In 284 AD Diocletian, then the cavalry commander of the Roman army, was proclaimed emperor of Rome. In 302 he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma and there became persuaded that those who forsook Roman worship needed to be exterminated. His government would usher in the last, largest, and bloodiest of all the official persecutions of Christianity in Rome. Thousands of men, women, and children were burned, drowned, decapitated, crucified, starved, and torn apart, so much so, that Eusebius wrote, “the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken.” While many nobly suffered martyrdom, others could not bear up under the threats and renounced the faith, sacrificed to pagan gods, and encouraged others to do the same.
Persecution has often served to purge and purify the church of Jesus Christ. Our Lord taught that some would hear his word but having no root would only “endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately fall away” (Mark 4:17). It would be good for any who hold to the word of Jesus to consider this teaching seriously and searchingly—and, let me add, with a degree of fear and trembling. It would be far better to discover now that we have or are falling away then when the day of grace is no more and repentance cannot be sought.
We live in a society that is increasingly hostile to the biblical faith. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t imagine it’s going to grow any nicer. And, to be honest, I’m okay with that. Actually, more than okay. Christianity was never meant to be compatible with the world and its agenda. Many may be deluded into thinking otherwise, but our Lord’s words remain true, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mark 10:22), and in his service we’ve been promised persecution, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Have we forgotten this? Are we compromised? I suspect many of us have. If your Christianity isn’t earning you the hatred of the world, it’s not Christianity.
But here’s why I’m optimistic. Persecution has always proved fruitful to the church. It’s true we don’t live under the threat of the sword. At least not in the sense that we fear for our lives because we bear the name “Christian.” But persecution comes in different forms not the least of which is spiritual persecution, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). And I suspect that the church in America is feeling and will feel this spiritual persecution reverberate throughout our members. We hear it in the constant cries of this world, “Conform!” We taste its poison as the lying serpent again says, “Did God really say?” We smell it in the rotting corruption of the idolatry that consumes our culture. We see it when truth spoken in love is translated as hatred towards neighbor. We feel it as our numbers shrink and dwindle. This is a hard saying, and I imagine many disciples will turn back and no longer walk with Jesus (see John 6:66). But for all the raging and roaring the world can do, they’re actually serving the ends of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. I’m optimistic because I’m persuaded that spiritual persecution will be the seedbed where biblical Christianity will truly flourish.
And you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Why? Because I don’t want to be a “pretend” Christian. I don’t want my family to be a “pretend” Christian family. I don’t want my church to be a “pretend” Christian church. And I want to tremble at that possibility more than I fear the hatred of the world. If spiritual persecution is the means of separating the wheat from the tares, and if the flames become the means of purification, then rejoice that you’ve been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.