This morning, we’re going to learn a bit about the power of persecution. Persecution isn’t exactly something that any of us desire, but we’re going to find this morning, that it is in the midst of persecution that our faith is put to the test and often when we see the most powerful moves of the Holy Spirit personally.
Persecution can come in many forms. It is defined as: to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict because of one’s belief. Persecution can come from someone’s government, their community, or their family. It can come in the form of being denied political rights, being denied access to life necessities such as food and water, being forced into specialized living conditions such as a work camp, being emotionally or physically abused, and even being put to death.
Persecution against those faithful to God has existed since the very beginning of time when Cain killed Abel because of his favored offering and continues to this day. It has actually been found through studies that there are more persecuted Christians today than there was following Christ’s resurrection. Today, there are 52 countries where persecution against Christians is accepted and endorsed. There are a dozen countries that are outright hostile toward Christians. Being a follower of Jesus or even owning a bible is an act punishable by death.
God’s intent for us, His followers, is that we go out and share the good news of His salvation with everyone starting with those around us everyday and onward to every tribe, nation, and tongue.
* Gallagher Watermelon Example *
Just like this watermelon, we have something incredible within us. We have the Holy Spirit, with all of God’s power, knowledge, and wisdom dwelling within us. It’s something that everyone needs and everyone hungers for, though they may not realize it.
However, we have a tendency to isolate ourselves. Like the thick skin on this watermelon, we tend to keep this hope within us and hidden away from others layers under what they see. This thick skin gets created in many different ways for each of us. It could be fear of what others will think of us, concern for not being ‘good enough’ to effectively share your faith, concern for being contaminated by the things of the world, etc. In any case, that skin keeps the power and witness of the Holy Spirit within us and away from those who need it.
The most effective way that God eliminates this thickened skin in our lives is by persecution. Persecution is just like this hammer, it is able to break even the thickest skin and forces us to expose what lies within us. Once that skin has been broken, the Holy Spirit is no longer limited and can perform signs, wonders, and miracles and testify to the awesome love of God to others.
The alternative, of course, is for us to remove this skin ourselves and step out in faith sharing the good news of Christ’s salvation with others and allowing the Holy Spirit to work signs, wonders, and miracles through us cooperatively.
In Hebrews 11, we find that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This chapter starts with creation and goes through the lives of many great men and women of faith at the awesome things that occurred and changed human history forever because of simple faith.
There is, however, something else that is very strongly revealed in this chapter that we can easily miss or overlook. The awesome faith recorded in this chapter brought about such significant change because this change occurred with incredible opposition and even impossibility. Faith is revealed and tested through opposition. Let’s read together the last part of this chapter which concludes with us today.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
All of these men and women who faced such severe opposition and persecution did it in complete faith and many did not receive in their mortal lifetimes what was promised. However, we have received that promise right here and right now in our mortal lifetimes. What they gave their lives for in faith, we have received; God’s salvation and the Holy Spirit.
Now since we have received this promise, does that mean that we will not face persecution as they did? By no means! However, we who know just how precious and priceless our salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit are, should be able to endure far greater persecution than those who were looking ahead in faith ever did, right?
However, something very unfortunate exists here in the US. We take the freedom that we have to freely worship God and share our faith with others completely for granted. As a result, we come up with the lamest excuses not to gather together with other believers at church, not to share our faith with others, and essentially not to place our faith into action. Meanwhile, across the globe at this very moment, true followers of Christ risk everything to meet together to pray and worship. They risk their very lives to share the hope that is within them of the salvation made available by Jesus. They take seriously the great commission given to all of us from Jesus directly:
18b All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
We have a tendency to be more so fans of Christ than followers of Christ. We’ll worship and serve Him when things are good and we’re being blessed, but when it costs us something, when it requires a sacrifice, we tend to hesitate and question whether or not He is worth it. This should not be!
If we have this view of God, then we are missing it completely! If we can possibly be this selfish, then we have no idea just how much Jesus sacrificed for us and no idea just how precious and priceless the kingdom of Heaven is! We also have forgotten who we are and what this temporary life was given to us for. Colossians 1 reminds us that we were created by Christ and for Christ, not for ourselves and our pleasure.
When we understand all that we’ve freely received from God, then we understand that to die is simply to gain. There is nothing that we hold more valuable than to live for Christ. Take, for example, the story of the twenty-something named Fatima from Saudi Arabia. This is just one story amongst hundreds of thousands of known stories of followers of Christ who held nothing back for the sake of Jesus.
Jesus told us that it is only when we lose our lives for His sake that we find life. Many of us bounce through life grasping for everything that we can to satisfy the desires of our flesh and only find ourselves getting more and more dissatisfied and miserable as we go. The truth is that it is only when we crucify our flesh and live by the Holy Spirit that we find satisfaction and wholeness in life. It is only then that we experience the power of God flowing in and through our lives and have complete intimacy with Him.
Let’s take a look at the first church as recorded in Acts. Just like us, they also received the promise of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, yet let’s look at how this impacted their lives so that we might also be encouraged and challenged to live as they did in faith and by the incredible power of the Holy Spirit!
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit was poured out onto all believers on the day of Pentecost. Peter preached to the crowd there and 3,000 people repented and were saved. Daily the believers met together in the temple courts, sharing everything that they had with one another, and meeting in each other’s homes. Everyone was in awe at the many signs and wonders that occurred on a regular basis. Daily they lead people to Christ and they lived lives of rejoicing and gladness. Then one day, something happened that caused those who did not believe to try and put a stop to all of this.
1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
When the onlookers ran over in astonishment because of this healing, Peter asked them why they were so surprised. He testified that it wasn’t them, but Jesus who had healed his man and pleaded with them to repent and turn to God and accept Christ’s salvation.
In Acts 4, while Peter and John were still speaking with the crowd, they were arrested because they were proclaiming the resurrection of the dead through Jesus. However, even while they were being arrested many believed and were saved bringing the total number of believers to about 5,000. They were imprisoned overnight and then brought into trial the following day.
5 The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is“‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’
12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.
23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
“‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
The believers never stopped. As they continued to put God first and sharing His word with everyone, every one of the believer’s needs were met. They never lacked anything. In fact, following this persecution in Acts 5, they moved on into even greater signs and wonders so awesome that people would bring sick people out into the streets in the hopes that Peter’s shadow might fall on them and heal them.
They were once again thrown in jail. This time, an angel set them free through the night and told them to go into the temple courts and to tell all of the people about this new life. They were once again brought in and questioned and told again to stop preaching the name of Jesus and again the believers refused. The Pharisees and Sadducees became so furious that they wanted to put them to death, but were afraid to do so because the people held them in such high esteem. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, offered this advice:
38b in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
Just like the other great men and women of faith over the course of human history, these believers stood firm on the word of God and proclaimed it boldly. Persecution against Jesus and His followers has not stopped from the book of Acts to today.
In fact, as we continue through the book of Acts, we find that the persecution became all the more severe. However, the believers responded in a way that even further amazed everyone. They praised God and rejoiced that they were suffering disgrace for Jesus! This persecution continued as believers were flogged, beaten, stoned, and put to death.
However, it seemed that just as strong and increasing as the persecution became, the power of the Holy Spirit became even stronger and increasing as great signs, wonders, and miracles occurred constantly.
In fact, Saul, who oversaw the death of the first martyr, Stephen, and was in charge of destroying the church accepted Christ’s salvation and was transformed in a miraculous way. He went from being a destroyer of the church to a builder of the church and the same way in which he was persecuting the church, he was persecuted. He said:
2 Corinthians 11:23-30
23b I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
This morning, we are met with this challenge: what are we willing to suffer for the sake of Christ? Unfortunately, for many, to even spend a few hours a week at church in cushioned chairs in an air conditioned building is a sacrifice just far too high to request.
What is happening with the body of Christ in our culture? Where have the great people of faith gone? Who is willing to preach the name of Jesus and His great salvation? Who is willing to step out in faith and offer God’s healing and deliverance to a people in such need of it? When faced with persecution, will we obey God or will we cower into hiding?
If you are with me this morning and desire to serve God no matter what the cost, to make known Jesus and His salvation, then pray together with me this morning what the believers prayed a few centuries ago.
“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’
Indeed, many in our nation conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” AMEN!