Persecution

The rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem reached a point where the number of people joined together couldn’t be counted. Luke simply said, “And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14). The growth of the church in Jerusalem was so expeditious that word of what was going on there began to spill over into neighboring cities. Luke recorded that “there came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them which were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed every one” (Acts 5:16). The scene probably resembled the early days of Jesus’ ministry. After he was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus went to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, where he cast out demons and Luke reported, “the fame of him went out into every place of the country round about” (Luke 4:37).

Along with the rapid growth of the church, came the persecution that Jesus experienced when he was on Earth. Peter’s boldness in preaching the message of Jesus’ resurrection against their warning upset the religious leaders and made them intent on stopping his ministry. When they were found preaching in the temple after their escape from prison, Jesus’ disciples were asked, “Did not we straitly command you that you should not teach in this name? and behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us. then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, we ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:28-29). Peter and the other apostles’ bold declaration that their allegiance belonged only to God stirred up the wrath of the religious leaders that were questioning them. Their emphatic statement that, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree” (Acts 5: 30) made it obvious that the apostles intended to work in direct opposition to the religious authority they were being challenged by.

Luke reported that when the religious leaders heard Peter and the other apostles’ declaration of independence, “they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them” (Acts 5:33). Although the apostles were only physically beaten and then released (Acts 5:40-41), the atmosphere in Jerusalem most likely returned to one of hostility and resentment toward Jesus. A more pronounced situation of conflict arose within the church and Luke said, “there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration” (Acts 6:1). As a result of this conflict, seven men were identified to oversee the activities of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:3). Among those chosen, was a man named Stephen (Acts 6:5). Luke said, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). Because of his immediate fame, Stephen was falsely accused of speaking blasphemy and brought before a religious council to be judged. False witnesses that testified against Stephen, stated, “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:12-14).

Betrayal

In his discussion about signs of the end of this age, Jesus told his disciples they would not only face opposition, but would be betrayed by their own family members. He said, “But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up. Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost. Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against parents, and shall cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Mark 13:11-13). Jesus wasn’t suggesting that endurance was a requirement for salvation, but rather that perseverance was an indicator of salvation (note on Mark 13:13). Paul wrote about this in his epistle to the Hebrews where he said, “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast to the end. Whilst it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation” (Hebrew 3:14-15).

Jesus understood that the severe trials the early Christians would face would be more than some of them could handle. His encouragement to endure to the end may have had a twofold meaning. First, that the individual Christians wouldn’t let the threat of persecution prevent them from receiving salvation and second, that the united body of believers that is sometimes referred to as Christ’s church, would continue to preach the gospel until Jesus’ return. In the midst of his message about the betrayal of Christians, Jesus referred to a prophecy that is found in the book of Daniel. He said, “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) then let them that be in Judea flee into the mountains: let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes” (Matthew 24:15-18). Daniel’s prophecy is thought to be a sign of the Antichrist outlawing worship of God during the Great Tribulation (note on Daniel 9:25-27). If so, then Jesus may have been suggesting that the betrayal of Christians would reach its climax at that point and it would no longer be safe for his followers to identify themselves.

Jesus’ reference to the Great Tribulation was probably meant for Jewish believers only. Many Bible Scholars believe that Christians will be removed from the earth before the Great Tribulation begins. Jesus indicated that after the abomination of desolation is set up in God’s temple, “then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22). In spite of extreme persecution and betrayal by their loved ones, many Jews will turn to Christ during the Great Tribulation. It is likely that the work Jesus started with the original twelve Jewish apostles will be revived in some form during that time period. The Apostle John indicated 144,000 Jews would be preserved, 12,000 each from all the tribes of Israel during the Great Tribulation. These Jewish believers will be killed for their faith and given a special reward for their suffering (Revelation 7:13-17). At the end of the Great Tribulation, they will live and reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4).