Ever since Jesus established His kingdom in the hearts and minds of those He loves, there has been hostility towards them. (Mark 13:9) Just as Jesus experienced hostility, even hatred leading to His death, (Matthew 27:26-44) so too, those who follow Him should expect rejection from the world.
They who are hostile to the followers of Jesus reject Him, and by doing so they commit the unpardonable sin, which is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. (Mark 3:29) For as long as they remain in their unbelief they cannot be pardoned, but If they believe and confess with their mouth, they will be saved. (Romans 10:10, 11)
Before Paul the Apostle became a Christian he persecuted the church. In the first letter to the Corinthians he wrote these words, ‘For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’ (1 Corinthians 15:9)
In Acts, Chapter 8, verse 9 it is recorded that ‘he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.’ Prior to that he consented to the death of Stephen who died as the first martyr. (Acts 7:59, 60) However, Paul, previously known as Saul, was converted through a dramatic encounter with Jesus, while on the way to Damascus for binding and bringing members of the Way to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-9)
As the Church grew there were administrative problems, one of which was looking after widows who were being ‘neglected in the daily distribution.’ (Acts 6:1-6) Stephen, along with six other brethren were appointed to do the task. He was well qualified for the job, because he was full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, (v 3) and He did ‘great wonders and signs among the people.’
His good works and testimony did not go unnoticed by the Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen who debated with him, but ‘they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit he spoke.’ (Acts 6:8-10) Having failed to win the debate, they brought false charges of blasphemy against him. In his defence (Acts 6:8-7:53) he expounded the history of the Jews and he explained how the scriptures foretold of the Messiah. He would be the One who would free His people from their slavery to sin and bring them into the Promised Land. He was ‘the Just One’ whom they had betrayed and murdered! (Acts 7:52, 53) For this trumped up charge and so-called blasphemy, they stoned him to death. (v 59)
Later, in Acts 12, verses 1 to 4 we learn that James the brother of John was killed with the sword. About the same time in this period of persecution Peter was put in prison from which he miraculously escaped, having been freed by an angel. (vs 5-11)
There’s more about persecuted Christians in the Letter of James which addresses ‘the twelve tribes of the Dispersia.’ (James 1:1) Most of them were converts from Judaism, and because of their new-found faith they were forced to leave their homes. Many lost their possessions and livelihoods. Lots of them struggled as a result.
James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, was concerned for their welfare. He saw that they were acting in a worldly way by squabbling and disputing with one another. They were failing to live out their faith in love. He told them they were to be patient in their suffering while waiting for the return of the Lord. (James 5:7, 8)
Today, the story is the same. Thousands of Christians are experiencing hostility and persecution. You might be surprised to learn that on average 159,000 martyrs are killed every year. This is truly astonishing.