Since the dawn of man persecution has followed those who believe and worship the true God. That persecution, though relatively dormant now, is still occurring today and is prophesied to engulf the true Church in the not-too-distant future.
From the beginning of time man has persecuted his fellowman. When some members of society didn't agree with certain other members of their society, it was only natural that the one would persecute the other. Unchecked, human nature naturally gravitates toward persecuting those who are different. This is especially true in the subset of society called religion.
In the beginning...
The first religious persecution in recorded history involved the two sons of Adam and Eve. "And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock [thus showing Abel's faith in the Lamb of God's future sacrifice] and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell" (Genesis 4:3-5). When Cain realized that God favored his brother Abel and his offering, he began plotting to destroy him. "And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him" (verse 8). This was only the beginning of a history of persecution for those loyal to God. The Old Testament scriptures are full of many such examples, including the persecution of Joseph (Genesis 37), of Elijah (I Kings 18-19), the children of Israel (Exodus 1), the Jews (Esther 3), David (I Samuel 16-31) and many others. The common denominator in all of these cases was God's willingness to avenge His people and to deliver them from their persecutors.
In the book of Daniel there are two thrilling examples of God's intervention on behalf of four individuals who kept His commandments. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were commanded to worship a gigantic image of gold, which King Nebuchadnezzar had made (Daniel 3:1-18). If they wouldn't obey the king and worship his golden image they were to be "cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace" (verse 15). They flatly refused to obey the king's order, saying: "If it be so, our God whom-we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if hot, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou has set up" (verses 17, 18). Their refusal to comply with the king's command caused them to be flung into the overheated furnace, but the Lord delivered them, after which even the king acknowledged that their God was the true God (verse 28). The prophet Daniel, a man of unusual wisdom and ability, was later to become the target of severe persecution. Daniel's enemies were exceedingly envious of him because of his high position before King Darius (Daniel 6:2-3). They succeeded in getting royal assent to have Daniel thrown into a den of lions (verses 4-16). But King Darius had been tricked into his decision, and he reassured his friend Daniel before casting him into the lions' den: "Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee" (verse 16). Early the next morning, King Darius went to the lions' den to see how Daniel had fared. "And the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?" (verse 20). Daniel's confident, reassuring answer was heard: "O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angels and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done, no hurt" (verses 21, 22). Then the king cast those who persecuted Daniel into the den: "And the lions had the mastery of them, and brake all their bones in pieces or ever they came at the bottom of the den" (verse 24). Even though God can and does deliver His people from persecution, He often allows the righteous to suffer. The purpose for that will be explained later. But are all those who suffer persecution assured of God's protection and blessing? Some have misunderstood Jesus Christ's teaching on this subject. Jesus did not say that all who suffer persecution. are (or will be) blessed. "Blessed," Jesus said, "are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10). Christ did not either say or mean that all who are persecuted are blessed, but only those who are persecuted "for righteousness' sake." The Communists have long been persecuted in many countries. The Nazis were persecuted in Germany at the close of World War II. And even those who embrace atheism can suffer persecution for their beliefs as well. The question is, what is the nature of their persecution?
Two kinds of persecution
There are two kinds of persecution mentioned in the Bible: 1) persecution brought on a believer because of righteousness and 2) persecution brought upon a believer because of unrighteousness. How do we know which is which? Only God can determine that. But there are criteria for judging what really constitutes righteousness. "All thy [God's] commandments are righteousness," David wrote (Psalm 119:172). God's law is the basis for judging what is right and wrong. Clearly, Christ tells us that those who keep His commands — and are persecuted for such — are the ones who will be blessed. Furthermore, we are told that Satan is the persecutor of those who keep God's commandments: "And the dragon [Satan, verse 9] was wroth with the woman [God's true Church, Ephesians 5:22-33], and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17). Since Satan is the "accuser of the brethren" (Revelation 12:10), the instigator and actual perpetrator of persecution, we should not condemn our persecutors. Christ said: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). The persecutors of the Church are deceived, and as Christ said, "they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Who will suffer persecution?
Persecution is not reserved for prophets, or apostles or those believers mentioned in the Bible. It will come upon all of God's people. "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (II Timothy 3:12). The people of the world despise God's way of life, and those who live according to His commandments are going to be persecuted as were Christ and the apostles. We can learn a great deal about the meaning and purpose of persecution by examining the apostle Paul's example. According to tradition, Paul, as well as most if not all of the other apostles (with the possible exception of John), suffered severe persecution and eventual martyrdom. The list of sufferings and persecutions that can be applied to Paul is a long one. It is amplified in II Corinthians. Here Paul was exhorting the Corinthians to beware of false apostles, who were exalting themselves and boasting of their greatness. "Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (II Corinthians 11:23-27). But Paul counted it all joy to suffer for Christ's sake. Peter admonished Christians to take their "fiery trials" patiently: "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified" (I Peter 4:12-14).
Few professing Christians realize what terrible persecution is prophesied to occur in the near future. Besides the horrible deaths of much of the world's population due to famine, disease and war, a great martyrdom of Christians will also take place. Notice the prophecy in Revelation 6: "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held" (Revelation 6:9). "And they (those slain) cried with a loud voice, saying How long, O Lord, holy and true, does thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" Here the innocent blood of God's people who had been martyred in the past symbolically cried out to God for revenge, as did the blood of Abel (Genesis 4:10). God's answer to them foretells the great martyrdom that is to come: "And white robes were given unto everyone of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed [in the future] as they were [killed], should be fulfilled" (Revelation 6:11). The coming persecution and murders will be brought about by "religious" people, those who profess to believe in Christ. This bold statement will shock many. But it shouldn't. Read John Foxe's. Book of Martyrs. Historically, the persecution of true Christians has been carried out by those who profess to believe in Christ. Revelation 17 shows that in the end time it will be the same. The true Church is depicted in symbol as a woman — a pure, chaste, virtuous woman. But there is also an apostate church mentioned, known as the "great whore" and "THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH" (Revelation 17:5). This symbolism represents today's professing Christianity. And John saw what would take place. "And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (verse 6). In other words, this church will be persecuting and murdering the people of God. But, of course, they will not think that they are destroying God's chosen people. "They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (John 6:2). Today's modern Christians have not had to spill their own blood in order to demonstrate their abiding faith in God and Christ. How many of us are asleep at the switch and will be caught unawares when the persecution starts?
The purpose of persecution
The creator God understands human nature. He knows that humans tend to become complacent and indifferent when things go too well. Just as strenuous physical exercise builds muscles and strength, the spiritual exercise of faith during persecution develops spiritual strength and stamina. God can also use persecution for "the furtherance of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12). Persecution was intended by God to build faith, strength and spiritual character. The legacy of persecution in God's Church is also a legacy of obedience to and faith in the living God, carried on by those who, in many cases, gave their lives in the service of God and Christ. There's coming a time in the near future when God will once again avenge His saints, and the persecution of God's people will be finished. All those who have suffered for righteousness' sake will be rewarded. They will be granted the "crown of life" (Revelation 2:10) and will also be given high positions in the government of God. It is easy then, to understand why Christ said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10).