The theme of suffering and persecution is one which runs throughout the book of Acts and yet we live in a society which does not like to talk about these things. The openness of the apostles as they faced opposition and the faith and courage of Christians throughout history demonstrate to us that we simply cannot afford to be ostriches, with our heads buried in the sand, when it comes to this topic.
Jesus told His disciples that in this world they would have trouble (John 16:33) and both Peter and John told us not to be surprised at suffering and hatred (1 Pet 4:12, 1 Jn 3:13). Paul went even further and said that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ (2 Tim 3:12) How we can be so surprised when suffering and persecution come is a mystery – presumably one which reflects our lack of Biblical reading.
The book of Acts narrates many instances of opposition and persecution, such as that experienced by the apostles in Acts5:17-42. This included imprisonment and physical beatings as well as the prohibition to speak in the name of Jesus (something which is occurring with frightening regularity in the United Kingdom, as any supporter of charities such as The Christian Institute or Christian Concern will know.) Yet what stands out in this passage is not simply the intensity of the opposition, but the boldness and confidence of the apostles. They rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name (Acts 5:41); they knew what James meant when he wrote, ‘consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2-3)
Rejoicing and suffering go hand in hand in the Bible (see also Matt 5:10-12, Rom 5:1-4). This is only possible because the apostles had complete confidence in the sovereignty of God (after all, if He could raise Jesus from the dead, nothing was impossible for Him!) and because they were willing to take the long-term view. Paul reminds us, ‘our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Rom 8:18) and goes on to tell us that ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ (2 Cor 4:17-18) If we want to have the same attitude to persecution and suffering as the apostles, we need to develop this long vision!