There are several forms of persecution: harassment, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, oppression, physical torture, violence, killing.
The only time life has been free of persecution was in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve sinned. However, even then there was a warning of persecution. In Genesis 2: 17, God made it clear that, on the pain of death, Adam was forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Upon disobeying God, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. The price for forfeiting their idyllic life was condemnation to a life of labour, pain, torment, strife and persecution (Gen: 3: 17-19).
There are 74 references to persecution in the Bible. But as we will see, persecution is a two-edged sword: retributive and redemptive. While it is used by God to inflict punishment on persons and nations for disparaging and forsaking him, it is also used to bring glory to him when it is endured by the righteous for which they are blessed and richly rewarded.
The first and greatest persecution in the Bible was The Flood. Genesis chapter 6: 5-8 tells us that, disgusted by man’s wickedness, God decided to rid the earth of humans. Only Noah and his family were exempted. After The Flood, God then promised that he would never again subject the earth to such a curse (Gen: 9: 11). Subsequently, on a restricted scale, God did destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness and initiated the destruction of Jericho.
Three Old Testament instances of personal persecution and redemption
Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. But despite his situation in terms of rejection and discrimination, he enjoyed God’s favour. Within the pagan Egyptian political structure, he was able to prosper and was put in charge of the entire logistical operation of Egypt by the Pharaoh. Indicative of Joseph’s appreciation of his blessings from God was the name he gave to his second son – Ephraim. “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41: 52). But for disowning their brother Joseph, Jacob’s sons paid a price. Not only did they have to endure famine, but they were humbled in having to beg for food from Joseph, who they did not recognise, in his role as the arbiter of food supplies during the famine that came over the land. Joseph, to his credit, held no grudges. He freely acknowledged God’s role in him being brought to Egypt – “It was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household…” (Gen. 45: 8).
The retribution Joseph suffered from his brothers and later when he was falsely accused of trying to procure sexual favours from an Egyptian official’s wife, on both occasions were tempered by God’s favour. In turn, Joseph did not seek vengeance on his brothers. Although he imposed terms and conditions by way of redeeming them, he did not persecute them. In this episode, therefore, one sees virtue evolving from adversity. That was further illustrated when Pharaoh gave Joseph and his brothers together with their father, Jacob, property in the best part of Egypt, the district of Rameses (Gen. 47: 11).
The story of Job is perhaps the most stirring in terms of the extremes of retribution to which Job was subjected all the while sustaining his conviction in God for which ultimately he was generously rewarded.
Job was a wealthy man. He had seven sons and three daughters; owned 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys and had a large number of servants. He was “blameless” and “upright,” and “shunned evil” (Job: 1:1-3). One day, Satan presented himself before God. In the exchange between them, God boasted of Job’s faultless and upright character and expressed confidence that Job would never renege on his faith in God no matter what suffering was imposed on him. To prove his point, God allowed Satan to put Job to the test.
In the first test, in the course of a single day, Job received four devastating messages. The first three concerned the loss of all his livestock and servants. The fourth one informed him of the death of all ten of his children when the house collapsed on them. Job tore his clothes and shaved his head in mourning, but he remained resolute in his faith in God, saying: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1: 21).
Determined to succeed in breaking Job, Satan again came before God who granted him a second chance to test Job. This time, Job was afflicted with painful sores from head to toe. Appalled at his state, his wife urged him to curse God and to give up and die. But Job’s response was: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2: 10). Bravely he bore his suffering and refused to curse God.
Three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to visit him. They sat with Job in silence for seven days out of respect for his mourning. On the seventh day, Job spoke, beginning a conversation in which each of the four men shared, at length, their respective thoughts on Job’s afflictions.
Job cursed the day he was born, comparing life and death to light and darkness. The visitors’ responses and interpretations of his condition merely speculated on the reversal of his fortunes causing Job to scorn their opinions.
Nonetheless, Job pondered man’s relationship with God; how God is unseen and his ways are inscrutable and beyond human understanding. He lamented that God let wicked people prosper while he and countless other innocent people suffered. He wanted to confront God and complain, but could not bring himself to do it. Instead, he resolved to persist in pursuing wisdom by fearing God and avoiding evil. As is stated in Proverbs, “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom” (1:7).
The exchange of opinions was further protracted by the entry of a fourth visitor, Elihu. But eventually God intervened. Calling from a whirlwind, he commanded Job to be brave. Overwhelmed by the encounter, Job acknowledged God’s unlimited power and admitted the limitations of his human understanding.
In appreciation of his steadfast resolution and faith, God restored Job’s health, made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before, namely, 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 oxen and 1,000 donkeys. His family of 10 children was also restored. (42:10-14). Job’s faith and endurance in the face of extreme adversity earned him God’s reward and redemption from succumbing to Satan.
Around 627BC, at the age of about 18, Jeremiah first recognised his vocation. “The word of the Lord came to me saying: Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations…. Do not be afraid.. for I am with you and will rescue you” declared the Lord (Jer:1 5-8).
Jeremiah’s mission was, as one writer has put it, one of anguish and gloom as a consequence of God making his intentions known. The pagan kingdoms to the north of the Israelites were destined to lay waste the land of Judah because of its idolatry and wickedness in forsaking God. “For I am bringing disaster from the north, even terrible destruction” (Jer 4: 6). So awful was the punishment that God intended to inflict on Judah, that he instructed Jeremiah not to take a wife because in the destruction that was to come, families would perish.
A bearer of bad news is never welcome. From the outset, Jeremiah was subjected to ridicule and insults for proclaiming God’s word and exposing the religious rot of Israel. His role as a prophet, as all the prophets experienced, was one of persecution for his obedience to God’s instruction. Here’s what he was up against: the worship of false gods that even involved human sacrifice; priests engaged in ritual sex with so-called holy prostitutes in the temple, a practice that was supposed to promote the fertility of crops; a shrine to Ishtar, the Assyrian goddess of love and war, which had been placed inside the temple.
Despite Jeremiah’s efforts, the spread of paganism continued. But his courage never flagged. In October 608 BC, at the time of the annual feast of Tabernacles, God instructed Jeremiah to interrupt the ritual display by the priests as they circled the altar in the temple. Boldly Jeremiah declared: “Reform your ways and your actions and I will let you live in this place…But you are trusting in deceptive words…Will you burn incense to Baal and other gods you have not known?…. Has this house which bears my name, become a den of robbers to you?” (Jer 7: 3-11).
Outraged at his words and his prediction that the temple would be trashed, a furious mob seized Jeremiah and demanded that he be executed. Unfazed, Jeremiah continued to urge his detractors to mend their ways and thereby earn the Lord’s mercy. Temple officials decided to spare his life on that occasion. But his outspokenness had made him a marked man. Even in his birthplace, he was warned that if he prophesied in the name of the Lord, he would die.
Not long afterwards, again in the temple, Jeremiah declared: “This is what the Lord says: Listen! I am going to bring on this city and the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words” (Jer 19: 15). The chief priest, Pashhur, was outraged at Jeremiah’s prophesy and promptly flogged him with a lash. Then had him shackled to the stocks near the Benjamin gate of Jerusalem. The next morning Jeremiah was released but not before prophesying that Pashhur would be carried away into captivity and die there (Jer. 20: 1-6).
Jeremiah’s persecution distressed him. Now banned from the temple, he complained to the Lord that everywhere he was ridiculed, mocked and insulted. “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” he asked. But at the same time he acknowledged that God’s “word is in my heart like a fire… I am weary of holding it in…” (Jer. 20: 18; 9).
In 597 BC, the first of Jeremiah’s prophesies was realised. Babylonian legions took Jerusalem after a three month siege, ransacking the temple and palace and taking many into captivity. Jeremiah told the captives that they would be in captivity for 70 years – absolutely correct as it turned out.
When Judah’s new puppet ruler, Zedekiah, tried to declare independence from Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, imposed a new siege on Jerusalem. Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to surrender. But his God-inspired advice was ignored. Upon trying to leave Jerusalem, Jeremiah was accused of desertion, beaten and thrown into a dungeon. Subsequently, he was condemned to death for continuing to urge surrender. Lowered into a swamp-like mud at the bottom of a cistern, Jeremiah was left to die. But God had promised to protect him and prevailed on Zedekiah to change his mind. And so Jeremiah was lifted out of his deathtrap.
The siege of Jerusalem lasted two years during which famine resulted in some resorting to cannibalism. In July 587, the siege ended with Nebuchadnezzar’s forces utterly destroying the temple, looting the city and slaughtering the populace including Zedekiah’s family. Jeremiah was spared because he had advised surrender instead of resistance (Jer: 40:1-5).
Jeremiah prophesied retribution if the Israelites did not abandon their wickedness. He also prophesied redemption after 70 years of captivity. His prophesies turned out to be absolutely accurate. For his unrelenting prophesying he suffered severe social and physical hardship and pain. In a word: persecution. Yet he remained obedient to God’s mission.
In carrying out God’s wishes and being faithful to God, Joseph, Job and Jeremiah each endured pain and suffering. Is not the lesson here that persecution of the righteous is God’s way of testing the endurance of their faith? Thus, God rewards those who see the setbacks of life as opportunities to acknowledge God as the arbiter of all things and remain steadfast in their adherence to him.
Persecution of those who neglect and reject God and of those who remain faithful to him, are consistent themes in the Bible – a constant interplay of retribution and redemption. Many of the Psalms lament the plight of the weak and the upright who are exploited and persecuted by the wicked. They implore the Lord to help the oppressed. The prophet Amos in chapter 4 provides an account of the occasions God inflicted retribution on Israel: from imposing plagues, withholding rain, sending locusts to devour crops. “For I know how many are your offenses and how great are your sins” (Amos: 5: 12). But God’s warnings are tempered by mercy. “Seek good, not evil that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,” said Amos in relaying God’s word (5: 14).
Isaiah in chapter 52 refers to Jesus as the “Suffering Servant.” That description is widely associated with Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday. But if one considers the life of Jesus, from his birth to Calvary, he was constantly subjected to persecution. In the first place, he humbled himself to live amongst humanity with all our faults, failings and sinfulness. He chose to be born in a stable, to be a refugee as a baby, to do common labour as a carpenter, to be tempted by Satan after spending 40 days in the wilderness fasting; to have his wisdom and understanding despised and disparaged by the elite of his time because of his humble origins. As the Messiah who had been predicted for centuries, Jesus had to suffer not only non-recognition of who he is, but rejection, betrayal, denial and death – the ultimate form of persecution.
Jesus experienced persecution on a daily basis. He was intellectually harassed by the Sadducees and Pharisees, badgered by those who saw him as an entertaining medical wonderworker, rejected by Capernaum and Nazareth, threatened with an early death, frustrated by the fickle nature of his apostles. He had to balance his divine nature with the weakness of the human form that he embraced. As Jesus said on the night of his betrayal, “the spirit is willing but the body is weak” (Matt: 26: 41).
Since we live in a fallen world, persecution is an unavoidable reality. Therefore, we should see it as a virtue. For as Jesus said in relating the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven… (Matt: 5: 10-12).
As Timothy has stated (2:3: 12): “In fact everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Thus, for us, persecution is not retribution but our sure means of redemption.
To conclude, let us reflect on and pray daily for Christians who are undergoing vicious persecution in China, Pakistan and in Islamic states. It is a tragic reality that there is more persecution of Christians in our time than in any previous age.