“Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death” Matt. 26:59
The year was 155 A.D. when Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, (the same church as found in the book of Revelation), at eighty-six years of age, was martyred for his faith. Moreover, he was a devout disciple of the Apostle John, who himself was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. Polycarp was brought before the Roman Proconsul,1 who sternly warned him to renounce his belief in Jesus Christ. He was strongly advised to repent from his alleged “atheism” and to audibly proclaim, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say ‘Away with the atheists!'” [indicating the Christians]. Polycarp gazed intently at the godless, bloodthirsty and pagan multitude that filled the arena, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Away with the Atheists!” The proconsul insisted; “Swear and I will set you free – revile Christ!” Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years I served Him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Polycarp displayed bold allegiance to Christ, in both his interrogation and in his martyrdom–while they attempted to burn him alive at the stake, they plunged a spear into him when the flames did not kill him quick enough. Polycarp, more godly then all present including the proconsul, was accused of the most heinous form of evil that a Christian could be accused of, “atheism”. In essence, Satan himself could not have written a better script.
There never was a man as innocent as Jesus Christ and never will be, yet He was unjustly arrested, brutally beaten, and sentenced to be crucified. Why, because the Jewish leaders hated Him and were envious of Him: “For he [Pontius Pilate] knew that because of envy they [Jewish leaders] had delivered Him up.” (Matt. 27:18–brackets added). In the darkness of the night, Jesus was hurriedly subjected to a mock trial before the Sanhedrin [the highest Jewish court] and falsely accused of committing evil–even though no formal legal charges were brought against Him. Two false witnesses were brought in to testify against Him and perjuring themselves, claimed: “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’ “ (Matt. 26:61). Incomprehensibly, Jesus was accused of committing evil, when He was actually teaching the “good news” of God’s kingdom–for that He was executed!
A few years after Jesus was crucified, Stephen, a devout follower of Jesus, was martyred by being stoned to death (Acts 7:57-60). His alleged crime was that he was a follower of Christ and exuded righteousness. Stephen, like Christ, underwent a corrupt trail and stood before the Sanhedrin, who stealthily brought in false witnesses to testify against him. Interestingly, these spurious witnesses, made the identical allegation against Stephen, as had been done in Jesus’ illegal trial (Acts 6:13-14).
It would not take much perusing through the Apostle Paul’s epistles, to see how thoroughly false teachers attempted [and at times were successful], to hinder or thwart the progress of his ministry. Scripture provides many examples of unbelieving Jews untruthful accusations, violence, and death threats against Paul, for preaching the gospel of Christ. For instance, in the book of Acts, the Jews relentlessly pursued him, impugned his character, and wreaked havoc on his ministry. Only by the power and grace of God, was Paul able to endure their evil intentions and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14).
Incidentally, I believe the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh was pernicious false teachers, especially in the Corinthian church (cf. 2 Cor. 11:26). As previously stated, there were always sects of envious unbelieving Jews, who followed Paul from city to city, attacking his character and the gospel message with their lies. Their virulent and calumnious speech against Paul, hurt him far greater than any physical malady had done. In Corinth for instance, they succeeded in turning the newly established church Paul had started against him, by dissuading them from believing that he had apostolic authority. It was a deep spiritual pain, inflicted on him by the brethren in which he had sacrificially invested much of himself. His ministry to the Corinthians nearly was devastated by false accusers, as he was forced to defend himself. (see 2 Corinthians 10-13).
Therefore, true Christians should not be surprised in the very near future, when the American culture accuses them of being atheists, as was done to Polycarp in the second century. This ever-increasing immoral society is currently accusing Christians of being, “intolerant haters” who utilize “hate speech“. These serious accusations are the very antithesis of what the Bible teaches Christians to model i.e., “long-suffering servants” [2 Tim. 2:24] who “love thy neighbor” [Matt. 5:43-44] and utilize “speech seasoned with salt” [Col. 4:6].
For the last few decades, America has been on an accelerated pace to remove God and every truth that governs morality, from every entity within this great country. Furthermore, our government, the very institution ordained by God to protect the good, law-abiding citizens against evil [Rom. 13:3-4, 1 Pet. 2:15], supports, allows, and is now legislating laws that enables nefarious attacks against Christian Americans. Tragically, if you are a Christian, it appears the Constitution’s First Amendment right of “Freedom of Religion”, has lost much of its potency. However, the government legislating laws against Christian values and their freedoms, is to be expected. For historically such freedom from persecution defies the global norm. Christians in America have enjoyed religious freedom and have not suffered for their beliefs, for well over two hundred years–that is a remarkable stat! Nowhere in the Bible is a true follower of Christ promised a life without suffering, but rather to the contrary: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” (1 Pet. 2:21). As it becomes more and more difficult to publically “obey all that Christ commanded” [Matt. 28:20], believers will suffer ever-increasing persecution from the culture and the government. When Peter and the other Apostles were faced with threats from the Roman government, to cease from preaching Christ’s gospel, rather than capitulating they boldly proclaimed: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29b).
Additionally, as history repeats itself and as Scripture is fulfilled, today’s church is inevitably destined to be persecuted, as has always been the case since its inception nearly two thousand years ago (see Acts 8:1-4). Jesus said: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. (Jn. 15:18). The Apostle John similarly said: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (1 Jn. 3:13–ESV). False accusations and persecution are evident from the sufferings of the Savior Jesus Christ; His disciples, His apostles, early church fathers, Reformers–throughout the history of the church.
The question could be asked, is today’s American church exempt from suffering persecution? With the evil direction this society rapidly continues to head, I think not. I believe, for the first time true Christianity “in the land of the free”, will be anything but “free”. It will cost Christians a dear price to follow Jesus Christ. Paul said: “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12). Peter warned: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (1 Pet. 4:12). However, there is good news for those who suffer unjustly. In the very next verse Peter wrote: “but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Pet. 4:13).
There is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for all believers and this “light”, the world cannot overcome: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33b, cf. Jn. 1:5). The fitting words of the Psalmist David, provides a foundational truth for those who will suffer–there is hope and comfort in God, the “Rock” of salvation:
“Do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence. I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD.” (Ps. 27:12-14).
Therefore, believers can be encouraged in their darkest hour or the deepest recesses of despair: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven...” (Matt. 5:10-12a).
Yes, Christians may be called “atheists”, evildoers, and accused of the most vilest things. They may be castigated for living out and defending the righteousness of God, commanded in the Bible. And may even one day be martyred for demonstrating immovable faith in Him who is unseen, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:17-18, cf. Jn. 20:29). According to Scripture there will be many martyrs in the Great Tribulation (cf. Rev. 6:9, 20:4). However, God will not let the believer suffer more that he can bear [1 Cor. 10:13] and promises peace beyond measure: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7). “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” (Jn. 14:27).
I close with the glorious promise of hope Peter had written at the beginning of his letter, to encourage the scattered and persecuted believers: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials…you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls”. (1 Pet. 1:3, 6, 8b-9). We can take heart for this hope applies to all believers, who may be distressed by various trials at the hands of evil men. Peter closes his letter with reassurance to the brethren, of God’s truthful words of promise: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Pet. 5:10).
Therefore, as persecution increases against Christians, God utilizes that suffering to build His church and to “refine” those who sacrificially love and obey His Word. As the world attempts to extinguish our attempts at heralding the gospel, our light must brightly shine forth. For Jesus declared: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matt. 5:14-15). His last words before ascending to heaven, should be of great comfort to every saint who strives to take up his cross daily: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20b).
1 proconsul, Statius Quadratus of Asia Minor; under the reign of emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the year A. D.155–Philip Schaff, Vol. II Ante-Nicene Christianity, A.D. 100-325, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1980, pg. 51-52