Persecution is One of the Lord’s Precious Promises

The Sanjian Church in Wenzhou in China’s east coast province of Zhejiang is demolished on April 29, 2014, just before the completion of its construction. The left photo shows the start of demolition on April 28, and the right photo the debris left the following day. (Kyodo via AP Images.)

We have been reading and seeing the persecution of the Lord’s Christians throughout the world: in Nigeria, in China, in Iraq, in Syria, in Egypt (nb:  4 of the 5 linked articles are dated within the last seven days of the posting of this article).  Sanctuaries burned or leveled.  Christians fleeing Islamic countries and in some of those countries the Church has been a continual presence longer than Islam.  Christians arrested and tortured.  It is sadly commonplace to say that there were more martyrs in the 20th Century than the previous 19 centuries combined.  I can not verify that as fact but given Turkey’s genocide of the Armenian Christians, Stalin’s Gulags in Soviet Russia, the Communists in Vietnam, China and in southeast Asia, the Nazi concentration camps, the Cold War Communist domination and oppression  of Eastern Europe,  there seems to be a ring of truth in that saying.  The 21st century is well on its way.

I ask two questions:

1. What is the Lutheran Confessional, that is, the Biblical understanding of persecution?

2. What should be the response of the confessional Lutheran Church and the Synod in the United States to the persecution we see all too closely these days?

First Question:   We confess that all Scripture is Law or Promise. As unmistakable and clear is the persecution of the Church in these gray and latter days, it is equally clear in Scripture that persecution is one of the Lord’s promises.  St. Matthew recorded five of the Lord’s Sermons. One entire sermon, the entire 10th chapter, is His sermon to the newly called twelve disciples.   The sermon is mostly the promise of persecution.  Persecution is the proclamation of the Gospel, of  Jesus Christ, the very work of the Holy Spirit preaching in the depths of human and demonic oppression.

Before the Sermon to the Disciples, two of the beatitudes in His first Sermon on the mountain (Matthew 5-7) are about persecution:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The last blessing is the only one of the Beatitudes in which the Lord directly addresses the disciples in the second person plural.  American Christians do not think of persecution as beatitude for us as indicated by one televangelist who hawked the Beatitudes as “the be happy attitudes”.  Persecution surely cannot be blessing, that is, promise, or Gospel!  So we would not put being reviled and persecuted into the category of one of our Lord’s “precious promises”.  I do not want to be reviled or persecuted but admired and desired.  I stumble over verse 12 in our Lord’s imperative to “rejoice and be glad”, and yet Jesus tells us we are then in “the goodly fellowship of the prophets” (the Te Deum Laudamus, Matins).  Persecution is a sure sign and mark that we are doing something  right and even more than right, salutary and life giving:  preaching and teaching the Name of Jesus for the life of the world.  We see this time and time again in Acts when Peter and Paul are arrested, in the bowels of the court and prison system and they proclaim Christ Jesus to prisoners, jailers and rulers.    

Dr. Luther, in his commentary on 1 Peter 5, “…knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world”:

“Now the temptations of the Christian are twofold, spiritual and bodily.  The spiritual set forth in the first table of the Law, are the higher and the harder;  the bodily temptations, set forth in the second table, are of a lower order and lighter.”[1]

We are seeing around the world the bloody  bodily temptations, suffering and persecution of our fellow Christians but before that occurs, is the spiritual temptation, the “higher and harder” suffering.  Peter knew that up close and personal around a fire in the night in which the Lord was betrayed.  Peter was crucified not because he was a good guy, but a faithful confessor of Jesus Christ. We have seen in our beloved nation Christian denomination after denomination fall to spiritual temptation denying the truth of Scripture and Scripture’s Lord in His exclusive 1st commandment claim on us and the surety of His blood atonement. We have seen and witnessed the utter erosion of the proper preaching of the Law, especially in marriage, remembering that John the Baptist was not martyred for being the Forerunner of Christ, but for preaching the doctrine of marriage to the ruling authorities (Matthew 14: 3-4).  We have seen and witnessed the packaging of God’s truth in order make it palpable to the world, forgetting the Apostle Paul’s admonition to his brother pastor, Timothy regarding that temptation: 

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:17)

The Lord called Paul, Timothy and all pastors to preach the Word (2 Timothy 2: 1-5), the whole Word, Law and Promise. But when the Church falls to the devil, no longer firm in faith and the doctrine of Christ, it preaches itself, its comfort, and then it is no longer the salt of the earth and is to be cast out. Salt does it thing because it is tart and bitter in order to preserve.   The Church has become Judas, in order to make itself palpable to her cultured despisers. This does not begin in government sanctioned persecution, but in our daily converse with family, friends and co-workers, and fellow Christians, thinking you are narrow minded, not open to ‘new ways’.  I think persecution abroad overwhelms so many Christians here is they have sadly sold out…or worse, do not care because there is no faith which means there is only dark human love infecting the Church.[2]

Luther’s seven marks of the Church are:

1. The Possession of the holy Word of God 2. The holy Sacrament of Baptism 3.  The holy Sacrament of the Altar  4. The Office of the Keys  5. The Public Ministry  6. Prayer, Public Praise, and Thanksgiving to God  7. The Possession of the sacred Cross

Luther knew about persecution and the threat of it.  Luther begins with the preaching and teaching of the Word, and mark after mark,  that the end result is mark #7, that is, suffering and persecution, so the blessed Reformer comments on the last mark of the Church in which he clearly shows us the Gospel response:

 “…the only reason (Christians)  must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5: 11, “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” They must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. No people on earth have to endure such bitter hate; they must be accounted worse than Jews, heathen, and Turks. In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service. No one has compassion on them; they are given myrrh and gall to drink when they thirst. And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5: 11-12, “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.” [3]

Luther is clear that this “holy possession” of suffering, light or heavy, is the work of the Holy Spirit, for the proclamation of Christ, as the Lord said:  

“And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13: 11).

Second question:  What is the confessional Lutheran Church’s response to persecution that we are daily reading about overseas? How do we help our brethren bear the cross? What can we do to help our brothers and sisters throughout the world facing persecution both spiritual and bodily?

Yes, pray for those under persecution as the Synod has rightly encouraged, and as we are encouraged to pray, not only in the Divine Service but daily in our devotions in and to the Lord as the Lord exhorts and encourages us so to do in Scripture.  Pray for the persecutors. Pray for those deriding the Faith delivered to the saints whom we may meet.  Pray for the preaching of the Word in our native land.

Yes, help our persecuted brethren materially as the Apostle encouraged, 2 Corinthians 9 and as he was encouraged, Philippians 4: 10-20.   

Yes, as we have the right to petition the government in its proper political use of the Law to help those fleeing granting asylum, as our nation did when it was still fledgling colonies for those seeking freedom for religion. 

The Apostle Peter knew full well  the first response to insult and injury on account of the Name of Christ:

 “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Peter 4)

The word “Christian” is used only three times in the New Testament and each time it is a pejorative. If we were a Christian nation we would be a persecuted nation.  Most Christians think persecution can only happen “over there”.  By any stretch, in our nation, in “…your struggle you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”. [4]  Indeed, we have not  joyfully accepted the plundering of our property (Hebrews 10: 34).  We are encouraged in Hebrews 11 of the “so great a cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12: 1)  which includes martyr saints of the Old Testament. Now, we do not seek persecution and  insulting.  Insults, reviling, and ignorance will find us and though the flesh cries out vengeance, the Scriptural response is the Gospel:   “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”(Romans 12: 14).

The other necessaryresponse to persecution abroad, and social ostracization here, we do not usually hear about but is clear from Scripture and the Confessions:  preach and teach Jesus Christ! Confess Him.  Do not deny Him. We know what will happen when we deny Him (Mark 8: 38).  But we live alone by His grace alone (2 Timothy 2: 11-13).  If our brethren in the Church in the Middle East, in many African nations, and China,  under hard circumstance, are persecuted for bearing the Name of Christ, preaching and teaching Christ, we must be heartened by their witness for our confession here and now. Preaching and teaching Christ as Lord is a great service to render for the martyrs’ proclamation unto death and eternal life.   The marks of the Church can become the Church’s stigmata, the very  wounds of Christ.  For a people bought for a price, we have too often sold out by making things comfortable for ourselves.  I still remember as a child either reading or hearing a pastor from then Soviet dominated Eastern Europe saying that the most shocking thing he saw in the U. S. churches were padded pews.  

I close with this word of encouragement that Pastor Bonhoeffer preached in 1933, “Church Election Sermon”,  when darkness was welcomed with open arms as light (cf. Matthew 6: 23  and 2 Corinthians 11: 13-15) into the heart of Europe:

 …it is not we who build (the Church).  He builds the church. No human being builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever intends to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess-he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him-that he may build…Pay no heed to views and opinions, don’t ask for judgments, don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Let the church remain the church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord, from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds”.[5]

Lord Jesus Christ, before whom all in heaven and earth shall bow, grant courage that Your children may confess Your saving name in the face of any opposition from a world hostile to the Gospel. Help them to remember Your faithful people who sacrificed much and even faced death rather than dishonor You when called upon to deny the faith. By Your Spirit, strengthen them to be faithful and to confess You boldly, knowing that You will confess Your own before the Father in heaven, with whom You and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, now and forever.

For further reflection: More of  Bonhoeffer’s Church Election Sermon; “User-friendly” Christianity by Pr. Alexey Streltsov, Siberian Lutheran Church;  “LCMS offers prayers and resources in light of increasing Christian persecution”; August Newsletter Article by Pr. Schmidt, First Lutheran Church (Plainville, KS and Peace Lutheran, Natoma,KS);  “A Christian Genocide Symbolized by One Letter” (National Review Online)


[1] Commentary on Peter and Jude by Martin Luther, page 222,  Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990

[2] From Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake…spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as brother. It originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy but in Christ and His Word.  Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new and incomprehensible to all earthly love…this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” 

[3]Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull, Fortress Press, “On the Councils and Churches”, pages 561-562

[4]Hebrews 12: 4:  “Though they had suffered ( Hebrews 10:33), they had not yet died for confessing Christ.  This may refer to persecution under Nero.” (Lutheran Study Bible, footnote, page 2125)

[5] No Rusty Swords by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pages 213-217, Harper and Row Publishers, copyright 1947, translated 1965


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