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Major Texts: Isa. 41:10; Luke 19:41-44; Matt. 23:37, 38; Heb. 11:35-38; Rev. 2:10; Acts 2:44-47; John 13:35.

Opening Question: “Should we regard persecution as something good for the Church, or bad?”

The lesson this week picks up the story of the Great Controversy as it played out in the very early stages of the Christian era. It is widely known that the first few centuries after which Christianity appeared in Jerusalem, were very difficult years. The church faced a lot of adversity as did individual Christians. Some periods of time were truly grim featuring the execution of Christians because they would not surrender their faith. At the same time, the Christian faith spread rather rapidly all over the Roman Empire. This is an amazing eventuality, how a religion could spread so far and so fast to almost every corner of the Roman Empire and beyond to the point many of the Roman rulers were astonished. It seemed that the persecution of Christians actually aided the spread of the faith, in some cases right at the point of an execution where some who witnessed the persecution, stepped forward to profess a faith of their own. One writer, Tertullian, reported that a Christian once told a Roman official who was bent on trying to eradicate the Christian faith, that his efforts were actually aiding the growth of the faith, famously saying that “the blood of Christians is seed.”

In the New Testament, there are evidences of this persecution and also of the rapid growth of the faith. The most concise summary is to be found in Hebrews 11:35-38 where mention is made of many types of suffering believers were put through.

There are several issues that arise from the subject matter of this lesson, some of them quite difficult to navigate. Of course, behind the events under consideration, we must not neglect to see the great struggle between good and evil. In a cosmic sense, it plays out unseen, but its effects on the happenings on earth are very visible.

The first item to consider has to do with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. History tells us it was a truly terrible thing that occurred, with otherwise innocent people slaughtered by the thousands. So the perennial question arises that, if God is love, how could this be allowed? Here we come upon a hard truth, that failure to follow God brings all manner of trouble in its wake, and not because God is angry, but because God is good and his ways are good. Ignoring or abandoning God and his counsel can bring devastation that sweeps up everything like a plague. Sometimes humans are overtaken by evil, and evil seems to gain a life of its own. War is one place where evil often takes over and it bursts beyond the boundaries that humans would consider civil. It is not only at Jerusalem that evils unfolded. They unfold in every war. Evil is like a fire. It may start small, but if it gets going, it can consume whole forests and reduce them to ashes. Here the effect or result is far greater than the original cause.

At the same time, the Christians in Jerusalem had been warned and, during a lull in the siege, they fled to Pella and so escaped the worst of the fight. This is cited as a beneficent act of God to preserve them.

Another issue to take up is the Christian response to persecution. There are some records that early Christians regarded suffering and death as an honor that tied them in with Jesus. To suffer as he did was to some an honor. Put another way, they did not really fear persecution as much as people in later years. Their resolve and courage in the face of death was remarkable and a powerful testimony to their faith.

Another thing that happened that struck the Roman leaders was the way Christians loved not only each other but others around them. This was particularly noticeable in the two great pandemics that overran the Roman Empire in the early centuries. There are records that Christians, in spite of the danger of getting infected themselves – many got infected and died with joy in their hearts – they went about caring for the sick and the dying. They were living out the love of God they had themselves experienced. Actions like this proved to be a powerful testimony to the love of God. These kinds of things inspired others to become believers.

Some questions come now to mind:

  • Why are times of persecution for the church also times of growth?
  • What might church people today learn from the actions of their spiritual ancestors that would affect the witness of church today?
  • Should God work harder to limit evil, or should he allow natural consequences to accrue even when they become evil.
  • Think about the law of unintended consequences. How might it affect the trajectory of the controversy between good and evil?
  • What might Christians who live in good times do to keep their faith shining brightly?

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