4And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. ~ Acts 9:4-5
With this week’s news of ISIS beheading 21 Coptic Christians**, we find another example of brutality and persecution carried out under the banner of zeal for faith. It’s heart-wrenching, though also nothing new. Religious persecution seems as old as history itself. Each news story, whether involving 1 person, 21, or 2001, reminds us of the tragic reality: there is something seriously wrong in the world. The depth and the darkness of sin should make us shudder and should make us hate even the minor-seeming evils within ourselves.
What should we do when he hear stories? It’s easy to change the channels and ignore the situation…until it happens on our own shores. It’s easy to listen to talking heads and grow angry with the pundits over various actions and inactions of politicians and military commanders who must make difficult decisions concerning the lives of both our citizens and those of other nations. It’s easy to fear and try to shelter ourselves away.
But none of these are Christian responses.
For the persecuted, we must pray. On the one hand, we see that living peaceful lives is very much in the will of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9); Paul told us to pray for governing authorities that we might live peaceful, quiet lives; and he told us to live in harmony with others and to be agents of peace (Romans 12:16-18); and Peter told us to “honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17). Peace is to be desired, prayed for, and sought after; for ours is the God of Peace (Romans 15:33).
On the other hand, the Bible also warns that until Jesus returns, there will be the persecution of various peoples, including God’s faithful. Yet, even in the midst of persecution, Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted and reviled on his account, and that our reward in heaven is very great (Matthew 5:10-12). He said that though we might be poor and reviled on earth in persecution, we are rich before God; persecution is temporary, life is eternal (Revelation 2:9-11). Peter said not to be surprised by persecution, but to rejoice because of the glory which is coming (1 Peter 4:12-16).
So, we pray. We pray (1) that persecutions might cease and peace would reign, that God’s kingdom would shine more brightly in the world, and that Jesus would come quickly to rescue and restore; (2) that those facing persecution might faithfully endure with a hope focused on the glory of eternal life in Christ; and (3) that God’s true and fair justice would come upon those who oppose him by persecuting and slaying others (Revelation 6:10-11).
We pray for the persecuted.
Yet we also pray for the persecutors. Jesus gave this very command in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The command is both countercultural and counter the way we tend to operate as human beings. Yes, as above, we pray for God’s justice—but we also trust his justice. Hence, we pray for the persecutors and more than this, as we are praying for them, we do good for them and seek to serve them in love (Matthew 5:38-48; Romans 12:19-21). Instead of seeking our own personal vengeance against those who harm and hurt, we are to seek their good.
Ultimately their greatest good is salvation in Christ. In Acts 7-9 we are introduced to a young man who led a great persecution against the church: Saul of Tarsus. The Bible describes Saul as one who oversaw the murder of Christians and “ravaged the church” (Acts 7:58-8:3). He “breathed threats and murder against the disciples” (Acts 9:1). And he “persecuted the church of God with violence and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). Yet he was not beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Jesus confronted him, Saul experienced truth and a change of heart and life, and he then became known as Paul and wrote a large chunk of the New Testament and took the gospel of Jesus form place to place, himself suffering persecutions.
So we pray (1) that terrorists and persecutors would experience the gospel of Christ, turn from their wickedness, and become beacons of grace, love, and truth; (2) that God would raise up one like Saul among the men and women who bring persecution and that his voice in conversion would be a powerful witness; and (3) that repentant ex-persecutors would find peace with God and with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ from the reconciling power of the gospel and God’s Spirit.
Pray for the persecuted. Pray for the persecutors.
**Link to the news website is for informational purposes only, and is neither a statement for or against any of the content or comments therein