Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
On our pilgrim journey through this life we face many hardships. Ours is not a prosperous, peaceful, and trouble-free life. From the cradle to the grave, we encounter countless and great struggles.
Persecution is one of the main hardships we face. Because we are not of the world, we are hated for the sake of Jesus Christ. Christ Himself experienced this, and concerning it He said, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). And again, “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
In his first epistle, the apostle Peter also speaks of the persecution we can expect. He mentions that we will be “in heaviness through manifold temptations” (I Peter 1:6); the ungodly will “speak against us as evildoers” (I Peter 2:12); we will “suffer for righteousness sake” (I Peter 3:14); we will “suffer in the flesh” (I Peter 4:1); a “fiery trial” will try us (I Peter 4:12); we will be “reproached for the name of Christ” (I Peter 4:14); and so on.
But Peter does not speak only of the fact of persecution. He also gives us the ultimate reason for it. It will come upon us, not simply because of the hatred of ungodly men, and not simply because of Satan’s raging against the church of Christ, but “according to the will of God” (I Pet. 4:19). It has been decreed and will be sent upon us by God Himself. That is why we are told not to think it strange when the fiery trials of persecution come our way (I Pet. 4:12).
All of this was very real for the early New Testament church. Think for example of Saul, who, prior to his conversion, was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Persecution also came from the Romans, who under the leadership of Nero punished the saints for crimes they did not commit. Believers were subjected to extreme tortures and painful deaths, and that for the amusement of the citizens of Rome.
Some of God’s people today suffer in the same way. The world hates true Christianity, and in some countries that hatred means that those who confess Christ are opposed at every turn. In such places the people of God, by meeting to worship their King, risk the loss of all they have—possessions, jobs, families, and even their own lives.
While most of us do not suffer so severely, yet we are still persecuted for the sake of Christ. The world in which we live is one that tolerates anything and everything, except those who truly confess Jesus Christ and His truth. Pilgrims are hated because they will not validate and support sin. Pilgrims are mocked because they will not participate in the language and lifestyles of modern society. Pilgrims are denied work because they are determined to keep the Sabbath day holy.
Other forms of persecution come our way, too. We oppose abortion as a breaking of the sixth commandment and are accused of being uncompassionate. We condemn the sin of homosexuality on the basis of God’s Word and are charged with hate crimes. We confess the truth that God created the universe in six days and are scorned as ignorant and unlearned men. We rejoice in God’s covenant by having large families (if possible) and are labeled as unwise. We are mocked because of our reverent worship and reverent use of the Lord’s Day. In the eyes of the world we are “intolerant,” “bigoted,” and “narrow minded.”
Such forms of persecution, however, are in reality rather mild. What we must reckon with is the fact that as time advances toward the end, persecution will become much more severe. We will not always have the freedoms that we now have as Christians. We can expect opposition to grow until it comes against, not just part, but all of Christ’s church. That will be the case especially once the Antichrist arises, for “then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). Suffering will be very great. Men will be unbelievably cruel. The wicked will turn their inventive minds toward producing highly sophisticated ways of torturing God’s people in the hopes of getting them to deny Christ. The place of the church in the world will become very narrow indeed.
There is the very real possibility that some of us living today will face this great tribulation. It is not pleasant to think about that, for it will be a most terrible time for the saints. Our flesh shrinks from it. We fear it. Perhaps that is why we tend to put it out of our minds. But the fact and the severity of it ought to be believed by us, and thought upon. For we need to prepare ourselves and our children for that time. And we need to remind ourselves, in light of it, that we are pilgrims on this earth, who live with a view to a better and an eternal life.
The reason for persecution is that God has made us (as we noticed in a previous article) holy pilgrims. God’s work of grace has set us apart from the ungodly among whom we live. We speak a different language, live a different lifestyle, have different interests, pursue different goals, do different things. We are not interested in making this world our permanent home. We resist participating in ungodliness. We do not seek things here below, but have our eyes fixed on things eternal. And the ungodly world around us hates everything it sees and notices in us.
If we want, we are able to avoid persecution, or at least to lessen the amount of it. All we need to do is fail to live as pilgrims in this world. If we conform ourselves to the ungodly world, the wicked will leave us alone. If we speak their language and join them in their evil activities, instead of condemning them, the ungodly will not mock and ridicule us.
If we find we are not being persecuted, we do well to ask ourselves whether we are living as pilgrims ought. Perhaps your life is not as godly as it should be. Perhaps you are conforming yourself to the world. Perhaps, without even realizing it, you are doing so in order to avoid opposition and hatred. It should not be that way. For “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12).
The ungodly persecute us because they hate Christ Himself. When we live a godly life, our lives are Christ-like. That is what the world sees and hates.
They also persecute us because we condemn them. We do this every time we speak the words of Christ, for the word of truth that we believe and confess condemns all their unrighteousness and sin. But even apart from what we say, the holy life of the pilgrims is a condemnation of the ungodly. Our witness, both through word and deed, pricks the consciences of the ungodly so that they turn against us and do all they can to get us out of their lives. They seek to silence the godly so that their own consciences might not be troubled.
As we contemplate such persecution, it is natural to be filled with dread. But like the apostles, we should count it a privilege that we are found worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ (Acts 5:41). We should rejoice inasmuch as we are partakers of Christ’s sufferings (I Pet. 4:13).
This is possible, first of all, when we realize that persecution is good for us as pilgrims. It is part of God’s work in preparing us for glory. We are sanctified through persecution. It causes us to long for our home in heaven, where we will no longer face it. Often our longing is not as it should be. God uses persecution as a means to cure us of our worldliness and to turn our minds to contemplate what is coming, and to increase our desire for it.
We can also rejoice when we are persecuted because suffering for Christ’s sake serves to assure us that we are Christ’s. We are to rejoice inasmuch as we are “partakers of Christ’s sufferings” (I Pet. 4:13). As we partake of Christ’s sufferings, we are assured of the fact that we are united to Christ Himself, for we suffer exactly because it is clear to the ungodly that Christ lives in us. Our suffering as Christians confirms for us that we belong to Him.
Pilgrims can also rejoice when they face persecution because of the confidence of divine protection.
You may wonder, “Will I be able to stand when the pain and loss and suffering becomes unbearable? Or will I cave in on account of terrible torture, so that I deny Christ in order to escape torments from the ungodly?”
We cannot stand on our own. We are weak and helpless against the pressures of the ungodly. But by the power of our almighty God, we will stand and persevere. He has promised never to leave or forsake us. Having paid the price of our redemption through the death of His own Son, He will not abandon us in the time of our greatest need. No one will be able to pluck us out of His hands. They may destroy our bodies, but our souls are secure because of God’s sovereign care and safekeeping.
Finally, whenever we suffer we need especially to keep before our minds the hope we have as pilgrims and strangers here below. We have been begotten unto a living hope (I Pet. 1:3), the hope of heaven and life eternal. Because of our hope, we should not focus on all the sacrifices we must make and on all the sufferings we must endure, but rather consider the things that await us in heaven. In light of that hope, we can say, “So what if they hurt my body; they cannot touch my soul! So what if they destroy my earthly home; I have a mansion in heaven! So what if they take away all my possessions and prevent me from buying and selling and obtaining my daily food; I have riches in glory that will never be destroyed! So what if they end and take away my earthly life; as soon as they do I will be with Jesus in glory!”
Hopeful pilgrims are able, by the grace of Christ, to face and endure suffering for His sake.