God is sovereign over persecution

What do you think of when you hear the word “persecution“? If you are like I am, you probably have a negative feeling when you read the word persecution. I know that I do. I do not want to face persecution and I am sure that you do not either. As we examine Acts 12, I want us to view persecution from God’s perspective. Once we do this, I think we will have a different opinion of the idea of persecution. I know that sounds strange. I feel strange just writing it.

As a church, we have been walking through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation over a 3 year period. It has been quite a journey! We have traced God’s perfect plan of salvation for all mankind all the way through the Scriptures. We are currently in the book of Acts. We have seen the birth of the church and we have walked with the members of the early church as the ministry has grown. Persecution was a way of life for the early church. They did not seek out persecution, they simply lived out their faith, proclaimed the Gospel, and made disciples. Persecution seemed to hound them at every turn of the way. As persecution increased, the spreading of the Gospel intensified. That is the ironic thing about persecution. It is meant to intimidate the followers of Christ to create fear so that they would stop proclaiming the Gospel. That intimidation just led to more and more opportunities to proclaim the Gospel. The persecutors attempt to throw water on the fire of the ministry and God turns that water into combustible fuel igniting the spread of the Gospel and causing it to spread even more rapidly. What can we learn from this? What are our takeaways today? Let’s discover together in Acts 12.

I. Persecution of the Faithful

As I mentioned earlier, persecution was intended to intimidate the believers to cause fear and stop the spreading of the Gospel. God was and is sovereign over the entire process. He promises to work all things (good and bad) for the good of those who love Him. Persecution falls under the category of “all things“.

1 Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them.
2 And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
3 When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. (Acts 12)

King Herod was no fan of the Gospel. He was a politician in every sense of the word. He used his power and authority to try and intimidate the followers of Jesus Christ. He had James, a faithful follower of Christ, put to death. King Herod saw that this pleased the people. As a politician, he was a people pleaser. He wanted the people on his side because that increased his power and authority. He decided to turn his attention to Peter, the leader of the apostles. King Herod placed Peter in prison and he was waiting for the opportune time to put Peter to death as he had done to James.  Why would God allow this to happen to His people? The Apostle Paul gives us some insight to why God allows persecution to happen.

3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;
4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.
5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. (II Thessalonians 1)

The Thessalonian Christians are surrounded by people who do not know God and who do not obey the Gospel. The Greeks in Thessalonica did not know the God of Israel. They were unable to obey the Gospel because of their sin nature. As the Thessalonian believers were sharing the message of the Gospel, it pricked the sin nature of the Greeks. They did not like the message but they could do nothing about that. The alternative was to attack the messengers. This is the plan of Satan. He does not like the message of the Gospel but he can do nothing about that. Instead, he harasses those who preach the message. The other group that was persecuting the believers were the Jews who rejected the Gospel of Christ. They also did not know God and as a result, the message of the Gospel pricked their sin nature and they responded so. Persecution will happen to those who believe the Gospel, obey the Gospel, and share the Gospel with others. Persecution makes us worthy of the kingdom of God. In other words, God uses persecution to refine us. The Greek word that is translated “considered” in English is “Kataxioo” and it comes from two other Greek words that shed great light into the original meaning. The first word is “kata”and it means to move forward or to move along. The second word is “Axioo” and it means to mold or make right. Considered means to move us along in our faith in order to make us right. As Romans 8 teaches us:

29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;

God uses everything to conform us to the image (character) of Jesus Christ. Persecution, something that is supposed to stop the work of the Gospel, is used by God to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. It is a refining tool in the hand of God. He uses persecution to move us along in our faith so that we can be molded into Chirstlikeness. That is why in Philippians chapter 1, Paul calls persecution, or suffering for the Gospel, a gift from God to us. It is just as much of a gift as salvation is. Have you ever been taught that persecution is a gift from the Lord, just as precious as salvation? Are you willing to believe this?

II. Persecution and Prayer

Persecution caused the early church to pray more. The fact that we do not pray enough is a confession that most of us are willing to make. The early church was no different. They needed to pray more and persecution actually caused the early believers to pray more fervently.

5 So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
6 On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison.
7 And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands.
8 And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.”
9 And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.
10 When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.
11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Acts 12)

Whatever makes us more dependent upon God is a good thing. As people, we have an independent streak in us. That was how Satan convinced Adam and Eve to disobey God. He told them that they could be like God, that they could be independent of Him and live as they pleased. This was tempting for Adam and Eve and it is just as tempting for us today. When persecution comes our way, we tend to lay our independence aside and cling to the Lord. Suffering led Job to a deeper relationship with God. Job had heard a lot about God but, while he was suffering, he experienced God in a personal way. Job was a changed man. The early church experienced God in a fresh way as they endured heavy persecution. God was working in them and through them and they were totally dependent upon Him. They prayed more. They prayed fervent prayers. In fact, they were carrying out the teaching of Jesus on the subject of prayer. In the famous “Sermon on the mount” Jesus taught on prayer. He laid out the Lord’s model prayer in Matthew 6. One of the themes mentioned by Jesus was prayers of deliverance from evil. The early church was obedient to that teaching. The Apostle John teaches us an important truth in his first epistle when he teaches on prayer.

14 This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (I John 1)

The early church prayed with confidence. They knew that the Lord heard their prayers because they were praying according to the will of God. They were ready to accept His answer whether it be YES, NO, or WAIT. Do you have confidence when you pray? Do you know that you are praying according to the will of God? Are you ready to accept God’s answer no matter if it is YES, NO, or WAIT?

III. Persecution and Faith

God answered the prayers of the early church but ironically, they are surprised.

12 And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.
13 When he knocked at the door of the gate, a servant-girl named Rhoda came to answer.
14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate.
15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, “It is his angel.”
16 But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed.
17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had led him out of the prison. And he said, “Report these things to James and the brethren.” Then he left and went to another place.
18 Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter.
19 When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and was spending time there. (Acts 12)

The disciples did not believe that God had freed Peter from prison, even though they had been praying for him. When we pray for something fervently, we should not be shocked when God answers, even though, if we are honest, we usually are a little shocked by the answered prayer. James, the brother of Jesus, teaches us how to pray with confidence, knowing that God hears our prayers and that He WILL answer them.

5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.
6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord,
8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1)

When we pray according to the will of God, we are to pray with confidence. We trust that if God promises something in His Word, it is as good as done! God always keeps His Word even when we do not always keep our word. That is what faith is, trusting the promises of God, or in other words, trusting the Word of God. If we do not trust the Word of God then we should not expect to have our prayers answered. It’s easy for us to doubt and be double-minded and that is why we have to be reminded not to doubt and not to be double-minded. It is a matter of choice. I either believe the Word of God or I do not. Persecution increased the early believers’ faith. They had more confidence in the Lord as He walked them through persecution. The Gospel continued to spread and it spread even more rapidly because of the persecution. As I mentioned earlier, when we view persecution from God’s perspective, our understanding changes. God uses persecution to work on our character. God uses persecution to give us more opportunities to proclaim the Gospel. God uses persecution to make us more dependent upon Him. All of those are positive things. He really does work all things for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purposes. He makes us more like Christ each and every day. I want that and I am sure that you do too.

My dear friend, what impurities does God need to remove from your character? How are you becoming more like Christ each and every day? Do you spend enough time in prayer every day? Do you have confidence when you pray knowing that God hears and will answer your prayers? Why do you doubt God? What would happen to your walk with the Lord if you applied what we have learned in this passage?

May the Lord help us embrace this teaching and live it out, becoming more and more like Christ each and every day!

One comment on “God is sovereign over persecution

  1. Kataxioo…I love it. Move and fix it!!
    Also ask in faith, so often we pray (typically asking for something) at a time out of despair.
    Thank you for your faithfulness in my walk.

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