Overcoming Persecution

By James M. Rochford

“Persecution” comes from the Greek root diōkō. This word can be defined either as “to move rapidly and decisively toward an objective, hasten, run, press on” or “to harass someone, especially because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG). Likewise, Colin Brown captures this dual meaning by defining it as “run after, pursue, persecute.”[1] The term can be used either way. In fact, we often find both meanings being used in the same chapter of Scripture:

“As to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6).

“I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12).

“Contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality” (Rom. 12:13).

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14).

Positive uses of diōkō (“pursue, practice, seek”)

“So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19).

Pursue peace with all men” (Heb. 12:14; cf. 1 Pet. 3:11).

Pursue love” (1 Cor. 14:1).

“See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Thess. 5:15).

Flee from materialism and lust and “pursue righteousness” (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22).

Negative use of diōkō (“persecute”)

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Mt. 5:11).

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44).

“For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (Jn. 5:16).

“Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:52).

Responding to persecution

Persecutors can become proponents of the faith. Before he met Christ, Paul had been a “persecutor” of the church (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23; Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim. 1:13). Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Yet in a drastic change of events, Paul went from a persecutor to being the persecuted (Gal. 5:11; 2 Tim. 3:11). Believers should hold out hope that their persecutors will become future followers of Jesus.

If we change the message, we can avoid persecution. Paul writes, “If I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished” (Gal. 5:11). Later he writes, “Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12).

Don’t be persecuted for being an evildoer or a fool. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness [not foolishness!], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10). Later he said, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16). Peter writes, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler” (1 Pet. 4:15).

Make sure there isn’t substance to the accusation. Admit any fault or foolishness. John White writes, “Opposition to God’s work always has a source beyond its human vehicles. Opponents are driven by dark powers, powers that hate God. This is not to say that all opposition we encounter is Satanic or that its occurrence guarantees our godliness. We Christians are also disliked at times because we are carnal and stupid.”[2]

Commit to communicating. Paul writes, “When we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to reconcile” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). When we don’t give our side of the story, it raises further questions in the mind of the persecutor. Paul writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

Don’t let persecution intimidate you or deter you. Peter and John both preached after being arrested twice. Jesus told the church of Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). A lot of the issue with persecution is the fear and intimidation involved. Don’t give in by clamming up or retreating from people!

Promises for the persecuted

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).

“I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35-37).

“We ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure” (2 Thess. 1:4).

The promise of persecution

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (Jn. 15:18-20).

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

It’s normal. Do not be surprised.

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

Family persecution. In all four gospels, Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household” (Mt. 13:57; cf. Mk. 6:4; Lk. 4:24; Jn. 4:44). Yet don’t be fatalistic. After all, Jesus reached his brother and mother. Paul reached his nephew. Andrew reached his brother Peter.

Why does God allow persecution?

God powerfully reaches people through times of crisis.

God allows us to experience fear, intimidation, and threats.

God doesn’t grow his church despite crisis, but in the midst of crisis and even through crisis.

“You have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7).

We’re going to pay a price. The way of Christ is a life of happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment. But, it’s also a life where we willingly choose to suffer. Have you decided to persevere—even when people oppose or persecute you?

Persecution in the Early Church

These citations of the church fathers were generously taken from David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 509-514.

You have not treated us who are called Christians in like manner. We commit no wrong. In fact, as will appear in the rest of this discourse, we are of all men most piously and righteously disposed towards the Deity and towards your government. Nevertheless, you allow us to be harassed, plundered, and persecuted. The crowds make war upon us for our name alone. Athenagoras (c. 175, E), 2.129.

They persecute us, not from the supposition that we are wrong-doers, but imagining that by the very fact of our being Christians we sin against life. This is because of the way we conduct ourselves, and because we exhort others to adopt a similar life. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.423.

If any one ruler whatever prohibits the Greek philosophy, that philosophy vanishes immediately. But our doctrine on its very first proclamation was prohibited by both kings and tyrants, as well as by local rulers and governors.… In fact, they tried as far as they could to exterminate it. However, it flourishes the more. For it does not die as does human doctrine.… Rather, it remains unchecked, although prophesied as destined to be persecuted to the end. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.520.

You put Christians on crosses and stakes.… We are cast to the wild beasts.… We are burned in the flames.… We are condemned to the mines.… We are banished to islands. Tertullian (c. 195, W), 3.28.

Although torn and bleeding under your tortures, we cry out, “We worship God through Christ.” Tertullian (c. 195, W), 3.36.

“Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust.… The more you mow us down, the more we grow. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church… Who sees us die without enquiring why we do so?” (Tertullian, Apology, 50)

But you say, “How will we assemble together [if we do not pay tribute to avoid persecution]?” To be sure, just as the apostles also did—who were protected by faith, not by money.… If you cannot assemble by day, you have the night—the light of Christ luminous against its darkness.… Be content with a church of threes. It is better that you sometimes should not see your crowds [of other Christians], than to subject yourselves [to paying tribute]. Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.125.

In the case of the Christians, the Roman senate, the rulers of the time, the soldiers, the people, and the relatives of those who had become converts to the faith—they all made war upon their doctrine and would have defeated it. They would have overcome it by a confederacy of so powerful a nature, had it not escaped the danger by the help of God. It has risen above these forces, in order to defeat the whole world in conspiracy against it. Origen (c. 248, E), 4.398.

When God gives to the Tempter permission to persecute us, then we suffer persecution. And when God wishes us to be free from suffering—even in the middle of a world that hates us—we enjoy a wonderful peace. We trust in the protection of Him who said, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Origen (c. 248, E), 4.666.

The Lord has desired his family to be tested. Because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith. For our faith was slipping and (I might say) slumbering. Although we deserved more for our sins, yet the most merciful Lord has so moderated all things that all that has happened has seemed more like a trial than a persecution. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.438.

The Holy Spirit teaches and shows us that the army of the devil is not to be feared. And if the foe should declare war against us, our hope consists in that very war itself.… In Exodus, the Holy Scripture declares that we are actually multiplied and increased by afflictions. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.501.

They torture, put to death, and banish the worshippers of the Most High God—that is, the righteous. Yet, those who hate us so vehemently are unable to give a reason for their hatred. Lactantius (c. 304–313, W), 7.135.

There is another reason why He permits persecutions to be carried on against us: so that the people of God may be increased. And it is not difficult to show how or why this happens. First of all, great numbers are driven from the worship of the false gods by their hatred of cruelty.… [Second,] someone will invariably desire to know what that good thing is that is defended even to death. What is it that is preferred to all things that are pleasant and beloved in this life? For neither the loss of goods or the deprivation of light, nor bodily pain, nor tortures of their vital organs can deter Christians from it. These things have a great effect! And these causes have always especially increased the number of our followers. Lactantius (c. 304–313, W), 7.161.

[1] Ebel, G. (1986). Persecution, Tribulation, Affliction. L. Coenen, E. Beyreuther, & H. Bietenhard (Eds.), New international dictionary of New Testament theology (Vol. 2, p. 805). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] John White, Excellence in Leadership: Reaching Goals with Prayer, Courage, and Determination (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 67.