Sunday, May 17, 2009

Overview of persecution in the book of Acts

In Acts 1:3, Luke introduces his account by informing Theophilus that in the time between Jesus resurrection and His ascension, Jesus gave commands to His disciples and "presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:1-3). In Luke 24:13-35, he recounts how Jesus met up with two of His followers on the road to Emmaus, probably heading away from Jerusalem to a place of safety. Jerusalem had become a hostile place for the followers of Jesus. They had witnessed the crucifixion of their Lord, and despite reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, they obviously had their doubts. They decided that it was time to move on before the followers of Jesus were tracked down as well.

As they traveled to Emmaus, Luke records that these two unidentified disciples found themselves engaged in conversation with a fellow traveler about the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem and how Jesus had been killed. The traveler listens to them explaining what they had heard and gone through. Finally he interjects, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26).

With that as a basic outline, - suffering followed by glory – He walked them through the entire story of Scripture (verse 27). With Christ at the centre of it all, the events in Jerusalem began to make sense. The Servant of God had to suffer in order to be glorified.

When the disciples were finally allowed to realize that it had been Jesus, Himself, who had been speaking to them,[1] they raced back to Jerusalem to report to the other disciples what they had experienced. There they found them in a barricaded room, obviously in fear of their lives.

As the two disciples recount how Jesus spoke with them, suddenly Jesus appeared in their midst. In verse 45, we read that He opened their minds to understand the Scripture, "and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem ( Luke 24:46-47).

Christ’s suffering and rising from the dead was to be shared worldwide. It could not be restricted to one group in one room in one city. The global expansion of the gospel would start with them in Jerusalem, but it would not end there.

During the next thirty-nine days, we read in Acts 1 that Jesus went over the theme of the kingdom of God many times with His disciples. He stresses in verse 4 that they are not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. Telling people not to leave town may seem like a strange way to launch a worldwide missionary movement.

Acts 1: 8 reads, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."

Acts 1:8 provides the outline for the rest of the book of Acts, as we see how the disciples followed Jesus’ command:

acts

The first seven chapters deal with the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem. Chapters 8:1-11:18 record how the message of Jesus is spread throughout Judea and Samaria. Starting in 11:19, the focus is the spread of the gospel to the "ends of the earth". When Luke’s account ends in chapter 28, it does so rather suddenly as if to emphasize that the story is not complete; we, the readers, continue the mission. It is clear that Luke’s focus in chapter 28 is not on Paul’s fate but the progress of the gospel. The book does not close with the end of Paul’s life or martyrdom but with Paul, "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance." These last words stand as an encouragement for all followers of Christ to do the same as the gospel continues to be carried "to the ends of the earth."

The spread of the gospel, however, begins in Jerusalem. This begs the question, "Why? Why was this necessary? Why did the proclamation of the gospel have to start in Jerusalem?" Before we address this question, however, we need to put aside three inadequate explanations that are sometimes proposed.

First, the gospel did not begin in Jerusalem because it was home to the disciples and thus they would find a more ready or receptive audience. Jerusalem was not home for any of the disciples. They were from Galilee, not Jerusalem. The angels in Acts 1:11 addressed them as "Men of Galilee." The people of Jerusalem could easily pick out the disciples by their Galilean accents, even in the dark (cf. Matt.26:73, Luke 22:59). Regional prejudices would not have made Galileans the most suitable messengers for the more urbane citizens of Jerusalem, nor would the disciples have felt at home in the city. Their home was in the smaller towns and rural areas of Galilee.

A common misuse of Acts 1:8 is the way in which this passage is misapplied to teach a progressive succession of evangelism from home to distant lands. A familiar scenario would be like the one below:

acts2

In this view, anyone’s hometown is likened to the singular city of Jerusalem and labeled with the phrase "our own Jerusalem" or something similar. Unfortunately, this way of viewing local evangelistic efforts often serves to "detach present-day evangelism efforts from the very historic unfolding that Jesus was trying to emphasize."[2]  Hawthorne explains:

The reality is that there was only one beginning of the gospel. In God’s history there will never be another subsequent Pentecost point. Every later initiative is a down-line fruition of that outpouring and obedience. We are now in the "the uttermost parts," not repeating the scenario reaching of "our-own-Jerusalem." Acts 1:8 is a geographical reference as much as it is a historical one.[3]

Secondly, the spread of gospel did not begin in Jerusalem because it would be the safest place to start and the disciples would be able to get experience in witnessing before moving on to more difficult or resistant areas. Rather the opposite was true. The most dangerous place on earth for the disciples to start their ministry was in Jerusalem. Avowed enemies with the power to throw them in prison had tried to arrest them in the garden of Gethsemane only days before (Mark 14:50-52; John 18:8-9). They would likely try again.

Thirdly, Jerusalem was not chosen to be the starting place for the spread of the gospel because the city was familiar territory for the disciples where ministry experience would prepare them for more unfamiliar ministry later on. Looking at the gospels, one finds that Jesus and His disciples spent relatively little time in Jerusalem. The urban setting of Jerusalem was unfamiliar to the rural Galileans. As noted earlier, there was a regional rivalry between those of Jerusalem and those of Galilee. Neither thought overly fondly of the other. Had Jesus wanted the disciples to start in more familiar territory to gain experience, He undoubtedly would not have chosen Jerusalem. Besides, the disciples were hardly novices to ministry. They had spent over three years with Jesus. He had sent them out on at least two mission trips already. They were fully prepared apart from one thing: they lacked the Holy Spirit.

So why did Jesus tell them to stay in Jerusalem? Two reasons are apparent. First, mission cannot take place apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit has empowered Jesus for His work, so the Spirit was needed to empower the disciples for theirs. Jesus knew that as the gospel was spread, that His disciples would face the same opposition that He had faced. He had trained them for martyrdom.[4] He had also promised that just as He had known how to respond and speak when handed over to religious and civic authorities for prosecution, so His disciples would also know what to say when it happened to them. The Holy Spirit would give them the words that they would need at that time (Matthew 10:18-20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12; 21:14-15). Ton adds:

The implications of this promise [i.e. Acts 1:8] are enormous. First of all, it tells the disciples that they will not be alone in the battle; the Holy Spirit will be in them and with them. Secondly, it makes them aware that this battle is actually not their own; it is God’s initiative and God’s action and concern. They are His ambassadors, fully endowed with His authority and power. Thirdly, whatever they will achieve will be God’s achievement, because God’s Spirit has acted through them.[5]

Referring to Weinrich’s research on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and persecution[6], Thomas Schirrmacher writes:

Jesus spoke seldom of the Holy Spirit’s function, but when He did so, frequently described Him as helper and comforter in persecution (Matt. 10:17-20; Mark 13:9-11; Luke 21:12-19). No wonder that Paul follows the Lord’s example in his catalogue of his sufferings by attributing his endurance to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 6:6). In Philippians 1:19, he writes, "For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ." He reminds the Thessalonians, that "ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost" (1 Thess 1:6-7).[7]

Second, Jerusalem was God’s appointed starting place for the spread of the gospel because there were considerable missiological and theological reasons for doing so. While some might argue that the disciples might have drifted back to the comfort zone of their homes in Galilee had they been allowed to leave Jerusalem, I think it more likely that Jesus' instructions were more missiologically and theologically oriented. Jerusalem was the centre of monotheistic worship on the globe. It was the focal point of God's covenant with mankind. Christianity needed to be seen to be in continuity with what had gone on before in God’s plan, rather than being potentially labeled as a Galilean sect.

In support of this view would be the evidence we have from 1 and 2 Corinthians and Acts 11 where we find Paul taking up a collection from the Gentile churches to present to the church in Jerusalem. A careful reading of Paul on the matter reveals that the motivation of this offering was not primarily with the actual financial need of this particular church, because the famine covered the entire world (cf. Acts 11:28). This gesture was much more than an act of charity. In Paul's mind, it was an expression of love and Christian unity as the Gentile church ministered to the Jewish saints out of gratitude for what the Jewish believers had done in making it possible for them to know Christ (cf. Romans 15:27).[8] There may have also been an even more significant motive for this, however. Christopher Little writes:

The ultimate reason for the collection project rests upon the fact that Paul was constrained by prophecies which spoke of the nations coming to Israel to worship its King (cf. Is. 60:4-14; 66:19-24; Ps. 72:8-11). As a result of seeing believing Gentiles coming to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4 with 21:15-19), Paul hoped that Israel would be provoked to jealousy so that it might repent and accept Jesus as its Messiah (cf., Rom. 10:1; 11:11-24). Accordingly, Paul’s priestly gift is the Gentiles themselves (Rom. 15:16) to verify that the God of Israel had also become the God of the Gentiles and that there is now only one people of God comprised of all nations (Gal. 3:28-29; Eph. 3:4-6).[9]

Hence, Paul was careful to make sure to emphasize the continuity between Jerusalem and how God had worked in the past, with the present spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth among the Gentiles. The latter was a result of the unfolding plan of God begun with the Jews, fulfilled in Christ and proclaimed through the Church.

I maintain that this is why the disciples stayed in Jerusalem, just as they had been instructed. When the Spirit came upon them, they immediately began to witness publicly, despite the risk. When persecution came, they did not scatter. They remained in Jerusalem where it was most strategic – and the most dangerous.

They were arrested, shamed, beaten, censured, but they continued. Eventually, one of them, James, was killed (12:2), but even then they remained, refusing to flee. They made no attempt to hide themselves. They knew that for the gospel to spread most effectively, they needed to remain in Jerusalem. It was only after an angel broke Peter out of prison and told him to leave, that he finally found a safer place out of town, but there is no indication that the rest of the apostles left or that Peter stayed away any longer than was necessary.

Were the disciples being disobedient to the commission of Christ by staying in Jerusalem? I do not think so. They were being the catalyst by which the Church, itself, spread throughout the world. They were busy laying the foundations for a movement that would shake the known world of their day.

They worked in ways that consciously served to advance the spread of the gospel (Acts 6:4). They monitored carefully the expansion of the gospel and when they heard of the gospel advancing, they moved immediately to validate, bless and support it (Acts 8:14-25; 11:22). When it became clear that the churches had multiplied throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, Peter, himself, toured the entire region, helping the Church to increase (9:31-32). It was during this time, that God used him to share the gospel with the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, demonstrating that God accepts all people into His family, regardless of race. Because the disciples were faithful in remaining in Jerusalem, despite the risks, they were in a position to walk through the door that God had opened to all nations.

To go through the entire book of Acts would be exhaustive, but let us make a few observations of some of the major incidents of persecution:

acts3

What are some of the common themes that come out of this survey?

  • Persecution provides more opportunities to witness.
  • When they fled, the disciples did not go "underground". They continued to preach. In Acts, witnessing is always public.
  • Opposition inevitably followed the preaching of the gospel. While persecution does cause the Church to scatter in Acts, thereby spreading the gospel, it would be a mistake to conclude the relationship between persecution and church growth is best defined thus. The testimony of Acts is not so much that persecution causes church growth but that church growth and the spread of the gospel tends to cause persecution, as religious and political leaders rise up and try to stop this movement that has "caused trouble all over the world and has now come here" (Acts 17:6).[10]
  • Persecution came from various sources and in a variety of ways. The explanation for why the believers were persecuted in the book of Acts cannot be traced back to one single reason.

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[1] 24:16 indicates that the disciples were kept from recognizing Him and 21:30 speaks of their eyes being "opened." No fault should be laid on the disciples for failing to recognize their Lord.

[2] Steven Hawthorne, "Acts of Obedience" in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader 3rd edition. William Carey Library, 1999:126.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Josef Ton, Suffering, Martyrdom and Rewards in Heaven. University of America Press, 1997: 315.

[5] Ibid.

[6] William Carl Weinreich, Spirit and Martyrdom. University Press of America, 1981

[7] Thomas Schirrmacher, The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All: Towards a Theology of Martyrdom, zugleich Idea-Dokumentation 15/99 E. VKW, 2001: 31

[8] cf. G√ľnther Bornkamm, "The Letter to the Romans As Paul's Last Will and Testament" in The Romans Debate. ed. Karl P. Donfried. Augsburg Publishing House, 1977: 19. Bornkamm: 18-19 also makes the astute observation that Paul was obviously concerned that the Jewish Christians might not accept this collection and accept such a demonstrate of unity between Jew and Gentile in the church and so he asks for the Roman church to pray that that his service to the saints in Jerusalem would be acceptable to them (15:31).

[9] Christopher Little, "Whatever Happened to the Apostle Paul?" Mission Frontiers, September 2001: 27.

[10] This concept was first introduced to me by Vernon J. Sterk in his article "You Can help the Persecuted Church," International Journal of Missionary Research. January 1999: 15-18, as he discussed the growth of the Church in the Mexican state of Chiapas. His field research and doctrinal dissertation on the dynamics of persecution led him to conclude that 1) the acceptance of the gospel message leads to persecution, and 2) persecution negatively affects the growth of the Church. However, he notes, the damaging effects can be minimized through an adequate preparation for, and proper response to, persecution. He also notes that an essential part of that response must be the prayers and involvement of the worldwide Church. On a personal note, my research on the biblical theology of persecution and discipleship has been born out of a desire to help prepare the church for and in persecution.

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