Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13


As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.

The Bible in a Year – 31 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 30 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

30 December. Revelation chapters 12-18

I suggested yesterday that in reading Revelation we should focus on the references to humanity rather than to the symbolic or mystical beasts.  In these chapters the references to humanity include several specifically to the followers of Christ.  There are many references to those who have died as martyrs and are shown among the angels worshipping God.  But there are also references to those still on earth in the times of persecution during which the book is set.

In 12:17, “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast to their testimony about Jesus” are opposed by the dragon that had previously opposed the “woman crowned with twelve stars” who probably represents Judaism.  In 13:7 another beast is given power to conquer God’s holy people. In 17:6 the “prostitute called Babylon” (whose seven heads represent seven hills, and therefore is traditionally identified with the city of Rome) symbolically gets drunk on the blood of those who were killed for their testimony about Jesus.  Clearly the Church is faced with persecution, not only from Rome but from the other and less easily identified foes.  And that persecution continues today – just this week there has been another attack on a Christian church in Egypt where Christians are a minority, and it continues unwitnessed in many places around the world.  The same is true, of course, of followers of other religions, as with the Rohingya Muslims now being driven out of Burma.

What the book of Revelation portrays is a world in which, due to the normally unseen forces of evil behind visible events, those who believe in God and try to live his way will always be at risk of attack from those forces of evil for which God, Jesus and those who belong to them will always be seen as enemies.

But it also portrays a world in which, sooner or later, those who do not believe in God or do not try and live his way will eventually find both God and the forces of evil turning on them, and they will suffer even more.  The lucky ones in all this are those who know God and are rescued by him from the worst of the suffering and taken to heaven.  Everyone else is shown suffering unbelievable torment, not in hell but on earth.

The Bible in a Year – 11 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

11 December. 1 Peter chapters 1-5

The theme of this letter to several local churches is suffering.  The suffering of Christ, the suffering of the Body of Christ (the Church) and the sufferings of individuals for whatever reason.  We are not talking here about medical conditions but about punishment, deserved or undeserved: slander, discrimination, persecution, imprisonment or even murder.

Peter (if we assume the letter to have been written by him, which is contested) had seen first John the Baptist and then Jesus suffer all these things.  He had also witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.   So it is no surprise that these themes all appear in the letter, some of them several times.

Peter emphasises the distinction between just and unjust suffering. He has no praise for those who choose the path of civil disobedience, for we must “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong” (2:13-14), and there is no merit in suffering as a criminal (2:20) – which presumes that the law of the land is necessarily morally good. That is a whole different discussion!

The focus, then, is on suffering for doing good.  Why? Because that is how Jesus Christ achieved salvation for the rest of us. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2:20-21). Or again, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (3:17-18).  And again, “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:13-14). The fact that Peter says the same sort of thing three or more times in the same letter shows how important this was to him.

Persecution has never disappeared from the worldwide Church, though the location and nature of it have changed over the centuries.  In our own day, there is state persecution in Communist or post-Communist countries such as China and Russia where only the “official” state church is tolerated, persecution by terrorists in places such as Egypt and Syria (where minority forms of Islam are equally targeted), and persecution in the form of discrimination in secular states where any form of religion is viewed with suspicion, and believers may find it impossible to get paid work, or schooling for their children.

In this season of Advent, we are reminded that one of the reasons we look forward to the “last days” when Christ will come again is that he will honour those who have suffered for his sake, and bring a final justice that will vindicate them (5:10).

I will conclude with a verse from the service of Compline in traditional language, derived from the end of this letter, and which also reminds of the discipline of Advent: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in faith” (5:8-9).

The Bible in a Year – 1 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

1 December. Acts chapters 7-8

Carrying over from yesterday’s reading to today’s is the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr.  Given that is my first name, I feel an association with him, though of course I hope I will not suffer the same fate.

It is well known that Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy as he claimed to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven.  What is less well known is the speech he gave in his defence to the first, trumped-up charge of “saying that Jesus will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” (6:14).   That was the key word – “change”. Religious people don’t like change, they much prefer to stick with the customs they know, whether those customs were started by Moses a thousand years earlier or by the last-but-one vicar twenty years ago.

So Stephen, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who had empowered this church administrator to perform miracles of healing (6:8), gave a long and detailed account of the life of Moses, to demonstrate that Moses himself was open to change in very radical ways.  Here was a man adopted as an infant by a princess and forced to serve the oppressors of his people (presumably a reference to the Romans is implied here), then at the age of forty forced to flee the country and become a nomad for having made a mess of trying to bring about justice, then forty years later at the age of eighty  having a vision of God that drove him back to Egypt to confront the political powers, and finally spending the last forty years of his long life leading millions of refugees out of Egypt to the brink of the promised land.  Moses would have been the first to say that listening to God’s call and obeying it, however much that may disrupt your routine, is far more important than sticking with the routine for its own sake.   “It’s about time you changed, because that’s what God is telling you” was the theme of his sermon.  They did not like it one bit.  And thus ended the ministry of this promising church leader, but like Jesus calling out for forgiveness for his persecutors as he died.

If Stephen is my inspiration, that means that I too have to be willing to change.  Twice I have changed careers, and moved several times, in response to God’s call.  But I am still in middle age and he may call me to change again.  Those who get too attached to a particular way of doing things are likely to be left behind when God moves on with his followers, and I don’t want to miss the boat.

The Bible in a Year – 10 November

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10 November. Mark chapters 12-13

Mark chapter 13 is one of the strangest in the Gospels, or at least the hardest to interpret.  It concerns prophecies about the future that Jesus made a few days before his death.  In commenting on Matthew’s version of this  I explained that the prime meaning seems to be aimed at the  early Church which certainly suffered persecution and wars in its first few centuries, but that Christians have always understood a second meaning of an eventual “end of time” or “second coming” when we, the followers of Christ, will be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. Once again, this is too big a subject to explore in depth here but I will offer a thought.

Jesus was, of course addressing Jews, and his intention seems to have been primarily renew their faith for the future by replacing the sacrificial system of the Temple with his own sacrifice for redemption and reconciliation.  That is why he told a scribe who agreed that loving God and neighbour was more important than burnt-offerings and sacrifices that he was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (12:34).  Without denying that Jesus’ death and resurrection were effective also for Gentiles, that seems to be secondary in his teaching.  Therefore we should think of the Jews first in interpreting these prophecies.

So when Jesus speaks of a time of persecution and hardship such as there has never been or will be again, to be followed by a “gathering of the elect” (13:14-26), it is not surprising that some people see the events of the mid-20th century when the persecution of Jews under Stalin and Hitler was followed by the re-creation of the state of Israel with millions making Aliyah (a pilgrimage of return to the holy land).  That is quite different from the traditional Protestant Christian understanding of a bodily return of Jesus to separate believers from non-believers. That’s not to say they might not both be true and valid interpretations of the prophecy, as well as the immediate one for the people of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time and for his followers in the next few generations.  History has a habit of repeating itself, and the mystery of God and his saving acts reappears in many forms.

At the end of this passage Jesus gives a clear warning that we must not lose sight of: whichever interpretation we might put on this, we may well be wrong, and be caught out suddenly when either persecution or salvation comes suddenly.  “Keep awake” is the message of Jesus, and the theme of Advent, which is fast approaching.


The Bible in a Year – 2 November

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2 November. Matthew chapters 23-24

Much of the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom has, until this point, been positive: stories and examples of how living his way, loving one’s neighbour and being generous, will bring peace and joy.  But now it suddenly takes a much darker tone.

Following the conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees in chapter 21 (yesterday’s reading) Jesus knows that his time is short and they are set against him.  So he drops all restraint and, in chapter 23, lets loose a series of devastating public criticisms, labelling them hypocrites, fools, blind guides and “whitewashed tombs” (clean looking on the outside but with untouchable death within). Their teaching was supposed to draw people into the covenant relationship with God, but instead only drew them into their own brand of legalism.

Following that confrontation, Jesus leaves the Temple – surely in a mood of anger, not peace – and starts telling his disciples just how bad the early years of the Church would be for them.  Not only would there be ongoing persecution right from the start, but wars, revolutions, famines and earthquakes – all the events that make societies unstable and life uncertain.  Before long these would usher in the “last day”. Jesus describes this in apocalyptic terms of darkness, fear, fleeing quickly with few possessions, when “the desolating sacrilege stands in the holy place” (24:15).  This latter reference is usually taken to refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD70, a generation after the Resurrection of Jesus, when the Jewish people would be forced out of the Promised Land for a second time, for what would turn out to be nearly two thousand years.  Christians, though, have always had a parallel understanding of an eventual “second coming”, or “rapture”, when the followers of Christ would be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. This is too big a subject to explore in depth here.

The one glimmer of light in all this is that during this time of persecution and war, “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations” (24:14).  So the purpose of the church is not to being about peace on earth, which we will never have more than fleetingly among what is generally a violent society and a dangerous world, but to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven as the good news that there is an alternative to earthly suffering and certain death, and Jesus is the key to it.  No wonder the refrain of Advent is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

The Bible in a Year – 30 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30 August. Daniel chapters 5-6

We see in these two chapters several patterns repeated elsewhere in the Bible, from both before and after the time of Daniel.

Firstly, in the relations between Daniel and the various kings he serves during his time in Babylon, we see a pattern like that of the judges and kings of earlier centuries, and the way that various prophets engaged with them.  ‘Good’ kings or judges (those who honour God and his laws) tended to alternate with ‘bad’ ones who went their own way and committed idolatry. So it is with these kings.  Yesterday we read of Nebuchadnezzar, a despot who paid God no attention until he was rewarded with madness for seven years until he came to his senses and worshipped the true God.  But his son Belshazzar takes no heed of this, and desecrates the holy vessels from the Jerusalem temple by using them in a debauched banquet to toast false gods.  So the writing appears on the wall, God’s own hand apparently writing his own judgement and condemnation.  Although Daniel interprets it for him, it is too late, and he is killed that night, Daniel having been give once again a high office in the land.

Belshazzar’s successor Darius (probably not of the same family) starts off as a good king who  includes Daniel the Jew in his government, until Daniel’s rivals plot against him in exactly the same way as they did in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel is literally thrown to the lions.  Once again, he miraculously survives, giving credit to God, the king repents, converts (apparently), pardons Daniel (conveniently setting aside the doctrine of his own infallibility) and it is the plotters and their innocent wives and children who become lion fodder.

These stories – of the writing on the wall, and the lions’ den – are among the best known in the Bible, and not only by regular worshippers. Add the many similar stories in the Bible and it should be abundantly clear that taunting God by desecrating places where he is worshipped, banning worship of him, or persecuting his followers, will always lead to trouble. But it seems that rulers of nations never learn this lesson. The quiet-living, law-abiding, God-fearing citizen (be they Jew, Muslim, Christian or any other religion) is always an easy target when political expediency demands a scapegoat.

Another pattern, perhaps not so obvious, is seen in the story of the lions’ den.  Note this: Daniel is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler tries to get out of what the law demands , knowing that he is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails and he is reluctantly condemned to death; he is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king comes fearing the worst, but hears Daniel alive, and is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith.  This story was written probably at least a couple of hundred years before Jesus, yet we see much the same pattern at the end of his earthly life.  His enemies persuade a reluctant Pilate to condemn Jesus on what he knows are trumped-up charges, Jesus (after his death in this case) is laid in a tomb with a sealed stone, at dawn his disciples come and some see him alive, and all (eventually) come to believe in the resurrection.

Again this is a basic principle of the way God works with people – the more those who believe are falsely persecuted, the more will their persecutors be confounded. For the law of God, as Nebuchadnezzar and Darius eventually came to acknowledge, is greater than the laws of man.

The Bible in a Year – 23 April

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23 April. 2 Kings chapters 9-11

Several years earlier, God had told Elijah (1 Kings 19:15-17) that he was to anoint Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel – two countries that were at war on-and-off throughout this period of history – and that between them these two kings and Elijah’s successor Elisha would kill all the worshippers of the false god Baal.  Now this prophecy comes true, although Elijah had been taken up to heaven and it is Elisha who anoints the two kings.  He sets Jehu – an army commander – against the previous king Joram, and Jehu is a ruthless man who starts by having all seventy of Ahab’s sons killed, along with Jezebel his widow, and king Ahaziah of Israel. He then proceeds to destroy the temples of Baal in the two main Israelite cities of Jereel and Samaria along with those who worship there. The job of killing all Ahaziah’s family is carried out by his mother who intends to reign as queen in her own right, although one baby is rescued by his aunt and seven years later proclaimed king by his own supporters. Hazael meanwhile “does his bit” by wiping out the Israelites living east of the Jordan.


In all this we are told that God’s will is being done because the false Baal worship is being wiped out from the land.  It is uncomfortable reading when we think of a God of peace and mercy who commands “you shall not kill”. But the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the story of God choosing the descendants of Abraha and Isaac as his special nation, provided they follow his teaching and worship him alone.  He saves them from all their enemies, both external and internal, so those Israelites who follow false Gods – whether commoner or king – are subject to God’s judgement.  How do we explain that?


The last verse of the prophecy to Elijah tells us that just seven thousand true worshippers of God would remain in the land in Elisha’s time. God’s chosen people were coming close to being wiped out. If this purge had not happened, the true faith, so vulnerable at times, may not have survived to this day, either in the form of Judaism as we know it today, or Christianity whose founder was descended from the house of David. Fortunately they are both peaceful religions for the most part, but both still face challenges to survival in a largely hostile world. Jews still face unfounded discrimination, and Christians in many parts of the world including England worry about the younger generation which seems to have no interest in organised religion.


The ‘false god’ of our time is not the Phoenician deity Baal, but (as the Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded us) ‘mammon’, that is the lure of wealth and material comfort which can be just as damaging to true religion.  “Dethroning mammon” requires not Jehu’s armies of chariots and swordsmen, but prayer and teaching, and the example of lives devoted to God.  Many times God’s people have been close to extinction but many times God has stepped in when all seemed lost, and saved them in some unexpected way. We need to have faith in this Easter season that he will do so again.