Persecution is a reality in the Christian church. We wish it wasn’t, but it is. It’s been so since the time of Christ, and there hasn’t been a century since when his followers have not been persecuted.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be ready for reality. And if we are going to follow Jesus in our own day, we must be ready too. Jesus was teaching his disciples just before he sent them out on a mission to Galilee. Some of what he said applied only for that first mission. But not all of it. Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them things that will apply in the future. Truths that his followers will need to know for the years ahead. Realities that we must be prepared for in our own day.
Some people would say that we don’t need to hear these things today. Britain is a country where we are relatively free to be Christians. Persecution will not be a reality here.
I would suggest that this is naïve. Many of us may well go through life, never experiencing real persecution. But cultures change. There is no guarantee that Britain will remain an easy country to be a Christian. Christians all over the world, throughout the centuries, have experienced different degrees of what Jesus describes here. And so we need to be prepared.
In the verses we heard, Jesus moves through different settings in which we might experience persecution. Different groups of people from which opposition might come. And as he does so, he has valuable instruction on how we should respond as difficulties come our way. It’s not that the advice Jesus gives for one setting only applies in that setting. But rather, by describing concrete situations when his followers will be persecuted, the advice he gives is earthed in real life.
So then, three settings, and three principles on handling persecution.
Be shrewd in the wolf-pack
First, in verse 16, be shrewd in the wolf-pack. Be shrewd in the wolf-pack.
Jesus’s disciples must not underestimate the intensity of the opposition they might face. Jesus sends them out like sheep into the midst of a wolf-pack. Some of us have a tendency to be slightly naïve, and assume that everyone is on our side. Many will be on our side, but as we saw last week the reaction will be mixed. We need to take Jesus’s words on board. To go out with the good news of Jesus is to go on a dangerous mission.
So how do we react? Jesus says: Shrewd as snakes; innocent as doves.
The snake had a reputation for its cunning. It is the master at getting itself out of danger, and knowing when to slither away. It assesses a situation, and knows how to get itself out of trouble. Jesus says we would do well to learn from the snake. Yes, Jesus says we are to expect opposition. But that does not mean we are to walk into it willingly. If we are to survive in this world, we will need all the cunning, all the shrewdness, all the alertness, that we can muster. We play the world at its own game; and we win whenever we can.
Noor Inayat Khan was dropped into occupied France during World War II, to work as a radio operator sending back messages from the Free French to London. It was extremely dangerous work. The Gestapo had equipment to detect wireless transmissions, so you could only stay on air for a few minutes at a time. The life expectancy of a wireless operator was 6 weeks. Khan did well. She lasted 4 months before being captured, and then gave nothing up. In 1949 she was awarded a posthumous George Cross.
But she nearly never went to France. Those who trained her had doubts as to her suitability. At one point, she was sent on a training exercise on her bike in Hampshire. A policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing. She said, “I’m training to be a secret agent, and I’ve got a radio in my bag. Would you like to have a look?”
That will not do. Shrewd as snakes.
But also innocent as doves. Doves are vegetarian birds. They’re only ever prey; they’re never the predator. So they’re gentle birds, who never set out to harm something else.
And Jesus’ point is that we need to be both. We mustn’t be shrewd without the gentleness. That would make us vindictive and harmful. But neither must we be gentle without the shrewdness – we’d walk straight into trouble. We need the cunning of snakes, but without the venom. That’s the only way our lives will be a lifelong mission to share the good news of Jesus.
Shrewd in the wolf-pack.
Bear witness to the authorities
Second, verses 17 to 20, bear witness to the authorities. Bear witness to the authorities.
Verses 17 to 20 describe all manner of ways we might end up before the authorities. We have civil authorities and church authorities. We have local authorities and national authorities. Verse 17: local councils, synagogues. Verse 18: governors and kings.
If you look down the history of the Christian church, you do indeed see that Christians have been persecuted by the authorities that all these levels. But here is what Jesus says: It is an opportunity to witness. Verse 18: “On my account you’ll be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them.”
Their arrest is their chance to testify to Jesus.
It would be easy to worry about this. How would I survive? What would I say? My mouth would dry up! So Jesus says: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
In a moment of crisis like this, the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say. And countless Christians down the ages could tell stories of how God has kept this promise over and over again.
Jesus is saying that when Christians are persecuted, it gives further opportunities to spread the good news. The more people try to silence the gospel, the more it advances.
One famous Christian from ancient times is a man called Tertullian. He lived in North Africa at the end of the second century. He wrote an extensive book defending Christianity in the age of the Roman empire. And in it, he famously said this: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. It’s a powerful picture. If you want to grow a plant, you have to put seed in the ground. Tertullian is saying that every time a Christian is murdered, the blood that the shared is like seed that is sewn. What you get is many, many more Christians.
This is something that the book of Acts gives lots of examples of. The more the authorities tried to stop the early Christians from spreading the good news of Jesus, the faster the church grew.
Or we could think of the story of the church in China. Western missionaries went to China at the end of the 19th century. The Great Depression saw many of them return, but many stayed, and the Chinese church continued to grow. But then in 1949 the Communists came to power. Christianity became illegal. Foreign missionaries were expelled, and by 1953 all had left. There were 700,000 Christians in China.
In 1975, the doors began to open again because of the cultural revolution. Finally, Western Christians got to have a look inside, to see what had happened in the pressure cooker. The church had grown to 2½ million. Today, Christianity is still subject to oppressive state control, so accurate figures are hard to obtain. But 100 million is an accurate estimate.
Bear witness to the authorities.
Stand firm with your family
And then third, and probably the hardest of all, stand firm with your family. Stand firm with your family. That’s verses 21 to 23.
The third context for persecution is shocking. Verse 21 –members of your own family: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.”
You find yourself thinking: Surely not? Surely we would not have betrayal of this level from within one’s own family?
Sadly, again, history bears this out. Particularly in Stalinist Russia, children did indeed betray their own parents. People have been persuaded that their loyalty to the state, or their determination to oppose Christianity, should be higher than any family ties they might feel.
Of the most famous example from Russia is that of Pavlik Morozov. He was a member of the Young Pioneers, a distortion of the scouting movement, where Russian loyalty trumped everything. Children were trained to see their loyalty to the state as surpassing family ties. And so young Pavlik reported his father Trofim to the political police. At the man’s trial, he turned to his son in the witness box, and said “It’s me, your father.” And Pavlik replied, “Yes; he used to be my father, but I no longer consider him my father. I am not acting as a son, but as a Pioneer.”
Trofim’s crime was not being a Christian – he was accused of other things. But for countless others, it was their faith in Christ that sealed their fate.
Indeed it is wider than just our families. Verse 22 goes on to say: “You will be hated by everyone because of me.” Jesus widens it out to “everyone”. Clearly not every single human being, but all categories of people. You might meet hatred because of your loyalty to Jesus from any quarter. Even those you think least likely to betray you, could do so.
Last week, we heard the story of Victoria Wasteney, removed from her post as an NHS occupational therapist after complaints from a Muslim colleague. But if you remember, the shocking thing was that the lady who complained was her friend. In fact, they had previously stood together, and supported one another, in a climate where the religion was being laughed at and dismissed. Until one day, quite out of the blue, her friend and supporter lodged the complaint that would lead to her dismissal.
So what do we do, in a world where even those closest to us might turn against us? We stand firm. Verse 22: “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
I don’t think Jesus is here speaking about the end of time. Simply “the end”. As long as it takes. Maybe the persecution will go away. Maybe the persecutors will kill you. Maybe Jesus will come back. It will end eventually. Because one day, Jesus will return, and good will triumph. All persecution and opposition will end eventually. We have to stand firm.
Remember that the context of this is Jesus preparing his disciples to go on a mission. To go and spread the good news, to tell other people about him. Standing firm to the end does not just mean remaining a follower of Jesus. It means keeping speaking for him. Being a public follower of his, for as long as it takes.
Stand firm with your family.
Following Jesus could cost us dearly. If we speak for him, tell others about him, it could cost us even more so.
The opposition could come from any quarter – from the civil authorities, even from our friends or family – from anyone really.
This is not to say that this kind of opposition will certainly come. Only that it might, so we need to be prepared.
Jesus wants us to be clear. There is an end to these kinds of difficulties. God uses even opposition like this to spread the good news of Jesus. So our part is to be wise before the event, to keep ourselves out of trouble as far as we can, but also to carry on speaking of him. To stand firm.