Jesus, the Prince of Peace, said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:8). Peter and John were jailed and beaten for healing a paralyzed man (Acts 4:9–21, 5:40–42). Paul was stoned and left for dead. He later remarked that those “who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Why? Christians are rarely in power, and have little influence or riches to confiscate. Christians are a net positive to society wherever they are found, for they work hard to support their families (1 Thess. 4:12), pay their taxes (Rom. 13:7), and do not cause societal unrest (Rom. 12:18). They do not lie, cheat, or steal (Eph. 4:25, 28) and they keep their promises and pay their debts (Matt. 5:37). They are excellent neighbors, for they behave uprightly (1 Pet. 2:12), do not rant and rave (Eph. 4:31), keep their property clean (Rom. 12:17), and forgive easily (Matt. 6:14–15). They are helpful, to a fault (Matt. 5:38–42).
In fact, in the early days of Rome’s conflict with Christianity, the local official Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking how to proceed with a trial of Christians. But he wasn’t sure how to classify their “crimes.” Pliny said,
The sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.
And yet, Pliny tortured and executed many. Why? Pliny should have said, “these are great people to have within the borders of Rome; we should tolerate them, or even adopt their ways!”
It comes down to this: the gospel upsets people.
Jesus, for example, challenged the Pharisees’ conception of the Messiah. Jesus, facing the Jewish mob holding stones, said, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” (John 10:32). They replied, “for blasphemy.”
The gospel is incompatible with other religions. It claims to reveal the truth, and thereby labels all other religions as false. It is not content to say, “you worship your gods, and I’ll worship mine.” It was when Peter and John said that Jesus was the only name given for salvation that the Jews got mad (Acts 4:12). So, too, for Stephen (Acts 7:54).
So what if someone says my god is false? Sticks and stones! Live and let live! But it’s really only Christians who have a non-violence clause in their faith. Others are ready to defend their religion at the point of a spear. Pliny murdered Christians because they refused to burn incense to the Roman pantheon and worship the image of Caesar.
But even more, the gospel challenges people’s way of life. When Christians speak up, people of the world get offended. Ephesians 5:11 says, “do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” Now, God means for this to be a process of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) because we want to share salvation. But the suggestion that one must change to be saved can be offensive. That’s why Herod and Herodias lopped off the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:18-19). Jesus said in John 7:7, “The world … hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.”
The gospel requires people to make a change. But, consider that other groups try to make people change, yet do not receive the horrible backlash. Vegans, for example, do their own version of vocal evangelism, but no one is crucifying vegans! What is different? Because everyone suspects that the gospel’s demand to repent is correct! Few people pay attention to vegans; but people can’t ignore Christians, because everyone holds a deep seated concern that their own sin is storing up the wrath of a holy God, and they do not like to be reminded! Thus, the gospel message cuts to the heart in a way that other systems do not, and stirs hearts to violence against it. For it is not just the voice of Christians, but “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men … because that which is known about God is evident within them” (Rom. 1:18). Heaven itself shouts forth that adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lying, stealing, and dominating are wrong. And when one has a guilty conscience, it’s easier to strike out, than to repent.
In fact, a Christian hardly even needs to speak up to become the target of efforts to eliminate his irritating existence. You don’t have to say, “y’all shouldn’t go to that office drinking party”; all you have to do is decline to go, and your superiors will become greatly annoyed. You don’t have to say, “y’all should be in church on Sunday morning”; all you have to do is be seen driving toward church in your Sunday clothes, and people who are loading up the golf bags will mutter under their breath, “who do those people think they are…” The very existence of a faithful Christian is a thorn in the eye of the worldly man. When he gets the power to act, he might.
We Christians must accept that this is our lot in the world. If we are to serve our Master Jesus, we will suffer ridicule. As it increases in intensity—as I believe it will do—we must learn to embrace it. Peter and John refused to quit speaking, and in fact, “went on their way … rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Keep holding forth the light, for there will always be a few who respond and be saved! —John Guzzetta