Pattern of persecution
There’s a widespread government crackdown on religion in China (including Christians and Muslims). Church leaders have been arrested on subversion charges and taken away. But this isn’t new or surprising because there’s a pattern of persecution of God’s people across the past 3,500 years of history.
The Hebrews were God’s special people in Old Testament times. God gave their ancestor Abraham some great promises. But before these were fulfilled, his descendants were persecuted in Egypt. Slave masters oppressed them with forced labor (Ex. 1:11-14). The Egyptians worked them ruthlessly with harsh labor. And Pharaoh commanded that all Hebrew male babies be put to death; they were to be drowned in the Nile River (Ex. 1:15-22).
But God saw their misery, heard them crying out and groaning because of their slave drivers, and was concerned about their suffering. (Ex. 3:7; 6:5). The oppression increased when they were commanded to gather the straw for brick making (Ex. 5:6-21). This continued until God used Moses to rescue them from slavery in Egypt so they could travel back to Canaan.
Some Hebrew prophets were also persecuted by royalty. Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel (queen of Israel), Micaiah by Ahab (Jezebel’s husband, king of Israel), and Uriah by Jehoiakim (king of Judah) (1 Ki. 19:1-3; 22:26-26; Jer. 26:20-22).
John the Baptist and Jesus
Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of promises that were given to Abraham and King David. John the Baptist announced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But both John and Jesus were persecuted by Jewish rulers. King Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus by ordering all the young boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem to be killed (Mt. 2:13-18). Fortunately His family had been warned to escape to Egypt (the country where the Hebrews had been persecuted about 1450 years earlier!).
John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded by King Herod Antipas (a son of Herod the Great) (Mt. 14:3-12; Mk. 6:17-29). Herod Antipas was also involved in the trial of Jesus (Lk. 23:6-12). In fact the Jewish and Gentile (Roman) leaders conspired together to arrange the death by crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:27).
Because the Jewish religious leaders were jealous of the popularity of the apostles, they persecuted and imprisoned them. Stephen was stoned to death and the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria and to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 4:1-2; 5:17-18; 7:54-58; 8:1-3; 11:19). So as a result of persecution, Christianity was spread across the Middle East. During his missionary journeys, Paul was also abused and persecuted by jealous Jews (Acts 13:45; 14:5, 19; 17:5; 18:6). He was publicly beaten and imprisoned without a trial (Acts 16:22-24, 37). He was arrested and tried before the Roman governors and the king of the Jews and transported to Rome for trial before Caesar (Acts 21:27 – 28:31). Furthermore, Paul was flogged at least eight times, imprisoned frequently and pelted with stones (Acts 14:19; 2 Cor. 11:23-25).
King Herod Agrippa I (a nephew of King Herod Antipas) imprisoned Peter and executed James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:1-18). After Peter escaped from prison, Herod had the prison guards executed. And the Roman governor of Judea, Antonius Felix, left Paul in prison for two years (Acts 24:22-27).
Some of the people who persecuted God’s people in New Testament times are listed below and shown in the schematic diagram (prepared by Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk). They are selected members of the Herodian family and Roman governors who are significant in New Testament events. The numbers in the list match those in the diagram. Those referred to in the New Testament are shown below in boldface.
- Herod the Great, founder of the dynasty, tried to kill the infant Jesus by the “slaughter of the innocents” at Bethlehem.
- Herod Philip, uncle and first husband of Herodias, was not a ruler.
- Herodias left Herod Philip to marry his half-brother Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee & Perea.
- John the Baptist rebuked Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, while his brother was still alive—against the law of Moses.
- Salome danced for Herod Antipas and, at Herodias’s direction, requested the beheading of John the Baptist. Later she married her great-uncle Philip the Tetrarch.
- Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee &: Perea (r. 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.), was Herodias’s uncle and second husband. After Salome’s dance and his rash promise, he executed John the Baptist. Much later he held part of Jesus’ trial.
- Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea (r. 4 B.C.E.–6 C.E.), was replaced by a series of Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate (r. 26–36 C.E.).
- Philip the Tetrarch of northern territories (r. 4 B.C.E.–34 C.E.) later married Herodias’s daughter Salome, his grandniece.
- King Herod Agrippa I (r. 37–44 C.E.) executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter before his miraculous escape.
- Berenice, twice widowed, left her third husband to be with brother Agrippa II (rumored lover) and was with him at Festus’s trial of Paul.
- King Herod Agrippa II (r. 50–c. 93 C.E.) was appointed by Festus to hear Paul’s defense.
- Antonius Felix, Roman procurator of Judea (r. 52–c. 59 C.E.), Paul’s first judge, left him in prison for two years until new procurator Porcius Festus (r. c. 60–62 C.E.) became the second judge, and Paul appealed to Caesar.
- Drusilla left her first husband to marry Roman governor Felix.
China has intensified its crackdown on religion, with crosses being burned and destroyed at Christian churches, churches closed down, and the sale of Bibles banned. The crosses are often replaced with objects such as the Chinese flag and photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. This is part of a Government drive to “Sinicise” religion (make it Chinese and compatible with socialism) by demanding loyalty to the officially atheist Communist Party and eliminating any challenge to its power over people’s lives. “Chinese characteristics” (including unwavering loyalty to the Communist party) must be incorporated into all activities, beliefs and traditions. Under Chinese law, religious followers are only allowed to worship in congregations registered with authorities, but many millions belong to so-called underground or house churches that defy government restrictions.
Open Doors identified three major factors behind the increased persecution of Christians in China. These are:
New religious regulations which were passed in 2017 and enacted in February 2018 to “preserve Chinese culture and party authority against ideological threats”. Since then, religious persecution, including both Christians and Muslims, has escalated to a level of persecution few saw coming. The new regulations include “guidelines on religious education, the types of religious organizations that can exist, where they can exist and the activities they can organize”. These are part of an endeavour to resist “foreign” religions (Christianity is considered to be a product of the west which is being used to destabilize Chinese “harmony”). These religions are considered to be a cultural invasion. The regulations have led to:
– Arrests of church leaders and church members.
– Muslims and Christians sent to re-education camps.
– The destruction and closure of unregistered churches.
– Anyone under 18 not allowed in churches.
– The removal of crosses from church buildings.
– Requiring many registered churches to install facial-recognition technology.
The increased cult of personality around Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and president of the People’s Republic of China. His policies have been placed into the Chinese constitution, granting it the same level of authority in the country as former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. As the emphasis on Communist ideology and the personality cult emerging around President Xi gets stronger, the authorities will act more strongly against all other ‘ideologies’ not fitting into this system, including the Christian religion.
The positioning of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party against Jesus and His church. Christians are being told that Jesus can’t help them with illness or poverty, and only Xi Jinping can, so they should remove religious images and replace them with pictures of Xi. They are being urged to rely on the communist party for help rather that Jesus.
At the same time, an estimated 1 million Muslims have been detained in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang province. The measures ultimately have the same goal: to give Beijing tighter control over groups officials see as a potential threat to their grip on power. The situation in China is likely to continue to escalate as the Chinese Communist Party increases its power and focus on Chinese nationalism. Meanwhile, Big Brother watches – China is setting up a vast camera surveillance system that is using facial recognition to track every single one of its 1.4 billion citizens.
In the historical cases mentioned in the Bible, the civil rulers persecuted God’s people. It came from the top of society (Pharaoh and the Herodian family). They seemed to be insecure and jealous and afraid of losing the allegiance of their subjects. Similarly, in China the persecution is being driven by the President and the Communist Party. It’s a pattern of persecution across about 3,500 years of history. So, it’s not surprising that Christians are being persecuted today in China and some other communist and Muslim countries (see Appendix). Ironically, such crackdowns on religious freedom will cause the church to grow faster, and help church be more united! History shows they didn’t succeed in Roman times, under Stalin or under Mao.
Christians may also be persecuted in western countries by being looked down upon, mocked or ridiculed and marginalized. Because Christians are assumed to be intolerant or hostile towards those with different beliefs or practices, it’s not possible for Christians to live by their convictions in some careers.
The Bible says that those following Jesus will face persecution. Jesus told His disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20NIV). And Paul told Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
How should we respond to persecution? Sometimes it’s possible to escape from persecution (Mt.5:12; Acts 14:6). If that’s not possible we can persevere and endure under it (Heb. 10:32-36). This involves committing our circumstances to God; “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pt. 4:12-19). The book of 1 Peter is full of instructions for those facing persecution. It was written just before the outbreak of the Roman persecutions under Nero in AD 64.
Jesus said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45). This means forgiving and praying for our persecutors like Jesus and Stephen did (Lk. 23:43; Acts 7:60). And not taking revenge (Rom. 12:14-21). He also taught the disciples to rejoice under persecution! “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12;). That sounds difficult! But the apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41). God shows His strength to those facing persecution, “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Lessons for us
Let’s pray for those experiencing religious persecution. And pray for those persecuting them. Are we ready to suffer persecution for our Christian faith, because the Bible says that it will come?
Appendix: Violators of religious freedom
In many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs. In December 2018 the US Secretary of State mentioned the following countries of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”: Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Other governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom” included: Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan. And entities of particular concern included: Nusra Front, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban.
Information about religious persecution in China was sourced from Open Doors.
Information about the Herodian family was sourced from the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Written, January 2019