The FIRST Christians experienced extraordinary persecution from both the Jews and the Roman authorities. This came in the form of hatred, being made outcasts from the synagogues, trials, imprisonments and executions. Their example of endurance is truly inspirational and the fact that they could rejoice in such suffering is almost beyond belief.
Fascinatingly, Jesus had foretold the suffering that his disciples would go through. By comparing passages in Luke and Acts we can see how the prophecies of Jesus unfolded in the lives of the first Christians.
In Luke 21 we have the record of Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple. This led his disciples to ask when this was to happen and what the sign would be that it was about to take place. Jesus provided the signs that would occur before the destruction of the Temple and informed them that:
Before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist (Luke 21:12–15).
Jesus prophesied that his disciples would undergo severe trials. The prophecies were fulfilled in remarkable detail.
Firstly, ‘they shall lay their hands on you’. The fulfilment of this is recorded for us in Acts.
They laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day (Acts 4:3).
…and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison (5:18).
Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church (12:1).
Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him [Paul] in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him (21:27).
Jesus also said they would ‘persecute you’. Saul (called Paul after his conversion) engaged in this before his conversion . The word translated as ‘persecuted’ in Luke 21 is used nine times in Acts and every time it refers to the persecution by Saul of the first Christians.
The disciples were to be ‘delivered up to the synagogues and into prisons’. Defending himself to various authority figures, Paul said that he:
Punished them often in every synagogue… and persecuted them even to foreign cities (26:11).
Persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women (22:4).
As well as being the cause of the sufferings Jesus prophesied about, Paul would also suffer following his conversion.
Disciples were to be ‘brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake’. Paul’s final defence at his trial, before being sent to Rome, was before the governor (Festus) and the king (Agrippa):
When he had said these things, the king stood up, as well as the governor and Bernice and those who sat with them (Acts 26:30).
Helped to Speak Out
The prophecies of sufferings came true for the first Christians in such agonising ways. They were not to face the sufferings alone, however. Jesus declared that he would give them a ‘mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to contradict nor resist.’ As we read in Luke 21, they would not even have to premeditate what to say – it would be wholly the work of Christ.
This aspect of the prophecy had particular application to the witness of Stephen. In his disputes it is recorded that his opponents ‘were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke’ (Acts 6:10). The Lord Jesus was faithful and provided his disciples with the words to counter the adversaries they were to face.
It is clear that Jesus foretold the sufferings of his disciples. It is also clear that everything which was prophesied did occur. The disciples had a choice of how to respond to all of this. Could they apply their master’s teaching and actually rejoice in their suffering?
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, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10–12).
The first Christians provide an amazing example as they did apply this extraordinarily difficult teaching in their lives:
They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name (Acts 5:41).
These men and women suffered extraordinary persecution, even torture and death, yet they met it with hope in Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God. This shows the power of the Word of God, and of association with Jesus, to change lives: both then and now!