Persecution in Luke and Acts

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Paul: A follower of Jesus…“Through many tribulations”

“Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13)

No sooner had Paul begun to dust off his clothing and start to heal from the bruising from a near fatal stoning in Lystra (Acts 14: 19) it was reported that he and Barnabas actually returned to the believers there. They also returned to Iconium where they had left the city due to a plot on their lives (Acts 14:5) and whose inhabitants had come to Lystra to instigate the stoning. As well they returned to Antioch where they had experienced “persecution,” abusive and expulsion from the town (Acts 13:45, 50).  

It might be expected that the message to the believers in each of these towns would be to hunker down, stay below the radar, and have a pity party. Instead they were encouraged to “remain true to the faith” in the face of opposition, with the reason being that “We must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God.” Echoes of Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for eventual hostility must have reverberated through the believers, some who likely were fearful (see  Luke 6:22-23,27-29; 8:15; 9:23; 10:3-16; 14:27; 21:12-18; 22:35-36) for in Luke 21:19 we read Jesus words, “ By standing firm you will gain life.   Such a message from a man who likely still was black and blue due to the stoning, certainly served to strengthen their resolve.

The words of the Lord via Ananias to Paul were coming true: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16) as he would “bear the name” (v. 15).  Irony of all ironies, this was the same man who earlier in his life was “convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9) and had raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who “call on this name” (Acts 9:21). Later in life he refused to avoid suffering, but was ready “not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21.13). This is what the true Gospel can do.

 

Followers of Jesus and persecution

 A phrase which is come into vogue in recent years is to be a “follower of Jesus.” One can find an article here by Georges Houssney. It demonstrates that logically it is impossible to call oneself a Muslim follower of Jesus. This short paper will examine the interaction of actually being a follower of Jesus and the theme of persecution in Luke-Acts. What will be demonstrated from those books is that with the title “follower…” comes the willingness to undergo persecution as He and the early disciples endured. As these followers of their leader, Jesus, continue on his work, choose to associate with him, and boldly proclaim His name, suffering will inevitable arrive. These sufferings, though difficult, will show the nearness of Christ to his suffering people, and show that they are legitimate believers who follow in the authentic example of the persecuted prophets and of Jesus the King of the prophets—rejected to the point of death– for His message.

 

Examples from history:

The student of John the Apostle, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a number of letters while enroute to his martyrdom at Rome. In his 5th letter he wrote:

All the way from Syria to Rome I am fighting wild beasts, on land and sea, by day and night, chained as I am to ten leopards, that is, a detachment of soldiers, who prove themselves the more malevolent for kindnesses shown them. At last I am well on the way to being a disciple. Fire, cross, struggles with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel tortures inflicted by the devil-let them come upon me, provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ.

In A.D. 304 the Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed that all Christians in the Empire should die. It is estimated that 500,000 believers died within a decade.

The Italian journalist Antonio Socci’s book The New Persecuted: Inquiries into Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century of Martyrs estimated that some 45 million Christian martyrs died in the 20th century and he estimated that on the average 160,000 Christians have been killed each year since 1990. Conservatively speaking 1,000,000 Christians have been martyred for the faith between 2000 and 2010. To make this more tangible, David Barrett’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that worldwide one Christian is martyred every five minutes.

Besides these statistics of death, many more instances of rejection and abuse of Christians for “bearing the name” could be multiplied. 

 

Persecution in Luke-Acts

Scott Cunningham did a through study on a theology of persecution in Luke Acts[1] and he came to six conclusions:

(1) The words “according to the plan of God” and persecution are linked hand in hand in these books. This applies primarily to Christ’s death, but also to Paul’s sufferings and those of believers. The sovereign purposes of God include persecution.

(2) When God’s authorized agents are rejected by word and deed by those who are supposedly the people of God, this is called persecution. Those who legitimately speak on behalf of God have and will incur rejection just as Israel’s history did to the true prophets, and Luke describes this continued action by the “Jews” to be consistent with their history.

(3) The rejection that happened to the prophets became the rejection of Jesus, which became that of the disciples. Cunningham calls this a ‘persecutional interlock’ as what happens to one happens to the other. Yet, each genuine messengers of God was persecuted and Luke writes to encourage those suffering this rejection that this is a sign of legitimacy and divine approval.

(4) To be a follower of Jesus and to incur persecution is a logical consequence of following the rejected Christ and standing up for His name. They are sent on a mission as “lambs before wolves” (Lk 10:3). Cunningham states: “Jesus prophesies that persecution will be the experience of his disciples; his disciples are persecuted in continuity with him; his disciples are persecuted because of their association with him; he identifies with his disciples in their persecution.”

(5) The need and equipping to persevere through persecution is a God-given order and a gift.

(6) As much as it could appear that persecution will inhibit the spread of the Word of God, the contrary is true. Divine triumph is guaranteed. No earthly opposition can derail its success.

Time and space permit us to examine number 4 somewhat more thoroughly using the example of the Apostle Paul

 

Persecution In the line of the prophets

Paul had been chosen by Jesus to authoritatively declare truth from God. This was the role of the prophet.  The treatment he received at Lystra was just like the treatment earlier prophets had received at Jerusalem, which, as Jesus said, kills “the prophets and stone those sent” to her (Lk 13:34).  To the disciples and Paul as well who had associated with Him, Jesus said:

 “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”

 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. (Lk 6:22-23)

Thus the rejection that Jesus would receive from “Jerusalem” was that which earlier prophets had received, and which His appointed messengers, like Paul would receive. This is brought together by the verse in which Jesus said, “God in his wisdom said, `I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute’ (Lk. 11:49).

 

Because of “the name”

With a throw out phrase, Luke describes the apostles as being “flogged” and being ordered “not to speak in the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:40). They had received what Jesus had promised, namely “they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name” (Lk 21:12).

Following Jesus’ injunction to the letter with respect to rejoicing for persecution, Luke reports that they left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). For it was in “the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” that people were healed, (4:7, 10) and the disciples proclaimed that salvation could come in “no other name under heaven” (4:12).  The religious authorities were threatened by “the Name” as it indicated vital identification with Jesus. They saw the disciples as “having been with Jesus” (4:13) and they continued his ministry in doing “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (1:1). It was Him they detested, and as the disciples identified with Him the authorities would continue their rejection of Him through persecution of the disciples. Jesus had said, “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16).

No sooner had the water of baptism on Paul dried, then he went to Jerusalem, “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). Just like the earlier apostles who had spoken “in the Name” and had encountered opposition, Paul did as well, as we read that “he talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him “(v. 29). The words of Jesus “All men will hate you because of me” (Luke 21:17) were coming true.  Here was a man, along with Barnabas, which the Jerusalem Council would report as having “risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).

What is all the more amazing is that it was the same man who had been personally  confronted by Jesus for persecuting Him through the lives of the disciples—“Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute Me?” ..”I am Jesus who you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4, 5).

 

Parallels between the life of Jesus in Luke and the disciples in Acts:

The parallels between the ministries of Jesus in Luke and that of the disciples in the book of Acts are striking. This is true of all the disciples and of Stephen and Paul, especially.

  • Parallel actions include: baptism, travel, prayer, signs and wonders, breaking of bread
  • Parallel places include: Jerusalem, the temple, Samaria, Gentile homes
  • Parallel words describe Jesus’ and his followers’ preaching and message with key words like repentance, kingdom of God, and use of the Hebrew Scriptures
  • Parallel descriptions of their lives and ministries include: full of spirit and wisdom, possessing power, grace, joy, subject to divine necessity, ministry as prophets, etc
  • Parallel description of Jesus’ suffering enroute to the cross and the treatment received by his followers: similar opponents, slander, unfounded accusations and even death

In a word, the ministry of Jesus is being continued in and through the disciples in the book of Acts, and it is no surprise that cross-bearing would also be their lot. Thus when Jesus told his disciples, and disciples of all ages what to expect when following him in the Gospel of Luke we read among other things:

  • ”because of the Son of Man” (6:22)
  • If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23)
  • “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12)  Note: “when” implies contingency. That is to say, it is a matter of time before….
  • they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name (21:12)
  • This will result in your being witnesses to them (v. 13)…. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. (v. 15)….    But not a hair of your head will perish (v. 18).  By standing firm you will gain life. (v.19)

 

Parallels between Paul’s life and Jesus’ words

Further parallels from Paul’s life and Jesus’ words are uncanny.  Jesus talked about “laying hands on you” (Lk 21:12) and we see the same phrase in Acts 21:27 where Paul is seized by the Jews in Jerusalem. Similarly Jesus talked about being handed over, imprisonment, being brought before kings, having a testimony, providing a defense, and caring for even one’s hair. Then we see these applied to Paul:

  • “giving you over” (21:11; 22:4; 27:1; 28:17);
  •  imprisonment (23:10, 35; 24:27; 26:29; 28:10);
  •  brought before “kings” (Agrippa the king and Caesar) and “governors” (Felix and Festus);
  • for a “testimony” (23:11; 26:22);
  •  “defense” (22:1; 25:8, 16; 26:1, 2, 24);
  • “not a hair will perish” (27:34).

 

Parallels between Paul and Jesus’ “passions.”

In his study, Cunningham convincingly shows that Luke is pursuing a definite agenda of showing that the life of one of Jesus’ followers, namely Paul, is very much in parallel to that of Jesus, and by extension, is what other followers of Jesus might well expect. Quoting Johnson, he observes: “Luke shows through this journey not only that Paul shared the prophetic spirit of Jesus that was demonstrated through the proclamation of the word in boldness, and in the doing of signs and wonders, but also and above all that he replicated the pattern of the prophet who was rejected in Jerusalem.” (p.     242).This is what Cunningham observes concerning their “passions” or road to glory via cross bearing on their respective journeys to Jerusalem:

Both journey to Jerusalem to meet their divinely ordained suffering which is announced beforehand (Luke 9:22, 44-45; 12:50; 13:32; 17:25; 18:31-34; Acts 20:22-25; 21:4; 21:10-12). The suffering of Jesus and Paul are both interpreted as submission to and accomplishment of the will of God (Luke 22:42; Acts 21:14). Both are “delivered over into the hands” of the Gentiles by the Jews (Luke 9:44; 24:7; Acts 21:11; 28:17). Both are accused by the Jewish religious leadership (Luke 22:66; 23:1; Acts 24:1; 25:7) before Roman courts with a demand for the death penalty (Luke 23:18, 21, 23; Acts 25:24). Both Jesus and Paul are repeatedly declared to be innocent by their Roman judges (Luke 23:4,14,22; Acts 23:29; 2555; 26:31) who want to release them Luke 23:16,20,22; Acts 26:32; 28:18) but succumb to Jewish pressure. (pp. 281-2)

In a word, the persecution which Jesus experienced continues on in his followers like Paul, “who bear his name, continue his work, and witness to who he is” (p. 261).

 

Practical application

The true follower of Jesus, we can learn from Luke that suffering is normal and to be expected. It is not outside of God’s sovereign plan. The Holy Spirit will bring vital aid in the midst of persecution, and ultimately it is Jesus that they are persecuting. Jesus and persecuted witnesses like Stephen gave models of how to pray in the time of crisis. Paul at Lystra showed an example of a response to abuse for “the Name,” and demonstrated the need for perseverance even to the point of death. Ignatius of Antioch saw his persecutions as preparations for “the way to Jesus Christ” just as Stephen saw his way to the ascended Jesus.

Authentic prophets of God suffered for their proclamation. Jesus promised that the same would happen to Him and those who would continue in his footsteps. Thus for those who were asking the question, “Why am I, a Gentile being persecuted by Jews for my participation in what began as a Jewish movement” (p. 298), one could confidently say that their suffering was a badge of honor of belonging to the true people of God.

 

Conclusion:

In a word, Jesus said, “I will suffer and therefore, you also must be willing to suffer.” This is what is promised for an authentic “follower of Jesus” like Paul who will both “bear [His] name” and “suffer for [His] name” (Acts 9:15-16).

 


[1] “Through many tribulations”: The theology of persecution in Luke-Acts by Cunningham, Scott Smith Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1994

 

 

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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

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