I have been posting a lot of material on global Christian persecution. Hundreds of millions of people are facing some form of hostility because of their identification with the Messiah. The situation is far from pretty, even dire in several places. They are not mere statistics but real lives, with personal stories of suffering. It is a very uncomfortable thing and I have found we, at least in my context, just do not want to deal with it. Fortunately, for many of us persecution is something happening way out there. So there is an indifference bred in us by comfort and convenience. We often relegate it to the general suffering and injustices that go on in the world daily. Yet being Christians there are important reasons not to ignore it, the greatest in my estimation being Jesus himself.
Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting… – Acts 9:3-5 ESV
This is one of the most well-known and dramatic scenes in all of scripture, that is the conversion and call of Saul of Tarsus who became widely known as Paul the Apostle. This story happens in the context of the first wave of Christian persecution generated by the martyrdom of Stephen. Paul was one of the leading figures in this general persecution initiative and was greatly feared by the burgeoning church. On the Damascus road encounter he collided with the light, blinded by seeing for the first time who he was going against. Jesus claimed to be the one being persecuted. Faith in Jesus was the reason why they were being harassed by Saul and others so in that sense Jesus was the true object of their hostilities. Yet the earnestness of Jesus’s words and the candour of their exchange hints at something more than a representative metaphor. Beyond it being a life transforming and defining event for Saul of Tarsus, we glimpse how persecution is understood in the New Testament (NT.) We discover it is actually a consistent motif throughout.
The Lord’s words indicate even though he is exalted in heaven he has an existential relationship with his followers in the world. This union with the Messiah, that in a very real way the believer is in him and he in the believer, is a key idea in NT theology. This union is accomplished by presence of the Spirit he has given to his church. It is a spiritual union with the Messiah but spiritual in the NT does not mean other worldly or the opposite of physical. It does not fit our modern categories. For instance, Paul famously says,
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:11 ESV
Jesus was raised from the dead by the Spirit, which is a very physical, this-worldly event. In theological terms the Spirit of God is both transcendent and imminent, in the world but not limited to it or defined by it. He juxtaposes the Spirit raising Jesus bodily with the Spirit living in the believer which is to say the Spirit is present in a real, embodied sense, in your entire being. Being in union with the Messiah is therefore an extension of the incarnation, where King Jesus implements his redemptive rule in and through us by the agency of the Spirit.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and all were made to drink of one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 ESV
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. – Colossians 2:9-10 ESV
If spiritual union in the NT is a thoroughly embodied reality, when Jesus said to Paul he was being persecuted he was making an existential claim, that in a very real way he was suffering because those in him we suffering. Persecution is a this-worldly, sometimes very physical and brutal act, and the Lord truly experiences it visceral manner. So in the New Testament we do not only have a God who knows the affliction of the afflicted but he feels it too. This strikes at the very heart of the incarnation where God takes upon himself the entire human condition. Paul therefore says in another place,
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 ESV
Jesus died to give us life therefore we must live for him. Our lives are no longer are own. The death and resurrection of Jesus generated a new way to be human, as he said in verse 17 a new reality in the Messiah. God’s grand cosmic renewal project, which was spoken about by the prophets, had commenced in Jesus. This new world, emerging paradoxically through the old, requires a new worldview narrative. If through the Spirit we are immersed in the reality of Jesus, his story becomes our story. He is our controlling narrative. Our existence is now defined by the Christ event. Apart from it being about the ultimate life-giving sacrifice, it is also the story of the ultimate vindication of the ultimate righteous martyr (Acts 2:22-24; Romans 1:3-4; 1 Timothy 6:13-16; Revelations 1:7.) Paul in Romans declares believes are divinely called and predestined to be in the mould of Jesus (Romans 8:29.) So he retells a condensed version of Jesus the righteous martyr narrative as the explanation for Christian persecution.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17 ESV
Peter does the same.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. – 1 Peter 4:12-14 ESV
Another example of this persecution-vindication motif can be found in 1 Peter 5:8-11, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, Acts 14:21-22 etc. In essence they are mini passion narratives. Jesus’ own suffering and the outcome of it becomes the reference point for their experiences. In both passages from Paul and Peter believers are in communion with the Messiah through the Spirit. They share his identity, his story, his reality. Just as he suffered and was then glorified, those who are persecuted for his name sake will also be honoured, which means being resurrected to eternal life in the world to come. Interestingly Paul describes this as suffering “with him.” In Philippians 3:10-11 he speaks of “sharing his sufferings” so dying like Jesus he will also be raised from the dead like him. Paul does not ultimately see the suffering as his own but the Messiah’s which he is participating in. This an entirely different perspective on persecution. When believers face hostility, he is not participating in our pain but we are rather participating in his. I think it is in that light that Jesus introduced himself to Paul as the one being persecuted. He is not suffering with us but we are suffering with him. As Paul put it earlier in 2 Corinthians 4,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV
Paul describes his afflictions as “carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” Again the idea that our sufferings are actually his that we are experiencing are reiterated. Through the cross there is a paradigm shift in the nature of persecution. Being in union with the crucified Messiah, the cross is part of our reality as well. Jesus forewarns his disciples that if they badly treated the master, they will do worse to his household (Matthew 10:24-25.) Persecution is a non-negotiable reality of following of Jesus. Therefore, how we regard Christian persecution is a direct reflection on how we see the cross of Christ. Persecution occurs after all when a person bears witness to Jesus. Paul relates how we see Jesus with how we see people who suffer bearing witness to him.
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God. – 2 Timothy 1:8 ESV
If we do not engage with the reality of Christian persecution, we have not grappled with the reality of the Christ who suffered. Jesus himself in a parable said how we treat the less privileged is actually how we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46.) Conversely it means being concerned with the persecuted is being concerned with Jesus himself. When we pray for and assist brothers and sisters who suffer in his name, we minister to the Lord. As James said our faith is demonstrated by our actions. Loving the persecuted is loving the one whose suffering they share.