Just as the Bible graphically describes the introduction and spread of sin in the world, it also depicts the presence and reality of oppression and persecution in the world and presents many examples of people persecuting God, people persecuting people, nations persecuting nations, the wicked persecuting the righteous, and even, in some cases, the righteous persecuting the wicked or other righteous persons.
The Meaning of Persecution. The primary Hebrew word for persecution, radap [@;d'r], and the Greek words, dioko/diogmos [diwvkw/diwgmov"], both emphasize the concept of pursue ( Gen 44:4 ; Luke 17:23 ), press on ( Prov 11:19 ; Php 3:12 ); their meanings can be extended to include pursuing or pressing on, to oppress, harass ( Deut 30:7 ; Job 19:22 ; Acts 8:1 ), and also to bring to judgment or punishment ( Jer 29:18 ; Lam 3:43 ; Matt 5:11-12 ; Luke 11:49 ). Two other Greek words, also sometimes used to mean "oppress, " "persecute, " are thlipsis [qlivyi"] (oppression, affliction) and thlibo [qlivbw] (press on, oppress; in the passive, to be oppressed, persecuted).
The Nature of Persecution. Both the Old Testament and New Testament give examples of physical, social, mental, and spiritual persecution. Physical persecution includes taking another's life ( Gen 4 , Cain murdering Abel) or maiming the body ( Exod 22 , 23 ). Social persecution (sometimes called discrimination) consists of making individuals or a group outcasts. An example of extreme mental and spiritual persecution is seen when Peter and John were threatened not to preach the gospel ( Acts 5:28 Acts 5:40 ).
The Objects of the Persecution. The Bible teaches that those who follow Christ and God's Word and who practice his commandments will be persecuted. Examples in the Old Testament include Abel, who offered a better sacrifice than Cain ( Gen 4:4-10 ; Heb 11:4 ); Lot, also a "righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men" ( 2 Peter 2:7 ) who rejected him and who "kept bringing pressure on [him] and moved forward to break down the door" of his house in Sodom ( Gen 19:9 ); Elijah, who spoke against the prophets of Baal ( 1 Kings 18:25-40 ) and against the idolatry of Israel ( 1 Kings 18:16-21 ), and was persecuted by Jezebel for his godly stand ( 1 Kings 19:1-3 ); David, who conducted himself in a godly manner despite the machinations and pursuit of Saul ( 1 Sam 9-27:1 ); Jeremiah, who spoke God's message of condemnation against Judah for her sins and the coming judgment against her to be brought by the Babylonians ( Jeremiah 9:11 Jeremiah 9:13-16 ; 21:3-7 ; 25:1-14 ), had his message rejected (Jer. 36-37), was beaten ( Jer 37:15 ), and finally dropped into a muddy cistern ( Jer 38:6-13 ). Examples in the New Testament include John the Baptist, who spoke out against the adultery of Herod Antipas and was beheaded ( Mark 6:21-29 ); Stephen, the deacon, who, preaching the gospel before the Sanhedrin and proclaiming God's judgment because of the sins of the people, was rejected and stoned ( Acts 6:5 ; 7:1-60 ); Paul, who was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned as he preached from place to place, and was finally killed in Rome ( 2 Tim 4:6-8 ); and climactically, Jesus himself who preached God's grace and judgment ( Matt 4:17 ; 11:28-29 ), was persecuted by his hearers ( Luke 4:28-30 ), plotted against by his adversaries ( Mark 3:6 ), rejected ( Luke 13:34 ; John 6:66 ), tried ( John 18:12-40 ), and finally crucified ( John 19:16-37 ; Php 2:9 ). His was a perfect and God-honoring life and message, reflected in part by the Old Testament prophets whom, as Jesus reminds them, they had also persecuted and killed ( Matt 23:29-36 ). All of this persecution of the godly came as the result of the sin and the animosity of sinners who rejected these who lived godly lives and also rejected their message that sinners must repent ( Acts 2:38 ) and turn in faith to Jesus Christ for salvation ( 1 Thess 1:9-10 ).
The Lord, too, in his righteous indignation, raised up adversaries against his backsliding people, against Abimelech for his murder of his seventy brothers, sons of Gideon ( Judges 9:22-25 ); against Solomon for his sin ( 1 Kings 11:14 1 Kings 11:23 ); against rebellious Israel ( 2 Kings 17:7-20 ); and against Judah ( Jer 20:4 ) and Babylon for their wicked, ungodly Acts ( Jer 25:12-14 ). Also the Lord, through natural elements and his own direct power, brings persecution and calamity on the whole world (Gen. 6-7 Matthew 24:21 Matthew 24:29 ; Mark 13:19 ).
Reasons for Persecution. The Bible gives examples of good people pursuing and persecuting others ( Judges 8:16, ; Gideon against the men of Succoth, to teach them a lesson Mark 9:38-41, ; the disciples, in prejudice, opposing a brother witnessing to God's power ). However, in contrast, the Scriptures teach that we are to love our enemies, "because he [God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" ( Matt 5:44 ; Luke 6:35 ), and to exercise forbearance and mercy, because "It is mine to avenge; I will repay, ' says the Lord" ( Rom 12:19 ; Deut 32:35 ). The Scriptures are also full of examples of evil persons persecuting the good and righteous persons for various reasons, such as jealousy for a godly sacrifice ( Gen 4:2-10 ); revenge for a godly humanitarian deed done ( 1 Sam 21:1-19 ); vengeance for action against heathen worship ( 1 Kings 19:2, ; Jezebel against Elijah ); vengeance for warnings against idolatry and ungodly living, as exemplified by opposition to the messages of Jeremiah and John the Baptist ( Jer 37 ; Matt 4:1-12 ); vengeance against preaching the gospel and condemnation of rebellion against God ( Acts 7:54-60 ); opposition to the Jerusalem church for its stand for Jesus ( Acts 8:1 ; 11:19 ), to the Thessalonian Christians for their stand for Christ ( 1 Thess 3:3-4 ) to Paul for his faithfulness to the Lord Jesus ( 2 Cor 11:16-33 ; cf. Gal 6:17 ), etc.
A godly testimony will often result in ridicule, scorn, deprivation, physical harm, and even death. Jesus and his disciples were, are, and will be, subject to ridicule/insult: Jesus, "despised and rejected of men" ( Isa 53:3 ; Matt 27:39 ; 1 Peter 2:23 ) and finally crucified ( John 19:16-18 ); his disciples, insulted ( Matt 5:11 ), jeered ( Heb 11:36 ), mistreated (v. 25), deprived (clothed in sheepskins and goatskins), destitute, persecuted, wandering in deserts and mountains, "in caves and holes in the ground" (vv. 37-38), tortured (v. 35), sawed in two (v. 37), jailed ( Acts 5:18 ; 16:23 ), flogged ( Heb 11:36 ), chained (v. 36), "shut the mouths of lions" (v. 33), "put to death by the sword" (v. 37), "quenched the fury of the flames" (v. 34), and stone (v. 37; Acts 7:59 ).
The underlying biblical reasons given for persecution consist of an antipathy of evil toward the good ( Rom 8:6-8 ); of wicked men opposing God and rejecting his divine precepts ( Rom 3:10-18 ). Jesus indicated that since the world hated him, it will hate his disciples ( John 15:18-19 ), and declared that if they persecuted him, they will also persecute his disciples (v. 20). The Bible's climactic teaching about the believer and persecution: "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" ( 2 Tim 3:12 ).
Reaction to Persecution. Forbearance: Turn the other cheek ( Matt 5:38-42 ). Mercy: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head" ( Rom 12:20 ). Love: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" ( Matt 5:44 ). Confidence: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay, ' says the Lord" ( Rom 12:19 ). Realization: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" ( John 15:20 ). Concentration on Jesus: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" ( Heb 12:2 ). A firm stand with Paul and other saints: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing" ( 2 Tim 4:7-8 ). Challenge: "You should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.' When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" ( 1 Peter 2:21-23 ).
W. Harold Mare
Bibliography. G. W. Bromiley, ISBE, 3:771-74; W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church; W. S. Reid, ZPEB, 4:704-7; H. Schlier, TDNT, 3:139-48; W. B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Persecution'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".