In countries like Afghanistan, North Korea and Nigeria, following Christ can mean public mockery, familial disownment, severe beatings or punishments and in the most extreme cases—death. Each year, as the data is tallied, the simple conclusion is that there are more and more cases of persecution being reported—not less. Just this past year, according to Vatican News, 360 million Christians experienced some level of persecution. Which leaves many of us with the question: Will persecution ever end?
Jesus was no stranger to persecution. He faced more than one attempt to take His life, in addition to having an entire Jewish ruling class rallying to squelch His voice. But knowing persecution, and knowing more would come, how did He instruct His followers? What did He tell them about how to take on their toughest challenges?
When speaking to His disciples on the end times, Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matthew 24:7-9). Jesus didn’t mince words. He was very clear and direct: “You will be persecuted.”
On another occasion, Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus was again straight and to the point: Living a life for Him comes with a cost.
For Negash*, he experienced that cost firsthand. He grew up Muslim, but had a life-changing interaction when he experienced Jesus in a vision. He found local Christians who prayed for him and invited him to church. His life was miraculously transformed. But it didn’t take long for Negash to be under the thumb of persecution. Radicals burned his church down with him inside, he was later beaten with glass bottles and he even had his teeth knocked out with stones.
As shocking, brutal and real as persecution is, especially in Negash’s case, Scripture tells we shouldn’t be surprised by it, nor should we expect it to end. And while that may sound “doomsday” or “fatalistic,” we know God uses persecution for our good and His glory. Negash believes that truth, too. He said, “If God gave us a vision and we go, He will provide everything.” We see throughout the centuries, God has used persecution to grow His Church and Kingdom.
Like Joseph said to his brothers in the Old Testament, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Ironically, it’s through persecution where the Church grows fastest and strongest.
For example, let’s look at China. Today, persecution is rampant—in certain regions of the country, the church is constantly monitored, as well as strictly regulated. However, the Chinese church is the largest in the world with millions upon millions of members, maybe all the way up to 100 million! In more than 60-plus countries, persecution cultivates the soil of rich Christianity.
Not only is persecution building the Church across the world, but it’s also rallying persecuted believers, often converts from another religion, like Negash, to explore their faith and live it more fully. We see it in our own lives. It’s the tough stuff of life—the pain and heartache—where we most often see God move and experience His power. So many of our brothers and sisters only have God to turn to, and as a result, their relationship with Him is deep, something few of us have ever touched. Their faith continues to grow as God reveals Himself through their darkest persecution: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).