Warnings when persecution comes. (Unless you’re American.)

by K.W. Leslie, 24 May

Mark 13.9, Matthew 24.9-13, Luke 21.12-19.

In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus told his students about what’d happen before as predicted, the Romans destroyed the temple in the great tribulation. Many fearful Christians insist Jesus wasn’t speaking of the next 40 years, but our future; the events of the End Times. That’s largely because they don’t know first-century history, nor their bibles, and only believe other fearful Christians. If you aren’t as paranoid, peaceless, and agitated as they, they feel you’re too stupid to listen to. The End Times has gotta be all about fear, not hope—and they explain away the fruitlessness of fear by claiming it’s really “the fear of God” they’re about. Yeah right.

Today’s passage tends to trigger ’em more than most, because here Jesus speaks about the active persecution of Christians. Which, at that time, was coming soon. Really soon; possibly before the year was out.

Jesus gave this discourse during Holy Week, and he’d be killed at the end of that week. In late May, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would pour himself out on the first Christians and start the church. And in the very next two chapters of Acts, Simon Peter and John cure a disabled guy, preach about it in temple, and get arrested—because they claim they cured him through the power of the resurrected Jesus, and the Sadducee head priests don’t even believe in resurrection. How much time took place between Pentecost and this first persecution? Annas and Caiaphas were still running the temple, Ac 4.6 so it was certainly before Jonathan ben Annas became head priest in the year 36.

So at the latest, persecution came three years after Jesus made this prophecy. And at the earliest?—right after Pentecost. Like as early as May 33. You think the apostles would’ve waited to cure the sick and proclaim Jesus’s name publicly? But with that kind of publicity comes pushback.

Jesus warned ’em persecution was coming way before this discourse, ’cause we see parallel lessons in other parts of the gospels.

Matthew 10.17-23 KWL
17 “Watch out for the people: They’ll turn you in to the Senate and their synagogues. They’ll flog you.
18 They’ll take you to leaders and kings because of me, to testify to them and the gentiles.
19 When they turn you in, don’t worry about what you might say at the time you give a defense:
20 It isn’t you speaking, but your Father’s Spirit in you speaking.
21 A brother will turn in a brother, and a father a son, to be sentenced to death.
Children will revolt against parents and execute them.
22 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name:
Those who endure to the end—they’ll be saved.
23 When people persecute you in this town, flee to the next!
Amen! I promise you, you won’t go through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

And after the Last Supper, he warned ’em about persecution a few more times.

John 15.20-21 KWL
20 “Remember the lesson I taught you?—‘The slave isn’t greater than his master.’
If they persecute me, they’ll persecute you. If you keep my words, you’ll keep watching out.
21 But all these people will persecute you because of my name
because they haven’t known the One who sent me.”
John 16.1-3 KWL
1 “I told you these things so you shouldn’t be outraged when they happen.
2 “They’ll make you excommunicants from their synagogues.
But the hour comes when everyone who kills you
might think it’s to offer service to God.
3 They’ll do these things because they don’t know the Father, nor me.”

If you legitimately follow Jesus, instead of following the state (or your party) and hypocritically pretending that’s following Jesus, you’re gonna get pushback. And notice in Jesus’s warnings: The pushback doesn’t come from government, like the fearful End Times interpretations claim. They come from neighbors. They come from family. Who might use the government to get their way, but the government doesn’t toss people out of synagogue; the congregation does. Jesus isn’t talking about anyone formally executing Christians in the same way he was killed (though it happens): He refers to the crowd murdering Christians. Lynching, stoning, stabbing, or other acts of vigilantism, because they think we’re heretic, and think heresy merits death… instead of simply shaking our dust off their feet. Mt 10.14

Anyway. Before the Romans came to destroy Jerusalem, Jesus warned his kids persecution would come to them before the Romans did.

They’re coming for the early church.

Mark keeps it simple. The authors of Matthew and Luke felt it wouldn’t hurt to include some of Jesus’s other warnings about persecution, ’cause they’d likely apply. Turns out they did.

Mark 13.9 KWL
9 “Watch yourselves. They’ll hand you over to senates and synagogues.
You’ll be scourged. You’ll be tried before leaders and kings because of your witness to me.”
Matthew 24.9-13 KWL
9 “Then they’ll turn you in to torture, and they’ll kill you:
You’ll be hated by every nation because of my name.
10 Then many will be outraged, turn one another in, and hate one another.
11 Many fake prophets will rise up, and will lead many astray.
12 The love of many will grow cold because of the spread of lawlessness.
13 Those who endure to the end—they’ll be saved.”
Luke 21.12-19 KWL
12 “Before everything in the End Times happens,
they will get their hands on you, will hunt you down,
handing you over to the synagogues and wardens,
dragging you off before kings and leaders because of my name.
13 They will want a testimony out of you.
14 So determine in your minds to not prepare a defense.
15 For I will give you a mouth and wisdom,
which your every opponent won’t be able to withstand or contradict.
16 You’ll be turned in by parents, siblings, relatives, and friends.
They’ll put some of you to death.
17 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name.
18 Maybe a hair of your head might not be destroyed.
19 But when you endure, you gain your souls.”

We see this stuff happen throughout Acts, the letters in the rest of the New Testament, and early Christian history. Phonies cropped up and mistaught Christians, which is why the apostles had to write what they did to set ’em straight. Libertines cropped up and told Christians they didn’t have to obey God’s commands any more ’cause grace, producing irreligious Christians whose behavior Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude also had to rebuke. And when the persecutions came, of course many Christians compromised: 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. Don’t even need persecution.)

The apostles preached Jesus in temple and got beaten for it. Preached him in synagogue, and Stephen got hauled before the Judean senate over it—then stoned to death. Paul wrote he’d been flogged five times, caned thrice, and stoned once, 2Co 11.24-25 and 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.

And Jesus also pointed out their trials were opportunities to share their testimonies. ’Cause legally they had to: The judge would wanna 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 they just had to share their God-experiences, and trust the Holy Spirit to poke the judges in their consciences. (And if not the judges, everybody else within earshot.) Trials aren’t crises; they’re opportunities.

Yes these instructions weren’t just for Jesus’s listeners at that time. They’re for Christians throughout history, whenever we face opposition, whenever we get persecuted. Whenever our Christianist neighbors come after us for not being as politically orthodox as they want; whenever atheism or some other religion becomes the state religion, and they choose to go antichrist and wipe out the churches; whenever Christian missionaries go into a nation which doesn’t trust new religious movements and gets pushback: We shouldn’t be surprised or outraged when persecution happens, and throw a tantrum like some pigheaded American tourist who can’t fathom why the soda machine won’t take his American quarters. Endure. Be patient. Gain your soul.

Ignoring this passage by pushing it into the future.

Jesus’s warnings presume we Christians are living in lands, or going into nations, 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 till the Romans passed the Edict of Milan and legalized Christianity; same as Christian reformers who stood up to their hypocritical kings and governments and tried to really follow Jesus; and same as Christians today who leave our oases of religious freedom to evangelize other lands.

So how do his warnings affect Christians in the United States? Very little. ’Cause the States are a haven for Christians.

Most Americans consider ourselves Christian. 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!

We 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 are Christian too! We aren’t hated by everyone because of Jesus.

If we ever are hated, it’s only because of our awful behavior. Many a Christian jerk will claim they’re being persecuted, but again it’s because they’re being unloving or evil. 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. Or, for the extremists among us, various 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 sort of conditions Jesus spoke 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 the sites aren’t blocked by their governments.) But physically go into the whole world with the gospel? Don’t be daft. It’s dangerous out there.

So do Jesus’s warnings apply to us? Nope; we never let ’em.

But we can’t entirely ignore these passages. They gotta apply to us in some way… which never directly challenges us. That’s how dark Christians can easily coopt ’em for their End Times views: At some point in the future, our government’s gonna go antichrist, and then this’ll apply to us. Then they’ll round up active Christians, same as Soviets did and North Koreans do, and Jesus’s prophecies will finally come true.

Well… unless we stay vigilant, and make sure the government never, ever takes away our freedoms. And any time it looks like they might, maybe we can scream “Persecution!” and get ’em to back off.

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

Some Christians interpret it this way: Persecution is an End Times thing, so Christians don’t suffer 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 bad theology, mixed with a fair amount 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, and Christians throughout Christian history. He warned ’em wars and natural disasters and recessions and pandemics will happen. And as we look around, we see they totally do. He warned them Christians will be persecuted. And as we look outside our comfortable first-world bubble, we see they totally do too.

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 story about sheep and goats, 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 the 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 don’t have to use, but we can afford to speak softly to countries who 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! Grateful immigrants make 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?