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Until recently, many of us perhaps thought that religious persecution was a thing of the past. We think of things like the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition and say, “Well, that belonged to a primitive time. But we’re enlightened now and most countries are moving toward religious liberty rather than away from it.” Is that the case?
Because the Christ that we worship here is the same One who promised “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2 ESV). “You will be hated for my name’s sake”, He also said; “but the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22 ESV). “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23 ESV). He didn’t say “if they persecute you”, but when they persecute you.” There may be periods of respite and relief from persecution, but persecution is the norm, not the exception.
The reality is that Jesus never promised that persecution would one day come to end. Jesus promised, actually, that things will be hard and will get worse. Until Jesus returns to rescue the church and judge the unbelieving, there will be persecution of Christians. There may be periods of respite, like the last 250 years in this country. But our country is moving very, very quickly away from our Christian roots. What will the next five, ten, 20 years look like?
But then 9/11 happened. The vacancy where the Twin Towers once stood in Manhattan became a painful reminder that religious persecution is alive and well. We were uncomfortably reminded that there are people and organizations and forces out there who just as soon kill us for our faith in Jesus.
Then a few years ago, we started hearing of a group called ISIS. We became familiar with their tactics: arrest and detain Christians, coerce them to deny their faith in Christ, and then brutally murder them if they refuse. We remember the 21 Egyptian Christians who gave their lives for Jesus on the beach, bound and on their knees in the sand, with ISIS executioners standing behind them, swords in hand. We remember the Christians who were taken out into the ocean and placed in metal cages and then dropped into the water to drown.
We don’t know, but we do know what it is like for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. For many, simply going to church is a crime, so churches meet in warehouses or businesses late at night, under the cover of dark. Many of those brothers and sisters who go to those churches know they need to vary the route they take to get there, that they need to wear dark clothing and hoodies to prevent recognition.
Will it become like that here? Only the Lord knows. In the meantime, though, it’s not a bad idea for us to begin to prepare ourselves.
Two questions about persecution:
What is the nature of persecution?
How has Jesus equipped us to face it?
Which is why need to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in this text today. What can we learn about the opposition that Jesus has promised we will face? And then, what can we learn about how the Holy Spirit has equipped us to engage that opposition?

Round #1: The world vs. the church

Let’s take just the first one. What is persecution? Now you say, “Well Dustin, of course, persecution is when someone gets harmed or threatened or killed even because of their faith.” That’s true, but we can further. What is Christian persecution like? Who’s behind it? What is the nature of it?

#1: What is persecution? Persecution is the world, under Satan’s influence, united together in opposition to God and His people

Persecution: the world, under the influence of Satan, united together in opposition to God and His people (v. 5, 26, 27)
Now, how do we see that in our text? Well, we don’t see the word “world” in our text. But just because we don’t see it explicitly doesn’t mean it’s not there implicitly. Anywhere and anytime people gather together to oppose God and His people, there you will find the world.
If persecution is the world under Satan’s influence united together in opposing God and His people, then where do we see that in the text? What does “world” mean, anyway? In the NT the concept of “the world” occurs just under 200 times.
What does “world” mean?
Planet earth (59x)
The people inhabiting earth (38x)
The “world system” (73x)
So what is the “world system”? I know this is getting deeply theological, but if you stay with me I’ll have like donuts for your or something. Actually, no - that won’t happen. Your reward will be the satisfaction you gain from digging into God’s word is the gathering of the people of God.
What is the “world system”?
Everyone who is in active rebellion against God, together with their values, morality, and beliefs
Can you think of some examples of this? Hollywood? Social media? Our universities? Government agencies? Wherever you find human beings rebelling against God, there you will eventually find persecution.
So what’s the big deal about this word? Well, this word first comes out of Psalm 2.
And shockingly, this is true even in with some religious leaders and even some Christian churches and pastors. This is true even here in our text.

#2: Where does persecution often come from? Persecution often comes from the religious leaders SOURCE

Persecution: comes almost exclusively from the religious leaders of the sanctioned religion (vv. 1-3, 5-7)
Who are the ones who crucified Jesus? The Jewish religious leaders, not the Romans. Who are the ones who persecuted the church early on? Again, at first, it was not the Romans. It came from the so-called leaders of the people of God.
Look with me at Acts 4:1-2. We see that here in these verses at the start. Look in your Bibles with me and help me count.
Acts 4:1–2 ESV
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.
So that’s three right there. Now look down a few verses to verses 5-6:
Acts 4:5-6
Acts 4:5–6 ESV
On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
Here you have not only the priests who led in temple worship, and the captain of the temple guard who provided security, and the Sadducees, but you also have Jewish rulers and town elders and scribes who were scholars in the law of Moses. on top of that all that, you have Annas and Caiaphas, two of the most influential men living in Jerusalem during the first century. All of them were tasked with shepherding the people of Israel to know the Lord and His word, so as to be able to recognize when the Promised One came and commit themselves to Him.
And yet, it is precisely these men, these leaders, these Bible scholars and “pastors” and “deacons” and “committee chairs” and who not only refused to believe that Jesus was this Promised One, but also to kill Him and persecute His disciples.
Shawn and I were talking a few weeks ago about the end-times and persecution and the anti-Christ and we were sort of wondering out loud, “Do you think it’s possible that the anti-Christ could come from within Christendom?”
Of course, I don’t mean that the anti-Christ will be a believer. But we do know that the anti-Christ will deceive many professing believers. And to deceive, you have to have just enough truth in your false teaching to attract those people who have a superficial understanding of the gospel and no more. If that’s true, then it is very possible that the anti-Christ could arise from within Christendom.
Maybe that’s why Jesus so emphatically warned us to be on the alert, to be aware. Maybe that’s why we are warned time and again in the NT to go deeper in our knowledge of Jesus and His gospel so that when a deceiver arises, we are not among those swept away, but are among those who know and love the truth.

#3: How does persecution achieve its goal? Persecution uses coercion and violence to compel a person to change their convictions and behavior THE WEAPON

So that’s the what and the who. How about the how? If persecution of Christians aims at compelling Christians to change their conviction and beliefs, how do they do that? How many options to those who persecute Christians have at their disposal? Really
Well, the answer is, not many.
Look with me at Acts 4:3-4. What tactics do the persecutors use? The first is jail time.
Acts 4:3–4 ESV
And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
The second tool in the tool belt of the persecutor is threats. Look with me at Acts 4:13-20
Acts 4:13–20 ESV
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Violence, threats, prison time, bodily harm, murder. Those sound like really terrifying things and if you look at them only from a worldly perspective, they are really terrifying things. But once we consider who it is we serve, once we recall to our minds the power and the beauty and overcoming love of Jesus Christ, we will see that persecution of believers does not work.

#4: Will persecution ultimately succeed? Persecution cannot stop the church of Jesus Christ and will always, in the end, fail

I want you to look with me at just one verse that shows us how God is able to work among His people even despite persecution. For the context, read with me Acts 4:1-4 again, and note especially verse:
Acts 4:1–4 ESV
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
Peter and John proclaim the resurrection boldly. They’re imprisoned. And yet, that does not stop the word of God from doing its work to save and sanctify, so that many who heard the that word renounced their sin and trusted in Christ and were added to the church, bringing the number to around 5,000.
When I read that, when I read of the exponential explosion of Christians in those early days of the church, I think “May you be praised, Lord, for there is no one like you!” And then I think of a man by the name of Justin Martyr, a second century father of the church. He said this about those who would attempt to stamp out Christianity by killing Christians:
Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshipers of God through the name of Jesus. For just as if one should cut away the fruit-bearing parts of a vine, it grows up again, and yields other branches flourishing and fruitful; even so the same thing happens with us. [300 Quotations for Preachers from the Early Church (Persecution Causes the Church to Grow)]
And, church, this is happening all over the world now. Christendom is collapsing in the west and in the northern hemisphere. But Southeast Asia and Africa a witnessing an explosion like what happened here in the book of Acts, and — here’s the thing — they are doing this even as forces far more powerful than they are raiding their homes, destroying their buildings, threatening them, kidnapping them, in some cases killing them.
And yet, I think, here we sit in North Carolina, in a beautiful building that’s ours, and in no danger whatsoever for being a Christian. We struggle to commit to our church beyond Sunday morning. Sports teams and vacations compete with our time. Every pastor I talk to tells me the same thing: our church members, they say, are here only if those other activities that are so obviously more important to them are cancelled or out of season - and maybe not even then.
Two beneficial effects of persecution:
Weeds out those who are Christians in name only
Removes everything not of eternal value
Why are those believers in majority world countries on fire and we’re asleep? Because persecution does two things.
Number one, it weeds out those who are Christians in name only. A man won’t give up his life or his comforts for something he’s only halfway committed to.
And number two, persecution has a way of reminding us what’s really important. Pastor John Piper writes that on his parents’ fridge as he was growing up was a poem that made a last impact on him. It said, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” Money and possessions and career all fall away, leaving only Jesus and the breath that’s in my lungs. It might be that only then are we really ready to follow Him.
Because, you see, persecution only works if this body and this world are all there is. If this current reality is all I can see and all I believe exists, if death means the end of all existence and there is no hope for eternal life beyond this world, persecution is the most effective way to end Christianity.
But that’s precisely why it doesn’t work. We know that what we can see is not all there is; we know that our spirits will survive the death of our body and if we have trusted in Jesus, we will go immediately to heaven to be with Him now, and we will spend eternity with Him and with each other on a new earth.
Matt. 10:28 West
Matthew 10:28 ESV
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Persecution is the world united together under Satan in their opposition to God and His people. It often comes from the very ones tasked with leading God’s people. It operates by the sword, by violence and coercion, and it will not have the last word. That is the world vs. the church.
Notice with me, now, the church’s engagement with the world.

Round #2: The church vs. the world

Each year, West Point graduates hundreds of men and women ready to serve and give their lives for their country. The Army goes on then to commission these men and women to do that very thing.
But in September 1997, the US Army performed a commissioning like no other. They commissioned James Webster Smith — 123 years after he died.
Webster was a former slave who had enrolled in the US Military Academy in 1870, and during his time there he was harassed and isolated and court-martialed, all for being black. He was held back a year and as a result he failed a test. The academy used the failed exam to expel him before he graduated. A few years later, he died at the age of 26 from a disease that’s treatable today. [Larson p312]
Harassed. Isolated. Opposed. Picked on. Humiliated. Expelled. Dead at 26.
Then over 120 years later, he’s honored. Promoted. Respected.
It would have been better, of course, had Mr. Smith been treated with equality and fairness. And how he actually was treated is beyond shameful. But the point is, sometimes life in fallen world means that honor and reward and vindication come after the grave, beyond this world, in the next.
And that, church, is what persecution is like for a believer. If this world really is all there is, then to threaten me with physical harm and death is the worst possible outcome. But this world is not all there is. No matter how we’re treated in this life for our commitment to Christ, Jesus awaits us with a crown on that day.
How does the church engage with the world? Notice the first point of the sermon was “the world against the church”. Why didn’t I title the second point like that? Why didn’t I phrase it “the church against the world”? Why do I have “engages with the world” instead? Because while the world is against us, we are not against the world. We are for the world in the fullest sense possible. We want them to find everything they’re longing for in Christ rather than in the things that are destroying them. We want them to know Jesus, the King who not only satisfies the desires of their hearts but the only One who can usher in the kind of world they so want to live in.
So how do we engage with the world when facing persecution?

Engagement tactic #1: We keep speaking the gospel

When Peter and John were asked to stop preaching the gospel, did you catch what they said? “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20 ESV).
That’s the voice of confidence. Not arrogance. They don’t want to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious. A lot of believers, I think, want to use the persecution word as a cloak for their anti-authority mindset. That’s not NT Christianity. They acknowledge the leaders’ authority: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God - in other words, you’re in charge, you do what you gotta do, but for our part we have to be faithful to tell others what we’ve seen Jesus do.”
Later on in Acts, in the next chapter, they’re even more confident. They’re told in a similar way, “Look, stop preaching, we warned you; next time it’ll be worse”. Their response? Simply, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV).
That’s the first engagement tactic. Keep talking about Jesus and His gospel.

Engagement tactic #2: Spend time together in prayer

Luke the physician, who wrote Luke and Acts, is not just a brilliant physician; he also was a brilliant historian and theologian. And there’s a word that Luke employs several times. In our translations it’s two words, “gathered together”, but it’s actually one word in Greek, and it’s the word we get our English word “synagogue” from.
You say, “Dustin, dude, it’s just a couple words. How significant can it be?” Very significant, if you consider where Luke places the word. At the beginning of the chapter and at the end of the section, Luke uses the word “gathered together”. In those places, the word “gathered together” is a reference to the Jewish leaders gathering together, uniting themselves with one accord, in their opposition to God’s people. Then we see in verse 27
We see it first in Acts 4:5
Acts 4:5 ESV
On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem,
Then we see it again when the church gathers to pray. They’ve just been ordered to shut their mouths. No more preaching the gospel, no more talk of the resurrection, no more talk of Jesus coming back, no more. So what do they do? They pray. And how they pray shows us that word that Luke wants us to get firmly into our minds. [This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head] Except this time, the word occurs in the passage of scripture that they use in their prayer. Look with me at verses 23-26:
Acts 4:23–26 ESV
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “ ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
Did you catch that? Psalm 2 is the passage they’re quoting. Psalm 2 talks about Christ being enthroned and exalted after ascending back into heaven. The psalm basically says, “Jesus is exalted and enthroned in heaven atd the right hand of God, but still the Gentiles, the kings of the earth — the world, we might say — are gathered together — there it is. What are they gathered together to do? Acts 4:26
Acts 4:26 ESV
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
Gathering together - that was the word the psalmist used to describe the persecutors. But notice how Luke commandeers that word and redeems it by using it to describe the disciples’ unity. Look especially at the last verse.
Acts 4:29–31 ESV
And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.
There’s power in groups. They reinforce our beliefs, they embolden us, they shape us and they propel us outward to act. Groups are good. Human beings, though, are fallen. And when fallen human beings gather in groups, the result can be great good or great evil. It was the gathering together of the leaders that emboldened them to fight. But when the church gathers, Jesus is there in their midst as reigning King. And out of that group of men and women, out of their unity, came the boldness of their gospel witness.

Engagement tactic #3: Witness with boldness

Notice with me the early church’s boldness. Two or three times, we are told the early disciples were bold in their witness. But it’s Acts 4:13 that I hope you’ll look at with me because how Luke words this is very important.
Acts 4:13–14 (ESV)
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
This, church, is the kind of boldness that only Jesus can give a person. Their boldness overcame their fear, so that they were courageous. Their boldness overcome their lack of formal education, so that they spoke well. It’s not that they weren’t smart. It’s that they lacked the formal education in the Torah Their message had to be taken seriously, whether it was rejected or not. They couldn’t dismiss them for their evident fear or a lack of knowledge. Their boldness and confidence despite their lack of formal training meant that their boldness and confidence had to come from somewhere else. The Christian message was now becoming a message that the early church was learning to articulate well, so that in the marketplace of ideas, so to speak, the gospel was an intellectual and spiritual force to be reckoned with. This makes sense, given what Paul says in Rom. 1:16
Romans 1:16 ESV
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Our boldness is what enables us to be different, to be counter-cultural. The courage of Christ, His boldness in us, is what equips us to live in revolt against the values and beliefs of the world around us. Our boldness, in other words, is something Jesus gives us in order to make us distinct.
The early church was known for its distinctiveness. I want to read for you a portion of a letter written in the 2nd century. This letter was written from a Christian to a non-Christian and he describes the lifestyle of the early Christians.
“Christians are not differentiated from other people by country, language, or customs; …they do not live in cities of their own, or speak some strange dialect. They live in both Greek and foreign cities, wherever chance has put them. They follow local customs in clothing, food, and the other aspects of life. But at the same time, they demonstrate to us the unusual form of their own citizenship.
They live in their own native lands, but as aliens…Every foreign country is to them as their native country, and every native land as a foreign country. They marry and have children just like everyone else, but they do not kill unwanted babies. They offer a shared table, but not a shared bed. They are passing their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the appointed laws and go beyond the laws in their own lives.
They love everyone, but are persecuted by all. They are put to death and gain life. They are poor and yet make many rich./ They are dishonored and yet gain glory through dishonor. Their names are blackened, and yet they are cleared. They are mocked and bless in return. They are treated outrageously and behave respectfully to others.
When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if being given new life. They are attacked by Jews as aliens and are persecuted by Greeks; yet those who hate them cannot give any reason for their hostility.” [Epistle to Diognetus, quoted in Larson pp67-68]
Our distinctiveness - our being different from the world around us - that is at the same time what compels those who hate us to harm us, and yet that same distinctiveness is what makes believers willing to be harmed or even killed for Christ and His gospel. His sacrifice for us, in our place, on our behalf — His love for us, His friendship with us, His faithfulness to us — we feel like we can handle anything as long as we have Him, so our grip on this world and this life is loosened. That way, when our lives are threatened for what we believe, it’s not such a huge leap. After all, how hard is it to give up your life in death when in reality we’ve already released it and given it to God.
Our distinctiveness simultaneously 1) provokes the unbelieving world to act on their hatred, and 2) draws in those same unbelievers because here they see that the kind of life they crave — that we all crave — is possible and is being experienced and lived out in our midst.

Conclusion and call for response

John McCain died a few years ago. Politicians came together in one of those rare moments when Nancy Pelosi could stand next to Ted Cruz and, for just a few minutes, see the world the same way.
The reason McCain got this kind of honor at his funeral was that he had earned it. John McCain was a war hero from the war in Vietnam. He was injured when his plane was shot down in 1967. He managed to survive the crash but wound up a prisoner of war. He then languished for nine days with no medical treatment for his injuries — which included a shattered knee and shoulder, bayonet wounds in his ankle and groin, and two broken arms. For the next five years, he was subjected to constant torture.
Most of you probably know that. What I didn’t know about this story, however, was that the Vietnamese actually had planned to release McCain, but he refused to go. They wanted to release him because it would provoke the United States. It was US military policy that POW’s be returned in the order they had arrived. If they released him early, the US military would be demoralized by seeing how badly the Vietnamese had treated him. But that was precisely the reason McCain didn’t leave the custody of the Vietnamese. He had his chance to go home, but he didn’t want his injuries to discourage his fellow soldiers. So he stayed, for five years.
Because you see, McCain’s father was an admiral in the military; so was his grandfather. His dad, in fact, was at the same time commanding the operations in Hanoi in 1967 when McCain was hurt. The legacy his father and grandfather had left him compelled him to suffer further, for the good of his fellow troops and the reputation of his family. [Larson, pp394-95]
I love what the author wrote who compiled this illustration, and you can instantly see its relevance to persecution. He wrote:
“There are times when the only way to escape suffering is unworthy of who you are.”
Christian, do you know who you are? Do you know what you’re legacy is? Maybe in your familly you have several generations of military service or a common family business. That’s one form of legacy. But when you were born again, you were placed into a spiritual family, and that means you and I have a legacy that extends back over 2,000 years. Our spiritual fathers and mothers are these men and women here in the book of Acts. They had such confidence in the Lord because they had proven His faithfulness.
So today, what decision or commitment do you need to make? It might be a recommitment of your life. You might be sensing the Lord leading you to join our church. Whatever it is, you can come up here at the end of the service after the music stops, or you can see me or Pastor Shawn or Dan.
You may have not responded to the free offer of grace, meaning you are not born again. Meaning you do not have eternal life. If that is you, please don’t put off making that decision. Hell is a real place wit eternal conscious suffering, and you are in danger if you haven’t trusted Christ. God does not want that to be the end of your story. He wants you to come to Him through His Son and to know His love as a Father rather than to know His wrath as the Judge.
So do not leave here today without getting this settled.
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