“… persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9).
The apostle Paul knew a few things about being persecuted for one’s faith. After turning from his role as persecutor of the Church, Paul was himself frequently attacked and assaulted for his beliefs and teaching. The harassment was not just verbal. The apostle tells us he was physically beaten numerous times and that “Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes” (2 Timothy 2:9). He was even, on one occasion, stoned and then dragged away and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
It was not only the leaders of the early Church who underwent persecution, of course. In his epistles to the Thessalonians, Paul provides an example of a whole congregation that was experiencing persecution: “… you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6 ESV). “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV). We don’t know all the details of how the Thessalonian Christians were being treated by those around them, but it is clear that they were facing discomfort and persecution.
But Paul doesn’t just commend these people as an example of those who are persecuted for their faith; he helps them realize where much of the spirit of persecution comes from, and he also offers them hope. Notice what he told them: “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 NIV). In saying this, Paul foreshadows God’s help to persecuted Christians through the ages – stressing the fact that God either strengthens or protects his people, depending on his will, and sometimes he does both. Paul found this frequently. Sometimes he was rescued (2 Timothy 3:11) and sometimes he was not (2 Timothy 2:9, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
We have only to look around the world today to see that many – possibly the majority of – Christians are still living in some degree of discomfort in terms of societal or official pressure and persecution. Many are suffering intense persecution, and God still protects his people or strengthens them to endure. But why do some suffer and some escape? The testimony of history and current events both show that God works despite the persecution of his followers. It is in times and places of persecution that Christianity grows the most – both numerically and spiritually. Not only does persecution and societal lack of approval help believers grow closer to God, but also it often gives them unique opportunities to be a better light to others.
It is no coincidence that Paul told the Thessalonians that they were a model to all the believers in the surrounding areas (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). The persecuted Thessalonians were, he tells us, especially effective in spreading the gospel throughout their surrounding region (vs. 8) through their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their “endurance inspired by hope …” (vs.3). As a result, the Thessalonian Christians were both a powerful witness to other believers and to those outside the Faith.
Paradoxical as it may seem, Paul reminds us that the more uncomfortable it becomes to be a Christian, the more Christian committed Christians become. Nevertheless, we need to pray for the persecuted. Pray for the persecuted Church!
We recommend Jonathan Petersen's excellent article on this topic on the BibleGateway.org site here.