Opposition and Persecution

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 19:23-41

Jesus urged people to count the cost before they committed themselves to a life of following him. Part of this cost of discipleship is having to face opposition and even persecution for the sake of Christ.

Wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ has made an impact upon a society, whenever people have turned from their old way of life to a living faith in Jesus Christ, they have faced difficulties. Families, friends, religious leaders or government authorities may direct opposition and persecution against them. Often the trouble is mild. In western societies we rarely face more than embarrassment or perhaps ridicule for being forthright Christians. We may be branded as religious fanatics, mocked, or discriminated against. I just read a news report about a Christian teacher in a public school in New York who was dismissed from her job. Her offense? She led her distraught young students in a prayer following the accidental death of a classmate. So followers of Jesus are called upon to suffer for their faith, even in so-called Christian countries.

But in non-Christian countries opposition to the Christian faith can be much more severe. Physical abuse is not uncommon, especially in places where the government is repressive. We continue to hear reports of the organized, systematic, physical persecution of Christians in a number of countries. For example, I was speaking with one of our Words of Hope broadcasters recently about the situation in the area where his native tribal people live. Many there listen to his gospel programs in their heart language, and large numbers have become Christians in recent years as a result. The national government is treating these new believers very harshly. Our broadcaster described to me twelve specific actions that are being taken against this Christian ethnic minority in order to force them to abandon their new faith. Among them were forcing the Christians from their homes and native villages, confiscating their possessions, requiring them, upon pain of imprisonment, to drink the blood of chickens as an act of worship to their ancient gods, refusing Christians medical treatment in government clinics, beating the men and raping the women, and in some instances, executing those who will not deny Jesus Christ. All of this is happening right now in our world, hard though it may be to believe.

OPPOSITION IN EPHESUS

There’s nothing new about such brutality. In fact, it sounds very much like what happened in the New Testament. Almost everywhere he went, the apostle Paul faced similar kinds of abuse from the enemies of the gospel. He writes in several of his letters about the harsh treatment he has endured for the sake of Christ: beatings, stoning, imprisonment; harassment, criticism, slander; the loss of goods, family and friends.

For the past several messages in this series of studies in the book of Acts, I have been looking at Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus. This strategic center was home to the apostle for about three years, during which time “the Way,” as Christianity was known then, attracted adherents throughout the region. Paul spent most of his time systematically teaching Christian truth each afternoon in a rented hall in the city. Scholars conjecture that the content of those talks of Paul may very well be outlined in the major letters he wrote during this same period, the New Testament books of Romans and Corinthians. But this was not an idyllic, trouble-free interlude of study and teaching in the apostle’s life. As in so many other places, major problems for the Christians eventually arose in Ephesus, as Luke reports in Acts 19.

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis . . . said: “Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar.

Acts 19:23-29

With the whole city of Ephesus in confusion and uproar, the scene shifted to the city’s great theater. This magnificent open-air structure, whose well-preserved remains still dominate the ruins of Ephesus today, could hold upwards of twenty-five thousand people. Demetrius and the other leaders of the mob seized some of Paul’s companions. They apparently missed the apostle himself, their main target. When Paul heard that his friends had been dragged to the theater and were in danger from the crowd, he wanted to go defend them. But the other Christian leaders, and even some of the government authorities, dissuaded him from this dangerous course.

Meanwhile, things were beginning to turn ugly in the theater. “The assembly was in confusion.” Luke writes. “Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there” (v. 32). In other words, it was a typical mob scene. Then help came from a most remarkable source.

The city clerk, a leading government official of Ephesus and a man of unusual courage and ability, rose to address the crowd.

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Men of Ephesus . . . you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

vv. 35-41

And that was that. Everybody went home, and the trouble subsided.

LESSONS FOR FACING OPPOSITION

This experience of Paul and the Christians of Ephesus offers some helpful lessons for present-day Christians. First of all, it helps to identify the primary cause of the hostility that leads people to persecute the followers of Jesus Christ. If I were to sum it up in a single word, that word would be “threat.” The gospel poses a threat to the people of the world and their interests. When men and women become Christians, the most obvious thing that happens is that their everyday lives change. Often the changes are dramatic. Christian believers change their way of living. They no longer simply follow the habits and routine behaviors of the majority. That makes them stand out. Majorities often feel threatened by a small group of people who decide to be different. What is more, Christian believers no longer automatically accept all the values of their native cultures. Their primary allegiance shifts to God. It’s not that Christians can no longer be good citizens of their respective countries. On the contrary, Christians are usually the best-behaved and most loyal and industrious of citizens. But they will not worship the state, nor will they place the traditional values of their nation, race or culture above their love for Jesus Christ. Christian believers confess that “Jesus is Lord!” – not the state, not a national or religious leader, or any other party, group or person.

All this can be very threatening to a non-Christian society and its leaders. Notice the mixture of commercial, religious, cultural and even patriotic arguments which Demetrius the silversmith made as he tried to stir up the Ephesian crowd against the Christians. He reminded them of Paul’s contention that man-made gods – the idols that many of these Ephesians, including Demetrius, earned their living manufacturing – were no gods at all. If people stopped buying those idols, the economy of the Ephesians would be ruined – and the craftsmen’s own careers as well. So Demetrius points out the economic threat which the gospel poses to their way of life.

In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, tens of thousands of Mayan peoples have converted to evangelical Christianity during the past forty years. One of the first changes in the lives of these new believers is that they stop drinking alcohol. This has delivered them from the terrible curse of alcoholism that blights the life of so many native American peoples. But it also raises resentment in their villages. And it makes the store-owners who make money selling liquor to the people very angry indeed. Much of the persecution inflicted upon the believers in Chiapas is stirred up and led by those who have an economic interest in keeping the people enslaved by ignorance and a degraded way of life.

Demetrius also appealed in his address to the religious and cultural pride of his fellow Ephesians: “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself . . . will be robbed of her divine majesty,” he told them. He was right about that. This too was a genuine threat to the status quo in Ephesus. Both Jesus and Artemis could not be worshiped there. Either one or the other would have to be Lord of the Ephesians.

But notice also the response of the Ephesian official to this argument of Demetrius. In this instance, it’s important to see that the government officials acted to protect the Christians from the mob violence. It’s true that in later years there was persecution of the Christians by the Roman authorities, but during this time at least there was toleration. In fact, in the book of Acts Luke consistently portrays Roman officials everywhere as fair and impartial, and even sympathetic towards Christians and their beliefs. The town clerk in Ephesus is a good example. In his speech, he tells the crowd that the Christians have, in fact, done nothing wrong or illegal. He asserts that they haven’t spoken against the goddess of Ephesus or tried to destroy her temple. Second, the official reminds the crowd that they have legal recourse for settling any grievances they might have. “The courts are open,” he says, “there are judges. If Demetrius or anyone else has a legitimate case, then press charges legally.” Finally, this officer points out to the mob that they are the ones in danger of breaking the law by starting a riot. And so he sends them all home.

A couple of points impress me about the conclusion to this story. One is that the Christians in Ephesus were plainly innocent of any wrong-doing. While Paul had preached the gospel there clearly, he had not done so in a way that was needlessly offensive. The gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ has offense enough built into it, without adding our own personal offensiveness or insensitivity. In Ephesus the town clerk could say of the Christians, “they have not blasphemed our goddess.” In his preaching and teaching the apostle Paul did not hesitate to point out the errors of idol worship. But neither did he mount a crude attack against all the Ephesians’ beliefs and practices. It is possible to speak the truth in love, to preach the gospel without insulting other peoples’ religion or culture. Secondly, it is impressive to see how government functioned at its best in Ephesus. The proper role of any state is to protect the rights of its citizens, especially the freedom of religious minorities.

But what if that does not happen? What if the law fails to protect us? What if we are subjected to unfair treatment or persecution, not because we have offended, not because we have broken the law, but simply because we’re Christian? Then we need to listen to the counsel of the apostle Peter:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered. It will prepare you for even greater happiness when he makes his glorious return.

Count it a blessing when you suffer for being a Christian. This shows that God’s glorious Spirit is with you. You deserve to suffer if you are a murderer, a thief, a crook, or a busybody. But don’t be ashamed to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God that you belong to him.

1 Peter 4:12-16, CEV