Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
The biblical teaching about Antichrist, who will come in place of Christ and against Christ, is that he will be both a political and an ecclesiastical power. His reign of terror for the people of God will be a reign over both the “church” and the “world.”
One horrible result of the reign of the Antichrist will be a persecution of God’s people. Even though some do not believe that there will be a great persecution (some postmillennialists) and others believe that, although there will be a great persecution, the saints will be raptured out of it (most premillennialists), the child of God may not expect to be spared tribulation. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” Christ says (see alsoMatthew 24:9, 10, 21, 22 along with Matt. 24:29a).
The church always suffered persecution. From the persecution of righteous Abel to the killing of Zechariah the son of Berechiah, Christ said, persecution of the church always existed. There is nothing surprising or different there (see Hebrews 11:35-38, and I Thessalonians 3:2-4). Paul told the saints in Acts 14 that “through much tribulation” we must enter into the kingdom of God. Shortly after Paul died, when the saints would not forsake their faith, they were fed to lions, boiled in great pots of oil, used as torches, slaughtered by the thousands. This was the story for the Reformation saints who were stretched out on racks, burned at the stake, and slaughtered by the hundreds while they worshiped, as in the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France.
But this is not what “the great persecution” refers to. Christ spoke to His disciples in Matthew 24:21 of this terrible persecution, describing it as “great tribulation.”
In Matthew 24, one of Jesus’ purposes was to foretell that Jerusalem would be destroyed. It was. In AD 70, the Romans under the leadership of Titus besieged and finally entered Jerusalem, wasted the city, desecrated the temple, and murdered the people in some of the most gruesome butcherings in history. In reference to this persecution also, the Lord told them to pray that their flight would be not in winter or on the Sabbath, and that they would be not pregnant when they would have to run for their lives (vss. 18, 19). But thispersecution was only a foreshadowing of the final, incomparable persecution at the end of this dispensation. Still to come is the great persecution, the like of which the church has never seen (see Matthew 24:21).
Many refuse to believe that there will be such a great persecution. Believing that there will be some persecution for the church throughout the ages, even severe persecution, they deny that there will be a final, “Great Tribulation.” But there are problems with that thinking that cannot be solved. Obviously, Matthew 24:29, 30does not refer only to the destruction of Jerusalem. It says that the tribulation comes immediately before the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And the Son of man did not appear in heaven immediately after that event. Second, verse 36 says that no man knows the time that this great event will take place. Is Jesus merely referring to the fact that no man knows when Jerusalem will be destroyed? Third, verse 37 compares this great event with the destruction of the world by the flood. Does Jesus say that the flood is a picture of the destruction of Jerusalem? II Peter 3:5-7 andLuke 17:20-37 give the clear answer. Finally, something that we sometimes forget is that after Matthew 24 comesMatthew 25, and that the two are related. The parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the last judgment (very clearly applications of what Jesus said in chapter 24) are applications of the teaching of the final coming of Christ, not the destruction of Jerusalem.
There is yet to come a great persecution of the church.
The church will be “chased” (II Thess. 2:15, marginal reading) out of the world, “pressed” and “squeezed” out of existence (“tribulation” means just this). This will be done by refusal to allow God’s people to buy groceries or gas; to use the telephone or electricity, to work and make a living (Rev. 13:17). While the world swims in a pool of wealth, the church will lack basic necessities. How bad this will be cannot even be described because, although one can hardly imagine how bad some persecutions have been in the past,this persecution will be “such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time . . .” (Matt. 24:21).
It’s worthwhile to think about this in the context of the world we live in today. Our sophisticated, humanitarian, “rights”-oriented, peaceful, “do-your-own-thing-as-long-as-you-don’t-hurt-anyone-else” society will be the one that shows its true colors and attempts the destruction of Christ’s church.
It’s also worthwhile to remember that the “church” will be lighting the matches, opening the cages, boiling the oil . . . . Prostituting herself anew (see Ezekiel 16:33, 34), this “church” will hate those who love her former “lover.” Then these who call themselves followers of Christ will drink themselves to drunken glee with the blood of the saints (Rev. 17:6). They will hate the true children of God. For this, God will judge her (I Thess. 2:16;II Thess. 1:6-10).
During those days the church of Christ will be trimmed of its fat. Hypocrites in the true churches will be few, if any. Today, many remain members of the church because family and friends are there, or because their support—emotional or material—is there, or because they think that outward membership in the church will be of benefit for them in the judgment day, perhaps at least guarantee them a cooler spot in the fires of hell. But in the days of the great tribulation there will be no social benefits in the true churches. In those days there will be little financial or emotional support. In those days there will be mass defections from true churches, exposing hypocrites for what they were.
The false church engages in this severe persecution of the true church because of envy. The false church wants to silence the witness of the truth because the false church wants these converts for herself. More than once in the book of Acts you read that “the unbelieving Jews were moved with envy” because of the work of the apostles (see chapter 17, for example). Paul says in I Thessalonians 2:16 that the unbelieving Jews were forbidding Paul and the others to speak to the Gentiles because the Jews didn’t want the Gentiles to be saved. They were jealous even then, because they wanted the Gentiles to be converted to Judaism (Matthew 23:15).
This will be true in the last days as well. The Antichristian kingdom will not allow the true church to speak because it will be green with envy of any converts the Lord gives the church in those days, and it will be lusting after every follower for its Antichristian kingdom. This is true today as well. False teachers in colleges and high schools are envious that some students are still espousing the traditional doctrines. Then, because they want these students for themselves, all stops are pulled to silence the truth.
Behind it all is hatred of Jesus Christ. Jesus said inMatthew 24:9, “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations, for my name’s sake.” In John 15:21 the Lord taught, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you . . . . But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me.” And Revelation 12 makes very plain that the anger of the beast for the church is because the church brought forth Jesus Christ.
Think of that when you suffer. For the sake of Christ we live as we do. For the sake of Christ we speak the truth of God and His Son. For the sake of Christ we attend and support the schools we do. For the sake of Christ we support the church and kingdom here on earth. For the sake of Christ we will not bow down to the beast and his image, nor receive his mark on our body. So, for the sake of Christ we are persecuted! For no other reason would we allow our children to starve, but for the sake of Christ. For no other reason would we lose home and family and possessions and life, but for our Christ. For no other reason do we sing with Luther in “A Mighty Fortress,” “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” For Christ.
Remember, then, the goal of their persecution—it’s not to hurt you, but to stop you from speaking about Jesus Christ. Let’s not forget that He is at the center of this as well.
We ought to recognize every form of persecution today fair what it is. Every pressure to move us from our confession of the truth, whether that’s the truth of the sovereignty of God in creation or the sovereignty of God in salvation or the infallibility of the Bible, is an attempt to destroy our salvation and an attack against Jesus Christ.
Do you fear persecution? Who would deny that they have fear when they think of persecution, whether that’s the tribulation of the very end or the persecution of the present? We ought to have a healthy “fear” of persecution as Paul expressed in I Thessalonians 3:5ff, making us beware of it and take measures against it.
But we must not be terrified. The Lord Jesus gives good consolation regarding these terrifying days. First, we were ordained by God Himself to go through whatever tribulation we experience (I Thess. 3:3). Remember that. Second, this persecution is nothing new. Peter warned the saints in his days to “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings . . . .” Christ suffered. His saints always suffered (Matt. 5:12, I Thess. 2:15). You are in good company! Third, the days will be shortened for your sakes (Matt. 24:22). This doesn’t mean that the days will be less than 24 hours, but that time will be cut off. The Lord is in control. He will hasten His coming to take his elect to glory, destroy the wicked world, and make all things new, because He will not have one of His elect deceived or fall. With respect to us, we certainly would fall; but the Lord will not allow it (Cannons V-8). He will “cut short” those days for our sakes. Finally, the comfort in persecution is this: we have a glory coming that cannot even be compared with the suffering we experience now (II Cor. 4:17, Romans 8:18), a glory of living eternally with our great God and His Son Jesus Christ.
Bear up, saints. Lift up the hands that hang down, and the feeble knees . . . . No one will pluck you out of His hand. There is laid up for you a crown of life. In the world you have tribulation; but do not fear, Christ has overcome the world! Stand strong in Him.
“Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of Gods own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth His name, From age to age the same, And He must win the battle.” He has. In Him, you will.
1. Should the church member who is not persecuted feel guilty? Should the church member seek out persecution? Should he pray to be spared persecution? In this connection, what does I Timothy 2:1, 2mean?
2. Look up the Formula of Subscription in the back of the (old) Psalter. What does the promise that the officebearers take mean for their place in the persecution?
3. Are all those today who are involved in persecuting God’s people aware of what they are doing? Does this matter? For them? For our reaction to them?
4. How can we strengthen ourselves to face these coming days, or to face any persecution?