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What Does the Bible Say About Persecution?

The subject of persecution Is on the minds of many today for a variety of reasons. In the recent past and even currently there have been many reports of Christians in various parts of the world being attacked for their faith and even brutally being put to death. In the United States there seems to be an uptick in the persecution of Christians both through legal and illegal means as the shouts of “Bigotry!” and accusations of hatred get louder and more strident, even being accompanied by actual threats against their lives. What does the Bible say about how a Christian is to respond to persecution?

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says this:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (St. Matthew 5:10-12)

Notice the conditions our Lord places upon His definition of persecution. It’s actual persecution when you are persecuted for:

  • Righteousness’ sake
  • Doing something evil when you have not
  • Speaking the Word of God as the prophets did

In other words, real persecution is being attacked (in whatever way) for confessing the pure, apostolic doctrines of God’s holy Word. When you publicly confess that Jesus Christ is the God-Man by whose life, death, and resurrection sins were paid for, holiness declared, and new life in Him begin, and are treated as an outcast from society, this is persecution.

There are many ways by which this is done. Some Christians are actually killed for confessing their faith in Jesus the Christ. Examples of this abound. It can come if they attempt to stifle your confessing the truths of God’s Word by legal and illegal means. Regardless of how it’s done, there is the temptation for us either to give in to our persecutors and reject the truths we confess, or lash out against those oppressing us. In either case, sin has gained the upper hand.

Martin Luther wrote a letter to three women who had been removed from their positions because they only had been reading some of Martin Luther’s writings; he wrote this to aid them in their distress:

It is my earnest and friendly request that you set your hearts at rest and neither do nor wish evil to those who are responsible for the situation in which you find yourselves. You should rather act as Saint Paul teaches and says, Being reviled, we bless. (1 Corinthians 4:12) Christ also says in St. Matthew 6: Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. Act thus because you are enlightened by the grace of God, while they are blind and impenitent. Moreover, they do more injury to their own souls than all the world can do to them….Accordingly it is fitting that you should have pity on them, seeing that they are mad, unthinking men who do not realize how deplorably they are ruining themselves when they think to do you such an injury. Wait on Christ, and let Him act. He will richly recompense you for the wrong done you and will lift you up higher than your fondest hope, if only you will not interfere and leave everything to Him. (Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Chapter VII)

Later, he quoted to them from this portion of the book of the Prophet Zechariah, some of which will be familiar to those who use the Office of Compline from our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary: For thus says the LORD of hosts: “He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye. For surely I will shake My hand against them, and they shall become spoil for their servants. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me. (2:8-9)

Our nature says, “Lash out!” when attacked by the world and even those who claim the Name of Christ Jesus; but that same Lord who declares His anger against those who would teach His Word falsely, also tells us that our reaction—though we might try and justify our anger—is to bless rather than curse. This is something that can only be done by the power of God the Holy Spirit working in you, making a new heart for you, renewing a right spirit within you. It is the cross we bear and to which we cling when dangers are set all around us, for only in that place, only in the crucified Christ whom we believe, teach, and confess, can we find the real power of God unto – not earthly power, vengeance, or control—but unto salvation which is most certainly yours.

Consider how our Lord Jesus, even in the midst of His agonies on the cross, prayed for those who called for His death and who taunted Him even as that sentence was being carried out. On Pentecost, many of these same people were baptized and forgiven, just what Jesus prayed for on their behalf. And the first martyr, Stephen, prayed as Jesus did for his persecutors and at least one of them, Saul of Tarsus, was converted and forgiven and given the same hope in which Stephen died.

This does not mean that we simply allow ourselves to suffer as though by doing so we’re earning some measure of God’s favor. Consider how St. Paul himself even availed himself of Roman law’s protection as he appealed his death sentence to the emperor himself. We also in the United States are offered protection under our own laws and make use of them for our benefit and for the benefit of proclaiming the Gospel freely and without hinderance despite the threats breathed out against Jesus’ Church. Understand, however, that even at the end of St. Paul’s appeal, he was put to death by the very one to whom he appealed, thus fulfilling the gracious will of our Lord for His Church.

Prayer Under Great Trials and Persecution

(Prayed by D. Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521)

Almighty and eternal God, what a strange cause this is! How it loosens peoples’ tongues! How small and insignificant is their trust in You! How weak and tender is the flesh, and how powerful and busy is the devil, with the help of his apostles and the worldly wise! How quickly the world withdraws help, does an about-face, pursues the easy way, and speeds on the broad road to hell where the godless belong. It sees only what is brilliant and powerful, great, mighty and respected! If I should turn my eyes to it, I would be done for.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh my God, Oh my God, stand by me against all the wisdom and reason of the world. Do it. You alone must do it. It is not really my concern; it is Yours. Alone I have nothing to do with these great lords of the world. I want good and quiet days, undisturbed. But it is Your cause; it is righteous and eternal. Stand by me. Oh, true and eternal God. I do not rely on human counsel, for it would be in vain. All that is of the flesh and tastes of the flesh falters.

O God, O God, do You not hear me, my God? Are You dead? No, You cannot die; You are only hiding. Have You called me to this place? I ask You so that I may be sure. God, grant it! Never in my life had I thought to oppose such great rulers and never had I set out to do it.

O God, stand by me in the Name of Your dear Son Jesus Christ who shall be my Protector and Defender, even my Mighty Fortress, through the power and help of Your Holy Spirit.

Lord, where are you? Come, come, I am ready like a patient lamb to lay down my life for this cause. It is Your cause and it is righteous. I will not separate myself from You forever. Be it resolved in Your Name that the world cannot force me to act against my conscience, even if I had still more devils, and if my body which is first of all Your creation should have to perish; for my soul is Yours. It belongs to You, and may it remain with You forever. Amen. So help me. Amen.

-From the Office of the President