“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)
The reality of life for Christians is that we have an enemy. From the beginning of human history, the devil has been looking for ways to manipulate, tempt, hurt, and ultimately destroy God’s people. One of his oldest tricks is persecution.
Today our culture is increasingly setting boundaries that determine what is or is not an acceptable belief. These boundaries are established through messages from news and entertainment media, popular opinion as well as politics. In some areas we even see the government beginning to legislate standards for acceptable religious practice. To express or defend beliefs outside of these parameters can put a strain on our relationships, or worse, it can lead to rejection and social isolation. In some cases, it can even lead to legal action against Christians who seek to live out their faith in accord with their conscience. In the face of such persecution, it is easy to become dejected and afraid. This method of persecution, however, is nothing new to Christianity.
If you had been a Christian living under the Roman Empire, your beliefs would have been considered superstition. This did not mean your beliefs would be thought of as silly or patently false; rather, the Latin work superstitio was used by the Romans to refer to religious beliefs that were outside the realm of “acceptable” religion.
In the Roman Empire, religious beliefs were extremely diverse, much like in America today, yet one thing held them together: they were unified under the Cult of the Emperor. As long as you worshiped the Emperor your religion would be considered safely within the bounds of acceptable beliefs. Refusing to worship the Emperor was seen as dangerous and subversive; at the very least it was unpatriotic, and at worst it was treason.
What did this mean for Christians? Christians, of course, are called to worship God alone. This meant that Christianity was a superstitio, a religion that fell outside of the parameters of what was acceptable. As soon as you stepped outside of these boundaries persecution ensued. At various times under the Roman Empire, Christians were tortured and martyred for their faith because their beliefs were superstitio.
Christians today are finding that when their beliefs do not line up with those that are popular in their culture, persecution ensues.
1. The devil is up to his same old tricks.
As we observe the parallels between persecution in Rome and in America, we see on a fundamental level that the devil’s schemes have not changed over the years. He still seeks to persecute Christians and cause suffering by pushing our beliefs to the fringe of what is acceptable. The basic method and plan are the same; however, in some ways, the devil has grown craftier.
Persecution is no longer as visible and obvious as it was when Roman officials would publicly martyr Christians. Instead, we are pressured emotionally, socially, and even economically to conform to the norms of the world. Christians in America are engaged in a war of attrition. How long can the church hold out against the tide of popular opinion, media, and government? This parallel may seem to paint a grim view of the current situation in America, yet there is hope for individual Christians and for the whole of the Church.
2. God has a plan for his people’s hardship.
God has a plan to use hardship and persecution for his glory and for the good of those who love him. This plan has been constant, and it undercuts and thwarts our enemy’s strategy.
First, as Christians, we can be joyful in the face of persecution because we know God uses it to sanctify us. We learn to walk in faith when we are persecuted. Knowing that we are united to Christ by faith gives us confidence that He will sustain us through all trials that come our way. We can take solace and find encouragement in the words of Hebrews 10:39: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” As believers we hold fast to the truth even when it is unpopular, knowing that God will keep us to the end.
Second, we know that in his sovereignty God has chosen to use persecution to build and strengthen the church. This was true in Rome and continues to be true today. The persecutions of the first few centuries only caused the church to grow. In light of this reality, the church father Tertullian famously remarked, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As Christians, we can pray and trust that God will use persecution to purify the church and add more and more members to his kingdom.
Third, we know that we already have victory over the devil. Though the image of Satan as a prowling lion is a scary one, we should not forget there is another lion in Scripture. In the fifth chapter of Revelation, we learn that the angels have a problem. There is a scroll with seven seals, but they cannot find anyone in heaven, on earth, or under the earth who is able to open it; that is until the Lion of the tribe of Judah appears. At his arrival the angels begin to sing:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood, you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9-10)
When we face persecution and hardship we must remember the end of the story: the devil will be destroyed, and we will rule the earth. The knowledge that we are already victors gives us confidence that God will preserve us through all trials, and we will persevere against our enemy.