The Persecution Primer

Acts 8:1-3

And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

(My apologies to those who have read this prior, I should have proofread it.)

At least Saul wasn’t sexist. This is the beginning of birth pangs of the church, where Israel gives birth to her multiplied nations; exactly as Jesus foretold in Matthew 24. Israel returned as a country in 1948 after nearly 2000 years. The dogmatic dispensationalists are correct about the following; a country returning after nearly 2000 years is not only remarkable but unheard of. Nevertheless, Matthew 24 does not, in any way, predict this. “This generation” in Matthew 24, literally means, this generation. Honestly, I should not have to keep writing and defending this, to a group of people who argue that the Bible is to be taken literally, unless the context proves otherwise. Again, to be fair, many dispensationalist agree that Matthew 24 speaks of the disciples, specifically, and then the first-century followers, but not the dogmatic dispensationalists. A pre-tribulational, pre-millenial return of Jesus is possible, though disproportionately dubious compared to all other eschatological views. What is beyond unlikely is that Jesus said, “this generation” when he meant another generation, 2000 years removed. Even though Jesus spoke in parables and was the master of metaphor, “this generation” referring to another generation, has no metaphorical merit. If this generation means this generation, what would we expect to happen during this generation? How would it begin? What would it look like? Perhaps it would look something like the following paragraph?

“And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” We cannot be reading this right, our eyes must be broken. Surely the people present at the stoning of Stephan felt remorse. Surely the word spread around Jerusalem about the hypocritical, Law-looking but Law-less, stoning of Stephan, so that Jerusalem was filled with rage against the people present. No, we are reading it rightly, instead of remorseful reconsideration, the people present and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem (generalization) had blood-lust, like a shark that has tasted blood. Their appetite for the blood of the followers of Christ has been piqued and their rapacious appetite for persecution, became insatiable. To the point where all the followers fled, except for the apostles, from Jerusalem, the city of peace. “Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” Please remember this phrase as we will see it unfold. That is, remember that Jerusalem stones those sent to her and that Stephan was stoned.

Jesus came, taught, died, rose, ascended to heaven and sent his Spirit, and I claim that this has changed the world. Why then do we see “end-times” tribulation happening to the early church? Perhaps it’s because of our wrong perspective on “the end” and “my coming” based on presuppositions and preconceived notions formed from dubiously dogmatic doctrines. This is why we utilize the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics. Our teachings, traditions, Christmas pageants, televangelists and mega-church pastors have caged and watered down the gospel to the point where we literally tell people that if they would only, “pray the sinner’s prayer,” they will be saved.

Therefore we use the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics to unlock the CAGED Scripture, where; context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth, either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions.

One of the greatest presuppositions we bring to our reading of the Bible is that the church gets worse and worse, falling into apostasy. This is the majority belief in the church, despite how the dogmatic dispensationalists act. They take to Twitter and the ‘gram, have annual conferences and rally around themselves on the radio pontificating that they are the oppressed minority. They cry foul against their christian brothers who disagree with their eschatological views, screaming how it’s a bad witness to the world for us to argue and then, hypocritically, name names and hurl wild accusations against devout men trying to tell the truth, calling them mockers and scoffers, ripping Peter’s words out of context. Their numbers are receding and they are fighting tooth and nail to counter this significant shrinking. However, they still hold the majority in eschatological thought. The reason that their numbers are shrinking, in my estimation, is because of their following dogma: “the generation alive in 1948 is the generation that will see the return of Jesus.” By their own definition of a generation, time has run out, therefore one of their major tenets has been found to be false. Perhaps another reason that their numbers are declining is simply because they are wrong. After the rapture, according to the dogmatic dispensationalists, comes the tribulation of 7 literal years, followed by the millenial kingdom of a literal 1000 years. But does this fit into what we have heard Jesus say in the book of Matthew or have seen in the book of Acts?

What did Jesus say about the kingdom? It starts small, like a little leaven in a lump of dough which will rise slowly. Or, it starts small, like a mustard seed but slowly grows into a large tree where the birds nest. Never in any of the parables do we see a description of the kingdom coming quickly nor do we see it fade away. We certainly don’t see a large kingdom being taken away, given to another, and then taken away from them to give it back to the former. Nor does the apostle Paul give us an image of an olive tree that is uprooted and replaced with a new olive tree, only to have that olive tree uprooted and replaced with the formerly uprooted,  olive tree. Rather he uses an illustration of an olive tree where the root remains yet some of the branches are broken off and others remain, while other, unnatural branches are grafted in. And every Christmas, christians are reminded of this with some Christmas card sent by one unseen for years. We simply overlook the context.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. You shall multiply the nation, You shall increase their gladness; They will be glad in Your presence as with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.”

Like Paul’s picture of the olive tree, Isaiah prophesied the same thing, true Israel births the church. Look at the context. How does God multiply the nation? Was it through a far-future fulfillment of a far-fetched tribulation of 7 years yet unfounded, or by his son? Paul aligns well with Isaiah, as do the parables, we should as well. The gentiles increase the nation of Israel. The church doesn’t replace Israel nor will Israel replace the church. God has made the two groups into one by sending his son. The context of Isaiah 9, the parables of Jesus and Paul’s picture of the olive tree are clear, when kept in context. Nevertheless, context is not always considered. Especially as it pertains to eschatology and the olive tree.

How we view the olive tree dictates how we interpret the rest of the scriptures. We have looked deeply, but not even close to exhaustively, into the prophecies of the olive tree. Therefore, when we read of the persecution that fell upon the followers of Jesus after the stoning of Stephan, we should not be at all surprised. Jesus predicted this and Paul painted the picture of an olive tree where branches were cut off. Can they be grafted in again? Of course, Paul wrote as much because the promises of God are irrevocable. We simply don’t understand them. Do yourself a favor and draw, no matter how poorly, the olive tree as described by Paul. Then you will see the picture painted by Paul, of one, living-root supplying, fruit bearing, dead-branch pruning, branches grafted in, growing organism. Yet many fail to see the picture.

Case in point; Stephan starts the cycle of prophetical persecution in the New Testament. Keeping in line with the prophets of old, and John the Baptist, Stephan is killed for speaking the truth and his death ignites an incredible persecution of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem at that time. This is birth pangs. This is branches being broken off the olive tree. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of Matthew 24 and the olivet discourse. There are many olive trees in the middle east, some things simply are a common coincidence. Jesus spoke metaphorically, based upon his surroundings and cultural climate.

Rather than talk about an olive tree, while on The Mount of Olives, Jesus spoke on a fig tree. “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, the generation alive in 1948 will not pass away until all these things take place.”

I couldn’t resist imposing that dubious dogma upon the text, for it shows how ridiculous the claim is.  Sometimes, most times, that’s all we have to do to change our minds, actually insert our claims juxtaposed to the context. It’s why I say context is king. Also, remember that summer is not harvest time. Could we entertain the thought for a minute that Jesus may not be speaking about the end of the world but about the end of the age of the Law? Remember, the disciples’ question in Matthew 24, concerned the temple.

Context is king; To the Pharisees and Scribes, after the six or seven woes, Jesus said, “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you (generalized, contextual conclusion) murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’” And Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He answered and said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here shall be left upon another, which will not be torn down.’ And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?'”

The translators, editors and commenters try to help our understanding and ease of reference with the addition of chapter and verse breaks, headings and footnotes. But any interruptions in the flow of the context distracts and disjoints the text from the context. Believe it or not, the passages I penned in the previous paragraph are actually one part of a greater passage. I didn’t leave anything out or change the order. I wrote it as it was written. That is how we should read it. Not take lines from Matthew 24, removing them from Matthew 23 and impose them upon 1+2 Thessalonians and then add Revelation 3 but only including the Laodicean church. Yes, it’s one Bible but it doesn’t work that way. If it did, we could get away with the following: “And Judas went and hanged himself; go and do likewise; what you do, do quickly.”

Please don’t hang yourself, the Bible doesn’t say this; even though technically, the Bible can read this way, if we were allowed to cut and paste at will, which we aren’t. To which some may reply, “what about topical studies, where many different passages are pasted together with the purpose of portraying the life of one such as Paul, or to show the meaning and methods of marriage?” One still has to consider the context. Otherwise one could, by omission, present marriage as an excuse for drunkenness by taking the metaphorical meaning out of the Song of Solomon and coupling it to the wedding in Cana.

Also, a topical study should be an expository exegesis of examples. Today’s topic will be persecution of the early church. Matthew 23, “you stone those sent to you…I am sending you prophets…some of them you will kill and crucify.” Acts 8; “And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” We always look for fulfillment in our time, ignoring the sublime string in the Bible where prophecy is fulfilled in its pages, so that they, and we, would believe.

Since we consider the context we see the sublime string. “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.” Fast forward a few months or so–certainly within their generation; “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” And Stephan then delivered the super-stabbing-scriptural-summation. Then, as Jesus said they would do to the prophets he sent them, and as Stephan said their fathers did, they killed Stephan. “And Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”

“And some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”

Once again juxtaposition is the watchword, our appetite for prophecy directly applying to us merely overwhelms our resolve of considering the context. We have become complacent in the West. We need to remember what has happened for us to be in our situation. It goes back almost 2000 years. The followers fled, devout men buried the bones of Stephan and made a loud lamentation…but Saul became emboldened. The people present at the stoning of Stephan were now bloodthirsty. They got a taste of power and purposed to persecute all the followers of Jesus. This is insanity! This is not how it is supposed to play out! If God allowed us to judge him, we would put a stop to this, wouldn’t we? We would say, “That’s it God, you’re going too far! You should be shepherding your struggling sheep and feeding your fledgling flock, not scattering them. Also, how can you let your opponents get away with this, you’re supposed to be judging them?” To which I would expect God’s reply to be something like, “That’s what I am doing, idiot. Have patience, my gospel will prevail” It’s why we’re not judges of God.

Stephan’s stoning speaks volumes. We are told by the dogmatic dispensationalists to take the Bible literally unless otherwise warranted. Let’s do that. Isaiah says that there will be no stopping the increase of the government of Jesus. Jesus says that the apostate Israel will persecute true Israel. Isaiah says that the gentiles will increase the nation. Jesus says that the kingdom starts small, but continually grows.

We cannot cover all of redemptive history in one missive. I can only hope and pray that we see our preconceived notions and presuppositions, so that as we continue in the historical narrative of the book of Acts, we will see the aspirations of the author. The most difficult thing for a person to admit is when they are wrong. Unless you are learning for yourself, you only know what you have been taught. I am nothing more than a Bible school dropout, I have no special insight. Read the Bible for yourself and see if the Holy Spirit molded your beliefs or if you were spoon-fed something Scripturally inaccurate. Consider the context, author’s aspirations to his audience, genre, examples and divide rightly the word of truth.

America is not going down because of its uprightness or because of its shame. We went years in relative peace and prosperity but squandered it all for another dollar. The church grows amidst persecution and we in the United States have not seen persecution, like Stephan saw, or those of you in China, Iran, Cuba, Russia, India, Turkey or any other nation have seen. Yet as the church grows in all these nations, we think that the Lord is going to rapture us because we have not known persecution like you have, and Stephan has. The end of America may be at hand, but that’s certainly not the end of the world. Stephan’s stoning and the persecution that followed were merely the beginning of birth pangs. Because the churches are dwindling in the West, doesn’t mean that the Church is dwindling.

There is one thing we haven’t talked about. Why did God scatter the church in Jerusalem by persecution? We know how, and that it was prophesied but why, besides getting them out of dodge before the calamity fell in 70 AD, did Jesus scatter his baby, infant, nursing church? Context is king: “And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.'”

America is not going down because of politics, homosexuality, pornagraphy, witchcraft, transgenderism or anything else that sinners are supposed to do. America is going down because we are stuck in our evangelical rut. We are supposed to be witnesses and disciple makers but we would rather not. We would rather argue about eschatology which should be simple–cultivate the tree until Jesus comes. We worry too much about the sliver of land called Israel than we do about the lost souls in the surrounding area, or Russia, China, the Pacific islands, South America and the other nations we now have the technology to reach from our living room. Though many people in the world still lack this technology. I expect persecution to rise in America unless we bring our blessings to the world. And even then, I expect persecution. Jesus told his disciples that the world would hate them because of him. Nevertheless, Jesus also said that he has overcome the world. Isaiah also promised that there would be no end to the increase of his government.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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