“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me.
“But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.”
Jesus did not want his disciples to be under any illusion that remaining loyal to him would be easy. There were things they needed to know that would help to control their expectations.
First, they needed to know that there would be severe opposition spilling over into outright persecution. Second, they needed to know that he would supernaturally support their witness to him.
We notice the time reference: “before all this”. Jesus was specifically referring to the period before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem city. And in his remaining chapters, and in the early chapters of his follow-up volume, the Book of Acts, Luke sets out the fulfilment of Christ’s warning about the persecution of his followers.
The citizens of Jerusalem, stirred up by their religious leaders, rejected their Messiah. They publicly disowned him before Pilate, calling for a murderer to be released in his place. With the help of wicked men, Jesus was killed. But God raised him from the dead, thus declaring him to be Lord and Messiah. And in his startling grace, he offered forgiveness as a free gift to all who recognised how wrong they had been in rejecting his Son.
Many took up the offer. On the Day of Pentecost, three thousand were baptised. Numbers quickly rose to five thousand and beyond. Many of the priests were converted. But the religious leaders refused the offer given, despite the evidence of Christ’s resurrection and the miracles done in his name.
“They will seize you and they will persecute you,” Jesus warned. Peter and John were the first to be detained. They were threatened and then released. Then all the apostles were arrested and put in the public jail awaiting trial. They were miraculously set free by obvious divine intervention. Yet despite this, the religious leaders had them rearrested and flogged. Then Stephen, a powerful and persuasive voice for Christ, was arrested, tried before the High Priest and stoned to death. This was the spark that ignited an explosion of persecution, which drove most of the believers from Jerusalem.
The determined refusal on the part of the leaders of Judaism to accept Jesus as Messiah and the persecution they mounted against the first Christians would, according to Jesus, cause enormous pressure and division at grass roots level. Families would be divided, parents would betray their children, brothers and sisters would turn in any sibling who sided with Christ. Some believers would be killed. All would be hated because of Jesus.
It was not going to be easy to be a follower of Christ. Yet there would be three major compensations. First, the Lord himself would stand with them in a very specific way: giving them supernatural wisdom with which to witness, especially when brought before those in authority over them. And we see this time and time again, for example, in the brilliance with which Peter, John, Stephen and Paul spoke in such circumstances.
Second, Christ promised “not a hair on your head will perish.” That’s quite a statement, given that he also said some would be killed! Death looks different, however, in light of the resurrection and the eternal Kingdom of God. No real harm, as God counts harm, will ever fall on those who trust him.
Third, they would win life. What would winning life look like for us? Would it be to live as long as we can, as comfortably as we can, enjoying all that we can of relationships, entertainment, career success? Or is it about living in relationship with God, serving him in all that we do and remaining loyal to him wherever that leads? We will need to make up our minds. For while we live at a different moment in history, we also live in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards Christ and those who are loyal to him. Will we choose to stand firm?