Multiplication Through Persecution
Pr. B. Saji
The church father Tertullian, addressing the rulers of the Roman Empire, cried out “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust… the more you mow as down, the more we grow; the blood of the martyrs is the seed (of the Church).”
Multiplication through persecution is a mystery. Because, to destroy growth, stamp out altogether, put an end the future, or destabilize is the ultimate aim of persecution. The persecutors expected this but they could not achieve it. The trials and temptations brought triumph on the church. The experiences of the cross gave them crown.
Bishop Festo Kivengere said at the second anniversary of the martyrdom of Arch Bishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, “without bleeding, the church fails to bless; persecution will refine the church, but not destroy it. If it leads to prayer and praise, to an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God and of solidarity with Christ in His sufferings, then – however painful – it may even be welcome”.
Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mat.16:18). Persecution is a blessing, because trials strengthen and perfect the Christians. As we strengthen our bodies by submitting our muscles to strain and stress, so the body of Christ is strengthened through persecution and oppression.
Multiplication through Persecution in the Life of Israel
Jews have been persecuted throughout history. Right from the times of Pharaoh of Egypt to the totalitarian regime of Hitler in Germany, the people of Israel have been mercilessly tortured and discriminated against. Their cities have been burned to the ground by various armies. Six million Jews were slaughtered and massacred during World War II.
The second of the five books of Moses, the Book of Exodus, elaborately explains how the Jewish people in Egypt were persecuted and enslaved by their Egyptian hosts. Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to ask him to “let the Jewish people go” for a three day journey in the wilderness, so that they could bring an offering to God. To which Pharaoh responded brazenly “ Who is the Lord?” This request and mission brought much torture upon the people of Israel. Bible very clearly mentions three types of persecution that was placed on the Jews.
1. “Their lives were made bitter with hard bondage” (Exo.1:14). The Egyptians hasted them and asked them to fulfill their works (5:7–8). Pharaoh ordered his task masters to make their work even more difficult, so that they wouldn’t have the time or presence of mind to think about why all this was happening to them and would just go on working for Pharaoh. He needed labour to build new cities and monuments to his ‘greatness’. So he forced the entire Israelite nation into slavery. He made their lives bitter with hard labour. The Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
2. The unlucky new-born sons were doomed for execution at the hands of the Pharaoh (1:6). The hidden reason for such an action was that the children of Israel were fruitful, increased abundantly and multiplied and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them (1:7). Pharoah passes a decree that the Israelite sons should be cast into the river (1:22).
3. Pharaoh became even more desperate to keep them in check, resulting in an edict for all new born Israelite males to be drowned in the Nile river.
Pharaoh, the King of Egypt brutally persecuted, and oppressed them, mercilessly killed their new born sons. But this persecution gives us a lesson that, the children of God cannot be repressed. Trying to destroy God’s people only strengthens them and increases their number. His persecution led to Moses being placed in the basket on the Nile and finding his way into Pharaoh’s own household and eventually becoming the leader who would bring Israel out of slavery forever.
The vision Moses had at the Mount Horeb was very real to this lesson, “a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; the bush burned with fire, yet the bush was not consumed”, although this is still a mystery. The answer is: the same God that kept this bush from being consumed also kept the Hebrew children from being singed in the furnace.
Multiplication through Persecution–Christianity
Persecution in the Early Church: The Christians were persecuted from the time of Jesus in the 1st century upto the present time. The early Christians were persecuted for their faith at the hand of Jews and the Roman Empire. They tried to pluck out the church from the earth. The devil has never given up the attempt to destroy the church by force. The devil’s crudest weapon was physical violence. The official persecution was started by the Roman Emperor Nero, but the Jewish people were the first ones to begin the persecution upon the church. The believers, disciples, apostles were arrested, jailed, tried, forbidden to preach, warned and released. Acts of the Apostles describe two waves of persecution which broke over the infant church. In the first the council issued a prohibition and a warning, in the second they received a prohibition and a beating.
During the reign of the different emperors, from Nero to Diocletian (AD.54–305), Christianity went through persecution and barbarities. The officials tried to stamp out Christianity altogether. Especially Diocletian, the emperor, declared four edicts - churches to be burned, scriptures to be confiscated, clergy to be tortured and Christian civil servants to be deprived of their citizenship. Over 20,000 Christians are believed to have died during Diocletian’s reign.
Persecution in General: Christian missionaries, as well as the people that they converted to Christianity have been the target of persecution. Many were martyred for their faith. The 20th century Christians have been persecuted by various groups and by atheistic state as the USSR, North Korea. The Christian missionary organizations “Open Doors” (UK) estimates 100 million Christian face persecution particularly in Muslim dominated countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A survey reported in 2010 that at least 75% of religious persecution reported from 2008–10 around the world was directed at the people of Christian faith. In AD.41, the Zoroastrian Shapur II ordered the massacre of all Christians in the Persian Sassanid Empire. During the persecution 1150 Assyrian Christians were martyred under Shapur II.
Persecution in India: In the early days the persecution against Christians was fewer. They were systematically persecuted in a few Muslim ruled kingdoms in India. But today, persecution is also carried out by Hindu Fundamentalists. A report by Human Rights Watch stated that there is a rise of anti-Christian violence due to Hindu nationalism. Christians are the new scapegoat in India’s political battle.
Laxmi Sovi, a Christian widow in Chhattisgarh state, was beaten for refusing to reconvert to Hinduism. The extremists asked her, “come back to Hinduism or else be killed”. They began beating her two children, threatening to rape her teenage daughter. In Karnataka, a Hindu extremist dragged another widow along with her daughter to a Hindu temple. Also, Hindu extremists attacked a house church pastor Parama Jyothi in Mohanahalli village in Chitra Durga district, dragged him along a road, tearing off his clothes until he was half naked and beating him and broke his three front teeth. Sajjan Kumar, a resident of Tamil Nadu was arrested by a special investigation team for his alleged role in vandalizing and attacking churches in the city. A church was destroyed in North India which was in the final stage of construction. The mobs beat the pastor, his mother and church members.
In the Christian community in Kandhamal district of Odisha 90 people were killed and at least 54,000 displaced. Much of the violence was brutal in nature, including sexual violence and burning or burning victims alive. The Christian community still faces harassment and violence.
Persecution Resulted in Multiplication
The intention of the persecutor was to stop the growth or to stamp out the people of God altogether from the face of the earth. But the negative intention produced positive result. Trying to destroy God’s people only strengthened them and increased their numbers. The early Christians were persecuted mercilessly by the religious and political leaders of the day, but that could not stop the growth of the church.
The Acts of the Apostles, records both persecution and growth of the early church. It began with 120 members. This includes both apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ. After the descending of the Holy Spirit, 3000 new members were added to the church (Acts. 2:41). Thereafter, the number of the men was about five thousand (4:4). It records at least 8,000 converts upto this time. Later more believers were added and grew into multitudes of men and women (5:14) Another record indicates that the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of priests were obedient to the faith (6:7). After the first missionary journey of Paul, it was not the members but it was the churches that multiplied (16:5) daily. Of course, there is no doubt that the church was growing and the number of believers increased due to the persecution faced by the early Christians.
The martyrdom of Stephen brought Saul the persecutor to Christianity and through Saul many men and women were added to Christian faith. The number of churches multiplied. The great persecution against the church helped the early Christians to scatter abroad, and they went everywhere preaching the Word, which resulted in the multiplication of the church. Through hatred and oppression the church grew. Governmental officials tried to stamp out the church despite which Christianity vibrantly grew and spread across the world.
Our forefathers faced trials, temptations, persecution and difficulties that resulted in the growth of the church. No persecution could stop the growth of the church. The Jews, Roman officials and gentile mobs tried to break the rock of Christianity using their weapon of persecution, but they could not even scratch the surface, instead they themselves were broken into pieces.
As I conclude, let me quote the words of Jesus Christ, the Founder of the Church, “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Yes, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”–Tertullian.