“Where Persecution Comes From”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

In Acts 13-14, we see the beginning of what will become a dreary pattern for the missionary journeys of Paul.  It goes like this:  Paul comes to a new city and preaches the gospel in the local synagogue.  Some Jews believe, but so do many God-fearing Gentiles.  At this, the unbelieving Jews become enraged, seek to harm Paul and his companions in some way, and drive him on to the next city, where the cycle repeats itself.

This pattern is familiar to any student of the book of Acts, but often we don’t spend much time considering why it occurred.  To us, the persecutors are faceless Bad Guys.  They are two-dimensional obstacles to the spread of the gospel, not really much different than the Mediterranean tempest of Acts 27 or the viper that bites Paul in the next chapter. 

In reality, of course, these unbelievers are not like storms or snakes.  They were real people who lived 2000 years ago, with lives and jobs and families.  On their own terms, they even were good people.  Even though they lived in an ungodly society, they did their best to live according to the Law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers.  They paid to build and maintain their synagogues, and they worshiped there every Sabbath.  It’s quite likely, in fact, that at least some of these people had a good reputation in their communities:  honest, hardworking, devout, and generous to the poor.

And yet, when confronted with the gospel, not only do these good, godly people fail the greatest spiritual test of their lives.  They fail it spectacularly.  They are overcome by jealousy and rage.  They respond to the gospel with insult and slander.  They try to incite the local authorities against Paul and his companions.  They follow them to other cities to oppose them there.  They engage in conspiracy and even, in Acts 14:19, in attempted murder.

What in the world???

Whenever we see someone behaving in such an extremely hateful way, they are pretty much waving a flag over their heads that says, “I Feel Threatened”.  In this case, Paul made the Jews feel threatened by undermining their perception of their relationship with God.  They thought they were pleasing to Him; Paul showed that they were sinners in need of the grace of Jesus.  They thought that only the Jews were God’s chosen people, but Paul invited the Gentiles into their exclusive club. 

I believe that in the future, God’s people increasingly will experience the same thing.  As our society becomes increasingly godless, we will see more persecution, not because the gospel has become relevant, but because it remains so relevant that it is threatening.  Like the Jews of 2000 years ago, these people will attack us because the truth we bear poses an intolerable affront to their self-image.  We should not be surprised by this fiery trial, but neither should we allow it to discourage us.  It is when the darkness is greatest that the light has its most profound effect.