Key Scriptures: Acts 4, 5:17-42, 6:7-8, II Corinthians 11:21-12:10
Guiding Question: What do we need to do to be able to endure persecution for our belief in Jesus?
Optional Introductory Activity: Show a clip of a video or news story about a recent persecution of Christians somewhere in the world.
Ask the students to share times when they or others they know have experienced some sort of negative consequence for following God and/or obeying His commands.
Lesson: (Questions for students are in bold italics.) For a period of several hundred years after the day of Pentecost, Christians went through periods of time when there were some vey serious and very dangerous persecutions of them. In fact, very early in the history of the church, Peter and John were thrown into jail and questioned about what they were doing. Read Acts 4 to see what happened. The Sanhedrin was a very powerful group of religious men in Israel. They could, and later did, make life very miserable for Christians – even to the point of having them killed.
Peter and John could have easily denied everything and slipped out of the glare of the Sanhedrin’s watchful eye. Yet what was their response when questioned?
At first, it seemed to work. Peter and John were released with a few threats. By Acts 5:17-42; things were already beginning to escalate. This encounter ended with the apostles being flogged. Traditionally, the Jews were only allowed to give someone 4 lashes. More than this would probably lead to death. To prevent accidentally miscounting and breaking the rule, most floggings were 39 lashes. Evidently, the beatings were so severe that a doctor was often kept nearby to make sure the person was not beaten to death. Yet the apostles left rejoicing because they had been worthy of suffering for Jesus.
Would you be able to take a beating for preaching about Jesus and leave the beating rejoicing? Why or why not? Why were the apostles able to feel joy in these circumstances? (Answers may vary, but make sure they don’t assume God somehow protected them from feeling pain, etc. From Paul’s writings and outside historical writings, there is no indication that they were protected from pain any more than today’s Christian martyrs are. What was different was their attitude and faith.)
Things continued to escalate. Read Acts 6:8-Acts 7. As far as we know, Stephen was the first Christian killed for his faith in Jesus. Stephen obviously knew things were not going well. Yet instead of backing down, what does Stephen do? He preaches a very powerful sermon, still trying to convince the people to follow Jesus. Ironically, the man who had the coats of the stoners placed at his feet, later become one of the most famous Christian martyrs of all.
Read II Corinthians 11:21-12:10. After Paul became a Christian he went from persecuting Christians to being persecuted. What are some of the things Paul endured for proclaiming his faith in Christ? How was he able to through all of those things and then write about being joyful in letters like Philippians? What would your reaction be if you started having to go through those same things because you were a Christian? Why?
History outside of the Bible tells us the Emperor Nero later put Paul to death for his faith. In fact, all of the apostles except for John were martyred for their faith. Yet all of them were willing to die for their faith. Some early Christians were not and recanted or denied being a Christian in order to escape punishment.
Needless to say, this caused some issues. Once the danger had passed, some of these Christians wanted to return to church. People who had been persecuted and not denied Jesus or who had family members who had been killed for their faith, were not willing to let these people just return. In fact some of them wanted to insist that these people be re-baptized to prove their commitment. Ultimately it was decided that just because the people had sinned it did not mean that they needed to be re-baptized. In fact, early church history outside of the Bible tells us it was the beginning of the custom of an early version going forward to confess sins in front of the congregation.
Have you ever been teased about your faith? Have you been asked if you were a Christian and been tempted to say no? Have you ever been asked why you weren’t committing a sin with others and been tempted to make up any excuse other than you are a Christian and it is against your beliefs? Have been tempted to deny Jesus in other ways? How hard is it to stand up for Christ? How hard would it be if you knew you might end up in jail if you were caught going to worship assembly? What about if you knew there was a very real danger that someone could burst in with a gun and just start shooting randomly at worshippers? What if you knew you could be arrested, tortured and killed for your beliefs?
The sad thing is the persecutions against Christians did not stop at the end of the Roman Empire. In fact more than 2,000 Christians died last year only because they were Christian. (I would suggest checking out the Voice of the Martyrs website https://www.persecution.com/. They have stories of actual persecutions happening to Christians all over the world today. They also list countries that persecute Christians or allow persecution to occur or have difficulty protecting Christians. It also paints vivid pictures of how these Christians must worship and of the things that happen to them. Make it as real to them as you possibly can.) What would you do if you had been that person? How would you feel? What would you do to be able to remain a strong Christian under this type of stress? What would happen to the church? Share some more stories of recent Christian martyrs with the students.
Application Challenge: Spend some time reading the book of Acts. Think about what you need to do to be able to have the courage of these early Christian martyrs?
Author: Thereasa Winnett