The Christian and His Enemies

Wednesday: Responding to Persecution

Romans 12:14-16 In this week’s studies we see that the Bible speaks of suffering and persecution as an expected part of the Christian life.
Responding to Persecution

The fact of persecution is well established. If we are Christ’s and if we stand for Christ against the world, we will experience it. But now the question is: How we are to respond to persecution? In Romans 12:14 Paul tells us that we are to “bless” our persecutors. We are to “bless” and “not curse.” Again, this is a conscious reflection of Jesus’ common teaching. 

Where did He teach it? The best known passage is from the Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, uttered near the beginning of His ministry, the Lord spoke of those who will persecute Christians, saying, 

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48). 

We will never be able to do what Christ is saying (and what Paul is repeating in Romans) unless we understand two things. 

First, it is natural to strike back at people who are hurting us. It is natural to wish them harm, to “curse” them, to use Paul’s word. Moreover, there will be more persecution and thus a greater danger of cursing, the more pronounced is our Christianity. That is, the more we stand out for Christ the more we will be persecuted, and the greater the danger of our wanting to strike back at our tormentors. 

Robert S. Candlish devotes several pages to this problem, pointing out that if our Christianity is lukewarm, if we seldom openly identify with Christ’s cause, the danger of persecution and the resulting temptation to retaliate will be slight. But if we stand for Christ, for righteousness, and are persecuted, what then? “Can flesh and blood stand it? Can you abstain in your hearts from venting what is but too near akin to a malediction or a curse? Can you help yourselves from partly giving way to what may seem fully justifiable emotions of personal resentment and a personal sense of unprovoked and undeserved wrong?” 

“No!” he answers. “Not unless you make conscience of blessing those whom you are thus tempted to curse.”1 

And that is the second thing we need to understand, that the only way to overcome our natural tendency to fight back is to work for our persecutors’ good. That is, we have to “bless” and “not curse.” 

What does it mean “to bless” another person? The word has different meanings. When we bless God we ascribe to Him the praise that is His due. When God blesses us He bestows blessing upon us. When we bless others we ask God to bless them.2 It is in this sense that we are told to “bless” and not “curse.” We are to pray for our enemies, asking God to bless them. But, then, if we are asking God to do good to them, it is patently clear that we must also seek every honest means of doing good to them too. 

Which brings us back to Jesus’ teaching. Toward the beginning of His ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, He uttered what we know as the Golden Rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). Many of the world’s cultures have it in negative form: “Do not do anything to another that you would not want them to do to you.” This is not surprising. It simply amounts to: “Don’t hit someone else unless you want to get hit yourself.” Anyone with even the smallest amount of wisdom can see the sense of that. 

But that is not what Jesus said. He expressed His “rule” in a positive form, saying that we are to seek out and, as far as possible, effect the good of other people, even our enemies. 

Do we need an example? We have one in Stephen, the first martyr. As Stephen was being stoned to death he prayed for those who were killing him, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:6). His prayer was heard too. We do not know what happened to everyone who was present at the stoning of Stephen that day. But we know what happened to one of them. His name was Saul, later known as Paul, the author of this very letter. He was profoundly moved by the way Stephen prayed for his antagonists, and Stephen’s death won—or at least “pricked” the heart of—his tormentor (Acts 26:14). 

Saint Augustine once said wisely, “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”3

So let’s learn to pray for and bless others. Robert Candlish says, 

When you suffer wrong, call to mind the considerations which should bring the wrong-doer before you in a very different light. Look at his case rather than your own…. If you put yourself in his place, you will see much, very much, that should charm all your resentment away and turn it into tenderest pity and concern…. Ask yourself what, if his history had been yours, you would have been, how you, if his lot were yours- his training, his habits, his companions- would be inclined to think and feel and act. You cease to wonder at his obtuseness and his opposition. You are drawn and not repelled by that too easily accounted for infatuation of his, which really hurts not you, but, alas! is ruining his own benighted soul. No thought of self can find harbor within you. All your thought is of him. Your bowels yearn over him and more for the very blindness and madness which make him a persecutor. And so you bless, and do not curse.4 

1Robert S. Candlish, Studies in Romans 12: The Christian’s Sacrifice and Service of Praise (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1989), 237. 

2See John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 134. 

3Quoted by William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1969), 182. 

4Robert S. Candlish, Studies in Romans 12, 244.

Study Questions
  1. What is our natural reaction to persecution? How does God call us to respond?
  2. What increases the probability that we will be persecuted?
  3. What does it mean to bless another person?

Application: Have you been persecuted for your faith? List the people who have belittled you or treated you differently because of your stand for Christ. We are instructed to bless those who persecute us, and we do this by praying for them. Pray for the people you just listed. Ask God to be gracious to them. Pray for their physical and spiritual well-being.

For Further Study: Download for free and read James Boice’s booklet, “The Cost of Discipleship.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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