Warnings when persecution comes.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 September 2022

Mk 13.9, Mt 24.9-13, Lk 21.12-19.

In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus warned his students what’d happen before, as he predicted, the Romans destroyed the temple in the great tribulation in the year 70.

But fearful Christians insist this passage isn’t at all about ancient Jerusalem, but our future: A seven-year worldwide tribulation. Darbyists manipulate the Olivet Discourse to defend their beliefs, and people believe ’em because they don’t know first-century history, don’t know their bibles, and aren’t depending on the Holy Spirit to help them defeat fear, paranoia, peacelessness, and the lack of basic discernment in interpreting scripture.

Today’s passage especially triggers their fears, because here Jesus speaks of the active persecution of Christians. Which, when Jesus taught this discourse in 33, was coming soon. Really, really soon. Probably before the year was out, Peter and John would cure some guy on the temple steps, Ac 3.1-10 and the Sadducee head priests would arrest and try ’em before the Judean senate for it. Ac 4.1-22 Things would only escalate from there.

Because when you legitimately follow Jesus—even in a country which considers itself predominantly Christian, even in a country full of Christian nationalists who want to make it officially Christian—you’re gonna get pushback. Just as Jesus himself did, from Pharisees who thought he was heretic. Who’d have him killed five days later.

It’s only common sense to expect Jesus’s active followers to be treated like our Lord, so that part doesn’t take the Holy Spirit to foretell. What does are the details Jesus included in his warnings about persecution. Christianity was gonna advance despite persecution. It always has, despite the careful plans of persecutors.

Mark 13.9 KWL
9 “Look out for yourselves.
People will hand you over to senates
and you’ll be flogged in synagogues.
You’ll stand before leaders and kings because of me,
to testify of me to them.”
Matthew 24.9-13 KWL
9 “Then they’ll hand you over to tribulation and kill you.
You’ll be hated people to every ethnic group because of my name.
10 Then many will be tripped up,
will betray one another, will hate one another.
11 Many fake prophets will be raised up,
and will lead many astray.
12 Because of the exponential spread of lawlessness,
the love of many will grow cold.
13 One who perseveres to the end—
this person will be saved.”
Luke 21.12-19 KWL
12 “Before all these things happen,
they’ll throw their hands on you;
they’ll hunt you down,
handing you over to synagogues and prisons,
dragging you away to kings and leaders because of my name.
13 It’ll turn you into witnesses,
14 so determine in your hearts to not prepare a defense:
15 I’ll give you a mouth and wisdom
which every one of your adversaries
will be unable to withstand or dispute.
16 You’ll also be betrayed by parents, siblings,
relatives and friends,
and they’ll put some of you to death.
17 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name.
18 But if every hair on your head isn’t destroyed,
19 save your souls by your endurance!”

Fulfilled by ancient-church persecution.

Acts was written to cover the 20-year period between Jesus’s rapture and Paul’s first trial in the 50s. It’d be another 20 years after Acts when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. But we see everything Jesus prophesied take place in that book. And the rest of the New Testament, as phonies tried to lead Christians astray, obligating the apostles to write all the letters of the New Testament.

Libertines cropped up and told Christians they didn’t have to obey God’s commands any more ’cause grace, producing fleshly, irreligious Christians whose behavior Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude also had to rebuke. And when the persecutions came, of course many Christians folded under pressure and compromise: They loved peace and safety far more than they loved Jesus and integrity. (Heck, Christians nowadays will casually sell out Jesus for money and political power. They don’t even need persecution.)

The apostles proclaimed Jesus in temple and were beaten for it. Preached him in synagogue, hence Stephen got hauled before the Judean senate and stoned to death. Paul wrote he’d been flogged five times, caned thrice, and stoned once, 2Co 11.24-25 and he was in prison or house arrest a bunch too. Jesus warned ’em everybody they thought they could trust would turn them in… same as one of his Twelve turned him in.

Jesus also pointed out their trials were opportunities to share their testimonies. ’Cause legally they had to: Fair judges would want to hear their side. And no, they didn’t have to invent an eloquent defense, and have it ready for the occasion, like so many Christian apologists struggle to memorize. Really, all they needed to do—and all we still need to do—is share their God-experiences, and trust the Holy Spirit to poke the judges (and everybody else within earshot) in the conscience. Trials aren’t crises; they’re opportunities.

Of course these instructions weren’t just for Jesus’s listeners at that time. They’re for Christians throughout history, whenever we face pushback, whenever we get persecuted. Whenever our Christianist neighbors come after us for not being as politically orthodox as they want. Whenever nontheism or some other religion becomes the state religion, and they decide to go antichrist and wipe out the churches. Whenever Christian missionaries go into a nation which doesn’t trust new religious movements and gets violently opposed. We shouldn’t be surprised nor outraged when persecution happens, and throw a tantrum like some pigheaded American tourist who can’t fathom why the local soda machine won’t take his American quarters. Endure. Be patient. Preserve your soul.

Luke 21.18 tends to confuse Christians ’cause the common translations don’t translate ἀπόληται/apólite, “might perish,” as the subjunctive verb it is, but as if it’s a certainty, “will perish.” Like so—

Luke 21.18 ESV
“But not a hair of your head will perish.”

—leading loads of Christians to imagine, if this is an End Times prophecy, Jesus is saying the Christians under persecution will somehow survive. That God’ll whisk ’em away to the Jordanian desert and protect them with heavenly force fields and feed them manna. I’m not kidding; that’s what a number of Darbyists have extrapolated this verse into meaning. (How? Well, they combined it with a lot of other out-of-context verses into a hobo stew of bad prognostication.)

But it’s a mistranslation. Subjunctive verbs mean things might happen, not will happen. Jesus isn’t telling his students, “You’ll be persecuted yet survive”—James bar Zebedee was one of the students Jesus shared this with, Mk 13.3 and he was the first of them to die, Ac 12.2 probably before the decade was out. All but James’s brother John were martyred. Telling them, “Not a hair of your head will perish” would be a false prophecy or lie on Jesus’s part… but it’s not what he said. It’s “If not a hair of your head perishes”—followed by the next verse.

Luke 21.19 also tends to confuse Christians ’cause the common translations make it sorta look like we earn salvation with our good deeds:

Luke 21.19 ESV
“By your endurance you will gain your lives.”

Or as the NRSV puts it, “gain your souls.” But Jesus isn’t speaking of immortal souls, nor eternal life: He’s speaking of staying alive. Your soul is your lifeforce. Don’t put it down! If not a hair of your head perishes, don’t you make it perish.

Luke 21.18-19 KWL
18 But if every hair on your head isn’t destroyed,
19 save your souls by your endurance!”

Ride it out! Don’t quit, don’t abandon the faith nor sell Jesus out to spare yourself; don’t get sloppy, don’t kill yourself in despair. Especially don’t try to get yourself killed by the state because you think it’ll inspire others. Too many Christians throughout history sought a noble death, coveting a space in the history books, figuring it’d get them some kind of extra-special reward from Jesus. That’s not the kind of martyrdom he wants! He wants us to live for him, not die for him.

Ignoring Jesus by making this an End Times prophecy.

Jesus’s warnings presume we Christians are living in lands, or going into countries, where it’s not safe to be Christian. Where there’s a chance we’ll get hassled, persecuted, and killed over his name. Same as the apostles in the first century. Same as all Christians in the Roman Empire till the emperor declared the Edict of Milan in 313, and legalized Christianity. Same as Christian reformers who stood up (and still stand up) to their hypocritical kings, governments, and co-religionists, and tried to really follow Jesus. Same as Christians today who leave our homelands, our oases of religious freedom, to share Jesus with other lands.

So how do his warnings affect Christians in the United States? Very little. ’Cause the States is one of those oases. You can preach Jesus in any way you want… including heretic ways. You can even be antichrist. Most Americans consider ourselves Christian, but when anyone dares interfere with our constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion, you better believe we scream bloody murder about it. That’s not supposed to happen here!

Christians aren’t taken before churches and governments and caned. We don’t stand before kings and leaders to defend our faith. We never get turned in to the cops by family members; the cops claim Christ too! We aren’t hated by everyone because of Jesus.

If we ever are hated, it’s usually because of our own awful behavior. Many a Christian jerk will screech how they’re being persecuted… but look at ’em closely and you’ll notice they’re acting as unlike Christ as one can towards their neighbors. They violate local noise ordinances. Hog all the parking spaces. Take over public spaces for a church function and never bother to file permits. Proselytize people at work. Try to pass laws enforcing Christian ideas, or favorite political views which they claim are based on biblical principles. Or they try to push for white supremacy or Christian supremacy, claiming God wills it. Or other cultish things.

Otherwise Christians have approval and free reign in the United States. If not preferential treatment, just ’cause we’re a supermajority.

This isn’t true of the rest of the planet. You can still be killed for being Christian in much of Asia and northern Africa. Same as Jesus was speaking of in these passages: He spoke of civic leaders, officials, and the government itself coming after his followers, to abuse them, cane them, or murder them.

How do Christians who live in safe first-world countries with religious freedom, ever experience the conditions Jesus speaks about? Only when we leave. Only when we step beyond the hedge of protection of our homelands, and proclaim God’s kingdom elsewhere. Then we’re risking our lives to share Jesus. Not before.

But sad to say, most of us have no intention of ever doing any such thing. We love our lives, our comforts, and our freedoms too much. If we gotta die for Jesus, we’ll do it at home, standing up for our “rights” to bug our neighbors by playing our Christian music above 100 decibels. Certainly not in some godforsaken foreign land, where anybody who feels like it can just shoot you when you bug them. Nope; we’ll send those lands our missionaries, money, old clothes, and bibles, and hope they find our websites on the internet. (Assuming Christian sites aren’t blocked by their governments.) But physically go into the whole world with the gospel? Don’t be stupid; it’s dangerous out there!

So do Jesus’s warnings apply to us? Nope. Because we never let them.

But we can’t entirely ignore these passages. They gotta apply to us in some way… preferably one which never directly challenges us. This is why dark Christians can so easily get away with swiping them for their End Times views: At some point in the future—but not yet, not if we’re vigilant!—our government will go antichrist, and then we’ll get persecuted. Then they’ll round up active Christians, same as Soviets did and North Koreans do, and Jesus’s prophecies will finally come true.

Here’s the problem with this interpretation: No, persecution’s not happening to us first-worlder Christians. But it’s absolutely happening everywhere else. Their persecution isn’t an End Times thing; it’s a present-day thing. (Unless they’re somehow living in the End Times and we’re not.)

Some Christians interpret it this way: Persecution is an End Times thing, so we Christians aren’t gonna suffer from it yet. But those people in third world countries? They’re being persecuted because they’re not real Christians. They’re not good Evangelicals like you and me. They’re Orthodox, or Copts, or Syrian, or eastern-rite Roman Catholics, or some other denomination which we presume is heretic and works-righteousness-based. So let ISIL, the Hindus, Buddhists, and Commies kill ’em all. ’Cause true Christians aren’t getting persecuted yet.

Yeah, it’s really bad theology, mixed with a lot of racism and nationalism. Bad theology makes it really easy to embrace all the sentiments of an antichrist, write off our persecuted sisters and brothers as if they’re irrelevant, and let them die. Bad theology kills, folks.

The fact is, Jesus isn’t talking about the End! He means the Twelve, the ancient Christians, and Christians throughout Christian history. He warned us wars and natural disasters and recessions and plagues will happen. And as we look around, we see they totally do. He warned us how Christians will be persecuted—and if we ever look outside our comfortable first-world bubble, we see that’s happening too. Right now.

Now go help the persecuted church.

I have a bad feeling we American Christians are gonna be in a lot of trouble with Jesus once he returns. Because, same as in his Lambs and Kids Story, we don’t bother to do for the least of our sisters and brothers. We don’t bother to use our unrighteous mammon to extend God’s kingdom beyond our homeland. We seek the greater glory of our country and fellow citizens, not the greater glory of God.

American Christians can do a lot to alleviate persecution in other countries. Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick”—and our government operates the most powerful military in the world. Which we should’t have to use: We can afford to speak softly to countries which want our friendship, or fear our wrath. Our allies in the government can speak for our sisters and brothers in the nations which oppress them. Maybe get ’em freed. Maybe convince these countries to change their policies about Christians. And hey, if those countries don’t want their Christians, we’ll take them! Unless they’re racist, Americans don’t mind refugees; grateful immigrants become the best Americans.

We can, through our connections with Christians in hostile countries, provide them with the resources their countrymen won’t. We can hook ’em up with food, clothing, medicine: We can empower them to bless their neighbors, to do good deeds for them, to make their neighbors think well of them, and see them as a benefit to their communities instead of a boil to lance.

So why don’t we?