Mercy and Enemies
The reality of persecution raises important questions. How should disciples react, especially when persecuted by the State? Is resorting to expressions of anger or acts of civil disobedience appropriate? Or should they instead emulate Jesus of Nazareth? In his teachings, he warns that all men who decide to follow him will experience “tribulation,” and he summons his disciple to follow the same path that he did (“If they persecuted me, so they will persecute you”).
The disciple must conform his life to Christ’s example by “taking up the cross.” The disciple who refuses to follow his Lord is “not worthy of me” - (Matthew 16:24).
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It is a “blessing” and not a curse to suffer for him, although this is counterintuitive and contrary to the “wisdom of this world.” Unlike the expectations of this sinful world, his disciple is called to “rejoice and be glad” when persecuted since “great is his reward in heaven.” Did not Jesus pronounce the merciful “blessed,” and declare that those who are “merciful will obtain mercy”?
To follow the Lamb produces opposition, and his followers should not be surprised when persecution comes. But the mind that is dominated by sin and self sees suffering as a curse.
Only the eye of faith perceives that it produces everlasting rewards in the “age to come.” Moreover, his teachings about suffering and persecution are echoed in the writings of the Apostles.
The Assembly in Thessalonica received the Gospel in “much tribulation,” nevertheless, its members welcomed Paul’s message despite hostility and other repercussions. In this way, they became “imitators” of him.
Instead of anger or dismay, they accepted a way of discipleship characterized by suffering. In this way, they became “examples” for the other congregations in the region - (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).
By enduring persecution, the Thessalonians became “imitators” of the earlier saints “in Judea…who suffered the same things by their own fellow countrymen” - (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
After being compelled to leave Thessalonica, Paul sent Timothy to assess the situation. He wanted no one to “shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this… We are destined to suffer tribulation.” According to the Apostle, persecution results from following Jesus.
Years later, he expressed similar sentiments to Timothy, including “what manner of persecutions” he had endured. He pointed to his sufferings as a pattern for disciples to imitate, for “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” - (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
THE BIBLICAL hope is forward-looking. Final rewards are received in the “age to come.” Suffering in the present is not pleasant, but it “is a slight momentary affliction preparing us for an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” - (2 Corinthians 4:17, Revelation 22:12).
Suffering “unjustly” is a sign of divine approval, evidence that one is a true follower of Jesus. “When you do right and suffer for it patiently, you have God's approval.” To endure rejection is what it means to follow the Lord who “also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow” - (1 Peter 2:19-20).
We are not to “be frightened in anything by our opponents.” Hostility to the faith is “clear evidence” of their destruction but also of “our salvation.” God has graced us to suffer for His kingdom - (Philippians 1:28-29).
THE DISCIPLE’S RESPONSE
Being human and “flesh,” we instinctively respond in kind to personal and corporate attacks. Society sees self-defense and retaliation as necessary and even morally justified reactions to threats and assaults.
Nevertheless, Jesus prohibited his disciples from engaging in retaliation, and he provided no exceptions to the rule, period. Revenge may be the “way the world works,” but his disciple is called to something quite different.
When we are persecuted, we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” It is by showing mercy to our enemy that we emulate God and become “perfect” like Him - (Matthew 5:44-48).
Likewise, Paul exhorted disciples to “bless them that persecute, bless and do not curse.” They are to “render no one evil for evil.” God’s justice is not blind, but the disciple must “not avenge” himself. Instead, he must leave justice in the hands of the God who will “repay” if, how, and when He sees fit - (Romans 12:14-21).
The Apostle Peter also teaches believers to “endure patiently” unjust suffering. Doing so demonstrates our “approval by God,” which, logically, means our unwillingness to endure persecution and our determination to avenge ourselves shows His disapproval.
Peter pointed to Jesus and his death as the ultimate example of how believers must respond to hostility, for to “this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example” - (1 Peter 2:19-23).
Our desire to respond to evil with evil stems from our tendency to view persecutors and accusers as “enemies”. But we must recall what we once were. No one is born a disciple. Every believer is a convert. Previously, we were “enemies” of God, and we were only reconciled to Him “by the death of his Son.” He died for us “while we were yet sinners” - (Romans 5:6-10).
Our true “enemies” are not “blood and flesh, but the principalities, the authorities, the world-holders of this darkness.” Human agents unwittingly carry out acts of aggression on behalf of their demonic overlords.
However, on the Cross, Jesus did not overthrow the political enemies of Israel, but instead triumphed over “the principalities and powers.”
In him, God is reconciling fallen men to Himself and has bequeathed the ministry of reconciliation to the Assembly. since we have received mercy, who better to show mercy to our persecutors?
When persecution does come, as HIS disciples, we must not respond with belligerence, civil disobedience, and especially, not with violence. One cannot “overcome evil with evil.” When we react to hostility with rage and violence, Satan triumphs, and we demonstrate just whose disciple we truly are.