’s Acts 20.  On the way to Jerusalem he met the elders of the Ephesian church and he said this to them, “I’m bound in Spirit on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me that in every city…that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city” in other words, the Spirit keeps repeating it “saying that chains and afflictions await me.”  I don’t know exactly what to expect when I get to Jerusalem except I’m going to become a prisoner.

When he finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was recognized when he went to the temple, by Jews from Asia Minor who knew him.  He was then savagely beaten by a frenzied mob.  He would have been killed right there in the temple area except the Roman soldiers saw what was going on and saved him from a certain death.  And they arrested him, and now you’re into Acts 21. They arrested him for his own safety.

While he was in custody in Jerusalem, under Roman guard, the Jews were plotting another plan to kill him, prompting the Roman commander to get him out of jail in Jerusalem under heavy guard, take him to the governor in Caesarea.  And by then you’re in Acts 23.

Eventually he has a harrowing sea voyage and shipwreck.  In Roman custody he arrives in Rome.  There, Acts 28, local Jewish opposition comes against him.  They tracked him even to the end of the book of Acts because they hated Christ.  The Romans released him after two years of imprisonment — Acts 28:30 — eventually rearrested him and cut off his head under Nero’s persecution.

This is the story of the apostles.  This is the story of the disciples, including the one added later, our beloved Paul.  Jesus said it would be like this and this is the way it was.  But under their ministry even in the midst of persecution, as they stood before kings and governors and councils and synagogues and proclaimed the glorious gospel, made a faithful confession, the gospel flourished, the testimony was clear.  Their boldness made the message believable and people were converted to Christ.  That’s always the way it is with faithful Christian testimony under persecution.

The Jews, however, thought they were serving God.  They thought they were honoring God.  They considered Christians to be heretics.  As I read you in John 16, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue because they think they’re offering service to God.”  And some of the Jews, particularly the Sadducees and the people in power, knew they had that power because they had managed to get into a relationship of complicity with the Romans.  In other words, they politically got their power by condescending to Roman authority.  They were afraid of Christianity because Christians put Jesus above Caesar and they thought if Christianity flourished, it would so irritate the Romans that they would lose their positions of power.  So you had Jewish persecution coming from those who were politically motivated and Jewish persecution coming from those who were religiously motivated.  But it was persecution, nonetheless.

Oh by the way, Jewish persecution ended when Judaism ended, 70 A.D.  It was over.  When the temple came down; when the city was destroyed, it was over.  And Jewish organized persecution ended.  But Gentile persecution was just getting started and it’s still going on today.  And I’m going to talk about that next time.  We think about 160 thousand Christians are killed every year since 1990.  This persecution will get worse, far worse, in the time of tribulation.  We’ll leave that for next time.

I want to give you one word of hope. Look at verse 18.  “Even though you will be hated by all on account of My name, yet not a hair of your head will perish.”  You may die, but you’re going to be OK.  The worst that can happen to the believer is the best that can happen to the believer.

Father, we thank You for Your truth.  Thank You for the power of the words of our Lord and sometimes we read these words and they just kind of fly by and we don’t grab their impact, but it’s a stunning thing to see the accuracy with which Jesus knew the future.  It was counter to everything they expected. Even just lining up with the conventional wisdom of His day  He was saying things that were just beyond comprehension.

And they were right. Everything He said was exactly the way it is in the world.  Millions of believers have died since that original group died at the hands primarily of the Jews and some Gentiles.  Millions have died.  And many more will.  And even more saints will be slaughtered in the time of tribulation by the Antichrist and his agents.  But the church will still grow and flourish, according to Your plan.  History is unfolding exactly the way You said it would.

And, Lord, we pray that we will be faithful, that when we get into situations with those who are hostile to the gospel, we might know that we are safe and secure, not one hair of our head will be harmed.  That’s an idiomatic way of saying we’re safe in the care of the One who has given us life that is eternal and we will never perish.  But, Lord, help us in those situations to rest on the fact that You will give us what we need to say and You will allow us to make a bold confession no matter how trying it may be.  We know that we live in a part of the world and a time in the world when we can be soft.  We don’t have a strong experience of persecution, not like so many in the world, not like Christians in Muslim countries and Hindu countries who are dying for their faith.  Not like Christians who live under tyranny of communism who are executed for their faith.  We have a…We have a different environment for us.  And we know that not all of us experience the great earthquakes and the famines and the plagues either but these are the general realities.  But, Lord, we know that if and when those things come, even if it’s just in our family or friends who condemn us, hate us, because of the gospel and because of Christ, that You will give us what we need to say that can’t be refuted or resisted and that You will give us opportunity to make a good confession, even as Jesus made a good confession before Pontius Pilate, even as Paul made a good confession as he stood before his executors, even as saints of the ages make that good confession, You will enable us in all things, all struggles to make that good confession, a true gospel confession and You will use our testimony to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth.

History is Your story. You are writing it.  And we see it again unfold exactly the way You said it would.  You are the true God. Christ is the true Redeemer, and the true Savior who speaks to us the truth.  We rest in that truth.  We’re not surprised, we’re not shocked. We’re not stunned.  We don’t falter and stumble in our faith because of persecution.  You said to expect it and it has come.  If they hated You, they will certainly hate us in Your name.

Father, we pray for those who are still a part of that kingdom of darkness, who are not under Your protection.  We pray, Lord, that those who do not know Christ and forgiveness and salvation would receive that gift today.

Lord, we do know that it is a great joy to suffer for Your sake.  Bring on that suffering for righteousness’ sake that produces joy and effective testimony.  May we be bold and confident that the Spirit will give us what to say in that hour!  We pray, Lord, that as Your true church moves ahead and feels the increasing hostility even of our culture, the chaff will fall away and the real grain will stand the test and have an impact for the gospel.  These things we ask only for Your glory in Christ’s name.  Amen.

https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/42-257/the-persecution-and-endurance-of-christians-part-1

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