A Very Specific Persecution

I’m not preaching this coming Sunday. It wouldn’t matter, since we’ve reached the end of the church year — Christ the King Sunday for those churches following the Revised Common Lectionary — and then the four weeks of Advent.

So, I won’t get an opportunity to preach on the rest of Mark 13.

Which is a pity, because something in the verses following last Sunday’s Mark 13 reading struck me as interesting.

9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:9–13 ESV)

Now, I spent my high school years swimming in the generic Evangelical Protestant waters that saw this as a prediction of things to come. This was a generic description of the persecution those who followed Christ would face at the hands of those who did not follow Christ. (Jesus’ words in Mark 13 are also related in Luke 21 and, in far greater detail, in Matthew 24.)

But this is a very specific, and detailed description, of coming events. And I don’t think it can be detached from how the whole conversation begins — with Jesus describing the destruction of the temple. And then outlining, as he does in verses 3–8, the signs of its coming destruction.

So, this persecution is likely part of that coming war.

And it shows, I think, how the church is a community of people caught in the middle. Between nationalist Jewish rebels and Roman military and political authority.

I’ve just begun reading Josephus’ history of the Jewish uprising, but consider — if the Jewish rebellion against Rome was a religious affair, if it saw itself fulfilling the promise and vision of God for God’s people (as Suetonius suggests), if it was led by one who considered himself “the anointed one” of God (Χριστος/Christ in Greek, משׁיה/Messiah in Hebrew), then it would be an act of treason to not follow the messiah. Or to follow a different messiah. That would damage national unity, and put the success of the struggle of God’s people at risk. (Councils and synagogues suggests Jewish authority, not Roman.)

This would be one reason why Jesus would warn his followers — and his followers would later repeat the warning — about those who would come in his name and claim to be Christ. Because the eastern Mediterranean was full of claimants. It’s a good warning to remember, but it’s also grounded in very specific historical events that no longer apply to us.

Like any desperate struggle for national independence, it will tear families apart. The followers of Jesus, if they were not fully committed to the struggle, would have had to flee family and friends, and not just the advancing Romans.

At the same time, the Romans weren’t going to politely ask the difference between followers of Jesus and followers of other — more martial — messiahs. They weren’t going to know and they weren’t going to care much, either. Survival meant getting out of the way of the war entirely, or submitting utterly to Roman authority (and maybe not even then).

I think most important about this, however, is the realization that the church is persecuted not because it believes in God or follows Christ, but because it believes in and follows the wrong Christ.

Which means that visions of Christians suffering at the hands of secularists — of non-believers — which has so haunted the biblical readings and dreams of so many conservative, evangelical, and non-denominational protestants since the late 1960s (or, depending on how you look at, since Darbysim took hostage the American Christian imagination) is plain wrong. At least as a concrete promise Jesus makes to us.

It is primarily a description Jesus gives of what will happen in a near future to those who follow him during a very specific time of trial — the Jewish War. These events happened long ago. If we focus on anything now, it should be his words of comfort — “do not be alarmed,” “do not be anxious,” and “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those speak both to communities and to individuals. Our salvation is secure no matter what happens — in fact, our salvation is not dependent in any way on political and historical events — and we trust in our Lord’s return.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

I’m only mulling this over right now. I could be wrong about the history. As I said, I have just started Josephus and suspect that may change my outlook on things. And I’m indebted to Andrew Perriman for helping me to read scripture this way.

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2 thoughts on “A Very Specific Persecution

  1. Hi Charles,

    I do think the primary reason that passage is recorded is as you say, for an immediate warning to the Apostles. I do think that many have tried to claim that passage as an indication that secular society persecutes the church but in the form they suggest, it doesn’t “stick”.

    However, I also believe that that passage can be transposed onto any period of history that has seen Christians persecuted in the same fashion. I believe this would be a valid extrapolation based on patristic methods of reading scripture. I’m pretty sure that Christians who were wiped out in the Roman Empire, or Northern China in the 700s or by Ghenghis Khan or in Japan etc, would have appeared before Imperial officials. I think the Holy Spirit would have been right there with them in their circumstances, as He was with St Stephen. So I think this passage has a strong secondary application.

    Cheers
    Dennis

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    1. Agreed. It isn’t a roadmap to the future, but it is a description of something faithful followers of Jesus can expect in times and in places.

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