Persecution may be a foreign experience for most of us, but it has been the norm for most Christians throughout church history. In a culture that seems increasingly hostile to the biblical worldview, we should not fear or panic. We can find the joy, comfort, and courage that God has provided for us in His Word. This series, first published in October, 2015, works to that end. —ed.
Persecution is nothing new for the church. In fact, Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor to alert them of coming persecution, and warn them that it would be the new normal for the church: “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” (1 Peter 4:12 ESV, emphasis added).
That’s not to say that every church everywhere is always under the threat of intense, violent persecution. For generations, the church in the Western world enjoyed relative peace with the culture. Only in recent decades have we begun to face the kind of overt opposition that has been commonplace throughout the rest of the church’s history. John MacArthur makes that point in his book, The Upper Room:
Although the flavor and intensity of the world’s persecution may vary from generation to generation, hostility toward Christianity has been a constant throughout church history. Indeed, anti-Christian persecution is a surprisingly widespread—and growing—problem in the world today, not only in parts of the world that are dominated by other religions, but also in countries where religious liberty was once celebrated. In America, for example, secularists have waged a daunting campaign for nearly five decades to drive the church out of the public square. Christian values and biblical convictions are increasingly under attack from the government, the media, and the entertainment industry. Most persecution in our culture today consists chiefly of scorn, insults, and legal threats. But with the current drift of public opinion, it may not be long before the church in the West begins to face persecution on a scale comparable to what the early church suffered.  John MacArthur, The Upper Room (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2014) 197-198.
In John 15:17-25, Christ warned His disciples that persecution was coming, and that they would be hated by the world in the same way it first hated Him. He explained that they would be ministering in the world, but they would not be of it.
As we consider the implications of that divide and how it marks all true believers as aliens in this sin-stained world, it’s helpful to remember that the opposition we face is not unique to us. In his commentary on Christ’s warning to His disciples, John MacArthur recounts the campaign of persecution that Rome—and to a lesser degree, the Jews—waged against the first-century church. As we’ll see, their suffering was often more overt and violent, but the nature of their persecution was strikingly similar to our own.
Describing how the Jewish religious elite viewed the early Christians, John writes:
Like Paul had before his conversion (Acts 26:9; Galatians 1:13–14; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13), the Jews considered Christians to be heretics. Thus, they believed that by persecuting the church they were honoring God. As Jesus told the disciples, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Furthermore some of the Jews, especially among the leaders, feared that the Christians’ loyalty to Jesus as a king above Caesar might provoke Rome’s wrath against the nation (cf. John 11:47–48; 19:12, 15).  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21 (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008) 167.
Today there are several liberal strains of Christianity and many other Judeo-Christian sects and cults that disavow the influence and testimony of evangelical Christians. In fact, when you consider the wide swath of false religions that lay claim to the Bible (or at least portions of it), it’s telling that the one thing they consistently agree on is that the evangelicals are wrong.
It seems evident that Satan’s plan to stifle the testimony of God’s Word in the world is not to silence it, but to drown it out with a legion of false gospels and heretical interpretations. There is no end of religious people eager to unlock the supposed secret meaning of God’s Word. Everyone has their own interpretation—and generally, the more bizarre it is, the more credence it is given in the unbelieving world.
In this era of religious pluralism and postmodern relativism, evangelical Christianity has been marginalized as too rigid and too exclusive for public consumption. In the same way, the first-century church was a direct contradiction, not just of Jewish teaching, but of Roman paganism, as well. John MacArthur explains how the New Testament Christian’s life contradicted the religious norms of life in Roman society.
Because the Christians refused to make the required sacrifice offered in worship to the emperor, they were seen as traitors. They also proclaimed the kingdom of God, which caused the Romans to suspect them of plotting to overthrow the government. To avoid harassment by government officials, Christians often held their meetings in secret and at night. That heightened the Romans’ suspicions that they were hatching an anti-government plot. That Christians generally refused to serve in the Roman army also caused them to be viewed as disloyal.
The Romans also persecuted Christians for religious reasons. They allowed their subjects to worship whatever gods they liked, as long as they also worshiped the Roman gods. But Christians preached an exclusive message that there is only one God and only one way of salvation. That, coupled with their evangelistic efforts to win converts from other religions, went against the prevailing atmosphere of religious pluralism.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21, 167-168.
The world doesn’t often clearly delineate religious lines of demarcation. To the untrained eye, most “Christian” religions look vaguely similar. And so long as the various religions can get along with one another—regardless of their differences—the world is happy to tolerate their faith and practice. Look no further than the widespread ecumenical support for this latest pope, or the constant campaign to rebrand Islam as a religion of peace as evidence of the world’s preference for postmodern religious harmony.
It’s only when God’s people make a stand for the objective, eternal truth of His Word that they find themselves in the crosshairs of an otherwise tolerant society. The message is clear: If you could just take your faith less seriously, we’d be able to get along. But the inability of God’s truth to mix with error means God’s people will always be branded as the problem children.
Being in this world but not of it has implications beyond overt religious conflict. In fact, in a culture as aggressively irreligious as ours, most of the persecution we face comes not from other religions, but simply from a society bent in opposition to God and His Word.
John MacArthur explains how the believers in the early church routinely found themselves at odds with the world around them:
Socially, the leaders of Roman society feared the influence of the Christians on the lower classes, from whose ranks the church drew many of its members (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26). Haunted by the ever-present specter of slave revolts, the wealthy aristocrats felt especially threatened by the Christians’ teaching that all people are equal (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; cf. Paul’s letter to Philemon), though the church did not openly oppose slavery. Christians also held themselves aloof from much of the public life of the time. For obvious reasons, they could not be involved in the idolatrous temple worship that was such an important part of social life. But even sporting and theatrical events involved sacrifices to pagan deities that Christians could not participate in. The purity of their lives rebuked the debauched lifestyles of rich and poor alike and provoked further hostility (cf. 1 Peter 4:3–4).  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21, 168.
For similar reasons, believers today simply do not fit in the modern culture. We’re routinely at odds with the morals, values, and agendas of this ruined world. And we’re becoming more and more marginalized, as Satan works to stamp out the influence of God’s Word.
Distracted by the pursuit of their lusts, the unbelieving world is blind to the spiritual realities of life. But through the illuminating work of the Spirit, we can see how the cultural slide in the last several decades has diminished the church’s restraining influence in the world. Today, much of society gleefully stiff-arms the church, proudly contradicting its teaching and eagerly undercutting its testimony.
Just as in the Roman world, believers are out of place. We’re in the world, but not of it—and the world will take every opportunity to remind us of it. But as we’ll see next time, we don’t need to be discouraged by the world’s animosity—in fact, it should be a source of encouragement and assurance.