This past Sunday, I preached on Matthew 1-2 and talked about how Jesus didn’t come to save us from what we wish he would have. He didn’t come to save us from our messed-up families, our human enemies, persecution, or even everyday life. He came to save us from our sin. But, as sometimes happens when preaching, I started to think about point three in particular.
If Jesus didn’t come to save us from persecution, does that mean he wants his church to undergo persecution? If the babies in Bethlehem, the blood on the sand of Roman arenas, the fire-stakes in Europe tell us anything, they say that wherever Jesus comes to make a difference, earthly power comes to make a bloody example. The history of the church is largely a history of persecution. Persecution seems inevitable for the people of God who proclaim a message that threatens the basis of power in this world.
The questions stands: does Jesus want the church to be persecuted?
Tertullian said “The blood of the saints is the seed of the church.” This statement is often quoted, usually assumed, but infrequently examined. The results that seem to accompany persecution are hard to dismiss: strengthened faith, growing church, message going forth. Maybe Jesus does want his church to be persecuted if it produces growth. Maybe I should want the church to be persecuted? That’s dangerous reasoning. While God seems to frequently grant growth to churches enduring persecution, it’s not always the case. Maybe the better way of seeing things is to think of the church attracting persecution rather than persecution launching the church. Because persecution doesn’t always grow the church. In fact, sometimes it stamps it out. North Africa was a Christian stronghold, producing many of the great minds in church history and yet the church practically died out there under persecution. Doesn’t seem like something Jesus would want for his church.
What we need to realize is that Jesus doesn’t want persecution for the church, but he does want obedience from the church. Sometimes the church strays, sometimes it doesn’t, but Jesus’ desire for his followers is constant: obedience to his commands. And those commands are pretty simple: Love God, Love Others, and Make Disciples.
Persecution can produce obedience, but it can also hamper it. Sometimes persecution comes because the church is being faithful, sometimes it comes because it isn’t. It’s shaky ground as a church growth strategy to say the least.
But persecution isn’t the only option on the table. Something else is also accompanied by strengthened faith, church growth, and the proclamation of the gospel in the life of the church. And, as a bonus, it doesn’t require jail time or bloodshed: it’s called revival.
Revival is defined by Earl Cairns as “the work of the Holy Spirit in restoring the people of God to a more vital spiritual life, witness, and work by prayer and the Word after repentance in crisis for their spiritual decline.”
If revival produces results similar to those we associate with persecution, why in the world would we want persecution? Let’s seek revival!
But before we get too hasty, we need to recognize that revival also requires loss. It even requires death. But not the bloody kind: it’s more involved than that. Revival requires us to die to the American Dream, to die to selfish ambition, to die to consumerist church practices. Revival requires placing everything we have, including our lives, before God and saying, “Here it is Lord, use it however you want.”
Revival is what happens when the church seeks refining on its own, when it recognizes its weaknesses and begs God to overcome them. Persecution often happens when the church needs revival but doesn’t seek it.
Correlation does not equal causation. Nonetheless, look at the early church in Acts. They were doing some amazing things, Acts 2:42-47. But they weren’t doing the one thing Jesus told them they would do when he left: “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They kept hanging out in Jerusalem. So God allowed persecution and it drove them out. One of the places they went was Antioch. They started a church there and that church got it. Instead of waiting around, they gathered in prayer and fasting, seeking the Lord (dare I say seeking revival?). And the result was Paul and Barnabas being sent out on mission, launching the cycle of missions, evangelism, and discipleship that has marked faithful churches ever since. Same result as the Jerusalem persecution (the gospel going out according to Jesus’ promise) but much better circumstances.
The question for us, the modern church, is are we willing to die? That’s really the fundamental element of being Christian: deny ourselves, plan on dying (the plain meaning of “take up your cross”), and follow Christ. Once we do that, it’s simply a matter of whether we die seeking revival or to die enduring persecution. We’re not guaranteed one or the other: that’s up to God. But seeking revival and obedience is definitely preferable from my perspective.
Does Jesus want his church to be persecuted? No, but he wants us to be obedient. If we’re not willing to die for the revival that produces obedience, he may ask us to die in the persecution that requires it.