The phrase “persecuted church” tends to carry our minds to other parts of the world, where Christians suffer severely for their faith in Christ. But the New Testament makes it startlingly clear that persecution isn’t limited to a select group of believers. Paul summed up the plain truth in 2 Timothy 3:12 when he wrote, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (emphasis added).
It is costly when we take a stand for Jesus Christ through our pursuit of holiness instead of being pulled into the world’s vortex of disregard for eternal matters.
While persecution may not seem severe for most Christians in the Western world, faithful believers will nevertheless face it—likely not in forms so severe as imprisonment or death, but certainly in social rejection and isolation. It is costly when we take a stand for Jesus Christ through our pursuit of holiness instead of being pulled into the world’s vortex of disregard for eternal matters.
As Paul proceeds to tell Timothy, “Evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13). Whether it is our pride at stake or life and limb, things are not “about to get easy” for us as believers. Indeed, they are not meant to be. But Paul says that what the world does to us is not our chief concern: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (v. 14). Whatever shape it takes, persecution is inevitable—but our faithfulness in its midst is a testimony to God’s grace.
Persecution Is Inevitable
When Paul wrote that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” he was reminding Christian believers of Jesus’ prior teachings. When Jesus sent His disciples out to spread the news of the kingdom, He warned them that they would be beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and possibly killed (Matt. 10:17–23). They would be following in His footsteps, facing the same kinds of persecution that He had faced and hoping in the same salvation He received. He told them, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. … Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19).
Paul knew this reality intimately. In fact, before his conversion, Paul was a persecutor of the church, utterly opposed to the notion that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Acts 8:3 records that “entering house after house, he dragged off [believing] men and women and committed them to prison.”
But after his shocking conversion, the tables turned, and Paul himself was persecuted for believing in Christ. As Paul reminds Timothy (2 Tim. 3:11), persecutions drove Paul from Antioch to Iconium to Lystra, where he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 13:50–14:7, 19). In 2 Corinthians 11:23, he describes how he faced “imprisonments” and “countless beatings, and often near death.” But with God’s help, Paul endured persecution with grace, faithfulness, and praise.
Declaring God’s Grace in Persecution
Amazingly, it was amid such ongoing persecution that Paul continued to declare God’s grace. Whether he was singing from a jail cell (Acts 16:24–25), witnessing to his jailer (Acts 16:29–34), or encouraging fellow captives (Acts 27:22–25), his testimony, both in public and on paper, was backed up by his conduct in difficult circumstances. Paul recognized that his own Christlikeness pointed those around him to the Lord and Savior he now proclaimed.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me” (2 Tim. 3:10–11). Here he describes his godly life, and he acknowledges the persecutions that came as a result. But in writing this, Paul was not congratulating himself; he was making much of the grace of God that had seen him through mistreatment and had formed his character so He could be an example and witness in all circumstances. And though we live a long way away from Paul, both geographically and historically, his example is invaluable to us.
Living Faithfully in Persecution
Whether it is mild or severe, we naturally recoil from suffering, from being social outcasts, from letting our beliefs negatively impact our standard of living. Consequently, when we encounter persecution, we face two great temptations. First, we are tempted to avoid the world entirely. Rather than being a light to the world (Matt. 5:14–16), we may choose to spurn non-Christian family members, friends, or coworkers so we can avoid their disapproval and retribution. The second temptation is to become absorbed in the culture, laughing at the jokes and nodding along to everything. By neglecting a godly life—one in which we are increasingly conformed to the image of God’s Son—we seek to avoid the persecution that comes with it.
A full life is found in God’s grace—the same grace that helped Paul suffer with faith, patience, love, and steadfastness for Jesus’ sake.
Yet neither of these options is the life to which God has called us. Rather, a full life is found in God’s grace—the same grace that helped Paul suffer with faith, patience, love, and steadfastness for Jesus’ sake. Paul didn’t avoid the world, nor did he join it. Instead, he lived a godly life in the face of opposition and so offered a trustworthy picture of God in Christ Jesus.
This understanding is what Paul desired for Timothy as he faced the suffering and persecution that Jesus promised would come. And if we choose to imitate Paul as He imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), we also need to be ready for persecution—and ready to continue in what we have learned and firmly believed.
This is not a call to the faint of heart. Remember the words of our Savior: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). No, this is an invitation to a life of gritty faithfulness, no matter the cost. As we emulate Jesus’ life and make much of God’s grace, those watching may pause to consider—and be drawn to—the very source of our patience and love amid persecution.
This article was adapted from the sermon “The Persecuted Church” by Alistair Begg.