Friday, March 4, 2011

Centuries of Persecution

and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:18b NAS)

PersecutionIt began many centuries ago when a crowd gathered together on Pentecost that the first Christian church came into existence (Acts 2). Many agree that this gathering recorded in the Book of Acts is the first literal church mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 2:1, 42-47). The word 'church' however was first mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel, where He said upon this rock He will build His church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it (Matthew 16:18). In classical Greek, the word 'ekklesia' was used in place of the English translated word 'church’ which means a gathering, a congregation or a group of people assembled together for a particular cause or purpose.

When asked the question as to which book in the Bible mentions the first church, a forum participant at replied, "I would say off the top of my head, ACTS. Let’s say it up front ... the main purpose of the Bible is to show how God worked over the centuries through the Old Testament era and into the New Testament age to bring the church into existence." In a sense, this statement by the forum participant summarizes the centuries that had taken place through the years of the Old and New Testament. The story of Jesus and His church however did not end at the closure of the New Testament. It continued from the first century to today, and will continue into the future, as long as we are still in the Church Age before the return of Christ.

It was in the first century when persecution broke out under the reign of Claudius Caesar (AD 41 to 54) that Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 6:8-9). After Nero took over the reign as Emperor from AD 54 to 68 (Acts 25:11-12; 26:32; Philippians 4:22), a greater persecution continued. The apostle Peter was crucified upside down on a cross around AD 64 and the apostle Paul was executed around AD 68. For centuries after that, many more Christians suffered martyrdom under the rule of various Roman emperors. Today, many Christians in different parts of the world are still facing persecutions, especially in places where the gospel of Christ is prohibited.

On March 3, 2011, The New York Times reported the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistan government was shot dead for campaigning to reform the blasphemy law that mandates the death penalty for insulting a particular religion1. On February 8, 2011, Christian Today reported three churches at Temanggung, Central Java in Indonesia, were attacked by a mob of extremists after a court judge sentenced a Christian man to five years in prison for blaspheming against another religion2. On February 4, 2011, Christian Today reported the death of two Christians from separate prisons in Eritrea, northeast of Africa, after being refused medical treatment amid a renewed crackdown by the authorities against unregistered churches3. More than 100 evangelical believers were detained following the new wave of raids which started on New Year's Eve. One of the two martyrs was a 27-year-old woman who was arrested after being caught reading a Bible in her bedroom.

All through the centuries—since the birth of the first church—numerous believers have suffered and endured persecutions. Even in countries where different faiths are tolerated and religious freedom are encouraged or enforced by law, restrictions are often still imposed on what can and cannot be said or done. Failing to abide by the rules of speech and certain actions can lead to imprisonment or even death. Of these who have suffered persecutions and endured to the end, the Bible says they will be saved and blessed (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; James 5:11).

Let us who have freedom therefore not take for granted what we have lightly. Instead, let us remember those who are being mistreated and identify with them as if we ourselves are suffering (Hebrews 13:3). Let us pray earnestly for the Lord to protect those who are being persecuted and keep them standing firm, knowing that their toil is not futile (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Dear Lord, our hearts hurt to know some of our fellow brothers and sisters are suffering much for Your name’s sake. We pray O God that You will overflow them with Your love, comfort and strengthen them by Your Holy Spirit, that they may stay steadfast and immovable amid persecutions. For the rest of us who are free from persecutions, Lord, we earnestly pray for those who are suffering. Grant them Your perfect peace and protect them as they endure tribulation with the assurance that nothing they do for You is ever in vain.

1 Perlez, Jane, "Extremists are Suspected in Killing of Pakistani Minister" in The New York Times. Published March 2, 2011.
2 Rachel Ford, "Churches burned over Indonesia's blasphemy case" in Christian Today. Published February 8, 2011.
3 ASSIST News Service, "Two die in prison and over 100 detained in church raids in Eritrea" in Christian Today. Published February 4, 2011.

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