Opposition and Persecution

I live near the University of Georgia. Depending on traffic, I can be at Sanford Stadium on the campus in 10-15 minutes. This cathedral of SEC football hosts 93,000 rabid fans on six or so Saturdays each fall. College football is a big deal where I live. As such, you hear a lot about the recruiting of young men to come play for the football team. Of course coaches tout all the advantages of playing for their team. They also engage in “negative recruiting.” They tell these impressionable teenagers all the reasons the other schools would not be good for them.

As Christians we are also called to a type of recruiting. Before Jesus ascended, he left his followers with a final commission. Matthew 28:18-19 records these words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, going forward make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” We often call it the Great Commission. Christianity is a religion to be shared. We are commissioned to invite people to join us in the body of Christ and nurture their growth.

Christians often call the apostle Paul the greatest missionary. There is certainly evidence to back up the claim. Paul was instrumental in the spread of this small Jewish sect throughout the Greco-Roman world. He was a tireless recruiter. His writings to his myriad followers makes up a large bulk of the Christian New Testament.

In his writing ministry, he wrote two letters to the Thessalonians. They are fascinating little letters. However, 1st Thessalonians 3 contains some verses that I consider odd. Verses 3:3-4 read, “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know.”1

This could be negative recruiting from the other side. Why would Paul say this? We are destined for persecution? That is certainly not what I would want to hear if I were considering becoming a Christian. Paul often talks about our life and fate being in the hands of God. Does he mean here that God is causing our persecution as part of his larger plan? Some might answer that question in the affirmative, but I do not think that you have to.

When Paul invokes destiny here, we can think in terms of inevitability. In other words, it is inevitable that living an earnest Christian life will bring you into conflict with a world still under the influence of sin and death. Trying to live for the Kingdom of Heaven is often incongruous with the aims of those living for this world alone.

Reflecting on these verses brought to my memory some passages from the Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth in a section titled, “The Call to Discipleship.” Most people think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the book on discipleship.2 Barth gave a lot of deserved credit to Bonhoeffer, and then he built on Bonhoeffer’s foundation to say some things that we all need to hear when considering the “costly” nature of grace.

For Barth, obedience is the key to discipleship. The Christian must be obedient to God’s word and command. Furthermore, the Christian must be obedient in public. This public obedience will bring on conflict with those who seek conformity to something other than God. Barth is serious about the public nature of this obedience. For Barth, the Christian “loses his soul, and hazards his eternal salvation, if he will not accept the public responsibility which he assumes when he becomes a follower of Jesus.”3 Barth is not coming out of left field here. Jesus taught in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore, whoever acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge them before my Father in Heaven.”

This public responsibility is so important because it is tied up with a Christian’s witness. Remember, Christianity is a religion to be shared. If a Christian neglects this public obedience to Christ, he will avoid conflict with the world. However, Barth counters at length,

“The only trouble is that he will be quite useless as a witness of the kingdom of God. As a quiet participant in the cause of this kingdom he will avoid giving offense to anyone, but he will also evade the obedience which he is required to render. For this obedience necessarily consists in the fact that publicly before those around him he takes what is in a specific form a new path which leads him out of conformity with them to a place to which he specifically is pointed, so that to those who still persist in conformity he involuntarily but irresistibly makes himself conspicuous and suspicious and offensive, and can expect to meet with serious or petty forms of unpleasantness from them.”4

Barth can get a little wordy (his Church Dogmatics spans some 14 volumes and yet it is unfinished)! His point here is that when a person becomes a Christian, it has to affect their entire being, public and private. It is easy to say “I am a Christian and believe that Christ has risen from the dead” in our heads and to ourselves. It is when we say it out loud and risk the jeers of those around us that it becomes total obedience to God. It is in the public sphere that we are a witness to the Kingdom of God, and it is in that public sphere that our witness will inevitably come into conflict with those who are seeking something other than God’s Kingdom.

This brings us back around to 1st Thessalonians 3:3-4. Paul is not telling the Thessalonians that God has persecution planned for them. I believe he is reminding them that he warned them that living out this gospel message would eventually bring them into conflict with those who do not believe it. It is not mandatory that a Christian suffer for the gospel. Unfortunately, if the Christian lives out the gospel in public, it seems inevitable that persecution will happen eventually.

If this is the case, then why would anyone agree to follow Christ and live as a witness to the Kingdom of God? It is fair question. Paul gives one answer in 1st Thessalonians 4 and 5. We endure present persecution in the hope of an eternal future with God. Paul describes Christ’s return in chapter 4 in ecstatic language. In chapter 5 he takes of the language of destiny again. In 5:9 he exclaims, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”5

Paul answers our concern with a confident eschatological hope. This is certainly a good answer, but it is not the only answer. I firmly believe that living in public obedience to the gospel message molds us into the humans God has created to be. He did not create us to be sinful. He created us to be his image on the earth. To honestly love God and love our neighbor. Living in obedience to this purpose of love gives us our true purpose. Those in Christ know this deep in our core. Living out our true purpose in the present brings the Kingdom of God into focus. In obedience we experience a small glimpse of the Kingdom now as we await its future culmination. That glimpse and that sense of purpose is worth enduring the inevitable persecution it brings.

1. I am quoting here from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
2. Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was simply titled Nachfolge (“Discipleship”) in the original German.
3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2010), IV.2:545.
4. Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.2:545-546.
5. NRSV.

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