On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, three Christian churches in the island country of Sri Lanka were bombed during Easter services, resulting in the death of over 200 people. These bombings are yet another example of the persecution of Christians around the world. According to Open Doors, an organization that ministers to persecuted Christians, every month, an average of 345 Christians are killed because of their faith, scores of churches are burned or attacked, and many believers are held without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned. And, when believers around the world suffer, each member of the body of Christ suffers with them (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Of course, persecution is nothing new to the church of Jesus Christ. The first recorded persecution of Christians took place in the first century when a believer named Stephen was stoned as a result of his faith in Christ. Stephen was arrested and brought before the high council on a false charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:11-14). When the high priest asked Stephen if the charges against him were true, Stephen gave the council a history lesson which ended with an accusation of his own, as he said, “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
The infuriated leaders dragged Stephen out of the city of Jerusalem and began to stone him. Stephen became the first follower of Jesus Christ to give up his life for his faith. As Scripture tells us, a great wave of persecution began that day, scattering the believers throughout the areas of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). That persecution was led by Saul, a young Pharisee whose zeal for the traditions of his faith led him to go from house to house, dragging people from their homes and throwing them into prison (Acts 8:3). But Saul would soon find out that it was not just these Christians that he was persecuting. As he persecuted the early church, he was also persecuting the Son of God, Jesus Christ. As he rode along the road to Damascus with the intent of arresting the Christians who had fled there and bringing them back to Jerusalem in chains, Saul had an encounter with Jesus.
As he got near to Damascus, a bright light shone around Saul and he fell to the ground. He then heard a voice say, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” When Saul asked the voice who he was, the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Blinded, Saul got up and headed for Damascus (Acts 9:3-9). From that point on, Saul would never be the same. His life was changed, as was his name. He became Paul, the apostle responsible for writing the largest part of the New Testament, the man who helped to spread the gospel throughout the known world of his time, the man whose inspired words detail the very foundations of our Christian faith. And not only that but, as a follower of Christ, Paul went from persecutor to persecuted.
As we hear about the persecution that we see in this day and age, as we hear about tragic attacks such as the ones in Sri Lanka, we need to pray. We need to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world, especially those in countries that are antagonistic toward those who believe in Jesus Christ. We need to pray for ourselves. In this country, we are not subjected to the kind of persecution we see around the world. But that may change. The world is getting darker and our faith may be tested. So we need to pray that we will stand firm in that faith. And we need to pray for those who persecute Christians. We need to pray that they, like Paul, will have a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And we need to pray that they will receive God’s forgiveness. Stephen’s final words before he gave up his life for his faith were, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:60). May that be our prayer as well. After all, in Matthew 5:44, Jesus Himself said, “But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.