Persecution is normal.
Jesus said, If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20, NAS), and Paul added, All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12, NAS). If persecution is normal, then as Christians in South Africa, we have experienced very little normal. But as the song says, Times, they are a-changing.i The fact is, we are living smack-dab in the middle of a transition from cultural favour to potential cultural fury. Are we ready?
Today there are two flash points that seem sure to lead to an explosion of cultural and governmental oppression of Christians in South Africa and other Western countries. The first is exclusivity. Because it’s what Jesus taught, we believe that Christianity is exclusively true (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). We refuse to acquiesce to the postmodern notion that all religions and self-created versions of spirituality are valid. Christ says that He is the only way to the Father, and that settles the matter. And naturally, the exclusivity of biblical Christianity incites the rage and resentment of a pluralistic culture.
The second flash point appears to be homosexuality. Today, taking a firm stand against homosexuality as a God-condemned (and God-forgivable) sin sets off a forest fire of cultural rage. This issue is already leading to the “legal” persecution of Christians. For example, I was speaking with a friend in the United States recently whose church is hoping to build their first church building. However, it is uncertain whether the city council will give them a building permit because their city is considering refusing permits to any organisation that will not allow “transgender” men to use the women’s toilets on their property.
And, of course, the refusal of building permits is just the first drop of rain from a looming thunderstorm. More intensive restrictions, fines, punishments, and even jail sentences are sure to follow.
As Christians, should we fear this transition from cultural smile to culture frown? Actually, throughout history Christ has often shepherded His people through the transition you and I are facing. In fact, Jesus Himself experienced it. For example, Luke 4 says that the people of Nazareth’s initial response to Jesus’ preaching in His home synagogue was warm, favourable, and friendly: All were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips (4:22, NAS).
However, just minutes later, when Jesus mentioned the unpopular doctrine of Gentile salvation, the synagogue erupted in fury. Their response instantly morphed from benign to deadly, and Jesus’ childhood friends and neighbours tried (unsuccessfully) to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29). As John Calvin said, “The Gospel cannot be proclaimed without the world straightway going mad. Hence, it will never be possible for godly teachers to avoid the world’s hatred.”ii
At times unbelievers will temporarily smile on the high morality and noble truths of biblical Christianity. However, the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light cannot peacefully coexist for long. When you point out the world’s sin or the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of their belief systems, you can’t expect them to applaud, slap you on the back, and raise a rousing chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
Not surprisingly, the apostles experienced the same transition from general cultural acceptance to opposition that Jesus did. In Acts 2:47, Luke records that the early church initially enjoyed “favor with all the people” (NAS). However, that season of cultural charity came to a crashing halt (Acts 4-5).
First the Sanhedrin (their version of Parliament) threatened the apostles and issued a restraining order against their preaching. When the apostles refused to stop heralding their inflammatory message, Judea’s legislative leaders threw the Twelve in jail (5:17-18). Arrested yet a third time, Peter and the others stood their ground, We must obey God rather than men (5:29, NAS), and boldly used the super-charged atmosphere of an antagonistic parliamentary hearing to evangelise their persecutors (5:30-31). The result was a brutal whipping. In other words, the apostles knew all about the transition from warm-hearted cultural tolerance to hot persecution.
The apostle Paul repeatedly experienced the same transition. In Pisidian Antioch, in the course of one week, Paul went from having the synagogue congregation beg him for another sermon to being driven out of town (13:42, 50). In Acts 14, in Lystra, Paul was first worshiped as a god and then stoned and left for dead – that’s a transition!
Here’s the key: in no case did the persecution they experienced discourage the believers, cripple the church, or stop the progress of the gospel: And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (5:42, NAS); The disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit
As Bible-believing Christians look to the future, apprehension is understandable, but unnecessary. Be assured of this: Christ has called us to serve Him in South Africa in this hour, and there is copious proof that our Lord knows how to shepherd His people through a transition from a time of cultural tolerance to an era of angry oppression and persecution.
Do you feel the need for grace in order to stand firm? Good. Human desperation and divine deliverance is the normal rhythm of the Christian life. And when it comes to courage to face persecution – God gives that ticket when it’s time to get on the train. As believers, we are branches that have a living, vital, invisible-but-real connection with Jesus Christ, the Vine (John 15:4-5). He will sustain us no matter how fierce the heat and drought of persecution.
Joel James serves as Pastor-Teacher at Grace Fellowship, Pretoria.