Becoming a Christian does not mean that we should expect life to be a rose garden, or at least not one without its fair share of thorns. Much of what we see in the book of Acts clearly shows us that from the earliest days of church history, faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ has very often come at a steep price – persecution, even martyrdom.
The Apostle Peter himself (who was imprisoned for the sake of the gospel more than once in the book of Acts and was eventually martyred) writes,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
So persecution should not come as a shock to us. But it often does.
In Acts chapter four we come to the first instance of persecution in the history of the early church. And it is the first instance of many. And, of all things, it was occasioned by the miraculous healing of a man who had been born with crippled legs (Acts 3:1-26). The first thing that we see in chapter 4 is that not everyone was happy about the healing of the crippled man and the preaching and teaching that came along with it. Acts 4:1-3 says,
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.
So the religious leaders at the temple finally had enough! Verse 3 literally says that they “laid hands upon them.” Why did the “priests, captain of the temple and the Sadducees” forcibly arrest them and throw them into prison?
First, (as v.2 tells us), they were “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people.” It doesn’t just say that they were annoyed at the content (i.e. preaching the resurrection), but that they were teaching the people, period (!). And where were the Apostles doing all of this teaching and preaching? The temple! As far as the priests and Sadducees saw it, the apostles were nothing but “uneducated, common men” (v.13) who were intruding upon their territory.
But Peter’s lack of formal theological training and education were not the real reasons for the opposition from the priests and Sadducees. Later, when the Apostle Paul came along (from the ranks of the Pharisees, no less!), he would suffer similar persecution despite his learning and expertise in the Old Testament. So some persecution will invariably come from those who see their own religious authority or influence threatened. In our own day it may even come from within the church.
Not only were they teaching the people and drawing crowds away from the Jewish religious leaders in the temple, but they were also “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (4:2). And that is the second reason that they were arrested. Their teachings were primarily about this very same Jesus that had been crucified about two months earlier!
No wonder it drove the Sadducees crazy! The Sadducees in particular did not believe in the resurrection. They were, in a sense, the theological liberals of their day – they were the anti-supernatural, rationalist teachers of the Jewish religion. They were on one end of the Jewish theological spectrum, while the Pharisees were on the other side of the spectrum (the religious conservatives, so to speak). But even though the Pharisees were much more conservative and believed in the resurrection, they too opposed Jesus Christ time and time again. That should be a lesson for us as well – it isn’t just the so-called liberals who reject Jesus Christ in unbelief, but also religious conservatives as well. Self-righteousness comes in all shapes and sizes.
The third reason for this persecution becomes apparent in a subtle way in v.13. It says, “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.” What is Luke saying? He is saying that in the Apostles they saw a resemblance of Jesus Christ. His influence upon them and likeness in them was obvious. They hated Jesus Christ enough to kill him by crucifying Him, as Peter reminds them in v.10. So when they see the likeness of Jesus in His followers, it brings out that same irrational hatred all over again!
And this should not be a surprise, should it? Jesus told His disciples that they should expect nothing less. In John 15:18-21 Jesus said,
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
On account of His name. There is the rub, isn’t it? What did the priests and Sadducees ask of Peter and John? They asked (in v.7) “by what power or by what name” they had healed the crippled man. Remember what Peter said to his accusers? In v.10 he says, “ . . .let it be known to all of you and to all of the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by him this man is standing before you well.” (Sounds like the man who was healed may have actually been thrown in jail with them!)
So the victorious Christian life is not one that is devoid of suffering or persecution, but one of faithful, patient enduring of it for the name of Jesus Christ. That is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? It doesn’t sounds like victory at all, but it is.
The book of Revelation in many ways, is primarily about the persecution of the church and her ultimate victory. In his classic commentary on Revelation, More Than Conquerors, William Hendriksen writes,
In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil. It is full of help and comfort for persecuted and suffering Christians. . . .The theme is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem. (p.7-8)
Many of us freely admit that we often find the book of Revelation difficult to understand. But our problem with understanding this magnificent book of the Bible may have less to do with a lack of academic instruction or skill in interpretation, and more to do with the fact that we, by and large, do not really suffer that much for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The church that willingly endures suffering for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ has little difficulty understanding (and drawing comfort from) the book of Revelation! The book of Revelation assures us of our future, ultimate, and lasting victory. It assures us of the victorious Christian life, just maybe not the kind that we are used to hearing about.