In a recent report commissioned by the British Foreign Secretary, it was reported that persecution of Christians globally is continuing to increase alarmingly. In some countries in the Middle East Christianity may soon disappear as Christians are constantly targeted and many who survive imprisonment and/or death flee as refugees. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. "Evidence shows not only the geographic spread of anti-Christian persecution, but also its increasing severity… In some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide."
The review found that eradicating Christians and other minorities through violence was the explicit objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, northeast Nigeria and the Philippines. These groups are not only murdering Christians for their faith but also whitewashing all evidence of their existence by destroying churches and removing religious symbols such as crosses. Clergy are also being targeted for kidnapping and killing.
In the 1440s theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. He had a clear understanding of the Scriptures such as Revelation 6:9: “… I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given”, and 12:11: “They overcame him [the beast] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”.
Nabeel Qureshi wrote, “…inconceivable pain and social rejection is part of the Christian walk: To be a Christian means suffering real pain for the sake of God. Not as a Muslim would suffer for God, because Allah so commands him by fiat [law], but as the heartfelt expression of a grateful child whose God first suffered for him.” (Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus p. 277). Having converted from Islam, Qureshi experienced himself the great cost of following Jesus.
In the Acts of Apostles (chapters 3-5) there is the rise of persecution against early Christians and official attempts to prevent the proclamation of the Gospel. The account of the arrest and speech of Stephen and his subsequent death by stoning (6:8-8:1) therefore comes as no surprise to Christians. Many times Jesus predicted that his disciples would be vilified, persecuted and killed because of their faith and association with Jesus Christ. There is no promise in Scriptures of a trouble-free life for those belonging to Jesus, who “take up his cross and follow Jesus” (all the way to Calvary).
But it is worth noting two things: Stephen never changes his testimony. He remains faithful to the gospel message as he reveals God’s glory to members of the Sanhedrin. At any time he could have backtracked and revoked his testimony, renounced Jesus, and perhaps receive only a flogging. He faithfully kept to his testimony despite the increasing pain of the rocks hitting his head and his body.
Secondly, Stephen reveals incredible grace in his last words, leaving a great legacy for us. “…Lord, do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7:60). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ last words on the cross. We know that there are times of testing in the future for us. Never let us lose sight of the call Christ has placed on our lives to follow him, allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us and empower us to faithfully proclaim the Gospel even in the face of death. Always loving and forgiving our tormentors.