Here’s the link to Acts 11.
As a result of the death of Stephen, believers are scattered. Many are Jews, but plenty of Gentiles are being added to the mix. Our passage uses the word persecution to describe the relationship between the burgeoning faith community and the surrounding culture.
So much for still having the favour of all the people.
Early church theologian Tertullian (155-220 AD) once wrote these words: “We multiply when you reap us. The blood of Christians is seed.” This is perhaps a better translation than the well-known but likely more apocryphal rendering, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Yet the point is the same. Violence against the church doesn’t eliminate the church. Often it has the opposite effect.
Think about modern-day China. By some calculations there are around 130 million Christians in China. That’s in a population of nearly a billion and a half people. Most of these Christians are a part of illegal house churches. And even in recent years, China has stepped up its persecution of Christians.
In our passage, persecution also did not affect the growth of the church. Three times the text draws attention to the large numbers of people coming to faith in the Lord Jesus through the preaching of the apostles and the witness of the church. Speaking of this, it says in verse 21 that The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. A few verses later it says that large numbers of people were added to the Lord. It says this of Barnabas and Paul: For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers.
Usually the church thrives best in places where it is least welcome and comfortable.
In any case, it makes me think that the possibility of being persecuted as Christians should be the least of our worries. Not because it will never happen, but because persecution is not the end of the church. I heard once that Christians who live in places where they are persecuted don’t usually ask for prayers that persecution would stop. Instead, they want prayers for strength and perseverance in the midst of persecution.
There are some Christians who would point to things happening in our culture as persecution. I would want to be careful about the language we use with respect to how Christians are regarded and treated in our part of the world. Not least because Christians aren’t being beheaded or arrested or having their buildings bombed because of our faith in Jesus.
Certainly, our society is becoming more ideologically inhospitable to Christian faith. There has been the loss of the cultural privilege once enjoyed by Christianity as the dominant worldview of the western world. And there is definitely an ongoing, accelerating, and profound eroding of values and morals that have their root in Christianity.
But I don’t know if I would call it outright persecution yet. At least not widespread, violent persecution. Not like that experienced by believers in various African nations. Or like the restrictions faced by Jesus’ followers in North Korea or in some Middle Eastern countries.
Still, all of this is a reminder that being a Christian means expecting opposition, cultural pushback, and marginalization. We shouldn’t be surprised if it happens. In John 15:18-19, Jesus says to this disciples: If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.