16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
Although Christianity is known by its message of love, in reality Christianity's reception in the early days after Jesus' death and resurrection was marked by love's opposites: hatred, suspicion, violence, torture, and death. Jesus knew about this reception, he knew the terrible outcomes, but he also knew that his church would overcome these waves of persecution.
Why the rejection and persecution in the first place? Many sensible reasons can be given: new religious movement seen as societal disruption, misunderstanding, religious threat (viewed as a Jewish heterodoxy), subversive ideology, counter-cultural, and so forth. But the central, core reason is given by Jesus himself -- early followers will be hated because of his name. "Jesus" -- the one the Jewish authorities put to death on the cross -- is now presented as living again! This false prophet and would-be messiah is said to have been "resurrected," appearing to countless people. These rumors have to stop! This wayward movement must be opposed with might and the threat of death.
And for Roman authorities, this Jesus is said to be "Lord." There is only one Lord and that is Caesar, the Romans believed. This usurper and the people who believe in this "Lord" must be put down, once and for all! This was the Roman sentiment which became state policy.
We might not fully appreciate the controversial nature of the name of Jesus, especially in North America given our Christian heritage. But in places like Syria, Iraq, India, Nigeria, and North Korea today, to profess allegiance to this Jesus is a subversive and dangerous act. It is as though the early days of the church are relived all over again. Persecution of Christians is far too common in many places around the globe. One's life is jeopardized just because of his name. For our brothers and sisters in the Lord around the world who face such threat and danger, the least we can do is pray for them.
Let's pray: Father God, we pray our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world who daily face threat and harm. We pray for their strength in you. We pray for their safety. We pray that in places where harm cannot be avoided, that you would embolden them with a sturdy faith and inspiring hope. We ask that, as you did with Stephen in the Bible, you would give them a glimpse of heaven with joy so that their suffering would be seen from your perspective, from the perspective of your reward. Bless our brothers and sisters in the Lord this day. In Jesus' name, amen.