by Jonathan Master
Christians have always been persecuted. Peter reminded his readers of this in the earliest days of the church: “…knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by the brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9b). But it does seem as if the suffering of Christians – whether at the hands of Muslims, Hindus, or totalitarians of another stripe – has been in the news more lately. The testimonies of our brothers and sisters in these places are sobering; but often they are also encouraging examples of grace-fueled perseverance.
I sometimes wonder how I would feel or pray if I was faced with serious persecution. Would I be self-pitying? Vengeful? What are the key theological truths which need to be grasped most tightly during these times?
In Acts 4, we read about a prayer meeting which follows right on the heels of intense persecution. Peter and John had just been released by the temple officials, but they had been ordered not to speak about Jesus any more. The threat of suffering and death was real, and they had just experienced a foretaste of it. So what did they pray upon their release? What would you pray?
There are four main truths they meditated on in their prayer – four key teachings about God which they held tightly.
The first is that God is the sovereign creator: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea and everything in them” (Acts 4:24). The truth of God as creator is revealed to us in the very first chapter of the Bible. It is foundational to everything that follows. God’s authority and his work as creator insured that he was over and above anything else that might come against them. What a comfort in times of persecution!
The second main truth is that God had promised judgment for those who opposed him. This is found in verses 25-26, and is mainly encapsulated in a quotation from Psalm 2. Psalm 2 begins with a rhetorical question about human rulers: Why do they oppose God, since it is ultimately in vain? God’s response to their opposition is laughter and anger and he promises swift judgment upon them. In our day, we shy away from affirming the judgment of God, but when facing God’s enemies, God’s righteous judgment is not an embarrassment, but a great comfort. God will make all things right; he will judge those who oppose him. Their ultimate end is in his hands.
Thirdly, these early persecuted Christians focused on the fact that God predestines. Specifically, they affirm his predestination in the death of Jesus Christ. Although those who killed Jesus are held responsible for their sin, yet nonetheless God had predestined for it to occur. If that was true of the most wicked injustice in all of history, how much more was it true of whatever unfair persecution they or we might undergo? Once again, we shy away from this doctrine of predestination and of God’s perfect plan. But when we are faced with persecution, it becomes a sweet and significant truth.
Finally, these Christians knew that not only had God worked in creation, not only had he promised judgment, not only had he predestined that which takes place, but, in addition to all these things, he was at work even in their own day. We know this because in verse 30 the Christians pray for God’s continued work: “…while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” God had not left these disciples on their own. He was not sitting distantly aside, merely watching what transpired in their persecution. No. He was still at work through his church. This persecution, painful as it was, did nothing to thwart God’s work at all.
In the midst of all this, the earliest Christians prayed for boldness (29), and we should pray for this today as well. We need to be bold and clear in our presentation of the gospel. But as we pray for boldness, let us remember these four doctrines which meant so much to them. They are truths much maligned today, but they are vital to our lives as pilgrims here on earth; and to those of the brotherhood around the world who are suffering even now, they are simply indispensable.
Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.